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Against Ludditism: Or, Why the Electronic Book is a Good Idea

Most writers have a natural distrust of technology, and are wary of the supposed
advantages it provides. There are few industries, after all, in which manifestations of ludditism, be it the writer who refuses to part with his trusted typewriter or the editor who insists upon working in paper instead of pixels, enjoys a place of pride. It isn’t surprising then that for those of us who have the misfortune of trying to make a living in the publishing industry, the electronic book – potentially the most significant technological advance in
the world of literature since the advent of the printing press – is treated like a particularly irritating houseguest rather than a permanent resident that we will have to find a way to live with.

That said, instead of preparing for the transformative changes that technology and the e-book will surely deliver, the book business as a whole has instead decided to cross its collective fingers and hope that it doesn’t arrive at all. Some have argued that the technology needed for the E-Book to gain cultural traction will never be developed, that the tactile pleasures of the book will prove too confounding for technology to replicate. Others have insisted that copyright and other legalities will prevent the E-Book from hitting the marketplace any time soon.

But who amongst us truly doubts that someone, given the right economic incentives,
will be able to produce a cost-effective, user-friendly iPod-esque platform from which the E-Book will be displayed? Imagine, for a moment, a small hand-held device no larger than a used Harlequin paperback with backlighting, musical functionality, and enough memory to store PDF versions of every book you’ve ever read. A portable library, in other words, with the added benefits of not having to prop the pages open, search for a well-lit spot to read, or picking up the bookmark that keeps falling out from between the pages. A library from
which you could select sentences, paragraphs, or entire sections and forward them electronically, and effortlessly, to whomever you please.

For those who have trouble reading the small print that fills the pages of most books – a group whose numbers will be increasingly steadily as the Baby Boomers, and their eyes, age – the E-Book offers the capacity to increase the font size in proportion to one’s farsightedness. A frequent complaint about the E-Book – the idea of it, at least – is that it would be uncomfortable to read off a screen for extended periods of time. But Cory Doctorow, co-editor of BoingBoing.net, notes that we already spend much of our time staring at computer screens, be they laptops, PDAs, or the tiny displays on cell phones. A
screen specifically designed for extended viewing would, in reality, be more comfortable than the screens to which our eyes are currently enslaved. Bibliophiles like to argue that the physical characteristics of the book are its best safeguard against technological cannibalization. In reality, they represent its greatest vulnerabilities.

What of the economics, then? The book, as it is presently configured, remains one of
popular culture’s most expensive indulgences, more than twice as expensive as a movie ticket and a compact disc, five times more expensive than a movie rental, and at least ten times as expensive as a music download. Only the theatre, opera, and other live presentations of the dramatic arts exceed the sticker price of your average hardcover book. While the author, his or her publisher, and other assorted middlemen take a small cut, the majority of that sticker price goes, literally, to pulp. As with newspapers, magazines, and other cultural afterlives of dead trees, the single biggest cost involved with publishing a
book is the paper upon which it is printed. Likewise, E-Books would eliminate the need for both warehouses to store the books and distribution infrastructure to sell them. Removing these woefully inefficient variables would simultaneously allow publishers – ethical ones, at least – to pay their authors more and charge their customers less.

There’s also the environmental factor, an increasingly important consideration in any
21st century discussion. While environmentalists are justifiably busy working to reduce the impact of cars, coal-fired power plants, and excessively flatulent cows, it won’t be long before they target an industry that chops down our planet’s lungs and mulches them into non-renewable doorstops. Paper is, in fact, an enormously inefficient medium through which to transmit ideas and information, particularly when an infinitely superior alternative – bits and bytes – is readily available. The E-Book would allow us to abandon our anachronistic affection for paper while protecting what few trees we have left on the planet, both from getting cut down and from the even more ignominious fate of becoming Rebecca Eckler’s latest “book.”

The supervisors of literate culture, to their credit, have seen the flaws in the defensive strategies I’ve already described. Unfortunately, they’ve decided to cast their proverbial lot with lawyers, an unpalatable decision at the best of times. Copyright law, which protects authors from unauthorized duplication of their work, would ostensibly protect authors from the realities of a digital environment rife with file sharing of all sorts. But, of course, it was also supposed to protect musicians from file-sharing programs like Napster, and we’ve all seen how that turned out for the music industry. While Shawn Fanning, the creator of Napster and the Godfather of file-sharing, suffered a nasty beating at the hands of the music industry’s high-priced lawyers, he also created the technological blueprint for file-sharing that remains in use, in a variety of different but equally illegal forms, by millions of people to this day.

The music industry, finally realizing that there aren’t enough lawyers on earth to
prosecute everyone who downloads music illegally, decided to respond by offering cheap, fast, and risk-free downloads of new content. Their losses, while significant, were
ultimately mitigated by this change in strategy. The film industry, meanwhile, adopted a different but equally futile strategy in an effort to combat the effects of technological change in their industry. They began to run advertisements at the beginning of every movie reminding viewers, specifically those with video cameras in hand and the intent to distribute the movie illegally in their heart, that piracy hurt people other than the wealthy actors they saw portrayed on screen. This appeal to the ethical integrity of their patrons was even more futile than the music industry’s excessive litigiousness, and they too have been forced to regroup.

All of this angst over potential piracy problems ignores the fact that piracy has been an integral part of the publishing industry more or less since its inception. More to the point, piracy is and has always been a sanctioned practice in the world of books. What, for example, is a librarian if not the pre-internet equivalent of a file-sharing hub? Isn’t the used-book store merely an inefficient version of Ebay? Each subverts the legitimate book business and deprives the author of royalties through the traffic of second-hand books. Why
a preference for one but a prohibition against the other?

The answer to this entirely non-hypothetical question lies in the industry’s inescapable ludditism, an attitude that is captured by Alberto Manguel’s observation that the internet “dilutes informed opinion with reams of inane babble, ineffectual advice, inaccurate facts and trivial information, made attractive with brand names and manipulated statistics.” Manguel’s opinion of the internet, and more generally the influence of technology on literacy and the book trade, is widely shared among the writers, editors, publishers, and other people that form the literary world’s inner stratum. This is, in other words, an industry that isn’t going to welcome the arrival of the E-Book, or any other significant technological improvement – and no, Margaret Atwood’s “longpen” doesn’t count – with open arms. That’s a shame, both because technology offers enormous advantages and opportunities to everyone within the industry and because the arrival of the E-Book and other related technologies is
both imminent and irreversible. Some might view the industry’s deeply ingrained distrust of technology as valiant traditionalism or a noble resistance against the unrelenting onslaught of change and modernity. A more pragmatic attitude, though, is that adopted by Doctorow, who observes that “predicting the future of publishing–should the wind change and printed books become obsolete–is just as hard. I don’t know how writers would earn their living in such a world, but I do know that I’ll never find out by turning my back on the Internet.”

Viewed from his perspective, refusing to prepare for the arrival of the electronic book and other related literary technologies is a needlessly reckless strategy. Worse still, it’s one
that may ultimately serve to further marginalize an already marginal industry.

Toronto, May 14th, 2007 – 1,483 w.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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