The dark side of e-books

The rise of e-books potentially spells doom for physical books but are we ready to pay the price for that transition?

When discussing the impact of information technology on economy and society, there are two prevailing viewpoints.

The first one emphasises the benefits created by the mass availability of information though increasingly affordable devices and increasing communication bandwidth. This has evident impacts on the establishment and strengthening of democracies, it gives people the ability to be better informed about their rights, their health, their jobs. It makes education more affordable to families who can hardly afford expensive textbooks. And so forth.

The second one stresses the drawbacks, looking at the intentional and unintentional loss of privacy through the abuse of social networking tools as well as government eavesdropping, and highlighting that digital divides multiply rather than closing.

I took part in a recent conversation on Facebook, started from an article (in Italian) written by Italian writer Umberto Eco, who claims that e-books will not totally replace physical books when it comes to novels or poetry. Irrespective of whether he is right or wrong, it occurred to me that the replacement of physical books with e-books will eliminate bookshelves from our homes or offices. This is something we have seen with music already: disc collections are being replaced by music stored on a file server, so that people still have their earlier CDs or vinyl on their shelves, but there is little trace of what they have been listening more recently.

Undoubtedly looking at somebody’s library tells you something about him or her. Sure, some people use to consider books as a piece of furniture, and there is no guarantee that showing Joyce’s Ulysses or Dante’s Divine Comedy means they have ever opened them. Yet, in the vast majority of cases, the warmth of books that you can glance through to get a feel of a person’s taste can’t be matched or compensated even by the coolest technology toy.

And it goes further. Borrowing a used book from a relative or a friend, with their underlined or highlighted sentences and handwritten footnotes makes that object something alive, with its own story to tell beyond the one from the author. Actually the very experience of “borrowing” goes away, with digital rights management that will prevent any even temporary use by a different user, unless one hands over the e-book itself (which is clearly not possible, as it is your access to all your library).

Also, the amazing experience of visiting a bookstore, where your senses are captured by the view, the touch, the sound, the smell of thousands of books and their pages, will gradually vanish, as the disappearance of some major bookstore chains is witnessing. The same is happening, and much faster, with music stores.

And what about looking at people who read books on a train, a bus, a plane, and what those books tell us about them and how many times we have decided to read a book because somebody else was?

So, how will the future look like? Will reading lose its social dimension, or will technology help recover some of it? Maybe the cover page of the book we are reading will be shown on the oled screen on the cover of our e-book. Maybe our virtual bookshelves will appear on screens that cover our walls, pretty much like those – replacing windows – and will show us the landscape we fancy (watch the excellent movie Cloud Atlas for an example of this). Or we will see our guest’s virtual libraries projected on our glasses.

In the Facebook discussion above many people compare the defense of physical books to the defense of horse-powered cars or wooden-powered heaters, which have disappeared almost a century ago and none of us misses.

The difference though is that those innovations demonstrably improved our productivity and comfort: we could move faster and get warmer. E-books touch upon the emotional sphere. They are not uploading the content of the book into our brain in a matter of minutes. We are still supposed to hold an object in our hands. There is little we gain, moving from a three-.dimensional to a bi-dimensional experience, and from engaging at least four senses to engaging only one.

Andrea Di Maio is a vice president and distinguished analyst in Gartner Research, where he focuses on the public sector, with particular reference to e-government strategies, Web 2.0, the business value of IT, open-source software. You can read his other posts here.

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