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Technology ain't everything

Let's discuss can openers.

Growing up, my parents would often invest in electric can openers. These things never worked. Some of them sit robot-like on top of the can and walk themselves around the top while chopping the metal. Some of them were mounted on the wall and you somehow get the can to hang in a harness while the device spins the can around. It takes a PhD and double-jointedness to get the can set up in these devices properly. And then you push a button, a lot of noise happens, and usually the can ends up half-open, half-bent up to the point where it's un-openable short of dynamite.

When I open a can, I use one of these. You jam the metal bit into the can and turn the crank, the can spins in a circle and 10 seconds later, off comes the razer-sharp top. The one I own was probably manufactured in the 1980's and it's still sharp enough to open a can with minimal effort.

Is it really that hard to turn a handle for 10 seconds? Do we really need computer-controlled robotic can-opening devices?

Consider books. I still buy and read all of my books in the form of compressed wood pulp. There are newfangled e-book readers, but I don't want one. Why? Because the only places I read are 1) In the bathtub, and 2) Lying in bed. Taking a computer into the bathtub is generally not a good idea, and holding a Kindle above my head for 3 hours is awkward compared to lying a (3-D) book on the bed beside me with one page bent up so I can read it. (Note: I have dropped a book in the bathtub on more than one occasion, and contrary to my expectations, once it dried it was still perfectly readable, no ink runnage at all.)

I know some day, maybe soon, paper books are going to be gone and we're all going to read books from digital devices. But I like my books. I know there are benefits to having electronic books instead of paper ones. But even though they're a waste of space, even though they can have pages ripped out, even though they can burn up or smudge or age and become brittle, I like paper books better.

Mostly I like paper books because they're simple, analog devices. I don't have to mess with any kind of user interface. Books don't have battery life. Books don't have copy protection. Books don't require me to sign up for user accounts at some website and worry about having an internet connection. I can flip through the pages with my fingers. I can tell how many pages are left by the thickness of the pages that are left. I have actually never comfortably finished a long e-book, not even books about programming, where you'd think the ability to copy/paste code would be a boon. I'll pay good money for a paper copy of a book even if the electronic version is free.

This is probably the most banal thing I've ever written about. But there is such a thing as too much technology. I say this as a person who spends all day trying to get people to use databases instead of keeping drawers full of paper records. Technology for the sake of technology is a waste of time.

February 12, 2010 @ 7:40 AM PST
Cateogory: Rants

14 Comments

Andrew Baxter
Quoth Andrew Baxter on February 12, 2010 @ 8:43 AM PST

Very much in agreement on the topic of books. I have a yellowing copy of "1984" on my shelves, and to date the staff at Blackwell's bookshop have never attempted to steal it back from me during the night (in contrast to the experience of Amazon's customers).

Aside from the fact that reading from a screen is tiring on the eyes, my collection of "boiled tree" literature will probably remain legible long after today's file formats are obsolete (fire permitting). I can't imagine taking as much pride in a well-stocked Kindle as I would in a wall full of books.

G.H. Hardy once said that "There is no room in the world for ugly mathematics". I wish that was true of technology...

Brian
Quoth Brian on February 12, 2010 @ 8:54 AM PST

Ah yes, file formats. Good luck to everyone who wants to read their e-books in 20 or 30 years.

Another benefit of books, I can take them to the used book store and sell them for 3 dollars. Or give them to friends (legally!).

Bleys
Quoth Bleys on February 12, 2010 @ 2:49 PM PST

I use one of these: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P-38_can_opener

The one I use was issued by the Canadian forces sometime in the 60s or 70s and still works better than an electric one. They're cheap and awesome.

Andres F.
Quoth Andres F. on February 13, 2010 @ 2:13 AM PST

The only downside of books is the need to chop down trees in exchange. How about this for a plea: plant one tree for every book you buy.

I'm starting with all the books I bought last year.

Nathan
Quoth Nathan on February 13, 2010 @ 2:28 AM PST

Don't forget that a printing press is some pretty spectacular technology itself. Pretty much everything around today would shock and amaze someone from a few hundred years ago.

