ebooks, Plato, and the unchanging agony of change

In a belated, post-Battledecks orgy of reading the judges’ blogs, I came across the strange librarian’s post on ebooks vs “real” books. She’s very much on the it’s-the-content-not-the-format side of things:

“Tree*” books, “real” books or just plain “books” as they’re often called have been around for 5,000 +/- years and now i swear there are more “ebooks vs books” writings than curls on my head. Why is that? Why does anyone care what format our stories, facts, conversations, and fun come in? Why are we so worried that tree books might be going away? Is it because they are “tradition”? Is it because “books” are what libraries are known for and if they go away, we think we’ll disappear too?

The mention of historical context got me to thinking this is not the first time I’ve heard a debate about how the changing format of our texts will destroy the way we think:

For your invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through lack of practice in using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from inside, themselves by themselves: you have discovered an elixir not of memory but of reminding. To your students you give an appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it; having heard much, in the absence of teaching, they will appear to know much when for the most part they know nothing, and they will be difficult to get along with, because they have acquired the appearance of wisdom instead of wisdom itself.

The author here is Plato (Phaedrus, 274-5, C.J. Rowe translation). The entity being addressed is Thoth; his invention is writing.

And from the vantage point of today, the argument looks, at first, ludicrous. Anyone who has felt the quiet electricity of standing in a reference section — or the frenetic sparks of the internet — knows that our outboard brains, our ability to offload the details of our knowledge without losing capacity to use it, our conversations with people far separated from ourselves in space and time (vide, say, Plato) has enriched us beyond measure. I cannot imagine — literally cannot imagine — my existence in a world without written text; who I would be, how I would be any good at anything.

But let us look again. Plato — or, at least, his Socrates — laments that the invention of writing means that we will lose the prodigious capacity for memory that characterized oral cultures, that by learning through reading alone rather than in conversation with a learned teacher we will lose the substance of wisdom. And we see, today, concerns that there are things you can learn and do face-to-face that perhaps you lose online. And I know, from Walter J. Ong’s mind-blowing Orality and Literacy (ironically, one of the few books whose margins I have ever written in), that there was a prodigious capacity for memory in oral cultures, ten-thousand-word epics memorized, whole ways of thought that we have, in fact, lost.

I think the gain was worth the loss. No, let me be firmer: I know that the incomprehensible explosion of human knowledge and economy and technology, the expansion of our conversations and horizons, the unlocking of potential, the, yes, collective memory, has showered on us such literal and metaphorical wealth that our losses clink all-but-inaudibly in the scale by comparison.

But it does not mean there were not losses. And insofar as some people have concerns about what we may lose if we become an overwhelmingly ebook world — those concerns may be nothing but the blindness we all have in the face of change or they may be prescient and terrifically important — but there will be some kind of loss, and it won’t go away even if what we gain is — orders of magnitude — more important.

17 thoughts on “ebooks, Plato, and the unchanging agony of change

  1. I have used this same argument, and the same passage from Socrates, to make a point to those that look down on the youth of today gaming, and using the internet, and social networking, and all the other things that one generation decries about the next. From writing, to the telephone, to recorded music, to the ebook…each age identifies their demon, and the next embraces it.


  2. I think you’re dead-on as far as the ancient history and anthropology go. That quote is often used by people who don’t understand that something was lost.

    More importantly, perhaps, something was changed. The very form of Plato’s dialogues shows it. We don’t write dialogues today so much. I suspect the analogue will be that ebooks teach us not to write books anymore–they are a transitional fictionb between books and the “fully-interneted” text.

    I haven’t made up my mind about the net effect of all the change. What bothers me about ebooks is that, so far, the positive effect is not very substantial. So far, ebooks feel mostly like a change in medium, with some minor gains for portability and instant access, not a true leap. Then again, computers at first looked like better slide rules, so I expect some leaping to take place.

    All told, I worry in two directions:

    First, the “treasures to come” may not be treasures at all. Was the TV a net gain for society? I’m not so sure. On average, it made us less social, less happy, murdered many richer forms of entertainment and made us fat and, until very recently, limited our options to a scary degree. I don’t see anything so bad coming for ebooks, but I am worried that ebooks will merely collapse into the internet. The internet is great, but there’s a lot to be gained from what will come to seem the boring limitations of a book. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Second, and more importantly, the already-apparent cost is going to be very substantial. As I’ve blogged a number of times, the ownership/licensing change ebooks are brining is at least as significant as the medium change. We are moving from a time where we owned our books free and clear, and could do with them whatever we wanted, to a world where we really only rent them, under the hopefully benign authority of a central server, and can only do those things our licensors will allow.

    I see a lot of downside to that–an end to informal lending, new threats to expression under oppressive governments, and as I’ve argued, a very serious challenge to the viability of libraries. I certainly see no upside on the licensing side. I suppose ebooks will end up a little cheaper once publishers and authors can ensure they can’t be used by anyone other than the purchaser. I consider that a pretty slim gain. Put another way, I’d rather own my books, and have nobody tabulating data on my reading, than get a few bucks off and submit to permanent, monitored rental.


