21st Century Book Burning

Peter JonesInformation Ecology, Wu Wei

Boston.com reports on the end of books, as we know them, at least for this Boston area prep school.

Cushing Academy has all the hallmarks of a New England prep school, with one exception.

This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks – the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

This is a case of a foresight pathology. The adopters have accepted a technological frame of the inevitability of a technological preference. A technological frame (see sociologist Wanda Orlikowski’s work), is a belief system about technology, and refers to a collective mental model that projects how a new system represents a preferred way of working and thinking. Often, the frame is socially adopted in an organization without yet having evidence that the new world order delivers on its promise. Sometimes, that promise is enhanced by providing value-added technologies unrelated to the mission. (While print books disappear, the new technologically-enhanced Cushing Learning Center includes a $12K espresso machine. Lattes in the “library.”)

This is a perfect social foresight case study for designers and technology developers. By making the claim that “digital eBooks are the future” the school takes the audacious step of destroying an entire channel of media, disregarding how they are used as cognitive artifacts today, and how they might be used in the future. They are conflating technology (eBook readers) with media (the effective channel of books in print), the delivery system (e.g., Kindle) with the activity (reading for comprehension). It is a management blunder with awesome implications. Many of these implications will not even be discoverable, because the structuration of technology (Orlikowski again) may create a new generation of  students and their educators that will adapt to the new system and may not have recourse to revert to books. It would be unfair to students to test them on learning not provided on and privileged by their assigned Kindles. It may also represent an unfair test case of the system, since these are prep school students, and already have the best test-taking education that money and status can purchase.

The move is extremely short-sighted, anti-cultural, and anti-historical. Where do you start to critique this story? (What would McLuhan say? Oh wait, I know  this one, I wrote about it last year: What else might the eBook be? )

Books did not “replace” scrolls as a technology. Scrolls were used in different situations than books once “books” were designed. A medium was invented that served different social purposes. Books were not invented as a way to democratize knowledge, as we like to believe. The codex book evolved over centuries, and even when moveable type was invented, it took centuries longer before wood pulp paper  was invented and allowed publishers to produce books cheaply enough to be owned by any other than  the elite.

Books are not cool because they are sensual, tangible, neatly-designed objects as people like to remind us. They actually are a superior cognitive artifact with better semantic properties than eBooks will have for some time. People are also confusing text with communication (what will happen to the role of images and dense diagrams in storytelling?)

Another common scenario is that of writing, creative work, and knowledge production. A proximally-positioned set of well-selected books helps you think through ideas. (You try flipping through the Sony reader to show simultaneously, on your desk, the places in 4-5 books where Herbert Simon’s quotes about design are mentioned). The texts occupy position, and afford the weight of personal memory. Visible stickers and bookmarks are attached to most of my active books, pointing to current or perpetual ideas.

By presupposing a technological superiority and determinism, educators risk creating a maladapted and biased generation of graduates who consume and create all their information objects from the same devices. Right now I am surrounded by about a dozen books and dozens of printed articles.  Do you know of a serious scholar who is not so immersed in a personalized media environment? Are we really going to be creating a generation of hyper-efficient Kindle-toting prep school grads?

And a final thought – what cultural learning, what curatorial care was lost with the disposal of the print texts? How would we even know? What is the role of librarians as custodians of the accessibility of the different treatments of cultural and historical knowledge? A physical book placed in the shelves guarantees that the book is available even if out of print or out of favor.  With eBook subscriptions, vendors and publishers ultimately decide what content is available to the library. Yes, there may be thousands of titles available. But their value was not determined by a match to the learning needs of the community. The curatorial function is delegated to “content aggregators.”

And costs are now a variable expense, largely determined by vendors. When a librarian buys a copy of Catcher in the Rye, hundreds of students over the years can read the same familiar maroon-covered book at their leisure, untethered to networks. You can buy every student a Kindle, but every student will need their own $8-10 license of the title to read the same book. Over the course of a few years, that could add up to a thousand-dollar “Catcher.”

Why can’t print books and eBooks just get along on the Web together?