Monday, August 16, 2010

Whose Future?

David Carnoy has written a nice piece, complete with a video clip, about the Espresso Book Machine, an on-demand printing device that has attracted considerable attention and has been deployed at the University of Texas Co-op, described by Carnoy as "the most profitable independent college bookstore in the United States." I have to wonder, however, why it was that this article should appear on Crave, which CNET describes as their "gadget blog." This was hardly a piece about "gorgeous gadgets and other crushworthy stuff" (in the words of the CNET description of their blog). Rather, this article provided some serious data points for those concerned about the future of publishing as a business, if not the future of the book itself.

From this point of view, it is important to consider Carnoy's conclusion:

Of course, those who argue that e-books are the real future, would suggest that the Espresso Book Machine, while impressively modern and forward thinking, is actually destined to become a relic before it has a chance to realize its potential. That said, for those looking for a more cost-effective alternative for printing and selling paper books--particularly the kind that only sell hundreds of copies--this "robot" may represent a much-needed lifeline.

As I read this I realized that any question about the future goes beyond the book itself to the nature of reading. I have nothing against the extent to which the e-book movement may have finally taken off into the realm of viability. I even saw a serious musician singing from one in a performance this past Friday evening. However, I do a lot of reading; and most of it would be classified as "heavy" or "scholarly." The fact is that none of these devices are equipped to handle the reading I do, which involves an extremely high level of annotation. Like it or not, the "affordances of paper" are still far better suited to scholarly activities, which include not only annotating but dealing with multiple texts at the same time, than a piece of hardware that was designed to provide a pleasant alternative for reading Eat, Pray, Love.

Admittedly, this is an egocentric point of view. It may be the last gasp of an endangered species. This is not to say that scholarship is in danger but only that the way I practice it is. There are certainly ways in which new generations of technology can support, and probably enhance, the sorts of scholarly practices we expect from undergraduates and those further up the academic food chain. From this point of view, the most important part of Carnoy's may be his observations about the economic viability of the Espresso. The more important "like it or not" is that technologies do not thrive simply because they are useful. They only survive if they are useful enough to support a revenue stream that will satisfy the stakeholders in that technology, and it is hard to imagine any advancement of scholarly practices securing such a revenue stream.

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