Month: October 2011

Dinosaurs, the Real FB Generation, and Why Books are Already Obsolete

Over the holiday festivities I met my girlfriend’s cousin, Adi (age 10), who was ecstatically describing the latest cool things she had just seen on YouTube. I’ve obviously long grown accustomed, with my peers and friends, to not have to suffix “you know, that video site?” when referring to YouTube – but I remember, not long ago, when ‘on YouTube’ wasn’t as universally recognized as ‘on the radio’ or ‘in the newspaper’. More specifically, it was a refreshing experience to hear a fourth-grader refer to it as something axiomatically natural. “You know,” I told Adi, “when Limor [said girlfriend] and I were your age, YouTube didn’t exist.” Adi looked at me incredulously. “Naaaah,” she scoffed, “you’re just making fun of me.” “No, I’m serious,” I said, realizing I was ‘dinosauring’ myself with my own words, “there was no YouTube. No Facebook. No cable TV [in Israel]. barely any email. Do you use email?” I asked her, not sure what would be the answer. “Of course,” she replied, “I use my dad’s, I also use his birthdate so Facebook will let me use it.”

If you’re reading these words, you’ve ‘probably’ heard of the huge revolution that the Internet (and the Western world) is going through over the past decade or so. Namely, at least in my circles, it could be headlined as the new world of Google, YouTube, Facebook, and the iPhone. (Of course there’s way more, but to brief, these names convey the appropriate sentiment, and I will use them as representatives.) Some of us have called ourselves (those children of the late 80’s-90’s, say?) as ‘the Facebook generation’, regarding the massive changes in lifestyle, socialization, and focus of interest into and via the realm of cyber. I think it’s safe to say, now that Adi’s grade is in double-digits and has never known a Facebook-less reality, that we are not the “Facebook generation”, or whatever you want to call it. The real “Facebook generation” are those growing up into this world, sentient of a non-cyber world only as a history tale. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that (now-defunct) symbol of civilization and intellect – books.

Books have ‘always’ (as in, for as long as matters for this discussion) been a/the symbol of culture and knowledge. With gradual, relentless onset of computers and information technology, the question has been asked more and more – will we reach an age where books, in their present physical form, are not necessary? Obviously, more and more of the functions books have played have been relegated to IT. Google. News & history websites. Wikipedia. Entertainment sites (in the broad sense, including social sites). At one point eReaders such as Kindle and its ilk started to directly contend with books, in an ‘anything you can do, I can do better’ confrontation.

This ‘battle’, if you wish, has not been a swift victory for moderness. Many of us would say something along the lines of “sure, all this new technology is pretty cool, but the hardware is *just not good enough yet*, and there’s still something to be said for ‘the feel’ of pages in your hand”. Some would go as far as to claim that ‘dead tree format’, as in printed pages, even still possess some inherent ‘features’ that are superior to anything electronic. To name some:
– You can read the morning newspaper/your favorite book on your laptop/iPad instead of using real paper, but if you spill the milk, you’ll sure wish it was just paper.
– Batteries still run out damn fast, on most appliances, and you’re just not always next to an outlet.
– Marking a note / dogearing a page is easy on real books, not so easy
– Reading an eBook strains the eyes.
– “Physical books just feel better.”

Etc. It seems the general consensus would be something like “sure, electronics is good for a lot of things now, but you still need real books” – both for their better ‘look & feel’ (how fitting a phrase for this topic) and for their still superior features, some of which are mentioned above – “perhaps sometime in the far future, we’ll have Star Trek-like holographical books” – but never in our lifetime.

I think this consensus is wrong. It is wrong precisely for the same reasons that we are not the FB generation; it is the children born from year 2000 and onwards who are. When I grew up (in Jerusalem and in Michigan, USA) you played outside and you read books. Slowly but surely email and the Internet started to appear and to gain more and more dominance, especially with each game-changer such as the big players mentioned above. Each of these, though, was considered at first a ‘toy’, fitting for the tech-savvy, then gradually moving towards mainstream use. I am not referring to the social acceptance, but rather the psychological acceptance of each user – OK, I’ll learn how to use email, but I’ll still use the phone for ‘important stuff’. Sure, I’m now hooked on FB like the rest of the planet, but I still remember when it was just a funny toy and nobody really needed it. And most importantly – I can get any information I need online, both reference and prose – but I will still believe in the importance of a physical book, of the educational effect of ‘turning the pages’ and whatnot.

This is dinosaur-speak. It is not a fault because it is inevitable, but we should realize it for what it is. We still view books as something that technology have not yet sufficiently replaced, but it has. Completely. Not for all of us, mind you – probably not for you, and certainly not for me. I am still uncomfortable reading prose electronically. I love my morning (physical) newspaper. When I am programming, I want my specs printed out and *next* to the computer. When I am hiking, I want to hold a physical map. All of these actions can be excused with various justifications, but that’s all they are – excuses. The truth is I am (relatively, at 26) an old man, accustomed to my old ways, and inevitably believing that change is either not good, or not yet good enough. Even viewing myself as a ‘hip, with-it’ tech-oriented younger, it’s too late – I’ve grown up with (dead-tree) books, and so I believe they have something new technology can never replace. People protested the onset of the email, the word processor, the Web 2.0 crowd-content-creation, etc. Everyone thinks what he grew up with can not yet be replaced by the new technology. In the case of books – just like any other previously replaced tool – it is the generation that will *grow up* without them that will seal the deal.

Books are an obsolete, inferior piece of technology. This is not a future prediction, but a present state. Books have had a (very) good run, being the forefront (representative) of technology for eons, but it’s over. Once using FB is natural for a 10-year old, books have lost their psychological edge of familiarity to the user. If Adi wants to learn about an art period, she’ll look in up on Wikipedia. If she wants to know about the major stages of World War II, she’ll look it up on YouTube. Or on a podcast. That goes for anything reference-related. Naturally, prose will come to her easier on some sort of eReader, than as a dead, unconnected tree. Of course eReaders, smart phones, etc., are not yet perfect technologically, and not very cheap. They are, however, improving in all ways amazingly fast – just think of the how every has changed in the last 10 years, and imagine what the 10 years to come must hold in store.

The Rubicon has already been crossed, and there’s no going back. A Kindle today costs about as much as three (!) hard-cover books, and the price will only continue to drop. How will we ever be able to convince a child to buy a book instead of an eBook? The previous is heavy, disposable, destructable, available only while you carry it with you, no search, no copy, no share, no embedded multimedia, more expensive, etc. It’s unthinkable. It would be the same as trying to convince you to send a physical letter to someone instead of an email. Sure, maybe as a gimmick – but not as the everyday use-case.

If you’re used to reading ordinary books – such as I am – you may still stick to it for a while. But if you or your children have been born in the 21st century in the Western World – you will never know the life of reading ‘regular’ books; your life’s reading – right with the socialization and communication – will be electronic. As for the rest of us dead-tree-printing dinosaurs, we can be satisfied in knowing we are living in amazing times, viewing the onset of a new lifestyle.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve had enough computer for today, and I’m going to read a book in the sun. It’s about dinosaurs.