Are ebooks a mistake?

Yesterday I spoke with someone working on a PhD who is trying to decide whether he has any choice but to purchase another computer. The one he has works fine, and he’s happy with it. However, his university has cooked up software that he really needs to use that doesn’t run on his platform.

Even though our electronic toys cost less than half of what they would if the people who made them were being paid a just wage and living and working under conditions where suicide didn’t look like such an attractive option (try not to think about the people who made them when you open your shiny new electronic toys on Christmas morning), a new computer’s price is a lot of money for a poor student.

After our conversation, I remembered an article by Lewis Mumford that I read about forty years ago. He wrote it not long after the United States decided to go bananas with interstate highways.

Most people thought it was a wonderful idea. As I recall, Mumford pointed out that it was going to kill passenger rail service, something that at that time worked quite well over the entire country (I am old enough to remember such a train trip with my parents), create huge problems with traffic congestion, cripple public transportation in cities by diverting finite funds into projects to benefit the auto industry, and force millions of people to buy cars who didn’t especially want one.

His point was that there would be a high price to pay for becoming a car-centric nation, and that the people who paid it would receive few benefits in return.

I have an ebook reader. If I have nothing else going on, I can burn through half a dozen books in a week, so when I travel it’s convenient to be able to carry books in such a small package.

However, as I watch the stampede into ebooks, I wonder whether we are making a serious mistake.

If you have paid money for an ebook you probably believe you own it. Think again.

In the fine print from the publisher there is probably language along the lines of your having “limited, personal, non-exclusive, revocable, non-assignable, and non-transferable license to view, use, and/or play a single copy of the Materials.”

Translation: you can look at it, but you can’t sell it, share it, or give it away. On the other hand, we, the publishers, can take it away from you whenever we feel like it.

Compare that to a paper book you bought from a brick-and-mortar store. If you want to loan it to a friend or donate it to a local hospice, go ahead. The bookstore can’t send goons to break down your door and steal your books while the police stand by grinning.

Other clauses in the fine print allow the publishers to make changes in the books. If you are reading an ebook, it’s on a device connected to the internet at least some of the time. This means that someone could reach into your device and alter the contents of a book you think you own.

Someone with serious muscle doesn’t like what’s in a book? No problem, we’ll just delete the offending passage from all the copies everywhere. History says so-and-so happened? Don’t care for it? No problem, we’ll just re-write the history books.

All of them.

It’s a lot harder to hack someone’s bookcase.

And what about death? Suppose you have a library of ebooks. You may have spent a lot of money on those books. Want to leave them to your kids? Forget about it.

And privacy? Today it’s still possible to pay cash for a book in a brick-and-mortar store. With ebooks, not only is there a computer record of what you bought, but the damn thing may be tracking whether you’ve read it or not and even what page you’re on.

Sixty years ago, we started forcing people to buy cars who had been doing well without them. Now, we are doing the same thing with our electronic toys and our ebooks.

A paper book, especially if the paper is acid-free, can handle decades of normal use. Our electronic toys and their file formats have the life span of mushrooms on a summer lawn. If the stories and ideas we create mean anything, we should not make their preservation dependent on this week’s fashionable computer platform or file format.


6 thoughts on “Are ebooks a mistake?

  1. I think there is a valid place for both forms of media. As you pointed out, it’s great for travel. The trees are pretty excited about it, too. I find that I burn through so many books either by library loan or e-book (and now my library has them, too) that the e-reader is a marvelous tool. There is certainly an argument for establishing an industry wide, easily convertible format and I think that is happening. As for privacy, I think that’s a pretty big illusion in our society now. Thought-provoking post!

    • Thank you! I find them convenient, but I don’t trust them. Good point about the trees. I wish there were a way to keep people from wasting paper on junk books and magazines, but who would get do decide what’s junk?

      I think ebooks should have a niche, but that anything that matters ought to be stored in some reasonably durable form that isn’t dependent on a device to access. I saw a story a couple of years ago about a problem the British government was having. It seems that back in the 1980’s they stored a lot of records on the cutting-edge technology of laser disks the size of dinner plates. Recently, they discovered that (a) no current gear could read those disks and (b) when they did finally dig up something that could play them, their data was in a file format that nobody understood anymore.

      And that data was only about 30 years old. I own paper books much older than that, and they still work. The Doomsday Book, at nearly a thousand years old, can be read without much trouble by scholars, and is more accessible than the stuff on those thirty-year-old laser disks. I doubt that any of the ebooks I have purchased will be accessible even twenty years from now. I started messing with computers in the punch-card era and remember when computer software was distributed on recording tape. I stored the first novel I wrote on a floppy disk. Believe me, you don’t want to be dependent on a gadget if the information is important to you.

      A huge problem is that we live in a world run by giant tech companies that want to trap us in their walled gardens and hold our data hostage in their cloud servers. They tend to regard our data–if not us–as their property, which is one reason the details of file formats are often confidential. When outsiders eventually figure out the file formats, they change them to make them even harder to read. While it would be nice to believe you can trust these companies to be reliable long-term custodians of our books, documents, photos, etc, I don’t because history has taught me that people with a lot of power and money sooner or later turn into bastards.

  2. Awesome thoughts. I hadn’t realized that we didn’t own the ebooks out right. Great point about lending them to others or passing it on to family members once you’ve passed. I travel with some sort of ebook reader when I travel as well so that my back doesn’t break, however, I still always prefer the touch of a good, hefty book and the flip of a crisp magazine freshly delivered to me in the mail.

  3. Like you, I’ve found ebooks very convenient when I travel. However, I’d hate to wake up in a world where the books you want to read are available only in a digital form controlled by some giant media company that can arbitrarily decide to remove a given book from circulation because it’s taking up space on a server that the company would rather use for something else.

  4. It is annoying that you can’t share ebooks in the same way you would a paper book. I can’t lend it to a friend for a couple of month to read. I think they get 2 weeks on Kindle(?) not sure. There are still some kinks to iron out, but the freedom for some authors to publish their work when previously they didn’t have a chance is great.

    This last 12 months, I’ve read about a dozen good books that I wouldn’t have been able to read otherwise. Ebooks did that. 🙂

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