While I admit that I am excited about e-books and their possibilities both as an educator and individual reader, I find myself a print addict. Anything more than a couple pages long that I need to read with care goes to the printer. I shudder at the thought of trying to read anything of substance on a PDA or, worse, a cell phone screen. I've not purchased a Kindle. My dresser is stacked with - gasp - a dozen or more hardbacks and paperbacks. Amazon, Barnes & Noble and printer cartridge manufacturers all love me.
Am I a latent Luddite?
Probably, but Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal (2007) 74 pages by William Powers, Media Critic for the National Journal, helped me understand a little better why many of us still cling to hardcopy books, magazines, newspapers, and printouts of digital content. It's a fascinating, uh, "paper."
One of the more interesting sections describes the early impact the printing press had on hand-written manuscripts. Handwriting, according to historians became even more widespread and important after Gutenberg. He uses this as an lesson, writing: "We have seen that new technologies do not necessarily eliminate old ones, at least not as quickly or predictably as is often assumed. However, when new modes of communication arrive, they do often change the role played by existing media." (p.26) and argues that "paper's work has been shifting away from storage and toward communication." Communication being the end user experience of actually reading.
Power's describes a Sellen and Harper study that ascribes to paper four "affordances" - inherent characteristics that make it particularly useful, especially for concentrated study:
- Tangibility (Our hands can do some of the work our brain does in navigation.)
- Spatial flexibility (We can spread out paper limitlessly, not confined by the size of a monitor)
- Tailorability (We can easily mark up printed documents.)
- Manipulability (We can put one page beside another for easy comparison.)
He concludes, "within a multi-tasking context, printed documents make it easier to focus on each specific task."
There are two other characteristics of paper that Power describes that resonated with me.
The first is that is is immutable. "Unlike a Web page that can be changed in the blink of an eye, a paper document implies a certain commitment to the content it carries." (p. 49) This summarizes my concerns over Wikipedia - not that the information it contains may be inaccurate. But that it may be accurate today and inaccurate 10 seconds later. (And frightens me to think how easy it would be today for Orwell's Big Brother to finish his task of revising all of history.) This may also explain why I take a good deal more time and care writing an 800 word magazine column than a longer blog entry - no going back to "re-write" the column.
The second characteristic is that paper is a selective medium. "A hard-copy document can only hold only as much information as will fit on its pages, and it cannot link to other sources except by verbal reference. ... the immensity of the digital trove also makes it inscrutable, unwieldy, and, at times, overwhelming." Power quotes Brown and Dugid in The Social Life of Information: ...it has become increasingly clear that libraries are less 'collections.' than useful selections that gain usefulness from what they exclude as much as what they hold." If that is not the best argument for excellent collection development strategies in school libraries, I don't know what is.
Anyway, Hamlet's Blackberry is well worth taking the time to read. I suggest you print it out and do so.