Too Early to Tell

I read something that annoyed me today, though I should hardly be surprised. Lurking in my Instapaper was Nicholas Carr's article entitled "E-textbooks flunk an early test".

Carr is writing about Thayer's study of trials of the Kindle DX at seven American universities. I don't intend to rebut the article directly because I do think that the Kindle technology, as it currently stands, is a rather poor technology for reference books. Discussions about the continuing American obsession with "The Textbook" will have to wait for later.

I want to think about a larger point:

E-readers "strip away some of these kinesthetic cues," and that's another reason why so many students ended up frustrated with the Kindle. When students "have no cognitive maps on which to rely," the researchers write, "the process of locating information takes longer, they have less mental energy for other tasks, and their ability to maintain their desired levels of productivity suffers." It's certainly possible to provide on-screen tools, such as scroll bars and progress meters, that can aid in the creation of cognitive maps for e-books, but it's unlikely that a digital book will ever provide the rich and intuitive set of physical cues that a printed book offers.

I admit that I'm surprised to find apparently serious thinkers in 2011 still making absolutist claims about what digital technology will "never" be able to do. In my lifetime, people thought that computers would "never" be able to play music; that computers would "never" be able to render 3D scenes on the fly and that making a feature film on a computer would "never" happen.

The broader point, however, is this: ebooks have only been a practical proposition in the US since the Kindle was introduced in November 2007. The rest of the world only got the Kindle 2 in October 2009 and the iPad in early 2010.

Let me illustrate that for you:

Carr seems to believe that because we are not as good at designing and using electronic texts after 2 years as we are after 572 years with paper there is no hope for ebooks.

In his book "Future Shock", Alvin Toffler wrote about "800 lifetimes" - the number of 62-year lifetimes that have been lived by humans - and made the point that for 650 of those lifetimes we lived in caves. We have been reading printed paper for 9 lifetimes. Commercial electronic texts have only existed for three hundredths of one lifetime.

I think it's a little early to say "never".