On Tuesday I offered you 5 Reasons Books are Better Than E-Books and on Wednesday 5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books. Today I want to tie up those two posts with a few thoughts on why we need to be very, very careful about moving from the book to the e-book.
Media and Messages
Anyone who studies media or technology must run into Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. These two men were leaders in the field with McLuhan being the teacher and Postman the disciple. If there is anything we have learned from these men it is summed up in McLuhan’s little phrase, “the medium is the message.” What McLuhan sought to show people is that every medium, whether book or television or computer, carries within it some kind of ideology, some kind of idea. He wanted people to see that this, this ideology, is often as important or perhaps even more important than the message the media conveys. Such ideologies predispose us to see and understand the world in one way rather than another. So the content of a news program may be less important than the subtle messages fed to us by the medium of television (which might be that pictures convey truth better than words or that immediacy is virtuous or that information itself, without context or analysis, is inherently good).
While I do not fully follow either McLuhan or Postman, I do think they were correct in this point. There is more to a book than the words it contains; the medium itself is important since it coveys certain truths, certain messages of its own. There is more to a television, more to a computer than the content it carries; the device itself is important. One device or one technology may not be better than another, but certainly they are different because they convey different messages to us.
So the first thing we need to understand is that we cannot neatly separate the medium and the message. In many ways the medium is the message or, at the very least, it contributes to the message.
Goodbye to the Book
For centuries now people have prophesied about the end of the book but such prophets have always proven wrong. They have seen that one media or another would displace the book and have wrongly assumed that these media would replace it. The television drew society away from the book, but it could never carry content like a book and thus never stood a chance of replacing it. It displaced it so that in many cases people gave up books in order to watch television, but it couldn’t ever replace it. Today, though, we have digital devices that can carry text in a digital format and do so with some degree of excellence. Amazon’s Kindle, first released in 2007, very quickly rose to prominence and it has been followed by a host of similar devices, selling in the millions. Though the printed book will remain with us for some time, it seems likely that its days are now, finally, numbered.