are books dying?

While going through the #edcmooc responses to the first week films and literature, I came by a Facebook post by Arwen Mirkwood on books vs. ebooks, and how digital culture may be mastering us. The post is as follows:

It’s not about e-learning, but there is a fact: as internet grows bigger and bigger in our life, books are dying. I am among the students who say that the first thing you do when you are searching for something for your studies is the internet. You can find there books, or simply the Wikipedia. But is that alright? Sometimes I feel that a smart phone can be smarter than me.We forgot how it feels going to library and searching among the books to find the right one and finding other better and better books in the meantime. What is happening to us, why is it happening, and how far can it go?Nowadays, when I go to the library, it’s often only me there in that big building with all the books which are waiting for someone to take them with. It’s very sad.I still love the books and appreciate them, and will the rest of my life, because they were the beginning (the mother) of our knowledge.

This got me thinking… Is this really a good way to look at it in terms of education? First of all, I suppose the internet is the first place kids go to these days to look up information. There is Wikipedia to get your first impression about. But they learn quickly, from their teachers or through bad experiences, that Wikipedia is not always a reliable source of information, neither are all the other websites, really. You still need the classical sources like textbooks, papers, teachers for the correct information. That’s why still need librarians in libraries. Otherwise we need to look up titles (online or in the stacks of books) to figure out whether they are reliable/useful for our project. This is hard to replace, The human expertise of knowing what is relevant, what is useful and reliable and of good quality. So, yes, maybe the printed encyclopedia is dead and kids look online. But it’s good, because most of the sources will be digital in the future, so they better be ready and learn how to judge sources.

Technology has made a lot of things much easier. My parents used to write down their essays in ink without being able to properly erase, so it took them forever to write things down (is that why they went for engineering rather than humanities? I wonder). In high school I still had to write down my homework and my exams. By college, I was typing each and every assignment, sometimes even taking notes on my computer because I typed much faster than I wrote by hand.

Mind you, I still take some of my notes by hand (especially when I read papers on the screen, I write down notes on paper next to the laptop. I still carry a notebook with me for random things that pop in my head. I LOVE the feeling of books, new and old. But I also own a Kindle, and I love it for making it so much easier to read in the train or plane or easy to travel with many books. I love that my e-reader has a built in dictionary, so when I read a confusing text I can actually see the meaning without having to walk up to a dictionary (oooh, another printed thing that will soon go extinct – but students will learn not to use Google Translate).

I don’t believe that books are dying. If anything, books started dying with television and not because of internet. We will get used to reading ebooks (and some of us will always have a printed copy in our library, because -honestly- bookshelves are essential to a nice home. There is even good news, in 2012, the decline of printed book sales have slowed down. And e-book sales are strong. Books are actually doing fine.

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technology: utopia vs dystopia?

Back to blogging, as I need to write out my thoughts somewhere. I have just started my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) at Coursera with a course by University of Edinburgh. It’s titled E-learning and Digital Cultures. I may talk about the course, the structure, how it may work or may fail depending on what your expectations are, but for now: content.

The first week of the course is about technological determinism and the technological utopia and dystopia in popular culture. There are four short films to be viewed, and free discussion on feature films (think Metropolis, Blade Runner, etc.) One of the short films to view is called New Media and I embedded it here:

One of the earlier comments of the #edcmooc suggested that it was a very pessimistic depiction of a possible dystopian future (and I agree) and that humanity wouldn’t want to ever fall so low  and would not let this happen (I don’t agree). This made me think of  my recent literary interest in dystopian futures, and how some of the books have actually made me afraid of what our future could be. (I am not giving the books any justice with my short descriptions, and there may be spoilers, so beware if you haven’t read them)

1. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

In Fahrenheit 451, the city is ruled by technology. The TV has become larger scale, the entertainment programs have the smallest and least energy requiring participation, they make very little sense but to give housewives the feeling that they are being entertained. They take up entire walls, and the trend is to have all the walls of your living room turned into the entertainment complex. Attention spans have shortened, advertisement on highways are miles long so that you don’t miss them. Huge wars are going on, mentioned by one line in the news segments. Oh yeah, one more thing: books are banned.

Maybe we are still far from banning books, but for all others we are getting closer step by step. All possible empty space is being bought by advertisers, most of TV entertainment is getting stupider and shorter, to the point where most people complain about a film being 2 hours long. When I read Fahrenheit 451, I got scared. Not because I thought “wow this is so crazy it would never happen, right?” but because I think we are on our way there.

2. Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke

In Hillary Jordan’s dystopian future, several tragedies have happened (which unfortunately are not explored nearly enough in the book): There has been an atomic bomb on a Western state of the US, energy is hard to come by so in the South, universities close in Spring and Summer to save air-condition costs. Water is not easy to come by and rainier states sell water to other states. A plague has caused major fertility problems, to the point where abortion is a major offense. And a technology which safely chances the skin color has been invented and is being used to identify murderers, thieves and women who aborted their children. They are “free” (as in not imprisoned), but they can’t function in the society without being pointed at.

I don’t know where to start. Let’s go with the big one: women’s reproductive rights is the most popular global issue, which shouldn’t ever be an issue. I can definitely see a future like Jordan’s. Additionally, I am sure if a technology to change skin color was invented, it would be used for previous offenders or pedophiles or any other offense and make this dystopia come true.

3. Not literary, but, hey! Looper (2012)

Looper’s basic set-up is the following: In the future, time travel has been invented and subsequently banned. Only big criminal gangs use it -in secret- to get rid of bodies. (Also, the not so far future that is Looper’s present suffers from extreme income inequality.) This resonates with the #edcmooc’s focus on technological determinism. Time travel as such is not evil. But is banned in Looper’s future because (I assume) it can be used for evil. Yet the ban doesn’t stop evil people from using it.

There are many other examples of this, naturally. I focused on the three that have been hanging in my mind today. Other examples are Blade Runner, Akira, Metropolis, 1984, Brave New World and I suppose most of the cyberpunk genre. Let me know in the comments if you have any other examples or comments.