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Online Information, Ebooks, and Moral Panic

Three Generations of Kindles

Three Generations of Kindles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple of days ago I came across a brief piece in the Guardian from last year with the rather alarming title “Jonathan Franzen Warns Ebooks Are Corroding Values.” Corroding values?, I thought. Hurting brick-and-mortar sales, okay; giving us eyestrain, eh, maybe. But does Franzen really think ebooks make us worse people?

Bearing in mind that the purpose of headlines is to provoke you into reading further—but also knowing that Franzen isn’t known to shy away from ill-advised controversialism—I thought I’d better read the piece before coming to any conclusions.

Unsurprisingly, the headline involved a bit of misdirection (the word “values” never occurs in any of his quotes), but what the famous novelist actually did say during a press conference at the Hay Festival was weird enough, and maybe even a little creepy. After laying out a number of pretty commonsensical reasons why he considers ink-on-paper to be an important and intrinsically valuable format for conveying and storing information, he dropped the following opinions about the current and potential future social impact of the online information environment in general and ebooks in particular:

[The] kind of radical contingency [that characterizes e-books] is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

There’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion bits of distracting noise… All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.

The technicians of finance are making the [political] decisions [in Europe]. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people. And we are hostage to that because we like our iPhones.

Oooooooo-kay.

Now, we should bear in mind that this was (according to the Telegraph) Franzen’s first-ever press conference, and that he was talking off the cuff. An improvising amateur can’t be expected to perform brilliantly his first time out. But still, it’s worth summarizing and reviewing the assertions Franzen advances here:

  • Ebooks are incompatible with a system of justice
  • Ebooks are incompatible with responsible self-government
  • Online publication undermines human authenticity and honesty
  • iPhone users are hostages to an ongoing political coup by techno-capitalists

It would be easy to dismiss this kind of talk as passionate overstatement or to simply characterize Franzen as an outlier. Maybe it is, and maybe he is. But he’s not the only one talking this way. What Franzen’s comments immediately brought to mind was author Sherman Alexie’s infamous characterization of Kindles as “elitist” and—far more disturbing—his expressed desire to “hit” a woman whom he saw reading a Kindle on a plane. (Later he backpedaled on his blog*, sort of, admitting that what he should have said was that he saw a man reading a Kindle and wanted to hit him. So let’s be clear: Alexie is no misogynist.) Then there’s the poet and novelist Alan Kaufman, who darkly hinted at parallels between the Kindle and Nazi crematoria and then proffered this bit of historico-political analysis:

[N]ow, sixty four years after the Holocaust, the Nazi disdain for the book has become the feel-good Hi-Tech campaign to rid the world of books in place of massive easily controlled centralized repositories of book texts downloadable on little hand-held devices and from which a text can be dissapeared [sic] with the click of a mouse: in Nazi terms, a dream come true.

So whereas Alexie sees Kindle users as elitists, Kaufman apparently sees them as Nazi collaborators after the fact. (If Kaufman sees someone reading a Kindle on a plane, is he tempted to forcibly shave her—sorry, his! His!—head?)

Why do ebooks—and e-information generally—cause such teeth-grinding rage and rhetorical hysteria in some people? I mean, come on: Fantasies of physical assault? Suggestions that e-formats undermine democracy? Characterizing the ebook as a Nazi “dream come true”? These are not normal reactions, and this is not normal discourse.

I’ve seen similar (though generally less intense) responses to ebooks and, to a lesser degree, ejournals from some of my library colleagues. Among some of us there is a sense not just that we’re giving up certain benefits by migrating from one format to another—that’s a given—but that we’re trading something fundamentally good for something fundamentally bad, even sinister.

I suppose you can chalk some of this reaction up to nostalgia. As a member of the shrinking population of people who remember when libraries smelled like books, a part of me is sympathetic to that sentiment. At the same time, the part of me that remembers having to search for books in a card catalog—the intellectual equivalent of trying to find a penny in a bowl of washers while wearing boxing gloves—that part of me has no patience at all with the sympathetic part.

