The Annoyances of eBooks

Ned Resnikoff channels Nicholas Carr arguing that the eBook will not kill text:


Because we've come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It's easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It's easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I've done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed book provides a natural shield against distraction. Despite being low-tech - or maybe because of it - printed books and other paper documents support all sorts of reading techniques, they make it easy to shift seamlessly between those techniques, and they're amenable to personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

E-books are much more rigid. Refreshing discrete pages of text on a fixed screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pliant pages of fixed text. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational protocols and routines on the user, allowing certain patterns of use but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed books become more difficult with electronic books - and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.
Reskinoff adds:

Maybe some day the ebook will become as versatile as the book. I rather suspect it will just become a different kind of medium with its own advantages and idiosyncracies. The book will remain the book: disposable for some, not so much for others.
I think this makes a critical error: the belief that a technology must be superior on all fronts in order for it to supplant an earlier technology.  This just isn't true.

There's a famous old joke about two people walking through the woods when they spot a bear.  The first hiker drops down and prepares to play dead.  The second one opens his pack and takes out a pair of running shoes.

"What are you doing?" asks the first hiker.  "You can't outrun a bear."

"I don't have to," responds the second hiker.  "I just have to outrun you."

New technologies are like that.  They don't actually have to be faster, or better, than any conceivable product.  They just have to be better in key ways than the competition.

There were, for example, a lot of complaints about the horseless carriage.  Busy professionals like doctors pointed out that if they bought such a contraption, they would no longer be able to wrap the reins around the buggy whip and take a nap while the horse drove home.  Others pointed to the very low reliability of motor cars, compared to horses, their inferior capabilities on dirt roads, and the difficulty of finding gasoline in the countryside.  People lamented the inability to bond with their cars the way they did with their "team", and the fact that the motor car would blindly drive you into danger where the horses would have shied away.

All of these things were true. None of them mattered.  Automobiles were faster than horses, and didn't need to be fed when not in use.  As they became more popular, they made horses a less and less viable means of transportation: drinking troughs disappeared, livery stables and feed stores shut down, hitching posts were not installed.

Printing and distributing books is a large industry with significant economies of scale.  If too few people buy print books, the cost of the remaining books will start to rise.  Eventually, more and more applications will switch to the winning medium, even if individuals miss being able to flip through books. There will be specialty applications, but they will be very expensive.

(Note that I say "if"--I don't guarantee that eBooks will win.  But that's how I'm betting.)

A lot of the reaction to any new technology is simply that many of us invested a lot of effort in learning how to use the old technology well.  That's especially true of books.  (It's no accident that so many of the complaints come from journalists, academics, and other writers).  For years, in school and at work, we constructed increasingly elaborate personal reference systems from notes, flags, and dog-ears, and our brains are now very nimble at using them.  Change is hard.  Moreover, it involves recognizing that all of our previous effort was a sunk cost: we have a painfully acquired skill that is now useless.  We'd much rather double down than move on.

A lot of the complaints--"I can't flip!"--strike me as emblematic of this.  eBooks make the  specific way that that user has learned over many years to quickly find information within a book harder--and so we hear that eBooks make finding information harder.  No, I can't flip through a book holding places open with my thumb.  Instead, I can search the book for keywords, which seems way, way faster than the old method of trying to remember what pages I was near when I read the passage I want to find.  I also personally find the bookmarks function vastly more effective for me than the sticky notes that used to fall out.  Taking notes is somewhat more ponderous, but I now have a little keyboard case for my iPad which means I can take longer and faster notes than I used to be able to writing on paper/in the margins.  I'm sure that many people feel that typing is not the same as writing--and I myself often prefer the ability to write outside of neat, sequential lines.  But the loss is not catastrophic, any more than it was when we lost the ability for drivers to nap.

And it's totally fine for people to stay invested in the old technology.  There's no reason that you should leave print books if that's what you're used to using--you'll miss some of the capability of eBooks, but you'll save time, and maintain that beloved flipability.  I'm not trying to evangelize for Kindles here.

But I doubt that many of the kids starting school now will build up the same kind of personal reference system around print books, any more than most children of the 1920s bothered to learn how to hitch up a team properly.  To them, print books will seem ponderous and slow--what we find serene and undistracting, they will find as annoying as making your own Jello out of calve's feet and eggshells.  They will have their own mental information maps that revolve around search and keywords, not physical proximity.  It won't be better for all things.  But it doesn't have to be.  It just has to be able to outrun the competition where it counts.  If they are--and I think they are--it will eventually become un-economic for most firms to retain print divisions.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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