Friday, September 4, 2009

The End of the Printed Word

For years now I've been watching interest in words printed on paper steadily decline among many of the people that I deal with on a day to day basis. Being in high tech, and the Internet in particular, the people around me are on the leading edge of this decline. It freaks me out, partly because I can't completely comprehend it, but mostly because I think there is a lot to be lost if the same disinterest permeates average folks to the same degree.

A couple of months ago I moved from Ottawa back to Toronto. For various reasons, in this move I chose to hire a professional moving company rather than just rent a truck and move everything myself. The cost of the move has come up in conversation a few times, and since the cost was based entirely the weight of the stuff I was moving, every conversation eventually leads to the same question: "How could you possibly have so much stuff?!" The reason for the surprise should be self-evident when you hear that I had nearly 4,500 pounds of possessions packed into a one bedroom apartment. The answer to the question lies partly in my upbringing as a pack rat, but mostly in the size of my library; nearly half of the boxes (and therefore well over half the weight) were books.

Some people react to this news in the way I originally expected, with a look that says, "oooooh, that explains it!" There are a significant number of people in my circle of friends (who are mostly geeks) and in the group of people I work with (virtually all geeks) who react in a completely different way.

"Haven't you ever heard of a PDF?"
"You know about the Gutenberg Project, right?"
"Why don't you just get a Kindle or something?"
"Dude, sell that shit. You need to do a purge."

Every one of these people, at some point, reference the same argument in some way. Sooner or later they all get around to saying that paper is obsolete, and that I should get with the times and move it all to digital formats. I can't express strongly enough how much I disagree with this view without sounding ridiculous, even to myself. My reasons are many.

On the practical side, there are all the usual arguments about the stability of the two technologies: paper doesn't crash, get corrupted, or become unreadable when the power is off. Sure, there are counter arguments to these, but none that I take very seriously. Someone once tried to counter the "books don't crash" argument by saying, "yeah, but they burn real nice." I pointed out that drive crashes that result in a total loss of all data have been far more frequent than fires that gut my apartment (so far, five to nil). Besides, any fire that's likely to take out my library is going to take out any hard drives in my computer at the same time.

I have more than purely practical reasons for preferring paper, though. There's a comfort with paper that simply hasn't been reproduced with any electronic medium so far, and I dare to predict won't be even when we have paper-thin computer displays. I mentioned some of this back in January. Electronic books don't let me flip quite as easily between pages. They don't take pencil marks in the margins all that well, and even when that's possible it's never quite as simple or convenient as with a book. They don't balance quite so comfortably over my head when I'm laying back on my couch engrossed in that pulpy novel. And, browsing a list of book titles on a computer is nothing like reading the spines along a shelf.

Incidentally, I'm the same with my music. I have encoded my entire CD collection into digital formats for ease of listening, but I still have all 600 or so discs on display in shelves because, unless I'm searching for a specific song, or specific artist, it's way easier to flip through a stack of CDs and find something I want to listen to than to scan through a cold list of 7,000 individual tracks.

This sensual aspect to the printed word – the tactile experience and several thousand years of ergonomic refinement – can't be replaced by any combination of technology we have today. Books have a smell, and a weight, and a unique feel that we connect to as much as we connect to the information they contain. And anyway, let's face it: there's something awe inspiring about the visible mass of knowledge in a library, or in the care and craft put into many books. This is something you just can't get from standing in front of computer no matter how many electronic books it contains.

To cement my reputation as a complete geek, I'm going to quote an old episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, because all the truth you need is in fiction. In the first season, the episode I Robot... You Jane introduced Jenny Calendar, the school computer science teacher. In a conversation at the end of the episode, Rupert Giles, the librarian and Buffy's handler and advisor in all things ancient and supernatural, explains to Calendar why books are so important:
"Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?," Jenny asks, referring to computers.

"The smell."

"Computers don't smell, Rupert," she protests.

"I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell: musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is – it has no texture, no context. It's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be... um... smelly."
It's because of all of this that I reacted with a particularly strong and unpleasant combination of confusion, astonishment, and disgust when I heard that Cushing Academy, a prep school in Ashburnham, MA, had gotten rid of virtually its entire library, to be replaced with a coffee shop, study space, a handfull of Kindles, and a subscription to an online library. Yes, you read that right: according to The Boston Globe, aside from a small collection of rare volumes Cushing has either sold or donated its entire library to other organizations and individuals.