But what I find most disturbing is the way that the rhetoric of Alexie, Kaufman, Franzen et al. disguises elitism behind a scrim of anti-elitism.  “Books saved my life,” Alexie says. “I rose out of poverty and incredible social dysfunction because of books”—by which, of course, he means printed books. His biggest problem with the Kindle seems to be that it’s expensive; that “there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids.” Which may be true and may even be relevant when it comes to certain e-reading devices in particular, but it’s an argument that goes nowhere when it comes to online information (including books) in general. What percentage of poor children has access to a decent public library collection, as compared to the percentage that has access to the Internet? If you really want to get a book into the hands of a maximum-possible number of poor kids, is encoding it into a physical document (rather than, say, making it available via cellphone) really the best way to do it?

The problem with Franzen’s “real,” “authentic,” “honest” print books is that they’re only available to those relatively few and well-off who have easy access to decent libraries and bookstores. To be clear, I don’t want to see any fewer libraries and bookstores—I’d love for there to be more. But the fact remains that the printed book is an ineffective information delivery system at scale.

As for Franzen’s and Kaufman’s dire warnings about e-formats’ corrosive effect on democracy: it seems to me that the salutary effects of massively open and instantly-distributed information pretty strongly outweigh the negative impacts of relative impermanence. If what Franzen calls “responsible self-government” depends on citizens having access to information about what their elected representatives are up to, then surely those iPhones we so culpably love are more the solution than the problem. It’s true that much of the information you get through your iPhone cannot be counted on to remain available (or unaltered) for decade, or a year, or a month. But an awful lot of it can, and even temporary access offers a tremendous benefit that can’t be made available outside of the online environment.

To some degree, arguing about this represents a waste of energy. Surely no one believes that the e-genie is going to be forced back into the print bottle. But maybe that suggests that complaining about it—and especially complaining by means of arguments that hold so little water—is a waste of energy as well. More importantly, though, I hope we don’t let miguided nostalgia or faux anti-elitism direct us away from those access solutions that will really do the most good for the most people.

* Alexie’s blog does not seem to have a searchable archive (boy, Franzen was right about the Internet’s ephemerality), but his clarifications have been widely quoted verbatim, notably and most comprehensively here.

About Rick Anderson

I'm Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

Discussion

49 thoughts on “Online Information, Ebooks, and Moral Panic

  1. One theme here seems to be the loss of control over a physical object. E-content may be changed, manipulated, disappeared, etc, by unseen forces, so there is a trust issue. Suspicion then breeds fear or contempt. I am reminded of the first consulting work I ever did, so long ago that civil engineers were just beginning to use computers instead of calculators. The wrenching change was there was no way to check the calculations, which had been standard practice. So the common question was “how do we know this thing is right?”. How do know an e-book is genuine? Who are we trusting?

    Posted by David Wojick | Sep 23, 2013, 7:53 am
  2. Luddites

    Posted by Harvey Kane | Sep 23, 2013, 8:10 am
  3. This reminds me of the attempts a few years ago to instill fear about online sources by saying that the pace and ephemeral nature of online information “changed our brains,” basically taking a pseudo neuroscience approach to stopping or slowing the move to online distribution and tools.

    Of course, the fatal flaw with that fear-mongering was that *everything* you read or see “changes your brain.” That’s what learning and thinking does! So, you could change it slowly and with more strain and with fewer sources of input (old world) or at a quicker pace with less strain and with more sources (new world). And most people find a lot of benefit changing more quickly, more fluidly, and with more inputs.

    The reactionaries will always be with us. I do think established authors have an economic incentive at work, as ebooks have unleashed people who essentially cut the line they spent years in, and who have published best-sellers they’re probably envious or resentful about. Movies have been made by authors who have successfully leveraged the ebook route. Fortunes have been made. I’d be really irritated. So of course they’ll complain that “democracy” is at stake, etc. It must seem unfair. Almost as unfair as some unknown Scottish female author dominating best-seller lists for a decade with books about a teenage wizard. But they couldn’t blame technology for that one.

