Books: “An Outdated Technology?”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in no small part by Headmaster James Tracy, who is quoted in the article as saying, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.”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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