I fully accept the title of curmudgeon and Luddite when it comes to e-readers. I’m starting there, just so you know.

I’ll open with this, too: a lot of the arguments for and against e-readers and digital books are familar. And I think a lot of them are more or less emotional on both sides: Pro — readers can download a whole library to a single device, thus saving backs (people always say this, I mean literally this, though I’ve never met a single person with a back broken by carrying books around). Con — books are nice to touch. Some arguments try to sound informed: Pro — digital publishing opens up the possibility for more productive self-publishing. Con — E-books wipe out the mid-list author by eliminating serendipitous book-shop browsing and publishers’ marketing imperative. But it all boils down to neat-o nifty: Pro — but the iPad is so cool! I want! Con — but that bookstore is so neat! They sell coffee!

I fall on the negative side of these aesthetic arguments, much preferring the social spaces of reality than the world-divorced “sociability” of digital communication. And that suggests an argument we don’t hear enough, even if it isn’t my main point this blog-a-day. Simply, digital and economic consolidation are removing our opportunities for certain kinds of social interaction. The move to on-line university courses, for example, presumes that content trumps spacial proximity. Digital communication is remote, not tactile. Budget cuts threaten nerdy social spaces like libraries. Progressively, we’re losing out on opportunities to meet, exchange ideas, come up with new common visions for our culture. Assembly, in fact, rarely appears as anything other than a political act or loitering, both of which can get you in serious trouble. Thus we arrive at the semi-cynical, half-paranoiac destination of digital spaces serving to consolidate power within a narrow band of social and economic elites who, in fact, are among the few who can actually afford iPads, even though plenty of people who can’t really afford them buy them too.

So here we are. Lately, I’ve grown quite irritated at the large number of academics and socially progressive individuals who whip out kindles and nooks and iPads and other devices with absolutely no sense of consciousness. They, in fact, are the people who I’ve heard make the sort of justifications I opened with. Truth is, they like the toy, want the toy, and find a way to either not notice potential (in my mind serious) issues inherent in the paradigm shift, or actively invent (in my mind spurious) reasons why they’re okay. Yet, this is the same cross-section of folk who tend to be acutely aware, even activist about, the ills of globalization and industrialization.

But somehow that doesn’t apply.

I just watched Food Inc. the other night, because I’m way behind on things, and I realized it’s about e-readers. Bear with me here. So, the chief issue of the film is to call attention to how the rapid industrialization of the American food industry has consolidated power to a few multinational companies. As a result, people don’t know where their food comes from, don’t have control of where it comes from, and don’t realize the extent to which profit motives and predatory ag-business practice has transformed the working conditions and lives of farmers, meat packers, and our guts, which are now more likely to be exposed to nasty e-coli infections thanks to irresponsible animal husbandry and unsafe slaughter standards. The crisis is largely at the level of epistemology, as in we just don’t know where and how our food winds up on our table. The consolidation of the industry serves only the interests of big business economics, at the expense of people.

So, the film urges, rise up and eat your way to a better system. Buy local, organic, fair trade. Realize that your choices affect the working conditions of real people and the literal health of the nation. Certainly, people are doing this, particularly among the e-reader crowd I’m addressing here. These individuals with professed love for their e-devices also buy fair trade coffee, belong to CSAs, care about the social politics of American big business, probably trend toward the socialist. And these same people sat in a room where a campus bookstore manager explained that digital textbooks were taking over, without a doubt, that students would in the future only be “renting” textbooks a term at a time via some digital interface, that the profits the big companies see in these textbooks makes them inevitable. They listened to the famous tale of a digital version of 1984 being sucked back from e-readers. They listened to the manager lament the change from ownership of text — of a physical object that cannot be sucked back remotely — to the rental of material that exists nowhere. And then they talked about how convenient their e-readers were when they travel.

To me, the connections between the food model and the book model are clear. In food, the farmer becomes beholden to multinational companies, simply produces a product without any sense of real autonomy. As the film shows, those who buck the system find it tough going — here lie lawsuits and bankruptcy. In publishing, the writer becomes the same vehicle for product. The e-reader produces the same consolidation of market that we’ve seen create trouble in other sectors. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to carry a library in your pocket, it’s cool to have a nifty device, but that device helps create a non-local, disconnected, anonymous, even-more-than-it-already-is-mass-market-driven publishing industry.

The lesson of the food world is that when we give up control and knowledge of our food sources we open up ourselves to potential abuses by massive companies. Our food suffers, and we suffer. I simply don’t understand why no one seems to be talking about that same potential in the digital marketplace.

Do we need CSAs for books?

Isn’t that what colleges and universities kind of are?

So how troubling is it that the book CSAs are accepting the e-reader with so little consideration?

 

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