    Posted by Kent Anderson | Sep 23, 2013, 8:12 am
    • Agreed that established artists can be motivated to denigrate new forms purely out of economic interest. Change comes to us all equally and makes us equal when it comes. Not a welcome event when you’re sitting in the catbird seat.
      However, there is more than money at stake. A master of the printed word is challenged by the new capabilities of digital, especially with the advent of ePub 3. Being an excellent wordsmith may still be a necessary condition of mastery but it is also not a sufficient condition.

      Posted by Frank Lowney | Sep 23, 2013, 9:19 am
  4. These are not reasoned objections to e-books and I doubt they are intended to be: some authors employ hyperbole to attract the attention of readers and then to entertain them. This may have happened here. Of course, many people dislike ebooks for all sorts of reasons, and I suspect that they will have equally enjoyed the claim that their dislikes uphold a proper system of justice, responsible self-government, and human authenticity and honesty. However, while they may have enjoyed these claims, they may not have actually believed them. Straw persons are set up, and then knocked down. It was ever thus.

    Posted by Carl May (@CarlRMay) | Sep 23, 2013, 9:37 am
  5. It should probably be noted that the hysteria tends to run in both directions. Thinking back to the comments left on recent Scholarly Kitchen pieces about eBooks like this one:

    http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/08/12/an-industry-pining-for-bookstores/

    Or this one:

    http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/07/11/a-disastrous-week-for-publishers-authors-and-readers/

    There’s a pretty even mix of the anti-eBookers writing sonnets to the way books smell and the Kindle-istas, furious that anyone would dare say anything negative about Amazon.

    Perhaps it’s just another one of those subjects about which people feel passionate (Apple vs. Windows vs. Google), where the internet tends to bring out over-the-top righteousness.

    Posted by David Crotty | Sep 23, 2013, 9:40 am
    • I agree, but I also think there’s a substantive difference between hysterical defensiveness (“Don’t you dare criticize my lovely Kindle!”) and hysterical attacks (“Hey, Nazi, I feel like beating you up because you’re reading on a Kindle.”). I think the former is silly; I think the latter is scary.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 23, 2013, 12:07 pm
      • This is the internet. At some point in the conversation, somebody’s gonna get called a “Nazi”.

        Posted by David Crotty | Sep 23, 2013, 12:36 pm
        • True enough. The threatened-assault aspect is what I actually find the creepiest.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 23, 2013, 12:40 pm
  6. Thank you for this insightful post.

    These authors (and other e-book detractors) seem to think that it is the package that matters more than the messages or ideas within: As if the only way to remember what you’ve just read is by shelving a physical item (do I need to keep the cereal box to remember the taste of what I just ate?). I like the look of my pretty bookcase overstuffed with books as much as the next bibliophile, but with my Kindle I have my extended library and references with me wherever I go. Also, think of all the free books (Project Gutenberg, which offers content with expired copyright) available to electronic readers: Doesn’t that make especially those treasured and esteemed classics much more available than they’ve ever been before? The print version of these (or even a library card) are not free either. I myself am trying philosophers and authors via Gutenberg whom I might not have purchased, but am sure enjoying now, simply due to availability (nor do I personally throw away the electronic item after I’ve read it, I do archive them). Of course the ereader/computer/internet comes at its own cost (though are becoming relatively cheap and available), but I wonder, do any of these authors ship their printed books free of charge to low-income countries?

    As mentioned in the comments above, the true underlying issue seems to be more one of economics, of authors being afraid of their content being pirated or devalued, which is a valid concern and worthy of discussion (but at least they can be honest about it).

    Posted by Rachel | Sep 23, 2013, 10:03 am
  7. We seem to have a large number of alternative explanations above. This suggests that we do not know the answer.

    Posted by David Wojick | Sep 23, 2013, 10:59 am
  8. I spent yesterday afternoon at the Library of Congress National Book Festival, on the National Mall. Taking the Metro downtown, I naturally brought along my iPad Mini to read on the way. Later, I walked into the sales tent. It was nice to see and touch the books for sale, and I was tempted to buy a few. However, each would weigh more than my iPad, which already held more titles than were in the entire tent. Which is better? Depends!

