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Books vs. E-Books


March 17, 2013

Doug Hadden, VP Products

The role of the ‘book’ has changed

The e-books backlash is in full force.

  • E-books as the vulgar fast-food of literature: wasted calories and low brain power
  • E-books as poor substitutes for the real thing: the visceral beauty and tactile feel
  • E-books, as part of a culture of turning humans into cyborgs

Not to mention the backlash against bloggers, the lament for “real journalism” and the dangers of technology determinism.

What is missing in this debate about the value of e-books? The defenders of the traditional “printed book” fail to realize that the printed book is technology. Mechanical and industrial age technology. The printing press also generated a technology backlash. And, a printing press bubble because most literate persons preferred the higher quality hand-produced book.

The introduction of ‘book technology’ may not have had the humorous impact described below.

McLuhan studied the impact of the printing press techonology on culture: nationalism and rationalism as two important outcomes.

Not to mention that the phonetic alphabet is technology as well.

Marshall McLuhan explained the impact of the printing press decades ago. He described why the role of the book has changed. In the following embedded video, look to

  • 0:59: notions of “right and wrong” belonging to the literary man
  • 2:48: books do not allow us to be “with it”
  • 5:01: books are a “teaching machine”
  • 5:45: books as linear, part of the assembly line

McLuhan also found this notion of technology turning us into robots as a “simple minded idea” as presented in another video at 3:01 that isn’t embeddable. McLuhan at 5:13 also points out that the book has ceased to be a package.

Is the gradual replacement of printed books with e-books a bad thing?

Have e-books killed the printed book star?

All vested interests object to technology change that upsets the status quo. Socrates was against the written word. I’m not suggesting that those against the e-book are rent-seekers trying to preserve the past. (Some in the traditional publishing business are rent-seeking). My sense is that many of those who decry these technology changes believe that technology such as e-book readers have less value. I believe that this is an elitist view

McLuhan addressed this notion of “value” of a new medium in a famous discussion with Norman Mailer in the video embedded below.

  • 4:43: that books heralded in the fragmentation and specialization of the industrial age
  • 6:45: most people live in a nostalgic rear-view mirror view of society
  • 16:40: despite Mailer’s objection, McLuhan points out that we cannot pass a value judgement on this move to the electronic age

The printed book medium has not been a universally positive influence. Nationalism has seen the rise of conflict. Some, like John Ralston Saul , have shown that rationalism and the “dictatorship of reason” may not have been a good thing either.We have to recognize that we need to compare the benefits of technology, not assume that the incumbent technology has little or no negative consequences.

From mechanical to digital

Printed books waste resources and contribute to climate change. Trees are harvested to create paper. (As many Canadian know: we might have a lot of trees but pulp mills are not pleasant things). Books are transported. Fill warehouses, stores, libraries and homes (that require heating and cooling). Books that do not sell well get sold at lower prices – or get disposed into land fill.

Traditional printed books are not sustainable as teaching machines. These books cannot be easily transported to developing countries to build human capacity. We often talk about the “digital divide” as an inhibitor of development. Smartphones, tablets and e-book readers provide more knowledge than a truckload of books because they can contain truckloads of books. And, there has been innovation to increase storage, improve interactivity, extend battery power and provide solar energy.

And costs are dropping to make the technology more accessible.

Printed books operate in a linear fashion. Digital is non-linear. Narrative is being replaced by pattern recognition. This is enabled through digital technologies such as ebooks, social media, video on demand and apps. This doesn’t necessarily mean that digital eliminates critical thought. (Many critics who believe that Google is killing our capacity to think or our memory are using criteria from the industrial age. Trends like big data, visualization, data science and data journalism are providing the non-linear pattern recognition that we need in the post-industrial world.

We also need to recognize that our personal content delivery preferences are personal preferences


It is fascinating to me that so many younger people hold on to obsolete technology: books, records, fax machines. I remember those days well. The transition from records to CDs to MP3s. The transition from telex to fax to e-mail to social media. And, the value that these technologies provided. But, I was much older then and I’m much younger now.

Yes, McLuhan was right: those people who decry technology advancements that democratize knowledge are simply not with it

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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