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Good riddance

Basheera Khan’s post for the Telegraph, “No more bookshops? Good riddance” is as clear an articulation of the technofuturist position on the future of reading as I could imagine. Here’s the key section:

I’m happy to see the back of bookshops, and not just because the paper publishing industry is inherently wasteful of natural resources.

When you buy a book, you’re not just paying for a few hundred bounded pages. You’re paying for the bookshelves you will need to store your books. The time it takes to dust said shelves. The effort and cost of lugging books and shelves if you happen to move house. The psychological debt that builds every time you survey all the books you bought over the years, on a whim, because they were cheap, but which remain unread — because with all the will in the world, there’s just no way to read every book you may want to.

I’ve been slowly divesting myself of the staggering piles of books I accrued when I still bought into the notion that to read a book you had to own it. I look forward with immense relief to the day when all my books are ebooks – light as a feather.

Actually, it’s not quite pure technofuturism. There’s a sop for bookservatives, too:

To people who bemoan the loss of bookshops as a loss to society, I say this: there’s already a place where you can go to find books you simply have to read in physical form. It’s a place where you can browse to your heart’s content, meet friends, take your kids, and do everything you did at your bookshop. It’s called the library. When did you last visit yours?

This is actually a weird binary, almost as weird as the one between bookservatives and technofuturists. Almost every full-throated embrace of technical/social change needs a still point, something that remains unchanged and which can still serve the function of whatever’s being swept aside.

In Khan’s post, it’s the library. It might be self-contradictory — shifting the locus of physical books to the library seems to solve the “hard to move house” and “annoying to dust” problems, but not necessarily the “inherently wasteful of natural resources” or the “I can’t read all of the books!” ones — but that doesn’t matter. She needs libraries. They’re a safety valve. And by praising libraries (and damning bookstore aficionados for not using them) she out-bookserves the bookservatives.

In the same way, folks who want to get rid of all of the physical books in a library would say, “if you still want a physical book, there’s always the bookstore.”

P.S.: If this “technofuturist”/”bookservative” language gets obnoxious or reductive, please tell me. Again, I want to advance “bookfuturist” as an alternative to both of these positions, so if I seem stuck on the words, that’s why.

December 4, 2009 / Uncategorized


Matthew Battles says…

I like the terms—heck, I’m deeply implicated in Joanne’s bookfuturist project, so I had better like the name. But I also want to ponder the possibility that there might be another term that embraces bookfuturism—in particular, the premise that the book has a something we might wish to call a “spirit”—not necessarily because such a thing exists, but because it’s beautiful to act as if it does—and that this spirit of the book is something we can use technology to play with, ring the changes on, elaborate, celebrate, and extend. As storytellers, makers, subcreators, taggers, maestros, MCs…. I guess I want to call that stance “technoromantic,” maybe.

Technoromantic bookfuturists of the world, unite!

I take issue with a lot of what this guy has to say, but I’ll focus on one: his flat assertion that paper publishing is “inherently wasteful of natural resources” is simpleminded bunk.

I don’t actually know about book publishing, but the story for newspapers is very different that conventional wisdom suggests. Take McClatchy’s papers: about 50% of the newsprint used is recycled post-consumer waste, and nearly all the rest comes from sustainable forests, meaning that the net number of trees doesn’t decline. Delivery costs boost the environmental impact for daily newspapers, but I expect books would be far less; magazines, for instance, are delivered by the USPS, which is already driving those routes.

The sweet clean internet, meanwhile, has significant environmental issues. Especially in the US, where electricity tends to mean burning dirty coal, reading more than 30 minutes online is as environmentally damaging as reading the paper. As you might guess, the paper doesn’t use more resources if you read for an hour, either, which the internet does. (Note that online environmental costs are not only for electricity consumed in reading online, but for the vast server farms at Google, the DNS centers, etc.

You can find an overview of these arguments here, with links to more detailed back-up:

P.S. Went on to read the original column at the Telegraph and note Basheera is a woman. Sorry about my knee-jerk assumption.

Fletcher says…

Perhaps I’m sensitive since I work in a library, but I have to agree with Howard. Clearly there are some environmental trade-offs for printed books vs. e-books, but let’s not overlook the long-term problems of dealing with electronic waste products. How long do we expect Kindle’s to last before they are replaced with newer models and the old ones go into the dump?

Also, you seem to be forgetting that a large portion of library “clients” may not be able to afford the investment in an e-reader, and maintaining printed collections serves to provide access to knowledge to those who can least afford to splurge on digital toys.

Tim Carmody says…

I don’t endorse either position, so I’m not forgetting anything. Also, apostrophe-s, as in “Kindle’s,” is never used to make anything plural. Don’t forget THAT.

Fletcher says…

I caught the apostrophe immediately after posting. I believe that I meant to write “Kindle’s hardware,” but was thrown off my train of thought. My sincerest apologies.

I still maintain that advocating that maintaining/using/supporting printed library collections isn’t a bookservative position so much as it is a social good. There is also an academic argument about the need to retain printed collections for research into analytic bibliography and the history of the book. At this point though, I recognize that we may be debating semantics.

Tim Carmody says…

Sorry for being extra-Snarky. I absolutely agree that maintaining/using/supporting printed library collections is a social good. Using that support + idealization/nostalgia for the library as a rhetorical weapon is a bookservative move, all the more so because it’s used here to attack imagined bookservatives.

But actually, I think the progressive space + conservative space compromise isn’t specific to either bookservatives or technofuturists, nor are bookfuturists (or folks without strong feelings in any direction) immune. Very few of us are willing to be radically conservative or futurist all the way down the line. If we endorse radical change in one sphere, we need to hold another sphere, or sometimes a single space, constant; if we firmly set ourselves against that change, we need to create a safety valve where we can endorse (but delimit) innovation.

It’s sort of like Marx & Engels saying, “Hey, socialists; we’re all radical democrats here, ruthlessly criticizing every existing kind of social relationship and ideological justification. But the family’s off-limits: women can’t be communal property, no free love, no kibbutzes.”

It’s a compensatory fantasy, one that lets you maintain some kind of continuity with the past, offers you somewhere to stand, exactly because it blinds you to your own self-contradictions.

I think you’d find the post my colleague James wrote as a response to Basheera’s post, rather interesting:

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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