    Posted by Ken Lanfear | Sep 23, 2013, 11:18 am
  9. Fools act on imagination without knowledge, pedants act on knowledge without imagination.
    –Alfred North Whitehead

    Posted by Ned Ludd | Sep 23, 2013, 11:24 am
  10. One of the models for the Marketing Mix specific to service industries talks of 7 Ps – one of these being Physical Evidence. I think Franzen is annoyed that the physical evidence of a book is now a gadget and not the book itself. I think that can explain why some trade publishers would prefer print books to dominate – if you were Penguin/Random House and Franzen wouldn’t you rather see someone on the train or park bench with a printed book in their hand rather than an eReader?

    Franzen, perhaps unwittingly, is voicing a concern about the loss of brand of certain authors and publishers. Kindle and Amazon are the biggest brands in publishing nowadays. I think he sees the idolization of technology as worrying – and maybe he has got a point – the hype in publishing is now usually about the delivery system and format rather than the content.

    But that’s bound to happen when new technologies come along.

    Posted by Mark | Sep 23, 2013, 12:21 pm
  11. Back in the era of print, there were non-rich kids who read books. How many of them *only* read books they bought new at cover prices? I would guess relatively few. More kids had access to school libraries before those were gutted, but even if they didn’t have that, they probably had access to used books and friends’ and family members’ books. Passing books around was a popular thing in my rather working-class elementary school. The current ebook landscape makes buying new content the only easy thing. Lending, borrowing, reselling are all difficult and limited, by design. The only thing that’s easier now is stealing.

    Posted by Jenny R | Sep 23, 2013, 1:13 pm
    • The question isn’t whether poor kids have (or once had) access to printed books. The question, again, is: if you really want to get a book into the hands of a maximum-possible number of poor kids, is encoding it into a physical document (rather than, say, making it available via cellphone) really the best way to do it? To be clear: making books available online will not ensure that everyone has access to everything. It will only ensure that a far greater number of people (including poor kids) will have access than could possibly be given access to printed books.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 23, 2013, 1:45 pm
      • how would books be made available to the poor kid to “read” in the window of her cellphone for free? who will assume the cost of doing this?

        Posted by Ned Ludd | Sep 23, 2013, 2:31 pm
        • For books, HathiTrust has made a pretty good start (with 3,000,000 public-domain books freely available to the public on the open Web). But we’re not just talking about books here. We’re talking about all kinds of free and high-quality content, with which the open Web abounds. If you’ve got access to a computer or a web-enabled phone, you’ve got access to immense amounts of high- (and low-)quality information at no charge. Does the Internet reach all poor children? Of course not. Does it reach more poor children than have access to large collections of physical books? Absolutely.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 23, 2013, 4:21 pm
          • wait a second… i thought we WERE talking about books.

            are you saying you think the fact that one can read public domain books for free on the internet and one can read a whole bunch of other stuff that contains “high-quality … information” should compensate for perhaps not being able to read, free, contemporary, nobel prize-winning and other high-quality fiction and nonfiction with sale rights owned and actively protected by publishers? is this all the poor kids deserve for their education–just in case they can’t get certain books? is this the best we can offer as a society to educate our next generation?

            i’m still waiting for your answer–how are the same books that are available to everyone else going to be made available to the poor kids to read, and who will assume the cost?

            and to ask a larger question you’ve deemed irrelevant, but many see as urgent, how can we have a working democracy with informed voters unless we can find a way to do it ASAP?

            i really want to know what is going to take the place of the public library in the underprivileged community just in time to replace all the services of all the currently operating ones are being losed down due to lack of funding. perhaps it really will become cheaper for their taxpayers for municipalities to pass out cellphones to all who qualify by income level from the steps of town hall?

            and i love the concept or reading a henry james novel on a cellphone.

            Posted by Ned Ludd | Sep 23, 2013, 5:02 pm
            • are you saying you think the fact that one can read public domain books for free on the internet and one can read a whole bunch of other stuff that contains “high-quality … information” should compensate for perhaps not being able to read, free, contemporary, nobel prize-winning and other high-quality fiction and nonfiction with sale rights owned and actively protected by publishers?

