8 Unexpected Downsides of the Switch to E-books
As e-book sales overtake paper-book sales, it seems like everybody is crying and wringing their hands about what it means -- serious, society-changing ramifications like the end of ownership, or ease of piracy, or environmental impact, or whether it makes things easier or harder for publishers or aspiring authors.
Like most important issues, those are boring. What are some effects of going to an all e-book world that haven't been talked to death? I dug around and tried to find some e-book ramifications that would appeal to the type of people who spend more time preparing for a zombie apocalypse than like, unemployment, or retirement, or something. You know, realists.
You Can't Hide a Gun in a Kindle
Well, you can't. I don't think this is the kind of thing you can argue about. If you can put a gun in an e-reader, go on and take a photo and let's see it.
Even with the so-called "smart cover," the iPad displays disappointing performance in gun hiding.
Life has gotten harder and harder these days for would-be assassins. Some jurisdictions make it totally illegal to carry loaded guns in public, even if you really need to kill a guy.
"But you don't understand, officer. I was very angry at him!"
In the past, you could always depend on your trusty violin case, but with American orchestras going bankrupt left and right nowadays, people running around with violin cases are becoming a rarity and no longer blend into a crowd.
And old-fashioned high-tank toilets have been antiques for decades, so good luck taping a gun behind one of these modern toilets.
Seriously. Where would you even ...?
So books are one of the few things left that you can carry around without people suspecting you've got something in them. Everyone who's afraid of getting shot is wary of people with bags and thick coats. If paper books go the way of the dodo, hit victims will also start being suspicious of anyone carrying one of those useless antiques for no reason.
You Need Physical Books for Physical Tasks
I'm not the first person to observe this, so I'll just say that many times when you're looking for something handy, there just isn't anything around that will do a better job than the cheap Frederick Forsyth novel you got from Half-Price Books, which, after reading 10 pages, you realized you had already read before, so you just left it on the coffee table. These important tasks include table stabilizing, spider killing, cat fight breaking up and makeshift camera stand making.
Sure, there are other tools that can do these things better, but that requires you to be prepared and know you need them ahead of time. For stupid people and poor planners like me, it's good to have the books sitting around, in their natural home in the living room, ready for anything. Like the sudden appearance of a spider, or an unexpected flower-pressing emergency.
Another hypothetical situation might be if you are bad at following directions and installed the midbeam of your Ikea bed upside-down, causing it to snap the first time you put weight on it. Now I know a lot of people complain about the Harry Potter series' lackluster prose and overreliance on cliches, but you can't argue that these aren't thick, solid books that will not collapse under your weight.
I also recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which lends solid support to both Abraham Lincoln's legacy and a bed.
Supposing we are indeed on our way to a bookless future, I predict a robust market in that future for cardboard and wooden blocks of various sizes that people just keep around their living rooms.
No More Flipbooks and Mustaches in Textbooks
If our society moves to e-books, textbooks will probably go electronic as well, which is, on the one hand, great, because maybe college students will finally stop being constantly ripped off on textbooks. On the other hand, it may be the end of a proud tradition of drawing mustaches and Satan horns on important historical figures.
Or removing mustaches, as the situation calls for.
If you have never itched to add an "improvement" to one of your public school textbooks while listening to a boring lesson, then you are clearly a conformist sheep. Or maybe just a decent person who respects public property. Either way, a lot of us had no concept of taxpayer money and participation in the social contract and did in fact draw mustaches, genitalia, knives stabbing people and, if we really had a spurt of concentration, flipbooks.
This is going to be a little harder on an e-book. Maybe they'll put in some software to let kids take notes and make markings, but the thing about software is it's pretty easy to limit people to doing what you want them to do. You can't give a kid a pen that can only make notes and can't draw penises, but you could set up software that does that. Kids are going to have to wait until they are at hacking age to crack that, which means that until then, there will be quite a few wasted years they could have been practicing mustaches.
