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By now, we all know that the digital revolution is upon us. Everything that can be digitized (books, newspapers, music, pictures, banking, communication) is being digitized. Even things that seem impossible to digitize, such as friendship, are not immune to a digital makeover. In the context of education, one of the questions that arises is whether or not paper textbooks will survive. I think that paper books in general will survive (they will not disappear completely), but their decline is still very much underway.
The abundance of paper in our society is staggering: newspapers, magazines, receipts, notes, money, documents, posters, advertisements, flyers, wrappers, boxes, and books are around us every day. The amount of paper we encounter on a daily basis is enormous; it is one of the central things about human life and has been for centuries. It is easy, then, to understand why many of us take paper, especially the paper book, for granted. If we remove this veil, we can see the many benefits of paper books: they are flexible, easy to flip through, easy to mark your place in, you can write anywhere on them, you can loan them to your friends or sell them back to bookstores at will, they never have to be charged, they never need to be updated with new software or hardware, and they can withstand some pretty rough treatment (when is the last time your tablet withstood water damage?).
As a student, I think that the most important of the above benefits of paper books that I encounter is the ability to highlight passages and write in the margins. The immediacy of being able to read something a write a comment about it right next to it, or to highlight it, is something that I have not found e-books or computer programs able to duplicate yet.
The ability to loan books to friends or to sell them back to bookstores is also a major factor (especially for students). Textbooks are expensive; sometimes it is nice to be able to get one from a friend who took a certain class or to be able to sell them back to the school at the end of the semester. The expense of textbooks also shows the other main advantage: durability. Adding the possibility of breaking your e-reader with all your books on it is a frightening proposition for anyone, but especially for cash-strapped students. Paper books are likely to survive to some degree for these two reasons alone.
And yet, the benefits of digitized books are immense. As Ezra Klein from The Washington Post says, “I wasn’t at all impressed with the first generation of eBooks… But now? I have the Kindle application on my home computer, my work computer, my iPad, and my phone… I get more out of my books now, can read them in more places, can search back through them with more ease, [and] can integrate them into my job with less hassle.” Klein further points out that the e-reader is still a relatively new product. Right now what we are seeing is paper books translated into digital form. What happens when writers start writing books specifically for the digital format? How much more valuable would an e-textbook be if it had hyperlinks to relevant videos or articles implanted into each passage? And that is only scratching the surface of what writers are sure to come up with. Add to this that market forces are largely in favour of digitization, and the writing on the (Facebook) wall is fairly clear.
The one certainty in all of this is that change is slow. We tend to view paradigm shifts in human history as moments of rapid change, which they are, but a long, slow build up always precedes those moments.
The number of paper storyboard drawings at Pixar, up to the point that they released Ratatouille, in 2007, is indicative of how much paper we still use in our society, especially in our workplaces:
A Bug’s Life – 27,555
Toy Story 2 – 28,244
Monsters, Inc. – 46,024
Finding Nemo – 43,536
The Incredibles – 21,081
Cars – 47,000
Ratatouille – 72,000
People often say the future is now, but this is untrue. Now is when our knowledge and nostalgia of the past and our ideas and hopes for the future compete to create the actual future. We are nowhere near a mostly paperless society yet, and paper books will always have a place in our society, but we are unmistakably headed down the path of digitization.