Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Factoid is Born

A recent post by Nick Bilton of the New York Times, “Former Book Designer Says Good Riddance to Print,” claims that the day of the print book is finally fading. Most of Bilton’s blog post is about a blog post by the “former book designer,” Craig Mod, making these present remarks a blog post about a blog post about a blog post. Such is e-life.

Bilton likes what Mod says. Paper books are, or should be soon, on their way out. Accordingly to the appropriately named Mod, “Good riddance.” Bilton enthuses,

For hundreds of years, we’ve been consuming information on static pages, and for the most part, this content has been presented with a beginning, middle and end. Non-linear, digital platforms will prompt a new range of thinking about stories and how to tell them.

People started predicting this exact thing in the 1980s, when computers were already capable of implementing any textual revolution desired, but the promised era of nonlinear fiction — “hyperfiction” — never arrived and it never will. Hyperfiction is a no-starter because it’s a bad idea. It claims to crown readers with “choice,” to liberate them from the page, to raise them to co-creator status: but mousing around a network of texts is only pseudo-creative, like channel-flipping. As readers we are already authentically creative. We are creative when we simply read, most of all when we read well, constructing richly unique inner realities in response to the exquisitely sense-poor stimulus of the printed word. A book is not an information download for your head, it’s an invitation to get to work.


Hyperfiction fails because it is based on the stunningly dumb notion that readers of print on paper are mere slaves of the “static pages.” How could any literate person think so? When all goes well, and it often does, the outwardly “static” reader, staring at the “static” page, is exploding with inward experience. Everyday reality can dissolve entirely into a waking dream of overwhelming intensity as one contemplates the moveless bugs on the paper. Engaged readers are co-creators, collaborative artists, and their working material is the story “with a beginning, middle, and end,” which predates print by millennia. Limitlessness, especially the pseudo-limitlessness of a folder full of branching hypertexts, bores. Limitation excites. Plot excites. Beginning, middle, and end excite. That’s not a prediction, it’s an observation.

Bilton also says:

Under Mr. Mod’s analysis, the common paperback and many other physical books are disposable. He writes, “Once we dump this weight, we can prune our increasingly obsolete network of distribution. As physicality disappears, so, too, does the need to fly dead trees around the world.”

In contemplating the computerization of reading — some amount of which I must think is fine, or I wouldn’t be posting this — it is simply weird to say that “physicality disappears.” Physicality doesn’t go anywhere. It’s transformed from paper and glue to flatscreens, batteries, power cords, plastic chassis, microchips, carrying cases of PVC fabric. Instead of paper — the longest-lived, toughest, most environmentally sustainable information-storage medium ever invented — the physicality of the book becomes a flow of short-lived, landfill-bound gadgets consuming large amounts of power in their manufacture (especially the chips, despite their small bulk) and smaller amounts to make the reading act possible moment by moment, all of it generated and distributed by a vast network of ugly and polluting devices.

Good reading itself, which must make us wiser and wilier perceivers of pattern, of choice, of irony and implication, perhaps even of beauty, cannot coexist with oblivion to these facts or with indifference to them. Every medium is a message (though never simply the message), sometimes many messages at once. What is the gadget medium saying? Nothing, according to the prophets of future schlock. “Physicality disappears.” Except — it doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t. The ultimate naivetee is not to romanticize paper, but to pretend that there is no message built into the gadgets: to blurt out for the millionth time the sophomoric pseudo-insight that content is the only thing that matters, when it isn’t.

What about greenishness? Might e-books really cause less environmental harm than paper books?

It depends on how you stack ’em. Pile the paper books high enough next to any gadget, and sooner or later eco-accounting must favor the gadget. A group called Greentech did a widely reported 2009 study claiming that the Kindle e-book reader is a carbon-footprint win over paper books: “on average, the carbon emitted in the lifecycle of a Kindle is fully offset after the first year of use.”

Unfortunately, it is not possible, without joining the “Cleantech network” for a sum that Cleantech does not disclose online, to read the actual report and decide for oneself whether this claim has any merit. I have not been able to discover any online mention whatever, despite wide coverage of the Cleantech report, of its methodology. How did they come up with their estimate that each Kindle displaces 22.5 books per year per reader? Is that 22.5 hardcovers, or 22.5 paperbacks, or some market-weighted average of the two? What about used books — the “carbon footprint” of which must be divided by the number of owners per book (at least 2)? Used books account for about 15% of US book sales by volume (8% or 9% by dollars), and the number has been growing lately. If Cleantech assumed 22.5 brand-new hardcovers per Kindle per year, then its conclusions are dubious indeed.

Plus, there’s more to life than carbon. What about the non-greenhouse impacts of manufacturing electronics, like mining rare earths, 95% of which reside in ever-friendly China and are mined with horrific destructiveness? Does Cleantech compare these non-carbon impacts? If not, why not? Do they count the greenhouse and other life-cycle impacts of the polyvinyl chloride carrying-cases that are usually purchased to protect e-readers like the Kindle? Again, if not, why not — unless to make e-readers look greener than they really are?

The broader moral is that no study’s merit can be judged without knowing how it got its answers. The Internet dwellers reported on the Cleantech report but asked no questions about methodology, were apparently oblivious to the possibility that there might even be such questions. An attractively counter-intuitive number generated by unknown methods appears, is diffused, is quoted and re-quoted (Googling “Greentech Kindle study” gets 217,000 hits).

And behold, a factoid is born: e-books are greener than paper books. But are they?