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Cushing Academy Gets Rid of All Its Books; Luddites Have Conniption Fit

Photo by Alexandre Lemieux

Objections to ebooks usually fall into one of two categories: sentimental or technological. The sentimental objections are, I believe, generational.

The knee-jerk reaction in response to the Cushing Academy going digital continues to amaze me.

The Boston Globe article about the prep school is about a week old, and discussion abounds inside and outside the publishing industry. What really gets to me are not so much the legitimate criticisms of Cushing’s decision (which touch upon the digital divide and the problems with DRM), but the literati and industry professionals’ underlying sentimentality for printed books that remains completely out of touch with our digital natives inescapably digital future.

Objections to ebooks usually fall into one of two categories: sentimental or technological. The sentimental objections are, I believe, generational. The technological ones stem from a lack of imagination.

On sentimental matters:

“Serendipity” and the doe-eyed library patron. This is the argument that we’ll lose the experience of “serendipity”—the feeling we get when we happen upon a book in the stacks that we would otherwise never have noticed. I say: What about recommendation engines? What about “serendipitous” link surfing? I experience serendipity when I stumble upon a book recommended to me via a social network (some commercial, others not), or when I follow a link randomly from within an ebook to some other source (for example, while reading Accelerando just yesterday, I looked up “agalmic” within the Aldiko reader, and stumbled upon a whole dissertation on the marginalization of scarcity that added depth to my reading in real time). For many digital natives, serendipity can happen in cyberspace as easily as it can happen in the stacks.

“Spatial awareness” and other printed inanities. This is the idea that you can’t get a “real” sense of where you are in a novel without reading said novel on paper. What baffles me is how this sentiment is anything but subjective. Whether or not the medium in which a story is read somehow affects one’s understanding of that story or one’s immersion in it is an entirely subjective experience and has nothing to do with ereaders or ebooks. To me, it sounds more like the print reader is so accustomed to reading in the print medium that she doesn’t know how to concentrate well enough to read in any other medium. Wouldn’t it diminish the inherent power of the novel—and the meaning the novelist’s words convey to the reader—if it mattered whether those words were conveyed in print or on a computer screen?

Distractions, distractions, or “The Eternity of Paper.” The Boston Globe article quotes National Journal media critic William Powers (who recently penned a discussion paper for Harvard entitled Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Etermal) as saying, “There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.’’ What evidence does Powers have that a “deep-dive meditative reading” on a screen is “almost impossible” to do? Why is it so hard to believe that I can sit on my couch for two hours with an ereader and “deep-dive” into a book via my electronic device without multitasking? Maybe the reality is that Mr. Powers can’t do it because he just doesn’t like displays and feels the jealous need to project his own inability to become intimate with technology onto a youth culture that already knows how to. Every generation, Luddites confront their progeny with the condescending notion that they are ill-equipped to become as educated and knowledgeable as their predecessors. It’s getting old. In his article, Powers argues that paper is eternal because it carries a certain sociocultural appeal that we can’t do away with: “Paper does these jobs in a way that pleases us, which is why, for centuries, we have liked having it around. It’s also why we will never give it up as a medium, not completely. For some of the roles paper currently fulfills in our media lives, there is no better alternative currently available.” But culture changes. The future happens. The book is just another technology, and the centuries that this technology has endured won’t ensure its posterity.

On technical matters:

The durability of ebooks (a.k.a., paper is waterproof). Let’s make it clear that we’re talking about the durability of ebooks here, not the durability of ereaders. Once that’s clear, it’s easy to see that ereaders have the cards stacked against them only because they’re so damned expensive. The ereader suffers from the same vulnerabilities as the printed book, and until the machine is less expensive than a hardback, it’s more risky than your hardwood shelf to invest in for the long haul. But if we’re talking about comparing ebooks to printed books, it’s obvious that e-books are infinitely more durable than printed ones. I mean, think about it—an ebook can be in two places at once. An ebook is impervious to all physical damage. An ebook does not degrade over time. Hardware—hard drives, DVDs, tape backup—not ebooks, degrade over time; Orwellian DRM from Kindle, not ebooks, helps corporations whisk away ebooks at a moment’s notice; your Sony Reader, not an ebookcan fall in the bathtub and short-circuit. And if you’re not a Luddite, preserving your digital library as formats change is as easy as sticking to open formats and protecting backups of your files.

The Doomsday Scenario. Some fear that a “mega-energy crisis” could suddenly make the chatter that is cyberspace and the realm of ebooks go dark, erasing the world’s knowledge like Alexandra in an EMP-blaze. This is so ridiculous it’s hardly worth addressing, but what I will say is that if we continue to go the route of trusting in padlocked content servers to host our books, and continue to put up with EULAs that tenuously “license” to us ownership over our content, a doomsday scenario is totally possible. It’s just that it won’t be a technological disaster but a corporate merger that atom-bombs our digital property.

The Cushing Problem

I admit, my views about our society’s future are probably on the fringe, as far as futurist daydreaming goes: right now, I’m reading Accelerando on my G1 and contemplating converting my own meager library into a paperless one. To me, digitizing is about becoming more mobile in a world that grows increasingly complex, data-rich, and decentralized. The only way we’re going to benefit from the tremendous amount of information out there is by automating our processes—that is, transcending the human limits of our input by allowing distributed networks to expand our consciousness. It all sounds Kurzweil-crazy, I know, but in the end we are just spiritual machines.

Cushing Academy’s decision to get rid of all its printed books and spend a crazy amount of money (half a million dollars) buying technology and a coffee shop to replace paper seems pretentious and stupidly audacious, sure. But the digitization of books is inevitable. What is problematic here is not the idea of getting rid of paper libraries, but that Cushing may have made the transition too early, in an era where ebooks have too many disparate standards, and a reliable, inexpensive ereader has yet to emerge.

Maybe the digital divide isn’t a problem for Cushing’s students if the administration is buying 12k cappuccino machines. But class-based, disproportionate access to digital content (or the Internet in general), and the problem of licensing content in a way that is profitable for content producers—are really the only two factors that hamper the inevitable digitization of our books. And these delivery and format problems are mere market hurdles to overcome. But that doesn’t mean we should fear ebooks, and we shouldn’t let sentimentality get in the way of progress.


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