    1. I completely agree about the ownership vs. licensing thing. That’s something I’ve only fairly recently started to notice, and I’m still working on getting my brain around all the ramifications — I suspect many of them are deep and subtle, reaching as they do into all sorts of spheres (library budgeting and policy, personal and social reading habits…). I don’t myself own an ereader (in part because the ownership model/DRM/permanence of content issues weird me out), so I’m not personally experienced with how all this stuff plays out, which limits my instincts about it.


  3. Incidentally, I erred in saying “I’d rather own my books.” Actually, I mean “I’d rather YOU owned your books” too.

    Obviously, I can’t control you, but insofar as the upswing in ebooks changes literary culture for the worse, it matters to me.

    The case I’m waiting for is when Amazon or someone else is forced to turn over reading records to the Chinese, who use it to put some people in prison. I think that’s only a matter of time, and when it happens, I think a number of ebook advocates will have a change of heart about the regressive licensing changes that have accompanied a promising new technology.


    1. Mind you I am also curious about what the alternatives look like. The ease of copying with electronic content *is* an important difference from print — what do publishing economics look like when electronic content is the norm, but we’re in a world that can make DRM & privacy advocates happy? *Is* there a sustainable model there? (Publishing economics: one of those other things I have only just started to get my brain around, and don’t know nearly enough about — I imagine you know a million bajillion times more than I, so I welcome your thoughts.)


  4. I agree with Tim.

    Obviously, I would never discourage reading in any form, but ownership is a great point. Socrates ridiculed people who collected texts because they acted that as if by owning the books, they owned the knowledge contained in them–but they didn’t, unlike those like Socrates who memorized everything. Perhaps it could be argued that we have more knowledge available to us now, but do we really KNOW it, or do we just take for granted the fact that we can access that information anytime we want via books?

    When it comes to eBooks, you have the same problem, only this information can be erased with as little as a simple magnet. At least with books, the knowledge is THERE, physically owned by a person or entity, and isn’t easily altered. Not so with eBooks.

    Obviously technology is going to keep changing books and information no matter what. But the same is true today as it was in Socrates day: the only information you truly own is that which is in your head.


  5. I agree with Tim’s concern about licensing. I am also skeptical that any of these new formats will be as long-lasting as tree-books can be — most digital media aren’t very good, not just because technology changes but because the media themselves degrade. Perhaps the desire for written artifacts to *be* long-lasting is itself something that will change?


    1. I think we already have, at least implicitly, a lack of desire for written artifacts to be long-lasting, in that as writing (and publishing) have gotten more and more accessible, we are more prone to use writing to produce content that we expect to be ephemeral. I was online well before Google, and I acted in ways that were simply not possible post-Google (and don’t necessarily interface well with suddenly being part of the record; I’ve had to take steps to anonymize some of my teenage online activity). I think Twitter works in part because it is hard to dig up tweets that aren’t recent; people are comfortable with the exposure because it has some of the same ephemeral feel as a conversation. (LC’s archiving of tweets kind of freaks me out, honestly.)

      So yeah, when written artifacts are conversational, I think we may already not desire them to be lasting, in the same way we neither expect nor desire our oral conversations to last. Mind you I think there’s an interesting zone where writing-as-document and writing-as-conversation bleed into each other (like…blogs), where I imagine people’s expectations or desires will be similarly messy.

      I think there’s also a content/artifact distinction that matters differently to different people. I was at a talk about the Google Books digitization, which is very much oriented around capturing the textual content of books and as such ignores non-textual elements that may be very important for certain kinds of scholarship (marginalia, interesting patterns of damage, physical bowdleriation, …). And yeah, those scholars really care about book-as-artifact. But most of my friends are in fields where the only important content would be the text, and in that situation…maybe there is no desire for the artifact to last, as long as you can find the information somewhere?

      (And, of course, there’s the talismanic aspect of books — I just like living in a house where I have more books than strictly fit on the bookshelves, which have already colonized most available space. And I like the idea of my daughter growing up in a house like that. If all our books were ebooks — wouldn’t she be surrounded by content and never even know it? isn’t there a value to the sensory obviousness of a book triggering serendipity? Maybe future generations will learn to have that kind of serendipitous exploration of things you can’t see without a special interface (maybe we really have already learned that, given how much time people spend on Wikipedia)…)

      Enh, it’s late and I can’t be concise. What I’m getting at is: there are many reasons people might want writing; some of those reasons suggest a desire for permanence, some do not.


  6. FWIW: I misread Jason’s tweet, and thought he had written the post. I wouldn’t have gone so crazy if I hadn’t thought this was a friend’s blog!


  7. Tim! Thanks for having me and some others come and read this post.

    I really just want to say I buy eBooks when a book is just brain candy to me. I have a cheap tiny Sony reader but the moment a book becomes important to me, (which happens to be fairly often) the eBook version is abandoned for a hard cover.


    1. Thanks for coming to read it! 🙂

      And for all that I just said I don’t have an ebook reader, I admit I behave just like you when it comes to videos. I’m totally happy to buy whole seasons of Mad Men or Glee or what-have-you from iTunes, mainline them, and then delete them to reclaim the hard drive space. If I wanted to watch something over and over, I’d get a DVD, but that’s just not how I relate to movies.


    1. Thanks! (I find my outboard brains totally crucial. I lived before Google (gmail, maps, …)? Really? How?)


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