e or eek?


General Culture

Late last year, I bought an iPad mini1. It seems fairly obvious that tablet computers will play a large role in photography (in whatever form), and I wanted to start exploring the options. I’ve since been looking at photography magazine apps, say, some of which I like, while others still have a lot of work to do. Ignoring details here (details are for another day), I’ve been interested in what a magazine would look like on a tablet computer. I’ve also been looking at books (mind you, not photobooks - I don’t “own” any ephotobooks, yet). I’m really not all that interested in an ideological debate about all things “e.” (more)

Ebooks have obvious advantages, and at least as of now those derive from their utility. In a nutshell, an ebook is the information contained inside a book minus all the physical bits. Books2, however, come with a lot of other stuff, a lot of which - crucially - has very little, if anything to do with utility. Before talking about that in more detail, I’d like to point out that most debates about books versus ebooks typically have people talk about one aspect, and the counterargument is then usually taken from a complete different angle - which in almost all cases is pretty much a useless way to argue.

Here’s the thing. Most people I’ve talked to are easily smart enough to understand the idea of utility or to realize that there is something that people like about books that has nothing to do with the words inside. Disagreements thus are not rooted in people being too dumb to get what is being talked about. So to phrase an argument in such a way that people who have problems with ebooks are Luddites who’d prefer to go back to stone tablets or papyrus, or that ebook fans are cultureless morons is just inane. As far as I can tell, the actual numbers of Luddites and morons are very, very small3.

The sheer utility of ebooks is obvious. You can store a lot of them on your minipad, say; and you can read them anywhere. As much as I love books, I’ve come to embrace that aspect for some books actually. There are quite a few books that I know I’ll read once and then probably never again. What I used to do was to buy paperbacks, read them, and then donate them to the Goodwill. There also are books that I like having in electronic form since I can mark passages for possible future use in an article. Organizing and re-finding such passages is much simpler for people like me who are too unorganized to pull this off with books.

But then there are a lot of books that I’d rather read as a book, knowing or at least assuming I’ll read it again, at some stage in the future. As convenient as the minipad is, I do prefer reading text printed on paper. So I have not abandoned books at all. Instead, I’ve simply replaced all those that I don’t really need on paper, books that I really just need for the information inside, with ebooks.

Utility aside, ebooks, at least for me, have very serious drawbacks. The book itself, the object, possesses properties that ebooks can never conceivably have. Give a book as a gift to a good friend, watch her/him unwrap it. What are you gonna do with an ebook? Hand someone a gift card for some online retailer? Or talk with a friend about a book, and then loan her/him one. These kinds of social (yes, social!) interactions lack their equivalent in the “e” world.

This is one of the reasons why social media are ultimately so bad: To pretend that “poking” someone on Facebook is the same as poking someone in real life is ridiculous. Actual social interactions involve actual human touch and objects. To pretend that a decade or two of computer technology can easily do away with thousands and thousands of years of human (and pre-human) interactions is shockingly naive.

On top of that, books require book shops, which can be a huge problem if you’re a publisher, but which is great for people who love books. An avid reader, I’ve never figured out how to meaningfully browse for books on Amazon, say. Their computer will suggest books to me that are based on what I bought already (which usually leads to amusing suggestions when I buy something as a gift for someone with vastly different interests) or on what other people bought. But other people aren’t relevant for me. Anonymous, computer-algorithm generated other people aren’t relevant for anyone. If you get a recommendation then that recommendation will only work for you if the source is trusted, if you know where that other person is coming from.

On top of that, when I browse for books in a bookshop (new or used), I often pull out books that look interesting, but that have very little, if anything, to do with books I’ve read before. And then there’s the “used” aspect: How would an ebook be used?

Regardless of where you’re coming from, what is important is to separate the utility from everything else and to then not pretend that you can play one against the other. That’s not going to work. At the end of the day, there will be a set of seemingly conflicting aspects, and you have to come to your own personal conclusion about them.

In some form or other, we’ve been dealing with this kind of debate a lot in photography. There’s analog versus digital photography, there is all that talk about digital appropriation, there is the idea of an “e” version of the photobook etc. It seems inevitable that the future will predominantly “e,” simply because it’s a numbers game. But it would also seem that there are just enough people around for the older versions to stick around and to possibly even thrive again, in somewhat diminished form.

I don’t know about you, but I personally am not interested in making utility the defining criterion for or against something. If it were all about utility we’d all be eating astronaut food now, wouldn’t we? There is a time and space where astronaut food is useful, but for most of us having a real meal is vastly preferable. And in some cases, the pendulum will come down on the other side, where the aspects of utility indeed outweigh other considerations. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Honestly, I’m sick and tired of the Luddites-versus-morons “arguments” that have become so common online.

1 Those who follow my Twitter feed (@jmcolberg) have since been bombarded with tintype-style cat photos and other silliness.
2 In the following, I’ll refer to physical and electronic books as books and ebooks, respectively.
3 Mind you, the same mechanisms appear commonly in pretty much all areas where some technological change invades an area. Think about artists using Google Street View, for example. We should be talking about the merit of the work (which, I’ve concluded, for none of the bodies of work I’ve seen so far is impressive at all). Instead, we talk about whether it’s photography or whether appropriation is a viable artistic option.