Monday, January 11, 2010
Kendra looks at the environmental and social cost of the rise of the electronic reader.
On my morning commute I’ve been reading two very big, very heavy, hard covered books totaling almost two thousand pages. They take up space that could otherwise be occupied by a spare pair of shoes or lunch or simply left empty to allow me to swing my now unencumbered handbag around Mary Tyler Moore style. And while I view hauling around these weighted tomes as part of my passive exercise regimen and active security device (I pity the assailant who receives a whack of my handbag) a quick glance around my subway car implies that I’m quickly joining a rare breed of commuter who enjoys that the printed word be, well, printed.
From Amazon’s Kindle to Sony’s eReader, it seems this holiday season the must have gift amongst the commuting set was an electronic book reader. An astonishing number of people I encounter these days seem to have one.
And on the face of things this seems like a very personal issue, after all choosing to read a paper versus electronic book is ultimate one of personal choice.
However, this personal choice has a deeply social effect.
There is of course the obvious issue: the environmental one. There has been a plethora of research citing that electronic readers, assuming one reads at least one hundred books a year, are actually the environmental winner consuming less carbon and water than their printed companions.
The accounting, however, does nothing to hi-light the fact that the paper books are based on a renewable resource unlike the plastics and heavy metals which are featured in e-readers. In addition, while publishing is a notoriously noxious industry, it is one that could be cleaned up to operate more environmentally efficiently. I am not sure consuming a resource (plastic) that will never biodegrade can ever be considered truly ‘green’.
Utilizing an entire lifecycle analysis, electronic are at best no worse than their paper companions, but more likely are a lot worse than their paper companions not just environmentally but also socially.
Because even the most voracious of readers rarely purchases all of the books that they read. They make use of free libraries, share books among friends, or pick them up second hand at book sales. In other words, purchasing a paper book often becomes a very social act.
When a person purchases an electronic book, by contrast, they are in essence purchasing an individual use item, unless they physically share their book reader. Their individual cost may be lower, but the cost society pays as a whole is much, much, higher. In a society that continues to promote the idea that information should be free, the $200+ dollar cost of an electronic book reader is an awfully high barrier towards accessing that information.
Even if libraries manage to work out deals that allow them to lend electronic books, it is naive to assume that people are going to have the financial resources to purchase a device that allows them to read electronic books – as anyone who has ever waited to use a computer in one of New York’s Public Library can tell you, the number of people who still exist without personal home computers is astounding.
In addition, I spent my holidays going through my possessions and clearing out massive piles of books which I am in the process of donating to a charity that puts books in the libraries of prisons and juvenile detention centers. The impetus to share these books was simple: they were occupying physical space, I no longer needed or wanted them, but their inherent remaining value would have made me feel bad about simply tossing them in the trash. By contrast, with computer storage costing mere pennies these days the impetus to get rid of and otherwise share electronic books will virtually non-existent. Consequently, a host of education and literacy programs in the developed and developing world which depend either directly on book donations or indirectly (through book sales) on printed manuscripts will find themselves scrambling for new models of financing and organizing.
None of this is real of course.
Right now most people still read print books, electronic readers remain a niche market and libraries are still as sound as ever.
But these conclusions while not inevitable are plausible and for me that is cause for alarm. The constant adoption of supposedly better technologies without ever pausing to ask what was the true cost of said technologies is what has gotten us into this environmental and social pickle. For me, the rampant adoption of this new technology without pausing to ask if it makes sense represents more of this same kind of thinking. And for this I am deeply saddened.
With that said, if you'll excuse me, I need to go out and purchase a new 3D TV.
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