              No, I’m offering a (partial) answer to your question about who will make books available for free to read in the window of a cellphone.

              i’m still waiting for your answer–how are the same books that are available to everyone else going to be made available to the poor kids to read, and who will assume the cost?

              “The same books that are available to everyone else”? There is no collection of books that’s available to everyone except the poor. Different people have access to different collections. What I’m saying is that printing books on paper is not the best way to distribute content widely, particularly to the poor, because the poor very often have no access to large print collections (and because print collections pose significant access barriers, far more significant than those posed by online access).

              and to ask a larger question you’ve deemed irrelevant, but many see as urgent, how can we have a working democracy with informed voters unless we can find a way to do it ASAP?

              Sorry — what makes you think I deem this question irrelevant?

              I really want to know what is going to take the place of the public library in the underprivileged community just in time to replace all the services of all the currently operating ones are being losed down due to lack of funding.

              Is anyone proposing that we shut down public libraries in underprivileged communities? I know I’m not.

              Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 23, 2013, 5:42 pm
          • Interesting why is it an either or situation. printed books will be available for a long, long, long, time!

            Posted by Harvey Kane | Sep 23, 2013, 9:55 pm
      • You’re overestimating the ability of the internet to disseminate information to the poor. If so many kids don’t have access to a well-stocked library, why would they have smart phones? Or internet access at home? If the only place they can access the internet is at school or the public library where internet access is time limited, how are they supposed to read ebooks?

        This personal account really opened my eyes to what reading is like for poor kids:

        http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/390067.html

        Posted by Amanda | Sep 23, 2013, 3:03 pm
        • I’m not actually estimating the Internet’s ability to reach the poor. I’m only comparing the Internet’s ability to reach the poor to the physical library collection’s ability to do so. A printed document can reach one person at a time, and only in one place at a time. The internet can reach billions of people, remotely and simultaneously. Does it do so perfectly? Absolutely not. Does it do so anywhere near as effectively as we would like? No. Does it do so a million times better than print can? Absolutely. (And I think it’s safe to say that far more underprivileged people have some degree of internet access than have the same degree of access to a good-sized physical library — though I’ll be happy to be corrected on that point if someone has good contradictory data.)

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 23, 2013, 4:27 pm
          • The data I found is a few years old, which is an eternity in internet time, but here it is.

            http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-569.pdf

            According to US Census data from 2011, 75.6% of households have at least one computer, and 71.7% of households have internet at home. These numbers decrease significantly in households with low income and low levels of educational attainment (see table 2 on page 5).

            http://www.imls.gov/assets/1/AssetManager/PLS2010.pdf

            According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the legal service areas of all US public libraries covered 96.4% of the population (page 7). The number of library outlets per capita is higher in rural areas than in cities.

            So I guess it depends what you mean by a high quality collection or a good-sized physical library.

            If you want every kid in the US to have access to War and Peace, the internet may be the most efficient way of achieving that goal. If you want every kid to be able to read books, print, broadly speaking, is more accessible because you don’t need hardware or software to read it. The one copy, one user limitation is less of an issue if your goal is “reading” rather than “reading X”.

            Posted by Amanda | Sep 24, 2013, 12:18 pm
            • According to US Census data from 2011, 75.6% of households have at least one computer, and 71.7% of households have internet at home. These numbers decrease significantly in households with low income and low levels of educational attainment (see table 2 on page 5).

              They do decline, from a high of 86% (internet access in the wealthiest households) to a low of 50% (in the poorest). That’s an important and significant piece of data. But let’s look at how it applies to my argument: I’m saying that making materials available online is going to do a better job (not a perfect job) of getting those materials to what Alexie calls “poor kids.” The census data suggest that half of the poorest children have access to online materials in their home — 24 hours a day, and (in many, though not all cases) without having to worry about whether someone else has checked them out first. Online access is not perfect access, by any means. But the question is whether putting materials online will do a better job of getting them to these kids than putting print copies on shelves in a library.

              According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the legal service areas of all US public libraries covered 96.4% of the population

              Granted, but how big are those legal service areas? A kid in a densely-populated urban area is relatively likely to be within walking distance of a public library (though the size and quality of those libraries’ collections varies widely, as we all know). But a poor kid in a rural area is much less likely to be close to a library. The IMLS report itself points this out on page 7.

