Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why all the fuss about e-readers?

Whenever new technology changes how we do things, people tend to panic. The latest example is the concern espoused by many readers and writers that e-readers and other digital information sources are eliminating physical books and negatively impacting our reading habits.

There's a story in this week's Sacramento News and Review by Hugh Biggar surveying local bookworms on the issue, and many of them are troubled by the introduction of digital reading, which is rather ironic since their opinions are published in the online edition of the SN&R. Nonetheless, the story made some interesting points that I'd like to comment on.

Perhaps the most common criticism is that modern information consumption, absorbing lots of little bits of information, is shortening our attention spans and reducing how much we read as a result. Despite acknowledging the potential of technology like e-readers, UC Davis professor Andy Jones and librarian Stacey Aldrich gave voice to this concern in the SN&R article.

That argument may have some validity but I think there's a better explanation. We've become less curious as a society. We don't value learning new things as much as we once did, and I think it's because our education system sucks out loud. If we could make the appropriate changes in our classrooms, I'm optimistic that we could easily recover our attention spans, regardless of how much we tweet or surf the internet.

There's another reason not to worry about electronic information: it can speed up the learning process. Because I didn't have to go pick up a physical copy of the SN&R, I can read this article, blog about it, and search for more sources of information simultaneously. Somehow that habit has not destroyed my attention span.

Along similar lines, an agricultural scientist quoted in a recent NPR article on this subject pointed out that access to instantaneous information improves his research.
'I don't read books ... in my real job,' says Curt Emanuel, who works in the Cooperative Extension Service in Agriculture at Purdue University [...] 'If I'm working with, say, a farmer on developing a fertility program for his corn crop for this coming year, I'll want to look at field trials done within the last couple of years on corn hybrids he or she is using. For that, it takes recent articles and research — the information is just better than that contained in a book which may already be outdated.'

The SN&R article also made reference to the "digital divide," the gap between people who have access to electronic information and those who don't. But I suspect this isn't a serious problem. There are thousands of e-books available for free online and free computers on which to access them in public libraries. E-readers can be purchased for under $100, and they'll only get cheaper as the technology improves and more devices come to market in the next few years.

Finally, the article bemoaned the loss of the bookstore as a community resource. According to one local bookstore owner named Richard Hansen, "The era when cities are bustling with bookstores is over ... There will come a point when a city will have only one or two bookstores, and small towns will have none. I am not sure what will take their place." I'm not convinced by this either, however. Some bookstores have gone under, but retail bookstores haven't disappeared yet, and probably won't. Competition is a powerful motivator.

But even if technology actually does eliminate the local bookstore one day, there's little reason to worry. As long as there are people who enjoy reading physical books and networking with like minded people, there will be book clubs, fairs, festivals and other outlets designed to cater to them.

In sum, as an avid reader and aspiring writer, I love books. Anything that serves to make them less accessible or devalue reading as a source of information and entertainment should generate concern. But technology is not one of those things. Chill out.


  1. OK, OK. I will be more open to it.

  2. Don't get me wrong. I'm a stubborn old man when it comes to owning books, and probably won't own a digital reader unless someone buys me one.

    Still, the shiny gadgets aren't making us dumber. That's all I'm saying.