Wow. This kind of techno-gadget triumphalism makes Thomas “Moustache of Understanding” Friedman look like Ned Ludd. Kind of reminds me of the glory days of the mid-nineties when people would gush about how the Internet would allow ordinary people to access the Library of Congress, when, as it turns out, it just gave most of them more convenient ways to jerk off to porn and stay au fait on all the latest inane jokes.
But that’s all fine. I’m only bothered by the, well, Friedmanesque way she just blithely burns tons of working-class jobs on the glorious altar of FutureProgress (even uses the line about the world getting flatter in there somewhere). I suppose those lucky duckies can just take out some exorbitant student loans and go back to school to learn some useful skills, after all, like how to speculate on trillions of dollars of imaginary money. But I digress:
Why go to Barnes & Noble when the digital download will always be pristine and Kindles on the same account can read the same book at the same time? Households of multiple Harry Potter fans, sorry, those are still not available in digital format. There would be less mail through our postal service, fewer delivery drivers of many flavors, the people who run the giant printing presses and sawmills will find themselves out of jobs. The demands for water, wood pulp, and oil would drop and a great deal of our quasi-recyclable trash would disappear. An argument for smaller home footprints could even be made, for as the iPod decimated the need for a home CD collection, the home library would also disappear.
I have an iPod and I love it for its convenience. Yet I still have a huge collection of CDs, which I use to loan to friends as well as pop into the CD player when I’m working, and I always still buy the actual disc when my favorite bands release new material. The only real advantages to downloading for me are the instant gratification (which any adult can admit is a fun luxury, hardly a necessity) and the ability to perhaps find old, out-of-print music that isn’t considered worth putting out in new disc form — although it’s often just as likely that no one will bother putting those recordings on iTunes, Napster or eMusic, and you’ll have to find it on LimeWire where someone has uploaded it from…an actual CD. I remember one thread on a music site about downloading where a woman talked about how her CD collection was her equivalent of a trophy case, something to show off and take pride in. I feel the same way — I like the actual, physical look and presence of my wrought-iron CD rack with hundreds of discs lined up. It’s just not the same thing to scroll down in iTunes over thousands of mp3s.
I suppose if you have a severe reductionist attitude that sees books as merely serving a utilitarian purpose of transferring information from point A to point B, then a more streamlined, faster way of doing that would seem like an improvement. But for me, the whole “book” experience is much more than that with so many intangibles involved that form a greater whole. I like to go to Barnes & Noble (and almost any bookstore, really, especially little hole-in-the-wall stores specializing in old, used books) just to browse and enjoy the atmosphere. I love the smell of the coffee bar, the sound of the classical music playing, and the sight of thousands of books lined up on shelves. Even a misanthrope like me can feel a sense of kinship among other people there for the same purpose, or even enjoy vaguely overhearing people chattering to each other about this author or that series. I love the smell of brand-new books and old, musty ones at a library basement sale. And, of course, I love the sight of my own books on their shelves in my house. I could see possibly owning a Kindle one day, though I have no burning desire to get one now, but as with the iPod, it would supplement, not replace the existing format.
The author had to go to the publishers; they had the presses, the publicists, and the access to the public via television appearances, contacts with wholesalers, etc. The new digital stores, a relatively unknown author can get his/her work before the audience quickly. They can self-publish on a Web site or contract directly with a store and be instantly available to e-readers around the world. Now the publishing houses own some very expensive scrap metal and logos.
Sigh. Yes, they certainly can publish a blog or even a book through a place like Lulu.com, but as anyone who has toured the blogosphere knows, there’s a whole lotta nobodies out there with a whole lotta nothin’ to say (and I certainly include myself in that description). Nobody has the time and patience to sift through the oceans of misspelled and poorly crafted essays and novellas online, just like nobody sits and listens to countless thousands of mp3s of various garage bands online. Anyone who does will be quickly begging for editors, publishers, anything to force some sort of Spencerian survival of the fittest into effect.
But again, that kind of optimistic “behold the power of pure, undiluted democracy” rhetoric is more amusing than anything else. The thing that eats at me is the relentless speeding up, the need to cram as many objects and as much action as possible into the shortest possible time and smallest possible space. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it many times again, but I really wish people had a wider perspective that would allow for things and activities to be enjoyed for their own sake, not as means to an end. It shouldn’t always be about the bottom line. Enough already with the incessant, obsessive drive to make everything sleeker, faster, shinier, more efficient. As shopworn as the saying may be, oftentimes half the fun is getting there.