Blog post

The Dark Side of E-Books

By Andrea Di Maio | June 09, 2013 | 6 Comments

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

The first one emphasizes 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.

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  • Undoubtedly, younger generations of readers will not miss the bookshelves of their parents’ experiences, but they will be reading like their parents do. People love to read.

    That the reading experience comes from a physical book or an e-reader matters little in my opinion, except that more readers can read more variety more quickly on today’s digital readers, which fits today’s fast-paced lifestyles. If more Millennials are reading more these days, more power to the digital experience.

    What remains king, however, is that writers must offer well-written, engaging stories. As a professional author of books, I recognize the role I must play in the arena. I will gladly accept readers of any age reading the pages of my forthcoming book, CHEF TELL The Biography of America’s Pioneer TV Showman Chef, now in pre-release at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retail outlets, or my novel, Anyman Dreams of Love Everlasting, on, in digital or printed-book format.

  • Angie Tarasoff says:

    It’s not the format that matters. It’s the story.

    As communications technologies have evolved – from oral tradition to print to multimedia, the thread that ties it all together is the story itself.

    Consider The Art of Racing in the Rain. Five of my friends have read it. One read it as a book two read it on e-readers, and I listened to it as an audio book. We connected around our experience of the story – the insights it offered, the amount of sobbing we did, and the bewildered responses of those who were with us when we responded emotionally to the story.

  • I follow these discussions with fascination as they weave in and out of the wonderful benefits and sad drawbacks of evolving from the print to the digital “world of words,” as one of my interviewees said. As a former librarian turned filmmaker, I spent 41/2 difficult years in research and interviews to produce and direct a film on the subject which I hope readers here get to enjoy and send comments. I am grateful that we are involved in these discussions.

  • David Tallan says:

    Instead of casting an eye over their physical bookshelves, we’ll be casting an eye over their Librarything or Goodreads collection catalogue.

    But yes, we will be losing something when we switch from paper books to e-books. This won’t be the first time we’ve lost something with a format change. Anyone with experience of the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages can tell you that we lost a lot when they were replaced by printed books. But we gained a lot, too. Ultimately, people felt that they gained more than they lost with the switch to printed books and very few illuminated manuscripts are made today.

    The same thing will be true of ebooks. They won’t replace paper books until people believe that, on balance, they are getting something much better. Then they’ll make the switch without regrets. How often have you thought, when reading a book, “I wish this was a hand calligraphed and illuminated manuscript!”?

  • Lyle Demery says:

    There is another side to this. What happens to all our digital content when we die? At one time people bequeathed their books, records (CDs, etc.) to their children or to some other party. more often than not, it was a way of passing on physical mementos that constituted cherished memories of somebody for the recipient. When you thumbed through a musty old book that a parent left you, it could evoke memories of that person sitting in a certain chair reading it. In its way, it was a physical connection to the past.

    The secondary issue is whether we own the digital content at all or do we just have a life time license? Can I even pass on my e-books or my iTunes library to my kids or to somebody else if I want to?

  • Mike Malik says:

    Actually I look forward to the day when ebooks and social collide. Imagine being about to have that “cocktail party discussion” with your friends on facebook or even better with folks you never met.