I drew mustaches on many important historical figures, such as the Mayflower.
Sure, there's Photoshop and all that now, and the kid can get all his artistic expression out at home, but there's something about drawing on something you're not supposed to, when you're not supposed to, that is really motivating. I learned to draw entirely from hours and hours of drawing in class. Every time I tried to draw outside of class, I would just sit there and stare at the paper. If kids of the next generation are deprived of this opportunity, none of them will grow up to be shitty artists like me who think they can draw. What kind of a world would that be?
It May Change the Perception of the Necronomicon and Other Mystical Books
Probably one of the most relevant concerns about physical paper books disappearing to the point where the average person isn't familiar with them anymore is: how is this going to affect movies with spellbooks and books like the Necronomicon in them? Will people stop using them in movies? Will they continue to use them in movies as archaic artifacts that the audience will increasingly struggle to understand? "Why is he trying to grab that biting leather thing off the pedestal?" they might ask. "They said he was supposed to get a book, why didn't he just download it back at the castle? Does the castle not get wireless?"
At least they will have the Army of Darkness iPhone game to explain that guarding the Necronomicon is important, if not what it is.
I mean, sure, we still understand how scrolls work when we watch ancient movies with scrolls, so it won't be completely alien, but eliminating everyday exposure to books basically limits any story set in modern times to plots where treasure hunters deliberately seek ancient books of the dead for nefarious purposes, and really cuts down on variations like unsuspecting teenagers accidentally stumbling on a cursed book in a library.
On the other hand, closing one door does open others, like the possibility of a horror movie where the aforementioned unsuspecting teenagers weren't paying attention and downloaded the Necronomicon and now their Kindle is chasing them around the house. I think the studios would be really receptive to it, too, since they can slyly make it into an anti-piracy argument. ("Imagine one million Necronomicons chasing everyone around! This is why we need robust DRM in place!")
Book Burnings Will Have Less Visual Impact
Most of us are not leaders of totalitarian governments, and it's easy to think we never will be. But you never know where the little twists and turns of life are going to take you. Maybe today you are a college student folding clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch, but 10, 15 years from now, you could be an iron-fisted dictator. You never know. Like they say, life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans (Vladimir Lenin). One day you are applying to a video game design program, the next day you are repealing a constitution.
Anyway, when you do become cemented into a position of power that rides on the suppression of human rights and universal freedoms, one of the important ways of demonstrating that all expression is ultimately under your control is with the unforgettable spectacle of a mass book burning. There is nothing like watching the last repositories of their culture, history and ideas being burned away to suck the spirit out of a repressed people.
It feels almost as bad as having your spunky, offbeat underdog team of crazy characters lose the regionals.
This symbolism is kind of lost when burning an e-reader, which is really just a device for displaying the information, whose original copy is obviously stored somewhere else. And considering that one e-reader can store a massive collection of text, burning a family's entire collection would probably make a sad little bonfire requiring about two newspaper pages and a stick of wood. Sure, you've cut off their access to the offending information, but the bigger point was to make a show of how powerful you are in being able to do so and how complete and massive the erasure of their identity is. You want them to be scared of you, and now they just kind of feel sorry for you.
Sure, book burning is just one of an array of tools the modern authoritarian state has at its disposal, but you really need every bit of help you can get to maintain fear and respect as anti-dictator technology (like the ability to Photoshop your head onto a llama, or tweet about how you farted during a speech) continues to evolve rapidly.
Oh man, i just realized the misquote above. I typed Vladimir Lenin, who was of course the Marxist revolutionary, but obviously I was thinking of famed musician and songwriter (and husband to Yoko Ono) Joseph Stalin.
He didn't just imagine no religion, he did something about it.
How Will People Open Secret Passageways?
Seriously, if you can't pull a cleverly titled book out of a bookcase to get it to swing open, what else are you going to do? You have to put an artifact in a slot or push a really obvious wooden carving every time? Boy, that is going to get old fast.
