Sep 19, 2008

Tech - Is the writing on the wall for paper ?

The future of paper is starting to look a little less certain, says Bill Thompson

The UK launch of the Sony Reader has sparked another round of frenzied speculation over the future of the printed book in a world of screens, networks and digital data.

Like the iLiad or the US-only Kindle, the Reader is a paperback-sized electronic book with a high-resolution display that uses "electronic ink" and looks and acts more like paper than a screen.

They have been available for a while in other nations, and I almost succumbed to the temptation to buy one on my last visit to the US.

The quality and ease of use of the new generation of readers means that they appeal to the general population rather than those who like to live at the leading edge of technological innovation, but although sales have been good they are far from spectacular.

Flood gates

Part of the problem, of course, is that they remain "ebook readers". They are not, in themselves, electronic books but devices that can be used to store and display text. A book remains a physical object, ink on paper with a cover and a presence in the world, while an ebook is just another bag of bits
Sometimes, of course, bags of bits are just what you need.

I don't have an ebook reader - yet - but I do have an iPod Touch with a screen that may be small but has excellent resolution and works just as well for text as it does for video or photos.

And thanks to the FileMagnet application I can copy documents from my desktop computer to read on the move, even when I don't have an internet connection.

This came into its own over the weekend, when I spent far too long on overcrowded trains as what should have been an easy journey to and from Newcastle was turned into an ordeal by the heavy rain and consequent flooding in the North East.

With no space to get out my laptop or a newspaper, and insufficient elbow room even to manage to turn the pages of a book, I spent most of the return journey reading from the Touch, which was small enough to hold in front of me and didn't require any complicated page-turning, a triumph of the electronic over the physical.

Paper power

But I used the time to read an excellent and stimulating essay on the future of print that left me more convinced than ever that the books and perhaps even newspapers still have a lot to offer us, at least for a while.

Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal was written in 2006 by William Powers, a media journalist, when he was a Sorenstein Fellow at Harvard University and had space to think about the future of his industry
The essay is a hymn in praise of paper. Paper is tangible, he says, so we have a sense of where we are in a book or essay; documents can be shuffled, pages marked and annotated, and books piled up according to their significance; and paper documents do not change when we are not looking.

What we often see as the limitations of a printed document are not limitations but capabilities. They allow printed documents to occupy a special psychological space, so that we can become immersed in books in a way we are rarely immersed in text on screens, experiencing what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow", the sense of absorption where the world simply slips away.

He ends by arguing that the special properties of paper mean that it will always be with us, that ebooks will only work when they are themselves indistinguishable from paper ones.

Powers may be right, but of course the current generation of ebooks are limited in so many ways that it is unfair to expect them to challenge print in any significant way.

Screen tests

Apart from the irritating way the screen flashes black when you change page, there are many different ebook formats out there, some locked using one of the proprietary DRM schemes, and so not every reader can be used to read every book, rather as if you got a new paperback home and were told that your particular type of lightbulb could not be used to illuminate its pages

Only Amazon has realised that having to tether your ebook reader to your computer with a cable or plug in memory cards creates a serious obstacle for many users. The Kindle comes with "Whispernet", a data connection over the mobile phone network, so that you can buy a book from and have it seamlessly delivered to your reader.

I am less sure about the longevity of paper than Powers. I have been using computers daily for over 25 years now, and I now read far more words on screen than I do in print, but I know that all of my reading practice was shaped by paper and that the screen will always remain less efficient and effective for me. I am convinced by Powers' argument, at least for my generation.

But we could find that the particular qualities which we value in the printed book, especially the way it encourages immersive engagement, are just as possible with screen-based media too.

We are used to the passive immersion in the narrative encouraged by films and TV, but what of the active engagement we see in gaming? My 15 year old son may well find that the navigational and problem-solving skills he has picked up from hours playing Halo 3 enable him to work with on-screen texts just as efficiently as I work with printed ones.

So despite what Powers says we may, after all, be living out the last decades of the printed text a decline that will be hastened by the latest generation of screen-based "books".

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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