When exactly did America turn into a Ray Bradbury novel?

17 11 2011

First they take the books away from Occupy Wall Street. Next, they take the books away from college professors. Think I’m kidding? This is from the Chronicle:

In this bookless college, all reading­­—which would still, of course, be both required and encouraged—would be done electronically. Any physical books in students’ possession at the beginning of the year would be exchanged for electronic versions, and if a student was later found with a physical book, it would be confiscated (in return for an electronic version). The physical books would be sent to places and institutions that wanted or needed them. Professors would have a limited time in which to convert their personal libraries to all-digital formats, using student helpers who would also record the professors’ marginal notes.

Why exactly does this guy want to take all the books on paper off college campuses, exactly?:

Because it makes a bold statement about the importance of moving education into the future. It is, in a sense, only a step removed from saying, “We no longer accept theses on scrolls, papyrus, or clay tablets. Those artifacts do still exist in the world, but they are not the tools of this institution.” Or: “In this institution we have abandoned the slide rule. Those who find it useful and/or comforting can, of course, use it, but not here.”

I can’t tell you how tired I’m getting of reading smug, self-interested articles by edtech entrepreneurs. Physical books are not obsolete because you declare them to be so. In many ways, physical books are much better than the electronic ones for pedagogical purposes. For example, students can’t check Facebook on physical books while you’re discussing them in class.

More importantly, with physical books you don’t get an intermediary between you and the author who can restrict access to unpopular ideas. A few months ago, one of my friends had her Kindle stolen from her car. She called Amazon and they wiped it out. You realize, of course, that Amazon can do that any time it wants to, right? That’s the technology that their new-lending library is predicated upon. In other words, in our glorious all e-book future, every book we “own” could disappear in the blink of an eye.

Yet we’re told the world has to go this direction in the name of “progress”:

[W]e would wean students (and scholars) off the physical books of the past, just as they were once weaned off scrolls when new and more efficient technology came along.

Efficient? Really? If I want every student to be at the same place of the same edition of the same book, all I have to is tell them the page number. Many e-books don’t even have page numbers! [Even if they did, the size of the screen varies so the pagination would likely be different for all of them.] Besides, if you get to read the exact same text in the paper and e-book version of the same work, how on earth is the electronic version any more efficient? The ideas are the same. They’re certainly not cheaper in all cases.

The other day, I asked my favorite used book buyers, a married couple, whether e-books had begun to affect their business. “Not at all,” they said, practically in unison. If e-books are so great, why can’t we let the market take its course? Destroying all physical libraries will make it much easier to force people to buy shiny objects that most of them don’t want and none of them actually need.

The destruction of the OWS Library is obviously a powerful symbol of this scary future. When they come for my books, I think I’ll memorize Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class because it’s likely to come in handy.



3 responses

17 11 2011

It brings to mind the apocryphal story of Caliph Omar and the destruction of the library at Alexandria (which had already been party burned down by Julius Cesar a few hundred years before).

The Twenty First century ed tech despot,

“If these books are in agreement with the electronic canon, then we have no need for them, if they contradict the contents of the electronic canon, then destroy them.”

28 11 2011
A Necessary Source on Education Reform « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics

[…] education. He tends to focus on issues involving online education and technology. For example, he recently critiqued e-books and the “scaling” of […]

1 12 2011
Nancy Morgan

I found the responses to the Chronicle article most heartening. The most popular responses were incredulous, and some asked, reasonably, if it had been a satire.
The deeper issue to me is the Chronicle editorial board, for there are crackpot ideas everywhere. Which ones do we allow into a respected forum, in the name of free speech? Respected forums should recognize that their reputations mean something to their audience.
It would be more reasonable for the Chronicle to publish an essay about the benefits of textbook-free classrooms, as one solution of many, not a panacea.
This particular article on the subject and its forum are mismatched.

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