              If you want every kid in the US to have access to War and Peace, the internet may be the most efficient way of achieving that goal. If you want every kid to be able to read books, print, broadly speaking, is more accessible because you don’t need hardware or software to read it.

              But bear in mind that the hardware/software barriers to online access are extremely low; according to the census data, only half of the poorest children lack the necessary equipment. On the other hand, the physical barriers to getting your hands on a print book are quite high if you’re very poor and don’t live geographically close to a library (or if the library you live close to has a lousy collection).

              Let me repeat: I’m not saying that online access is a panacea, nor am I saying that we shouldn’t have (and support) libraries with print collections. I’m only saying that online is a dramatically more effective distribution mechanism than print — and I’m suggesting that it may be particularly more effective in reaching more of the poorest children than physical libraries can.

              Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 24, 2013, 1:46 pm
              • Not sure that “internet access at home” = 24 hours a day. The kids I know who come from low-income families share a family computer at home, and fight for access to it just to get homework done. Oh, and the cell phones they have (those that have them) don’t come with unlimited data plans for reading HathiTrust books or other online info.
                If the advent of online information is SO much better for poor kids, why is the gap in reading across income and education lines still wider for e-books than for print books? http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/12/27/e-book-reading-jumps-print-book-reading-declines/

                Posted by Chris Bourg | Sep 25, 2013, 12:39 pm
              • Chris, are you suggesting that putting a printed document on a shelf in a building that’s located, say, a mile away and is open, say, ten hours a day represents a better access solution? No one is debating whether there are reading gaps between rich and poor, but those gaps exist regardless of format. My point here is that when Alexie (for example) demonizes online access in the name of the poor he’s attacking a platform that can reach the poor more effectively and broadly than print can.

                Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 25, 2013, 1:01 pm
              • Yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting; based on my own observations and on data. Yes, gaps exist for reading in all formats — but are wider for digital content. I agree that theoretically online information is more accesible, but the reality doesn’t match the theory. I hope it will someday.

                Posted by Chris Bourg | Sep 25, 2013, 1:41 pm
              • So, Chris, just to be clear: you’re saying you have data showing that a printed book on a library shelf can be accessed by more low-income children more easily than it could if it were provided online? I would very much like to see that data. (I don’t see anything to that effect in the Pew study you cite, but let me know if I’m missing it.)

                Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 25, 2013, 2:05 pm
              • For the kids who live in homes without home internet access, surely borrowing a book from a library is more accessible than an online book.
                Stats on home internet access and computer ownership by income are readily available:

                http://www.ntia.doc.gov/files/ntia/publications/exploring_the_digital_nation_-_americas_emerging_online_experience.pdf

                https://webjunction.org/explore-topics/digital-inclusion.html#barriers

                And yes, I have data in the form of kids I know telling me how difficult it is to read e-books and texts at home – where their internet connection is lousy and sometimes gets shut off, and they share a computer anyway –, and that it is easier for them to check the book out of a library.

                Posted by Chris Bourg | Sep 25, 2013, 3:40 pm
              • For the kids who live in homes without home internet access, surely borrowing a book from a library is more accessible than an online book.

                Of course it is, but you’re talking about a subpopulation of the group I’m asking about (low-income children as a whole). The question, again, is whether you have data showing that a printed book on a library shelf can be accessed by more low-income children more easily than it could if it were provided online. That’s a comparative question. Statistics showing that half of the poorest households have internet access don’t answer it — in part because they tell us nothing about what kind of access these households have to good print collections.

                And yes, I have data in the form of kids I know telling me how difficult it is to read e-books and texts at home

                Anecdotes are powerful in some ways, but they’re not the same thing as data. The kids you know matter very much, but their particular situations only provide a good basis for thinking about ebooks and low-income children if they constitute a representative subset of the whole population of low-income children.

                Bear in mind that nobody is suggesting we do away with printed books, or that we offer the public any fewer printed books. The question is whether we should offer them ebooks. Alexie says no, because ebooks are elitist. Kaufman says no, because they’re fascist. Franzen says no, because they undermine democracy. I find those positions baffling.

                Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 25, 2013, 4:30 pm
              • So your hypothesis is that fewer than 46% of low-income kids have access to public libraries? While the IMLS data is imprecise, I’m baffled that you think it would translate to less than 46%.
                It is a testable hypothesis though.

                Posted by Chris Bourg | Sep 25, 2013, 4:52 pm
              • So your hypothesis is that fewer than 46% of low-income kids have access to public libraries?

                No, not at all. My hypothesis is that fewer low-income kids within a given library’s service area would have easy access to a printed book on that library’s shelf than would have easy access to the same book if it were made available to them online. You cited data indicating that 46% of the poorest households have Internet access. That suggests a ceiling on the percentage of poorest households that would have easy access to an online book. But it doesn’t tell us what percentage of those households would have easy physical access to the book in a library. (Remember that in many parts of the country libraries’ service areas are very large, and that the poor often have much more constrained transportation options than the rich do.)

                Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 25, 2013, 5:26 pm
              • In case anyone just can’t get enough of this debate, it has moved to Chris’s blog, here. I didn’t want anyone to get the impression that my last response in this string had left Chris speechless–in fact, she did some good and diligent number-crunching in response to my challenge and has laid out her argument there.

                Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 27, 2013, 8:34 am
  12. Perhaps part of it, especially in scholarly communities, is that many people think of electronic media as being lowbrow and suitable only for the most crass sort of naval-gazing. Blogs are for poorly written self-indulgent diary entries, Twitter for “TMI Thursdays,” and ebooks for the kinds of books that used to come with plain brown covers. Electronic reading is supposed to be quick and superficial, entirely unlike the deep and profound things you find in Proper Books. Of course, I’m pretty sure all of us here can come up with some pretty impressive counterexamples to this (mis)conception, from philosophers using Twitter to discuss the metaphysics of causality with colleagues around the world, to this well-written and thought-provoking blog, to the electronic books published by the majority of university presses that differ from the print version in format, but not one whit in content.

    As a scholarly publisher, I view the primary challenge of ebooks as getting our sometimes suspicious audience to accept that they are, in fact, just as good as our printed books. There is absolutely nothing shallow or superficial added to a text simply by publishing it in an electronic format – but trying to convince an audience that associates ebooks with The Great Online Scourge That Destroyed People’s Attention Span and/or salacious literature is probably going to be a more serious (and more difficult) challenge than the technical problems of, say, getting Syriac to display properly in all formats all of the time.

    It might involve some gentle hints and ideas at first – are electronic versions of the articles you need to review and cite really any worse than the thick stacks of disorganized printouts that seem to attract every mote of dust in the room? – but I think reluctant members of our audience can be shown that electronic media can be every bit as profound and interesting as print.

    Posted by Phill | Sep 23, 2013, 2:01 pm
  13. The “rhetorical hysteria” against eBooks would be funny if it weren’t so frightening. But I guess the more rapid the change, the more intense the backlash.

    Posted by Mary Grace Stefanchik | Sep 23, 2013, 3:14 pm
    • Myself, I like illuminated scrolls. Moveable type will never catch on.

      Posted by Ken Lanfear | Sep 23, 2013, 4:41 pm
  14. Maybe the real concern here is that no user owns content anymore but simply licenses everything electronic from the publishers or other vendors like aggregators. What happens if Amazon goes bankrupt and shuts down all its servers? What use are all the Kindles then?

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Sep 24, 2013, 1:57 am
    • Well, it depends on whether you’ve downloaded your books to your Kindle. But your larger point is valid — it’s true that online access to ebooks is only imperfectly dependable. The problem is that the same thing is true of access to printed books in libraries. As I’ve pointed out here previously, the permanence of print is an illusion. Print is a not-bad archival medium as long as your library doesn’t get flooded, or burned, or shaken to pieces, or burgled. Unfortunately, these things happen all the time — and when your books are stolen or burned, getting them back isn’t just a matter of getting the servers back online.

