Many people have prophesied the demise of the printed book due to the popularity of ebooks read on screens, comparing it to changes in transport: why would you ride a horse to get to a distant town when you can get a train?
Put like that the answer is obvious but it’s not the right comparison. It would be more accurate to say that we’re comparing a car with a bicycle. The car didn’t replace the bicycle even though it was developed afterwards and built upon the technology invented for the bicycle. They both have different uses even though they are both transport.
Another comparison could be the fact that television didn’t replace radio as many thought it would. The key to it is this: they deliver a different experience. The misunderstanding with the difference between radio and television came from those people who thought that television was just like radio but with moving images added. (Initially it was). In reality it developed into a completely different medium that delivers a different art form.
Digital screen readers are different from physical books. Here are some important differences:
Use mostly transmitted light
Complex and expensive to construct
Made of hard materials
Need electric power
Media can be changed
Interaction is 2D
Always use reflected light
Cheap and simple to construct
Made of soft materials
Need no power
Media is unchanging
Interaction is 3D
There are dozens more, but just these few give us clues to the substantial differences that give us very different experiences.
When we read a book we have to not only hold it in our hands but physically open and turn the pages in three dimensional space.
We have to hold it in such a way that we keep it open at the right page and the right way round to read.
If we drop it, we know it won’t lose the text, but might get creased.
We can feel the texture of the weave of the paper and can subconsciously judge its quality by comparing with countless other types of paper and materials.
If we run a finger down the edge of a page it will cut us.
We can judge the differing size, flexibility, dryness and thickness of the paper as we handle it.
It even has a smell.
Each book we pick up has these slightly different characteristics, the experience of one set of text to another is not homogenous.
We can, if we wish, write on the pages, turn over a corner, insert a bookmark to keep our place or even tear a page out.
Reading a book is tactile in a way a digital reader is not.
Some people have postulated that screens will one day have textures too (and smells). Perhaps, but what a waste of energy when the technology for a textured page already exists. It’s a bit like the Amazing Left-Handed Strawberry Peeler: don’t invent something that’s of no-use to anybody, solves a problem no-one has, or overcomplicates a job where’s there’s an easy way of doing it.
Research has been done on comprehension of text on a digital screen verses a printed page. It showed that comprehension was better with the printed page. I don’t find this surprising.
I believe that we read a screen in a different way than how we read a printed page. If you’ve ever been in the position to have to proof read a batch of text, you’ll know that it’s much harder to do it on-screen. You’ll more than likely have missed loads of mistakes on the screen that are easily spotted on the printed version.
The car will never replace the bicycle, television will never replace radio and ebooks will never replace printed books. Each medium will have it’s advantages in one area or another, and not always in the ways we first expect. As they say, with radio compared to tv, with radio, the pictures are better.
Will digital readers replace printed books? I think that where the experience of the reading is as important as the absorbing the data within the text, then printed books will remain. The difference is that we now have a choice of how we want to absorb textual data.
We get bamboozled with technology and get carried away thinking that the future will be an unbridled extension of that technology. It never is. That’s why we don’t consume our food in a meal pill. We don’t wear colourless, feature and textureless jumpsuits to keep us warm and most of us have duvets and sheets on out beds.
The reason we cook and eat interesting meal, wear the latest fashions and don’t lie on a plain mattress with the room temperature turned up at night is the same reason that ebooks won’t wipe out physical printed books: we like to touch and feel.
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