Brian
Quoth Brian on February 13, 2010 @ 3:08 AM PST

@Andreas F.: Nowadays we have tree farms, where they grow trees specifically to use for paper and such in a sustainable way. And we recycle paper (mandatory where I live). This is not a cut-and-dry "buy books = kill rainforests" kind of issue. What about the environmental impact of electronics recycling (when all those Kindles are obsolete), or the manufacture and transport of all of those Kindle and iPhone batteries? Etc. etc. Avoiding paper or books is not high on my list of priorities, to be honest. Planting trees is good though, I like trees.

@Nathan: True enough. All technology is scary / uncomfortable at first.

Binit Mohanty
Quoth Binit Mohanty on February 13, 2010 @ 8:27 AM PST

I love my kindle and I think its the greatest thing there is. This is why:

  • I can carry a huge number of books with me, technically the whole of amazon kindle store. This is good because I often like to switch b/w mutiple books at the same time. Same for magazines/newspapers etc.

  • It gives me the satisfaction of having saved papers. Though I find the idea of sustainable tree farms very interesting.

  • I have no problems taking it anywhere (except the bathtub :-( ) or reading while lying down.

  • In a way the book in kindle is forever - anything I note do there will be there forever. I don't have to worry a books going bad (which is a problem in humid places)

In the end I think its a question of availability, ease and the good ole' honest products. If e-book readers are given time to mature they will/should replace books completely. Though I think tablets will best them soon (and rightly so).

Mary
Quoth Mary on February 13, 2010 @ 8:39 AM PST

Shhhhh .... you're not supposed to say such things.

More seriously, I don't think we're at risk of losing a manual can-opener world, at least not until someone finds a way to circumvent the traditional market and distribute the canned goods, free of charge to consumers, and claim it's our cultural due.

Xianhang Zhang
Quoth Xianhang Zhang on February 13, 2010 @ 12:30 PM PST

Really? Lying in bed was the killer app for ebook readers for me. I now can't stand to read a paper book in bed, especially a fat one. If you're lying on your right side, every time you read the right page of the book, you have to support the rest of the book in the air while you're reading. With a big, heavy book, I find my hands cramping up after about 200 pages of doing this. Also, your arms are exposed to the elements and end up freezing at the end of it.

On the other hand, a PDA with auto scroll allows you to put both your arms under the cover and just read without doing anything.

Brian
Quoth Brian on February 13, 2010 @ 2:11 PM PST

@Xianhang: I roll over after every page. :)

thomas
Quoth thomas on February 13, 2010 @ 5:37 PM PST

something like this might help you reading a kindle in bed: link

Austin Ziegler
Quoth Austin Ziegler on February 14, 2010 @ 5:08 AM PST

No, technology ain't everything. A few years ago, though, my wife asked me to buy an electric can opener because the crank can openers we had been using before exacerbated her arthritis. In this case, it was the right tool for the job.

The same is true of books. What matters to me is the content. There are some authors (S. M. Stirling, David Weber, Robert Sawyer) whose works I want to read as soon as I possibly can. For these authors, I will buy hardcover (or sometimes, electronic advanced copies). For others, it's paperback or ebook. Even for authors I enjoy, I like the fact that I have their entire back catalog (well, a huge chunk of it, anyway) as ebooks that I can reread any time that I want to.

Lately, I've also been listening to a lot of audiobooks, even of books that I've read (I just listened to Dune, and it was an amazing production).

None of these ways of consuming books are better than the others; I'm not nostalgic about paper books, even though I have hundreds of them around me that I've bought over the years (and I've lost as many as I have).

Andres F.
Quoth Andres F. on February 15, 2010 @ 2:16 AM PST

@Brian: Oh, please don't get me wrong - I'm fully aware that the electronic option is far more harmful to the environment. I didn't know that tree farms existed, though, but I doubt that most books are produced by this method (I live in Mexico, for example).

I guess I'm just curious about the true cost of one option vs the other. In the end, I'm still with you and I love my tangible books to death.

Roy
Quoth Roy on March 29, 2010 @ 4:35 AM PDT

I was impressed with the way "Programming Clojure" approached it with both dead-tree version and pdf version. Not that I've ever used the pdf version. We could have the best of both worlds.