      The bottom line is that there are downsides and upsides to all formats, and taking an attitude of hysterical opposition to one of them (à la Franzen, Alexie, et al.) in favor of another is ridiculous.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 24, 2013, 8:41 am
      • This ridiculousness suggests that you have not grasped their reasoning. The thread has wandered away from the issue, as often happens.

        Posted by David Wojick | Sep 24, 2013, 9:59 am
        • Just to elaborate a bit, as an issue analyst I am often involved in situations where people are talking past one another. People with very different beliefs tend to do that. (In fact this is a central feature of Kuhn’s model of scientific revolutions, which is how I got into it.) Along the way I developed a maxim: If someone smart seems to say something stupid you have probably misunderstood them.

          The point is that while I do not know what the people quoted in this post meant, it sounds pretty deep and I am pretty sure that the discussion so far has not come close to figuring it out. Moreover, calling it hysteria is not helpful.

          Posted by David Wojick | Sep 25, 2013, 8:04 am
          • When Sherman Alexie fantasizes in print about beating up a woman because she’s reading a Kindle, and when Alan Kaufman characterizes ebooks as a Nazi’s “dream come true,” what they’re saying isn’t terribly ambiguous. The fact that these are smart men doesn’t necessarily make their reactions mysterious; smart people say and do dumb things every day.

            As for whether their reactions can fairly be characterized as “hysterical” — I guess you and I can just agree to disagree.

            Posted by Rick Anderson | Sep 25, 2013, 9:33 am
            • The questions are what points they are trying to make? So far as I can see those questions have not been answered. (And seeing questions answered is my field.)

              Posted by David Wojick | Sep 25, 2013, 10:16 am
              • thank you, david wojick. wish you would show up on every blog i read. keep up your good work. i will search you out for more wisdom and guidance on how to conduct rational, useful exchange with others. i think it’s something we all, whatever our hobby horses, need some skill development and practice in about now.

                Posted by Ned Ludd | Sep 25, 2013, 10:44 am
  15. It seems to me that the need is for access be it on line or via printed page. One is not more accessible than the other if one has a reader or a computer or a light bulb or access to the sun or a candle.

    The goal should be to simply make things more accessible. The rest will work itself out.

    Posted by Harvey Kane | Sep 25, 2013, 1:11 pm
  16. It seems to me that the central point everyone is circling around is access and how best it can be provided and protected. In reality, our main form of cultural transmission for the last say 300 years has been based on a mercantile model. Access to books has always been problematic if you are poor, marginalised, not able to access the educational privilege of literacy. And yes in theory public libraries provide some access but as anyone who visits those libraries in low socio-economic areas knows, there’s a vast gulf between what sits on the shelves in Shannon County and say Hunterdon.

    Neither print nor digital is economically neutral, but my observations are it’s a great deal easier getting content in front of kids in poor and remote communities via their phones than getting them to pick up print objects for a whole lot of reasons, only one of which is economic.

    What I think is a bigger concern is discoverability – how do we find content now. Search engines are not agnostic – I think most of us would acknowledge that Google now overwhelmingly privileges search results that are commercially orientated. We might have work arounds, but for an increasing proportion of people, they are no longer able to find and access content without ‘unknown’ processes of hierarchical ranking, digital eco-system silos and finally cost all potentially restricting what they can discover, let alone access.

    So yes books exist after the power has been turned off or Amazon’s servers have fallen over, but a lot of people aren’t ever going to be able to access those few physical copies. And given the changes occurring in publishing (an industry that I work in), I find the print versus digital argument a bit silly – the horse has bolted, it’s half way down the paddock. The debates we should be having are about open source, reforming IP and copyright so it provides for the content makers better than it does, and finally focusing on how to best deal with the fragmentation of the net into discreet economic and content silos.

    Posted by Kim Johnston | Oct 2, 2013, 7:15 pm
    • Yes it is easier if you have $80 for a reader and money for electricity and/or if you have a phone with a budget to access the internet.

      It is not an either or situation it is a both situation.

      E has no advantage over B and B has no advantage over E.

      The advantage lies in the apparatus that is in the hands of the reader.

      Posted by Harvey Kane | Oct 2, 2013, 8:10 pm

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