In the wake of Apple's announcement of iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and the latest version of iTunes U, I'd like to take a moment to step back and look at the technology they all look to replace: paper. There's not much of a question that from a business and from an educational standpoint, the textbook industry is ripe for disruption. The high prices of books, the inordinately strong influence of large buyer blocks like the Texas Board of Education, and even simpler issues like how much a paper textbook weighs all speak to a need to rethink how we distribute and interact with academic texts. I look forward to these disruptions and hope they make education easier and more broadly distributed.
Before we get too far along in this discussion, I want to lay my cards out on the table. I am not against ebooks — I believe that their mass use is not only inevitable but will change the ways that we think and learn. I am, however, deeply concerned about ebooks when compared to paper as a technology. Make no mistake, paper is a technology just as much as an LCD screen is, and as a technology it has several important advantages over e-readers that I am loathe to see disappear.
It's only within the past few years that our gadgets have advanced to the the point where it's even reasonable to consider devices like the iPad and other e-readers as viable replacements for the traditional paper book. As fast as technology moves, it's important to remember that previous changes in reading technology took literally centuries to spread. This current change is happening much more rapidly, and we need to think just as rapidly about its repercussions.
So while much of the coverage of yesterday's announcement focuses on the exciting new ways that e-readers enable students to interact with texts, we should also be sure to give paper books their due. This isn't a Luddite rant about how gadgets are destroying our inherent humanity and it's not an ode to the wonderful smell and feel of an old book: it's a clear-eyed look at how well paper technology has served us for millennia and how we need to be careful in our headlong rush to replace it.
The specs of a paper book
If you take a moment to think about a paper book as the technological object that it is, you can quickly see plenty of advantages over e-readers. The list of "specs" for your standard paper book gets surprisingly long when you expand your definition of technology to include elements that don't require a computer chip.
- Readable with any form of light
- Very high contrast display
- Requires no battery power
- Depending on model, lasts anywhere from five to five thousand years or more
- Immersive and non-distracting user interface
- Offers a spatial layout for immediate access to random information
- Conforms to the standardized "page number" spec for easy reference
- Supports direct interaction via pen or highlighter
- DRM-free for easy lending and resale
- Standards-based system not controlled by any single corporation or entity
- Crash-proof and immune to viruses (though vulnerable to some worms)
- Easy to learn user-interface consistent across most manufacturers
- Supports very large number of colors and also black and white images
- Compatible with a wide variety of note taking systems
These features and specs are either unmatched or poorly matched by most current e-reader technology. While e-readers obviously offer many advantages over paper books, I would argue that most of the above specs are essential to how most people think of the act of engaged, active reading. More importantly, many of these "specs" are vital to how most cultures have historically preserved and disseminated knowledge for thousands of years. The phrases "most cultures" and "thousands of years" sound awfully hokey, I know, but those are the stakes. If we are to replace this powerful and durable technology, we need to think in those very large terms.
The user interface of the bound book has remained relatively stable for a few centuries now. Paper pages are bound, usually horizontally, and text is printed on them in such a way that you can move from one page to the next in linear fashion.
Compared to LCD, OLED, and e-ink, regular ink on paper offers superior contrast and better readability (especially over the long term). It requires a separate source of light, of course, but light is pretty easy to come by these days. Paper books are also generally regarded to be more immersive than e-readers — there are no pop up alerts, notifications, or background tasks to contend with. Learning the user interface is easy for most people and there are few if any options to fiddle with. Paper books don't crash (though they can physically deteriorate) and they never run out of battery power.
An e-reader can replicate some of these features by dint of stable software, options to improve readability, and intuitive interface decisions. For the most part, we are quite close to replicating many of the basic reading specs of a paper book or coming close enough as to make the differences unimportant when compared to other advantages. We're at the point where it's more about tradeoffs than deal breakers. It's near-impossible to read an iPad in bright, direct sunlight, but it's also impossible to read a paper book in total darkness.
There are many who cling to the idea of a nice, good, heavy book and the feel of turning a paper page instead of swiping a screen or pressing a button. For anybody my age or older, there's a romantic (and increasingly nostalgic) attachment to the smell of a book and the look of its tattered pages — but when I'm truthful with myself I have to admit those impressions are more cultural and generational than essential to the act of reading.
Paper book technology is also much less flexible than ebook technology. Ebooks can include video, audio, and even different navigational systems beyond "next page" and "previous page." The web has become deeply ingrained enough in our collective culture to make it second nature now, but I still remember the excitement over the basic idea of HTML and linking — of creating narratives and knowledge that aren't linear. The best paper book technology can give us is something like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Though there's less attention given to non-linear e-reading experiences now than there was in the heady days of multimedia CD-ROMs in the mid 90s, e-readers can blur the line between reading, watching, playing, and experiencing.
