On needing a replacement for paper

I do not have any specific nostalgia for printed books.  But I do not think that e-readers or ipads have come far enough to replace books...yet, at least.  Allow me to explain.  There are certain obstacles to replacing printed material with digital that are merely difficulties.  "Difficulties" include figuring out a way to get all that stuff we printed on paper for so long translated into a digital format, so we can ditch the filing cabinets and the stacks of useless documentation that we can't quite simply abandon.  However, there are certain obstacles to replacing printed material that are more than mere difficulties, they are real puzzles.  A "puzzle" is any problem associated with the transition from printed to digital material that involves a loss of functionality.

The various e-readers and ipads on the market have come a long way on these puzzles.  One particular area of success is an effective response to the typical complaint: "But I need to write on/highlight my books, so I need hard copies."  Well, as someone who often voiced that complaint and used it to justify a lot of printing, I will be the first to say that the ability to highlight pdfs and make annotations has really come along nicely, and I now find myself printing a lot less and making my annotations directly on the digital format.  Puzzle solved.

However, one puzzle remains which I call "the puzzle of tactile understanding".  Different books look, but more importantly, feel different in one's hands.  When you pick up a thick volume that you have been steadily working through, your thumb "knows" just about where to insert itself and open the book.  For someone like myself who goes back and re-reads certain sections of text over and over again, looking for a specific spot in a book is a matter of flipping the pages until the thickness feels about right, and then leafing a few pages forward or backward to the precise spot.  On an e-reader or pdf on a laptop, the only thing analogous to this is the scroll bar.  But the scroll bar does not provide a tactile sense of book-location–its only visual.  And when a book is several hundred, or even thousand, pages long, the visual difference on the scroll bar between pg. 456 and pg. 672 is not that noticeable.  "I know I highlighted something around here," I often think to myself as I quickly thumb the pages of my worked-over copy of Being and Time; but, holding down the scroll key while a pdf breezes down my screen just doesn't seem to allow for the quick references I can extract from printed books.

Of course, even if this is a puzzle and not a mere difficulty, it doesn't mean its important or will stem the tide of electronic books.  In fact, I'm almost certain it won't.  We will learn to scan pages visually and we will come up with smart scroll bars.  E-books already have the leg-up when it comes to precise searching (printed books don't have a search bar).  But I do think that this is indeed a puzzle and not a mere difficulty in that the tactile understanding provided by the thickness of printed books will soon be a thing of the past.

No comments:

Post a Comment