Books: “An Outdated Technology?”

From the annals of VERY BAD IDEAS comes this story in today’s Boston Globe. Cushing Academy, a prep school located in western Massachusetts, has decided to dispense with its library of printed books — more than 20,000 volumes in all — and switch over entirely to digital media resources. The change was prompted in no small part by Headmaster James Tracy, who is quoted in the article as saying, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.”

To fill the void, Cushing is spending about a half-million dollars on large, flat-screen data displays, laptop hookups, Amazon Kindles, Sony Readers — oh, and a $12,000 cappuccino machine. (I went to public school. The cappuccino machine seems a little — how should I put it? — indulgent to me.)

If you’ve read Late Age of Print, then you’ll know that I’m not one of those knee-jerk bibliophiles who believes the printed page is a sacred thing. I do plenty of e-reading and e-research myself (I wouldn’t blog if I didn’t find value in the “e”), plus I’m not so short-sighted as to believe that print is the only, or even the best, conveyor of information and ideas. But with that said, Cushing’s abandonment of its traditional library resources seems like an ill-considered move to me.

First, it upsets the balance of the whole “media ecology.” There’s a famous media historian and theorist by the name of Harold Innis, who differentiated between what he called “time binding” and “space binding” technologies. The former help to facilitate the endurance of words and ideas, while the latter help to facilitate the extension of messages quickly, across vast geographic distances. For this reason Innis suggested that printed books lend themselves well to the building and maintaining of tradition, a tradition grounded in an engagement with objects that are the material bearers of the past. Electronic media, on the other hand, he saw as more instrumental technologies of transmission. They are less about the creation and preservation of a community across time than they are about its expansion into and across new territories.

Whether or not you agree with Innis, it’s clear that different media do different things; each medium has different strengths. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to foster as robust a media ecosystem as you can, rather than drive certain “species” toward extinction?

My other concern (as readers of this blog well know) is the compulsion schools and other institutions are beginning to feel to switch over to proprietary e-reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle. What concerns me more than anything is the fact that, at least in the case of Kindle, you’re dealing with what Jonathan Zittrain calls a “tethered appliance.” Amazon keeps a record of your bookmarks, highlights, notes, and more on its server cloud. How is the imaginative life of reading affected when you can no longer be sure that another isn’t reading over your shoulder?

Cushing Academy just gave away 20,000 printed books. They’re not getting them back. This is an object lesson in what not to do in the digital age.

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8 comments

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  2. [...] “Books:  An Outdated Technology?” from The Late Age of Print blog [...]

  3. Phil says:

    While this question might not directly link to this blog post specifically, I was wondering if you have thought or blogged about other devices besides the Kindle and/or the Sony e-reader. What about Barnes and Noble’s e-reading device that you can download on your mobile phone? Do you believe the implications are the same? I would love to hear your thoughts.

  4. [...] Ted (4 Sep 2009) Books: “An outdated technology?” The Late Age of Print [...]

  5. Ted Striphas says:

    @Phil: Sorry for the lag in responding. At present I do not believe that the B&N e-reader poses as many worries as, say, the Kindle, if for no other reason than B&N still fancies itself to be a bookseller and not, like Amazon, a technology/web services company.

    Then again, the issue that lies in the middle of all this is that every one of the devices you mention is what Jonathan Zittrain calls a “tethered appliance,” which means that it’s connected to some (corporate) entity who maintains rights to greater and lesser degrees over the device & its content. Right now I’m writing an essay about what it may mean to learn to read on a device in which one’s privacy and Fourth Amendment rights are anything but guaranteed.

  6. Thomas Bailey says:

    Traditional books are best for subjects and titles that will be enjoyed for centuries. The electronic format is best for more transient subjects. Encyclopedias would be a good candidate for the digital format because they need to be updated frequently. Many newspapers have either gone digital or will soon go digital. Some magazines have also gone digital. This would leave out people who do not have access to the internet. Converting print to digital entails some challenges, most of them dealing with compatibility. With photos, JPEG has been well-established. Text is usually stored as HTML. In the early days of computers, compatibility was rarely an issue because data was rarely transmitted. Today, transmission of data is routine, made possible by having standardized formats, JPEG for pictures, MP3 for audio, HTML for text, etc.

  7. Jon Peirce says:

    Raving lunacy! Dr. Tracy will raise up a generation of students with no historical consciousness, because there is an inherent presentist bias against history in electronic media. No doubt many lazy or undisciplined students will cry out to be sent to Cushing, because they won’t have to read books there, but these are students any serious school should want to be without.

    I am at a loss to understand this. What particularly mystifies me is why anyone would get rid of an entire book collection. No doubt many of the items in the collection are not available electronically and could not be replaced.

    I am surprised that there hasn’t been more outcry about this. In my view, the accrediting authorities should look seriously at revoking Cushing’s accreditation. Dr. Tracy’s action suggests that it is no longer a school to be taken seriously. Even if the accrediting authorities don’t act, parents and students should, voting with their feet to avoid this den of anti-intellectualism.

  8. Oscar says:

    I attend cushing academy and I can tell you for a fact that we read books ALL DAY.

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