You Can't Separate Bathroom Books from Outside Books
A lot of us have separate "bathroom reading" material -- usually magazines or books with information broken into short chunks, because most people don't have time to read War and Peace in one pooping. If you do, you should probably see a doctor.
For a lot of us, the bathroom readers never come out of the bathroom, which offers a level of sanitation we take for granted. As you may have heard, toilet flushing with the lid open leads to an aerosol spray of toilet water gently settling over the surroundings of said toilet like an invisible, poopy mist.
When we leave Uncle John's Bathroom Reader in its place, the mist that settles on it stays in the bathroom. But if we take Uncle John's Bathroom Reader for the Android platform with us so it can become The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as we read it on the train, we may be bringing a lot of unwanted, monocellular little friends on that train trip.
Even if you're careful to put the lid down before flushing, there's always your hands. Sure, it might be fine if you are super careful to put the e-reader or book down, and then wipe, close the lid, flush, wash and dry your hands and then pick it up again. And how many people are going to be that careful considering that less than half the population washes their hands after going to the bathroom if nobody is watching?
Interesting note about that study -- once they put up a sign telling people to wash their hands, almost all the women started washing, while the number of men washing their hands actually went down slightly. Apparently 2 percent of the guys refused to wash their hands just to spite the sign.
"You're not my dad, sign! You can't tell me what to do!"
So yeah, no matter how careful you yourself are, for the general population, one reading device traveling constantly between the bathroom and the outside world means that a small-town stardom-seeking poo bacterium has that many more opportunities to make its big break.
We could buy a separate e-reader for each location we're going to read it in, but most people probably would hesitate to shell out the money for that. Which brings up a related point ...
People Will Really Have to Think Before Handing Out Fliers and Religious Pamphlets
Most of us who live in this modern society live under a deluge of unwanted paper, whether it be junk mail, or restaurant menus on your doorknob, or rave fliers stuffed under your windshield wipers, or religious pamphlets shoved at you by insincere-looking people who won't shut up.
Right now, with paper being as cheap as it is, they will carelessly toss these fliers and tracts and pamphlets at you as if it were confetti. If they were handing you this information on a $100 e-reader, however, I think these struggling alt-rock bands and mass proselytizers might spend a little more time considering exactly how much value the recipient is likely to place on this information. Seeing your five-cent tracts strewn on the ground might give you a slight sense of martyrdom without causing you to change your methods, but I think seeing a pile of your ridiculously expensive electronic pamphlets trodden to pieces by the uncaring public might lead to a change in strategy.
"I knew I shouldn't have tried to hand them out at the Tri-County Track Meet."
I don't personally think this is a drawback, but from the perspective of the literature distributor, it probably is. It's important to look at things from other people's perspectives so we can better understand how wrong they are.
"Oh, come on," you might think. "Just because they stop publishing books in the future doesn't mean people won't still make fliers." Maybe not, but maybe so. Things like paper become cheaper when they're mass-produced. If you're a huge company turning out reams of paper for reports, newspapers, magazines, books and whatnot, you can turn out each piece of paper for cheaper than if you were a small boutique house that only uses paper for greeting cards and the occasional run of band fliers.
You can get some "lost cat" sign business, too, if you kidnap some cats.
If they stop making mass media on paper, that cuts out a lot of the market, which means less paper is going to be made, which means it might get more expensive. Maybe they're not handing you Nooks, but maybe they have to hand you really expensive pieces of paper. I am not an expert on the paper business or economics, so I could be way off base, but even if we're not actually headed toward a world where people have to think long and hard about if you are really interested before handing you a piece of promotional literature, we really should be.
Even if e-books completely flop and nothing else here comes to pass, I think we should brainstorm to find some other way to get this part to come true.
For more from Christina, check out 5 Reasons Women Are As Shallow As Men (According to Science) and 7 Things From America That Are Insanely Popular Overseas.