(written in an hour in response to this ludicrous and terrible article. Off on one again. Also, the comment handling on their site is godawful.)

The Shallows is a very interesting work, if a bit pop-science, but here, like far too many of its readers, you take from it (ironically) only the surface concept that people are “losing the ability to think.” Nicholas Carr is a good writer, a great thinker, and a very eloquent voice against technology dependence: but he is a mediocre scientist, and like you has a terrible infatuation with the long-form novel as the ultimate in human culture. Please do not hold The Shallows up as proving anything weighty or having any scientific credibility: it does not.

You seem to seriously believe that people write in order to see their words printed and bound. And maybe for some sad creatures, that is the whole point. (I can’t deny the appeal of seeing my name in little gold letters on the spine of something in tasteful black, certainly, but it’s not why I started writing and it’s certainly not why I write now.) Maybe there seriously are people who can only be validated by their words being mass-produced and distributed on pounded-flat dead trees. But most writing in 2011 is not for the delivery system, it’s not even for the money: it is fundamentally a creative effort, which is and always has been done for the art of it. And the writers who are doing it for the art will continue to live and create, regardless of success or recognition, long after those who are doing it solely for the money have had their revenue models torn out from under them. I can only speak for myself and my friends – but writers do not “hope, mostly in vain, that their work will endure for a few years or even centuries, in handsome printed and bound volumes”. Writers hope, mostly in vain, that someone will read and appreciate their work. Having nice physical reminders of it lying around is the icing on the cake of intellectual vanity. The average writer, if not your “serious” writer (getting a bit “no true Scotsman” there) creates for the point of creating, not to get their hands on the volumes you so fetishise.

Totally separate to this, yet associated somehow in your scorn for e-publishing, is the environmental impact of e-readers as compared to books. Ignoring the quite obvious counterpoint that comparing books to e-readers is not comparing apples to apples (it’s more like comparing apples to apple trees, and anyway neglects the instant and almost costless distribution once the infrastructure is in place): what is your point? Handheld computing is taking off massively. Dedicated e-readers are, at the moment, the tiniest fraction of the consumer electronics market; they are likely to disappear entirely in the next few years, their functionality merged into the coming iterations of tablets and smartphones. There are, for certain, many drawbacks to be overcome: technical issues with screens and batteries, the inertia of the current IP and distribution systems, the sluggishness of a publishing world still dominated by people who think like you. But in time – certainly not the five or ten years predicted by the e-zealots you somehow take as representative, but with terrible inevitability – they will be. All, that is, except the gradually more irrelevant generations who need “the feel of paper” or whatever other tactile nonsense, who seem to think the delivery system is more important than the words themselves.

Yes, the world of consumer electronics, especially in the current phase of market expansion, frantic innovation and short refresh cycles, is an environmental catastrophe. Are you choosing to blame this on ebooks? Are you saying that by going back to good old dead trees, the smartphones will all disappear, the world can be saved? The idea that book-reading habits can stand in the way of the coming handheld revolution, or that it is more than the slightest drop in an ocean of devices, is both hilariously wrong and terribly vain.

It is not about the forests. It is not about the devices. It is certainly not about the “handsome volumes”. I don’t know if you have ever studied the history of information; I am not particularly convinced by the Gutenberg namedrop. But I have. It has been a gradual progression (not, of course, without its setbacks) of overcoming the limits caused by illiteracy and material scarcity: as information-sharing technology, and the general ability to use it, has advanced, it has given ever greater numbers of people the ability to more freely consume – and produce – information. We are incalculably richer for it, as societies and as individuals. And all the naysayers and chicken littles who squawked at the printing press or the newspaper or the Coptic alphabet as dumbing down their culture, everyone who ever fretted about the oncoming end of society and the rise of the idiots, everyone in recorded history who has ever thought like you, has been wrong.


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