The method you use for your marginalia is limited only by your imagination, the space on the page, and whatever level of OCD drives you to systematize your notes
With active reading, you're doing much more than simply scanning words. When you find a passage that needs your attention and engagement, paper book technology provides you with a huge number of options for marking it up. You can directly underline it with a pen, highlight it, circle it, write up a note in the margin, take a note on a separate pad of paper (or laptop or whatever), fold the corner of the page down, and so on. The method you use for your marginalia is limited only by your imagination, the space on the page, and whatever level of OCD drives you to systematize your notes.
With e-readers, your markup options are much more limited. You can highlight the text directly via whatever interface is made available to you, you can apply bookmarks to a "page," you can take notes on a separate device, and sometimes you can type notes in directly. These options are chosen by the e-reader manufacturer and are not often customizable, though you are free to create a system within the (relatively strict) confines of the interface. iBooks 2 has the best interface I've seen so far for note taking. Highlighting and adding notes is quick and easy, offering multiple highlight colors and quick note taking.
The second part of active reading is coming back to your notes, bookmarks, and highlighted passages. In this regard, e-readers clearly have more potential than paper books. Paper books offer a visual and spatial system of physical bookmarks and folded pages, but e-readers can offer searchable text, all your highlighted passages in a single interface, and (ideally) exporting. In this regard, iBooks 2 does offer you the ability to email your notes to yourself. On the iPad itself, however, they are otherwise siloed off from other iOS apps.
For myself, I feel the experience of active reading is inferior on e-readers. With paper books, applying your marginalia is immediate and direct — you write on this page and underline this word using a technology that you learned quite early: a writing utensil. However, I'm fully aware that I have a generational bias towards the tools that I use to actively read. Marking up text with pen and highlighter feels natural because I learned how to use them at such a young age. Somebody who learned an e-reader interface at an equally young age (and let us assume for the sake of argument that interface would stay the same for this person's lifetime) would find via those methods to be equally direct. I don't think we're anywhere near that interface yet, even with iBooks 2, but I believe in principle we can be.
Search, reference, and storage
Paper book technology for searching text is almost entirely spatial. You find a passage by looking for a physical bookmark or simply remembering the approximate place in the book where it was located. If you're lucky, your book will include an index to key passages within it, but really it's a primitive system. With e-readers, though we have yet to arrive at a standard interface, you can usually perform a text search, look at a hyperlinked list of bookmarks, and if there's a touchscreen you can user a slider to arrive at a random page.
On the whole, paper books are not as accessible as ebooks when it comes to navigation. I generally prefer the spatial navigation a paper book affords, but I can't say it's inherently superior — just different.
As for referencing particular passages within a book, currently paper technology is just a little better than ebooks if only because the standards are more widely understood and accepted. With paper books, you cite a page number after you've specified the edition of the book you're referencing. There are standards for referencing the virtual "page number" for ebooks that are somewhat similar, but given the multiplicity of ebook formats and editions it can be a bit more complicated. I believe this should be solved over time as ebooks become more common and their formats more standardized. It's a hassle, but by no means an insurmountable one.
Storage and transport makes for an easy comparison. I can carry thousands of ebooks on an e-reader. I can carry no more than, say, three or four textbooks in a backpack. Sorry paper, but you're really heavy and I only have so much shelf space.
DRM, formats, and resale
Now we are beginning to delve into the thornier issues of ebooks. Paper book technology has many advantages here simply because of the fact that it was created at a time when ideas surrounding digital rights management, copyright protection, and second-sale were either nascent or nonexistent.
With a paper book, if I want to lend it to you I simply give it to you. I won't have access to it while you have it, but the physical act of handing you a book is a "technology" that usually doesn't afford intervention by higher powers. The same applies if I want to sell you a book I've read: I give you the book, you give me money, and we're done.
An ebook, on the other hand, is more virtual and less portable in this regard. The core issue is that we have to replace physical actions with digital equivalents — and the companies doing the replacing aren't worried about the future of human knowledge. Systems for lending and reselling necessarily involve intervention from the distributor, the company that makes the e-reader software, and other interested parties. I could lend or sell you the entire e-reader, but in practice that's not really a viable option (for obvious reasons).
All of which leads us into the horrifically complicated area of DRM and formats. The analogy for formats is relatively simple when comparing ebooks and paper books. Though there are things like folios, quartos, scrolls, and whatnot in paper book technology, there is really no confusion with paper books. The form/format is literally physical and the only incompatibilities, such as they are, come into play when you're trying to fit them all on a shelf.
We have to replace physical actions with digital equivalents — and the companies doing the replacing aren't worried about the future of human knowledge
It's not fair to say that paper book technology is a completely free and open paradise of availability and access. There are competing distributors, selections limited by your local bookstore or library, and out-of-print editions. Yet these issues have had many hundreds of years to sort themselves out and the systems for managing them are established.
Ebooks, by contrast, come in an array of digital formats that are beset by issues of device compatibility, DRM, money, and corporate interests. It is a wild west of competing and frustratingly incompatible formats laden with DRM, all controlled by companies vying to provide the dominant standard.
