The purpose of technology is to make life better. With certain notable exceptions, man has been developing technology to make life safer and more enriching from the time of the wheel all the way to SpaceshipTwo. Regarding handheld devices however, particularly smartphones, the blessings of technology have brought a curse that deserves some thought.
How many times have you witnessed the following (notice my confident assumption that you have):
- The person in the lane next to you is holding the steering wheel in one hand, looking down at a cell phone in the other, and dangerously weaving all over the road at inconsistent speeds?
- Someone is holding a loud personal conversation on their phone while checking out at a store, rudely ignoring the clerk and oblivious to the fact that they’re holding up everyone else in the line?
- The shrill sound of the Macarena, Gangnam Style, or some other pop-fad ringtone going off during a meeting, presentation, or church service?
- While giving a presentation, your audience is checking their messages within the first 5 minutes of your talk?
Have we reached the point where technology allows us to think and focus so much on ourselves that we’ve actually forgotten about what’s really important? Are we allowing technology to overreach it’s purpose to make our lives better and actually make it worse? Put another way, will you be texting on your deathbed that your life is complete and you can die in peace because your inbox is at zero? It think the answer to the first two is “Yes” and the last, “Unlikely”.
As someone who grew up without cell phones, pagers and email, I can assure you that the important things in life work perfectly fine without them. Yet as a technologist, I certainly recognize the importance of connectedness in our fast-paced world – it puts food on my table – but life is more than keeping up with Facebook, Instagram, or yakking every passing thought on a cell phone. To one degree or another, we’ve all fallen victim to the insidious anti-purpose of technology: distraction.
- personal relationships
- physical well-being and safety
- common graces and courtesy
- rest and relaxation
- personal development
As we start the new year, it might be a great time for us to take stock of what things are most important in our lives and who’s in charge of them – us or our smartphones.
Let me say at the start that I love digital books. In fact, I will probably read over 20 digital books this year. I use the iBooks and Kindle apps across my all my iDevices and Macs. I love the way I can stop reading on one and pick up on another where I left off. I love the way I can highlight and make annotations (but seriously Amazon, please let us copy/paste highlighted text. What are you worried about?). I love the way digital books save space on my ever-overflowing bookshelves. I love the way I can read in basically any lighting condition. What’s not to love?
They’re not physical.
This simple and obvious reality implies a number of vexing issues you may not have thought about.
There are three primary reasons why I think we should continue buying paper books:
- Paper books are yours to do with as you wish. Digital books, not so much. When I read an important book that I think would be good for one of my sons to have, I can give him mine with no strings attached. I can even pre-highlight the sections I want him to carefully consider. It’s a way of passing wisdom from generation to the next. He won’t have to worry about always having a compatible device in order to avoid losing access to the book or my highlights and notes (which he couldn’t get electronically anyway). He can always just grab the book from his shelf – now, or 35 years from now.
- Paper books are yours forever, whenever, wherever. Besides being unable to give your digital books to someone else in a meaningful way, have you considered what happens to your digital library after you pass on? You can’t bequeath an Amazon account or Apple ID. Technically that account belonged to you, but is it transferrable or divisible? Can you divvy up your digital library when you want to liquidate all or part of it? Will your surviving family even think about it? More than likely your carefully crafted digital collection, with all its notes and highlights, will be lost forever. Which illuminates an important point: we don’t truly own our digital books, effectively we just have rights to access them. As proof, ask Amazon to send you a paper backup copy of a digital book you already own and see what happens. Techies would be quick (and right) to point out that there is, in fact, a digital copy on your reading device, and so yes, you technically do have a physical copy. But for all intents and purposes, that copy is useless unless you always have a supported, and working, reading device. Suppose you’re perfectly happy with your Kindle Touch and don’t want to buy the next shiny Kindle uber-device every other year? Could you possibly lose access to your library at some point? Amazon hasn’t ended support for any its existing readers so far, but are you comfortable trusting a company to always provide you access to your most treasured books?
- Paper books don’t change. Words printed on a paper page may fade, but they never change. There are some timeless classics and history texts that are better or more accurate in their first editions than in later revised editions. Without waxing politically, I do actually look at the text books my children bring home from school, and I’m often surprised how history has curiously changed since I learned it. There are countless important works we need to preserve for future generations in their original, unaltered state. As digital content can be “revised”, or made unavailable, in the blink of an eye, I don’t think it wise to trust digital content publishers with the future of the knowledge we hold dear and consider vital.
The upshot of all this is that while I will continue to read a ton of digital books, I also buy paper copies of those worth keeping long term or passing on to the next generation. Yes, it costs me a bit more, but with Amazon Prime, I often can get both a paper and digital copy of a book for same price of a single paper copy at my local Barnes & Noble. But it’s not about the money. What price can one put on preserving and sharing wisdom and knowledge?
Have I convinced you to reconsider your digital vs. paper book strategy?