Is the eBook a revolutionary step for literature and technology?

By Nick Smith

eBook debate: For Dickens’ 200th, why fight it?

By Nick Smith

The reasoning I hear most often against digital reading is to do with the pleasures of page turning: fingertips on crisp sheets, the sound, the smell, the physical connection to what’s being read. Fair enough – these are dignified pleasures most readers, including myself, enjoy.

But arguments for the time-honoured awesomeness of atom-based books aren’t really the same as arguments against electron-based ones. Statistics citing higher retention levels of paper-read manuscript over the shorter attention span of their digitally-read cousins come closer to hitting the mark. The botched formatting of poetry and classic prose for digital distribution (on iPad, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc) is a shame and a problem, to be sure, but not a permanent one. Digital editions of books can be and are updated.

Plus, the eBook devices feature reading platforms, which are designed to augment the screen reading experience. Besides its one-click dictionary look-up and Google and Wikipedia search for any word in any volume, Apple’s iBooks platform, for example, allows note-taking, underlining and text highlighting in five colours – all of which are automatically indexed and searchable. (How’s that for an academic resource?)

‘The literary elite in the 15th century decried printed texts as crude.’

But there’s an historical element to this debate as well. The literary elite in the 15th century decried printed texts as crude, vulgar forms at the dawn of the transition from handwritten manuscripts to movable type. More recently, professional and amateur photographers bemoaned the increasing prominence of digital cameras as a cheap alternative to film – as did movie makers – until it became clear that we weren’t really losing quality, but increasing control of quality by moving effects out of the camera and into post-production platforms like Photoshop.

Of course that last example is on the production side of media, similar to writers of a certain age longing for the bygone clickity-clack of their typewriters. The difference with eBooks is that the transition from ink to pixel seems to cross a greater chasm than celluloid to electron images – be them still or moving.

At this point, I could bore you with mountains of data on changing reader preferences (like Amazon’s top 10 best-selling eBooks out-sold its 10 best-selling print books two to one in 2011 or US eBook revenues roughly tripled last year while revenues for printed books for adults and children declined by 34 and 16 per cent respectively) but even these miss the real point.

‘Species of technology, unlike species in biology, almost never go extinct.’

In his 2010 book What Technology Wants, the philosopher, publisher, entrepreneur and founder of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, discussed the history and nature of technology. He asserted, among other things, that “species of technology, unlike species in biology, almost never go extinct.”

In the following pages (or, depending on your reading device, back-lit electrons programmed to look like pages) Kelly discussed where and how he found the most bygone technologies not only still in use, but still in production. Think about oxcarts and steam engines and hand-flaked, antler-horn-handled, leather-strapped flint knives still being made, sold and bought today.

The point is that once technologies are born, they don’t die. Ever. “Technologies are idea-based, and culture is their memory.” Which is why the question of being for or against eBooks is mostly an irrelevant one.

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