Material vs Digital

I have a Nook. I love it. Every book I buy anymore, I buy digital. When I ask for books as gifts, I remind people that they can give ebooks via websites just as easily as ordering paper copies.

But when I borrow a book from the library, I still opt for paper.

There’s a couple reasons for this. I like the library, and I like a reason to drop by, even if just a couple minutes. And my library is in Chinatown, a really fun part of DC that I like an excuse to visit, too. And, honestly, it can be a little easier when I read on the metro—for example, sometimes a little bump and make my Nook’s touchscreen jump 50 pages ahead, and it’s a real pain to get back to where I was.

But the main deterrent for me is that, the way ebooks are monitored these days, it’s often just as hard to borrow an ebook as a real one. I often have to wait just as long before it’s available. Because even though, from a technical standpoint, the digital file could multiply as many times as there is a demand for, the publishing business model isn’t built to withstand that kind of open sharing.

There’s been some debate around the publishing blogs recently about the idea of selling used ebooks the way people sell used paper copies. People want to be able to buy used versions at lower prices. Because that fits the existing model. People want to think about their digital books the same way they think about their paper books.

I don’t blame the publishing industry for this, or the readers who are shaping how these changes occur. It’s natural to want things to stay the same. But here’s the thing. Digital is totally different from material goods.

Selling a used paperback book works because when it’s new, it’s in perfect condition, glossy and neatly packed, nice blank, perfectly flat pages and that wonderful new book smell. Then after it’s used, it’s been banged up, underlined, pages folded back, etc. There is a difference in quality. But a used ebook is the exact same digital file as a new ebook. (Okay fine, you can highlight an ebook, technically. But it’s nothing to remove it.)

We’re stuck thinking in terms of material. This goes far beyond just the publishing industry—the internet is a powerful platform for all artists to share their work. But we’re not going to be able to make the most of it until we stop trying to make it work like the material model we already know.

Is it possible for us to get over this mental hurdle?

Every generation, something comes along that advances and shifts society in a way that the older generation can never quite connect to. For example, the shift to  texting among post-millenials today. I think that this might be our generation’s hurdle. Forward-thinking individuals will take some significant strides, I’m sure … but I think that, by and large, it’s possible we’ll never quite make the full leap. I think that to truly shift to digital thinking, it requires minds that are free from the old model. The next generation will be just that. They’ll grow up in a world were material representations of ideas and art will be completely unnecessary.

So sure, this shift in thinking is going to happen. It’s inevitable. But is our generation—the last to experience a world that was mostly material-goods-based—capable of making this shift ourselves? I just don’t know.

What do you think? 

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2 thoughts on “Material vs Digital

  1. Sometimes memes are naturally selected as slowly as genes. If the young are never exposed to the old model, they never have to make the shift either. So is it a shift as much as it is the selection of one meme over another? Most people who used the old model just die never having used digital books. Those few and precious forward thinking types carry the rest of us. They always have. This is one of the most fascinating posts I’ve read in quite a bit, Emily. Thank you.

    • Very true, that’s an interesting way to look at this question.

      Thanks Hoombah–inspired by a conversation I had with some friends last weekend. I’m lucky to roll with some pretty intelligent people!

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