The Future is an Empty Room

by Michael Antman

28 May 2009


Mind-numbing Variety

Photo found on

Photo found on

Mind-numbing Variety

Statistically speaking, it is almost inevitable that most of us will, in a manner of speaking, stare dully at all of the colorful and delicious peppers lined up behind the glass, sigh deeply, and settle for the turkey.

With that depressing vision in mind, let me lay out a more-specific scenario for the e-reader that portends the imminent demise of the printed book. 

First, most people would agree with my perception that, on a page-by-page basis, e-readers are “just as good as” printed books (with the rather significant exception of photos and artwork.)

Next, encouraged by Amazon’s and Sony’s relentless marketing, and by the fact that every third person on the commuter train or airplane is using an e-reader, the average person starts to feel that the printed book in his hands is slightly shabby-looking, dog eared, declasse (in the same way that people began to shift their LPs to a shelf in the basement because those squares of cardboard looked so big and awkward next to those shiny new CDs.)

Next, increasingly inexpensive download prices will encourage people not only to buy e-readers but to load them up with all of the books on their reading list that they haven’t had time yet to purchase and won’t ever have time to read.  And newspapers.  And magazines.  In one sense, the variety available to the individual reader will be mind-numbing. 

In another sense, it will be, well, mind-numbing. 

New technology certainly makes previously obscure selections infinitely more available, but that’s quite a bit different from saying we will avail ourselves of them.  With so much so readily available all at once, everything – good, bad, and indifferent – will be blenderized into an indistinguishable mush.  Indistinguishable, that is, except in the cases of those works that are most heavily publicized, and that most readily pander. 

Of course, not everyone will download only the aggressively promoted few and leave the rest to languish.  But statistically speaking, it is almost inevitable that most of us will, in a manner of speaking, stare dully at all of the colorful and delicious peppers lined up behind the glass, sigh deeply, and settle for the turkey.

Some e-book adopters, whether of the easily sated or insatiably curious variety, will never look back at the traditional book. They will enthusiastically embrace not only the e-reader itself, but its effect on traditional publishing, gloating about those publishing industry “executives, managers, and editors…stuck with their heads in a wad of paper, with ink running through their veins…stuck in a Gutenberg rut,” as one blogger ever-so-charmingly put it.  (When did it become acceptable for presumably sophisticated advocates of advanced technology to crow like Cossacks over the villages they’ve just destroyed?)

In other cases, after a brief period of infatuation, readers will begin to realize that “just as good as” isn’t, in fact, as good as, in the same way that we all discovered that Country Time powder, for example, isn’t as good as real lemonade. The unvaried look and feel and flatness of their monocular library will begin to pall, as will the sheer fatigue of reading from a screen. 

Anyone who has torn himself away in bleary-eyed weariness from too many hours spent in front of a computer screen will know the feeling:  The sensation of looking up at the sky and remembering, with a sense of being admonished and surprised, that what begins in purity inevitably ends in contempt, and that the exhausting glare and anomie of the screen and its indiscriminate and overwhelming content is not all there is: There is still a world out there.

Those readers who do in fact get tired of the e-reader will toss their device into the basement with all of the other electronic junk that never worked properly, all the frozen I-pods and obsolete computers and embarrassing FM Walkmen and good-for-a-laugh eight-track tape players and dead docking stations. But having already downloaded dozens or hundreds of books, they’re not likely to go out and buy the hardcover or paperback editions of the same works.  Instead, the books will remain forever, unread, in electronic limbo.

Soon enough, another generation of e-readers will come along, and these will be better, or at least “better”, and the skeptical reader, rather than “go backwards” by buying real books again, will use the money instead to invest in the new generation of technology. 

Early embracers and skeptics alike, all will have made the stylistic and psychological commitment to reading e-books rather than books, so the latter will remain un-bought, and as soon as the economics begin to tilt decisively against the printed word, we will begin to see the first national bestsellers issued in an electronic-only format.

And there you have it: The book, that crowning cultural achievement that is one of the chief glories of our civilization, is dead. Even if e-readers ends up fading in popularity after a decade or two, the book will still be dead, and, perhaps, reading itself with it. 

(Here’s a worrisome indicator:  Most people have noticed how difficult it is to read long texts, and even long paragraphs, on the Internet.  If this becomes an issue with e-readers as well, it will subtly influence even our most literate authors to write dumbed-down sentences and paragraphs, and that, in turn, will make reading less pleasurable for everyone.)

But this is all a worst-case scenario. Maybe, instead, real printed books will remain alive in the sense that LPs are alive, as nothing more than a niche interest for obsessive collectors.

Hey, cool, whatever.

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