Friday, May 20, 2011

the great thing about progress resulting in more choices is that YOU GET TO CHOOSE

I could go on a long rant here and talk about how "progress" is discussed on the Internet-- it's almost always a way to undermine opposing viewpoints of the future and to enforce a particular vision of what progress entails. (One of the central tragedies of the Internet is that it is potentially a vehicle for genuine diversity and is in practice a vehicle for conformity.)

So here's Ned Resnikoff, doing good work in opposing the shallow hordes who want to tell you that because ereader technology now exists, and they prefer ebooks, therefore there is no legitimate preference for paper books. You'll hear lots of different arguments (and I use the term lightly) for why YOU MUST CONFORM TO TECHNO UTOPIANISM but the long and the short of it, as Ned suggests, is just that people need to enforce their taste. There's a great insecurity underneath the snark and smug superiority that attends to most enforcement of gadget worship, which is part of a larger tendency on the Internet: people who so desperately need to have their choices validated that they must deny that other choices exist. What's clear to me is that, more and more often, people are so insecure, so lacking in self-possession and so toweringly solipsistic, that they need not only to be flattered by media that tells them they are correct in what they choose (whether it's products or services or media), but that they need to undermine the very idea that other rational, thinking people could make their own adult decisions and make other choices.

What makes this so frustrating is that a huge part of the point of progress in capitalism is more to choose with how you spend your money. If every time a new choice appeared it eliminated some other choice, that wouldn't be progress at all. New innovations don't have to drive out established ways that work very well; to think so is a sure sign of a facile mind. If you'd always prefer the new new hotness, choose it for yourself. These things are true: many choices are subjective. Personal taste is real. Arriving at different and equally valid choices from similar evidence is possible. Goods that deliver similar experiences through different means exist. Adults can determine their own criteria for what is useful, valuable, or worthwhile.

Here's the beauty of it: I own an ebook reader. I also continue to purchase more paper books than I can afford. Some people will only buy ebooks. Some will only buy paper books. That's freedom for you! Choice is the point of progress, in capitalism. If you want to only consume books electronically, be my guest. Enjoy. Bully for you. And if you want to tell other people why you prefer ebooks, base on  your personal taste, fine. Just stop with the nonsense that this discussion is about anything more than what you like, and perhaps ask yourself why you're so invested in other people doing exactly as you do. It's grating, and frankly, antidemocratic.

Update: This is a very cool response.


Ian McCullough said...

Thanks for the post Freddie. I just finished a library degree and reading these blithely classist editorials about how much better an e-library would be is making my blood boil. Check it out - most people don't have e-readers. Spending library money on e-books takes funds away from other programs and basically service rich white users. If you have a lot of rich white users in your community it makes sense, but please can the rhetoric on the superiority of e-books.

individualfrog said...

If I read another article/comment about how libraries are full of disgusting smelly homeless people, I am going to learn hacking and do my utmost to take down the entire Internet.

Anonymous said...

Mr McCullough- if you've just finished a library degree you're part of the library lobby.

ovaut said...

Yeah books are my primary luxury. I've spent hundreds of pounds this year. Can you annotate ebooks? Ability to annotate is a must for me.

But then, capacity to copypaste and CTRL+F would be a massive plus. Do they do that?

Otherwise, and unless they're substantially cheaper, the only advantage I can see is weight.

Paul said...

It's a nice thought, getting more choices & all, but capitalism doesn't really work that way---and in its late stages, not at all. The big companies all fall over each other to do things the same way, and this has only increased in recent decades.

One really clear example is how, in the 60s, rock music killed off all other popular music. This didn't have to happen. Rock had been making the most money but other genres were still making good money. But execs were scared of their investors, and they had to show that they were aggressively going after the biggest moneymaking acts & dropping all the others. By the time rock fully dominated the singles charts, the fact was that virtually no singles of any other genre were being released.

Today this is the way with everything. A cut of jeans or shirts "comes into fashion" and soon no one in town sells anything else. One airline adopts a cost-saving measure and in the blink of an eye it's the industry standard. Cadillacs, Lexuses, Lincolns, Infinitis, & Benzes all look the same---this wasn't as true 20 years ago. All the places where people go forth as "consumers" to exercise their ability to "choose" increasingly provide them with the exact same choices, whether downtown, uptown, suburb, or newly developed heartland destination mall: apparel from the Gap & its lower- or higher-end subsidiaries, gadgets & media from Best Buy, furnishings from Crate & Barrel, dinner at Olive Garden or Red Lobster, the same drugstore everywhere, the same kitchen store, the same bra-&-panty store, the green & white bookstore, the green & white coffee shop, etc etc etc.

There are exceptions, but only in sectors where the barriers to entry aren't astronomically high, thus allowing for meaningful competition; or else in areas where innovation is still volatile, and boards of high level investors can't pretend to fully understand what's going on. But when big business has its way, it restricts choice to what's convenient to provide.

Paul said...

Great article, though! Aside from that one point I fully agree.

Adam Ozimek said...


I recently bought kindle and have been underwhelmed, and I don't picture my preferences for regular books diminishing much with technological advance. So I'm sympathetic to your skepticism. That said, I think Megan McArdle's argument for the future dominance of ebooks is about much more than simply what she likes, and is a completely legitimate argument. So I disagree with the criticisms in your last paragraph, and I think you are overreaching here.

Here's Megan:

DanG said...

Due respect, it’s a fine argument, but I’m not clear who you’re making it against. Neither you nor Resnikoff link back to the “shallow hordes” making any such case as you’re describing here. Resnikoff does link to a Yglesias post that technically favors ebooks over print, but he’s specifically talking about libraries and resource allocation. (His argument seems predicated on an idea that libraries can loan readers to people who don’t have them yet, which strikes me as impractical and a little naïve, but I think his larger point is that libraries shouldn’t overlook the benefits of the medium in helping them carry out their missions.) Yglesias links back to an interview with a librarian who takes a pro-print stance without specifically citing anyone opposed to that view. Resnikoff also links to a Nicholas Carr that challenges some assumptions about why ebooks might be superior to print. But Carr’s point (reiterated in his post’s links) seems to be that while e-readers can be educational tools, there are still pertinent issues that need addressing before they can adequately replace print texts.

That’s three separate pages (yours, Resnikoff’s, and the Sean Lovelace interview that started this) making a rhetorical point about an oncoming menace that don’t see fit to ask whether that menace is as pervasive as they claim it is. Don’t get me wrong – I agree with much of what you say, and I don’t think you’re making a strawman argument here. But what you said about insecurity-based snark, and about flattering media as validating one’s choices? In the absence of a clearly defined adversary, there’s definitely an element of those running through this post. Just saying – if this issue is really compelling enough that you’d resort to RAILING IN ALL-CAPS (twice!), then I’d like to know more about these “shallow hordes” beyond their… uh… shallowness. And their presumably horde-like numbers.