eBooks and the Ownership Machine

Over the last few years I have found myself debating whether or not I have any use for or trust in the concept of eBooks. While anyone can acknowledge that having your books in a digital format saves on shelf space and makes them easier to transport, are there other advantages? Are there other, less desirable or even unworthy facets? Is it all just personal preference? The times in which we live and the technology upon which we’ve come to rely are in large part defined by a move toward making every last paper part of our lives a thing of the past. While the convenience and versatility is undeniable, I wonder if there aren’t dangers we may overlook in our excitement.

As any who follow me know, I recently took an extended hiatus from my usual life and routine by relocating to Texas for an indefinite period. In packing my belongings, it came to my attention that I own a rather alarming number of books. I always knew that I had a fair number of them, but the sheer volume wasn’t apparent to me until I hopped onto LibraryThing.com and began cataloging them all, a process I undertook primarily so I’d have an easily-accessible digital inventory to track which books I’d left in California. I took every volume from every shelf, laid them on my apartment floor in stacks by genre, and proceeded to enter them into the computer by ISBN number or Library of Congress card number. If the books were too old to have either of those identifiers, I entered them manually. Several days later, I was still nowhere near finished, due in large part to how many books I have from around 1930 to 1960 that required a little research and time to input. It was a task, and thinking about how to properly transport their collective physical mass was definitely one of the major considerations of my move.

Thus I have begun to understand the arguments in favor of a paperless library. It takes up no real space, doesn’t eat up more of your home as it grows, and is much easier to take with you when you inevitably uproot yourself. And yet, this discovery: I love my books, and even after taking pains to pack and move them, it was quite obvious to me that I consider them worth every bit of the effort that I’ve invested in their storage and care over the years.

A person’s library says something about them, and by extension whether that library is digital or traditional says something as well. Am I an old and outdated person because I don’t embrace the concept of owning so much digital property? One could argue that it’s strictly a generational issue, or purely one that concerns the telescoping nature of human advancement, and perhaps this is the case. If the scope of the issue is truly that narrow (at least on the whole), then this surely shows just how quickly age groups can now form opposing ideologies about technology. I’m not even quite 30, and I have friends several years younger than I who aren’t so keen on the digital bandwagon even though we all were some of the most active supporters of the mid-stage digital revolution.

So I will say this much, and you may choose whether to take it as a young person mistrusting a fundamental concept, or as an issue of telescoping advancement causing mistrust of change to happen far more rapidly in an increasingly more youthful demographic. While I don’t claim that eBooks have no purpose as useful tools, I don’t think a world where parents have their iPads read animated books to their children before bedtime is going to be a better world, and that’s a story I already hear far too often. If I said it didn’t alarm me, I’d be lying.

To put a point on my own view that this is more an issue some take with a fundamental concept rather than fear of something less comfortable (after all, most of us have embraced digital mediums over print in at least a few sectors, if not all across the board), it seems to me that—especially in these uncertain times—people might fear having so much non-physical property; when it comes to digital distribution platforms for games and music where some of that content may not even be wholly under their control, I’d expect such concerns to increase exponentially. We can forgo the oft-posed argument about what may happen when these businesses shut down via economic collapse or lack of profitability and simply ask: shouldn’t there be some logical concern about purchasing too much insubstantial property? For many, especially young people, this concern never seems to arise, and this likely has much to do with the perceived value of money and the way that it’s handled in this new epoch of digital fundamentalism. What may be most fascinating about it is the huge differences in opinion coming from people whose lifestyles really aren’t dissimilar on the whole, this also being hard to pin down as either a side effect of the rapidity of technological increase or simply a judgment call by individuals based on personal experience.

Ultimately, it seems the magic of words transcends the method of their delivery, so for the average person, their chosen manner of ingestion seems of little enough consequence; and it isn’t as though the record of human experience is going to suddenly be consigned to oblivion just because more people choose to purchase their latest medical thriller for their e-reader instead of their bookshelf. Yet the movements within the digital phenomenon do both affect and reflect some of society’s own maneuvers, not to mention the way established industries have and will continue to attempt to enter that “new” frontier. Thus I hope we will remain cognizant of how our actions shape the future, of where the small steps are likely to lead, and of what things are in our best interests going forward. Because if you think about it long enough, you’re likely to realize that just because something is more advanced or more convenient doesn’t make it more worthy. Sometimes, it’s mostly just a quicker way for others to get our money.

[This post originally appeared at theflyingmonkeyapparatus.com.]

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