It's one thing for someone to convert their, relatively speaking, small personal library into electronic formats. It's quite another for a school, of all places, to eliminate all of its books and hope that an electronic equivalent will fill the void. I believe it's foolish to think it could be a substitute even in the best of circumstances, and utter folly to hope that students who are still learning to learn will have any hope of getting the same education sitting in front of a computer, with its myriad distractions in email, instant messaging, and other in-your-face social media, as they would sitting at a desk with a textbook and some note paper. And that's just textbooks I'm thinking off. I can't help but think literature is entirely doomed among the students of this particular school.

And I know I'm not the only one who has this sort of reaction. Earlier this afternoon I was witness to a short exchange (online, no less) between the friend who pointed this story out to me, and a friend of hers.
Plastikgyrl: I'm currently reading a book on my computer. It's reinforcing my bookless library horror reaction. As Giles said, computers don't smell. :(

Refashionista: totally -- I swear the vanilla / cigar smoke smell of old paper gets me hawt ;)
Refasionista may have thought she was being glib, but she reinforces the point about the visceral connection people have with knowledge gained through books. This is something that just can't be replaced by any other technology we have today, and may never be replaced.

As I've thought about this more today, my disgust at James Tracy, the headmaster at Cushing, has turned slowly to fear.

I'm behind by a few years, but I've just recently finished watching The Wire, an astonishingly good HBO crime series that aired from 2002 to 2006. One of the major themes of the fifth and final season was an examination of how print news is reacting to the pressures of an increasingly digital world. The move to an online format, where news is given away for free, is setting the entire industry up for an epic fail, and I fear that a new, functional business model won't be found in time to save print news from disappearing in a puff of blogger commentary.

Distribution of the traditional printed newspaper is dropping like the proverbial stone, and online advertizing based on page views and click-throughs is unpredictable, and a slim income at best. The financial foundation of the print media is a sandy beach, and the tide is coming in. And I'm part of the problem. Practically my entire generation has turned away from print media for our news. I don't have a good explanation for this, except perhaps for our desire for less time consuming pursuits, or the simple fact that most of the print news is available online for free anyway.

If this important pillar of the fourth estate were to completely collapse, I don't see how it could ever be recovered, or how the void it would leave could ever be filled. It could spell the doom of current events knowledge among the general population. TV news doesn't have the same ability to surround a story, and examine it in any sort of depth, and bloggers by and large don't do news. To use myself as an example, other than linking to a few outside sources, I'm not reporting any facts here; this is all opinion. Somebody who links to a news story and writes a few pages about how that news affects people isn't doing news, they're doing commentary. Real news takes time and dedication. It takes full time professionals with a access to resources, a beat, contacts, and a certain set of ethics. The few bloggers out there who are trying to do news are lacking those things to varying degrees. Without some sort of in-depth reporting going on, people's knowledge of the world at large is at risk.

I fear that print news is on its way out, and I worry that it may be the toad in the environment of print media, whose death is an early warning that the books I love so much aren't long for this world.

1 comment:

  1. It goes without saying that I completely agree with everything you've written here. While I'm glad that I'm capable of retrieving information I need for my more academic pursuits from online sources (making 3am research a lot easier!), I often miss the physicality of sitting on the floor in the library in the abstracts section, catalogues of articles strewn around me, then the hunt through the bound journals for just the right source... And yes, I bemoan the loss of the card catalogue even as I prepare my work library to be catalogued with Delicious software. I have been told since childhood that my book collection is a sign of a hoarding problem. And sure, I don't have to own as many books as I do (on a tangent, I am SO renting a truck), but trust me: having books in every room in the house where small children live creates magic. There is absolutely nothing more incredible than watching reading suddenly click in a child's head, and have him (because this transformational click hasn't yet happened with her) devour every piece of print in sight. My child can read a book (well, some books) unsupervised until 11pm in his room without the concern that turning the wrong page will lead him to internet predators or pornographic images that may distort his developing sexual expectations and preferences (interesting mature idea for a Choose Your Own Adventure book, though), or that his laptop will set the bed on fire, or that his book will suddenly disappear right at the good part when the hard drive chooses that particular moment to implode.
    I can't imagine the coldness of plastic and wire would act as the same kind of literacy catalyst. Sitting in bed with a child, hitting Enter or Scroll on the MacBook to get to the next colourfully illustrated screen instead of curling up, having her flip the pages back and forth to her favourite parts... Children are the most sensual of us all - their learning is so sensory-based. To remove the touch and smell elements from the reading experience is to render reading to a place of chore or skill development, removing the passion and delight entirely.

    (OMG, I totally just turned this into a "But what about the children?" argument, didn't I)

    I'll leave you with something that filled me with the opposite of what the article about Cushing Academy did: Neil Gaiman's library (and that's not including his reference collection. As Refashionista would say, Hawt.

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