I find the situation nearly intolerable. It's not just that I want to be able to choose my e-reader device and then have free and easy access to any book, it's that what we're discussing here are books, the very things that have created and sustained our culture over generations. To allow them to be encrypted and inaccessible without specific software is to limit the dissemination of human knowledge. Imagine if you couldn't read Aristotle or Confucius because the DRM format their publishers chose wasn't compatible with your iPad. It's insanity
I understand that free and open access to paper books isn't available everywhere, that various hegemonies have stifled and do stifle dissent. Books can be burned, banned, and censored. But if we are going to be putting our collective knowledge into digital formats with DRM, we are adding another layer of possible censorship on top of the layers of control we already contend with. This isn't (entirely) paranoia that Apple or Amazon will control access to human knowledge, it's also a practical concern founded in the experience of being blocked by poorly designed DRM.
As just one example of the problematic issues of DRM and corporate control of ebook formats, look no further than iBooks Author, the software used to create iBooks under Apple's new system. This software requires that anything created and sold via the software can only be distributed by Apple:
If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a "Work"), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.
iBooks sold for money can only be distributed by one company, in a format that will only work on its products, under a rubric that legally prohibits the author from selling printed copies of the book (or perhaps even filing them in the Library of Congress!). If I wanted to ensure that my book would have a shot at mattering, I wouldn't risk distributing it on such a limited and controlled system.
Paper book technology works whether or not the company that sold it to you wants it to. Paper books can't be remotely changed via a cloud update and can't be whooshed into a memory hole because of a DMCA complaint (Amazon, I'm looking at you). Paper books aren't rendered inaccessible if this or that corporation didn't hit its quarterly numbers and went out of business.
It's important that we find ways to prevent piracy and ensure that authors receive proper payment for their work, but those issues pale in comparison to the importance of ensuring access to our collective writings. I hope that it won't be too long before the competition between iBooks and Kindle and Nook and [insert DRM book format here] resolves into a single standard. That standard, however, should not include DRM if it is to be the basic format for academic knowledge.
The thousand year view
I've slowly been raising the stakes over the course of this article and now we come to what I consider to be the highest stakes of all: ensuring the longevity and persistence of knowledge. If DRM and ebook formats are about access, the thousand year view is about existence.
When it comes to the longevity of paper book technology and virtually any digital technology, there is simply no comparison. Assuming that the paper a book is printed on isn't too acidic and it's well-kept, it will last for literally thousands of years.
Digital formats have evolved quickly and it's likely they will continue to evolve for the foreseeable future. Even if we assume that digital storage formats won't ever change again and we'll always have access to computers than can read them, the physical media itself simply breaks down in a matter of years. There are some solutions (like Millenniata), but few if any that are widespread, well-known, and standardized.
If you're not convinced yet, I can make this point very quickly. I'd like you to read an ebook stored on a 5.25-inch floppy disk. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Solutions to this problem from Apple, Amazon, and others seem to be based on their cloud services. That is a lot of trust to place in these corporations and their costly servers. I'm not saying that preserving paper books is free, that the work of that preservation hasn't been manipulated by powerful interests over the centuries, or even that they're immune to catastrophes (pour one out for the Library of Alexandria). What I am saying is that we've developed a system of libraries and universities that work to ensure that books are preserved for the long haul. Those same institutions and many more are trying to do the same for digital media today — but they need help and I don't see evidence that the ebook industry is collaborating with them in any meaningful way.
Before I am willing to say that ebook technology can measure up to paper book technology, I need to see the companies developing ebooks lay out a clear plan to ensure that their books and any notes we take on them have a legitimate shot of still being around and readable in a thousand years.
The thousand year view is simple: if you're going to commit knowledge to writing in some form, you need to ensure that it will exist and be readable in a thousand years. I can tell you that I've personally gained insight and understanding about our world by reading a lightly-distributed instruction manual for rural, parish priests in England — written in the fourteenth century. Will an independently-created iBook 2 textbook be around in the thirty first century?
Pour one out for the Library of Alexandria
The most important specs are the ones you take for granted
Ebooks are inevitable
Is paper book technology superior to ebook technology? Yes, when you take the long view. Paper books can last a thousand years, aren't encrypted with DRM, and don't depend on the largess of corporations which are more focused on short term profits than long-term archives.
When you take the short view, though, e-readers are clearly better. Lugging books is a chore, searching through them is tedious and manual, and as much as I enjoy the old ways of active reading, I know that technological solutions will mature into usable replacements soon enough. Yet despite all their advantages — which are rightly pushing broad adoption — ebooks don't measure up to the specs of a paper book.
With ebooks, we're still looking at the equivalent of the day after Gutenberg printed his first Bible. We need to decide which paper book "specs" are important and ensure that they get recreated in our new digital world. We also need to ensure that these digital equivalents are at least as free and unfettered as paper books are now. We've already surpassed paper technology in a number of areas. However we are not giving nearly enough attention to the very things that made paper books flourish in the first place. The most important specs are the ones you take for granted.