Fear and Loathing in e-Land

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Why is it that  if you say you don’t enjoy using an e-reader, or that you aren’t going to get one till the technology is mature, you get reported as “loathing” it?

The little Time article itself is fairly accurate about what I’ve said about e-reading, but the title of the series, “Famous Writers Who Loathe E-Books,” reflects or caters to a silly idea: that not being interested in using a particular technology is the same as hating and despising it.

With us or against us! Cyberfreak or Luddite!

Five-year-olds who don’t enjoy green peas and aren’t interested in eating them are likely to announce (unless they’ve acquired some manners) that they HATE peas — Ugh! Yecchh! Bleaghh! The way people talk, you’d think that faced with e-technology we’re all five-year-olds.  Either I just loooove my Kindle to death, or Ugh! Yecchh!  Bleaghh!

Why is it that, when I accused Google of unethical behavior in digitalizing copyrighted books without permission, I was (and still am) repeatedly described as hating Google and an enemy of the Internet?

When I accuse our government of unethical behavior in keeping men against whom no charge has been preferred and who are given no chance to prove their innocence in a terrible prison in Guantánamo, there are indeed some Americans who would describe me as hating our government and being an enemy of the United States. But there are more who are capable of making the enormously important distinction between enmity towards an institution, and disapproval of some of its policies or acts.

These are the ones who actually believe in freedom of speech.

Evidently some people believe they’re defending the freedom of the Internet by opposing any criticism of anything done on the Internet (or anything Google does). They’re thinking the way the extreme right thinks: There are two sides. We are on the Good side. Our people are Good. Everything they do is Good. To criticize them is Evil! There must be no free speech about free speech! It’s dangerous!

In its defensiveness and immaturity, this is five-year-old thinking: If Daddy doesn’t like something I like to do, it means he doesn’t love me. If  Mommy says I’m doing something wrong or stupid, it means she thinks I’m bad and stupid and she loathes and hates me and so I loathe and hate her too and I will now fall down screaming in the supermarket aisle and let the world know how mean she is.

Why are people so defensive about electronic technology? Do they really think the Luddite hordes are coming after them with burning torches?  Why is  mere discrimination taken as negative criticism? Love me, love my iPad?  Oh, come on.  Grow up!

City of the Plain, by Ursula K. Le Guin

A poem from The Wild Girls, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Play the Podcast of “City of the Plain.”

PM Press Outspoken Authors #06, May 1, 2011



Fear and Loathing in e-Land — 23 Comments

  1. I don’t loathe ebooks, precisely. But I do love a real book in hand. And I like to read in the tub; I do not like electronic toys near water.

    If America has a habit that needs breaking, it is this all or nothing extreme-ends-only of the pendulum swing mentality.

    I used to think America’s big fault was acting like an adolescent; sadly, you are correct. Many Americans now act more like spoilt five year olds.

  2. Hear, hear! [sigh]

    I’ve been reading e-books for years. Many of the books I like to read are only available electronically. I have a lot of them, and I probably read e-books more often than paper books these days.

    I don’t have an e-reader, and right now I don’t want one. I remember the format wars among personal computers in the 80s; I was lucky enough to buy a PC back then, but I had friends who bought Ataris, Apple IIs, Commodores, Amigas, TRS-80s, etc. All of them were left with expensive doorstops flanked by equally or more expensive piles of useless software when the formats finally sorted out into PC and Mac.

    The technology isn’t quite where I want it to be yet, but aside from that, I don’t feel like buying a Kindle or a Nook or a Sony or an iPad and having the formats pass me by in a year or two or five. What then? Do I convert all my books to the new format? Every time the format changes? Do I re-buy all my books — the ones that are available in the new format, that is? Do I watch old favorites vanish as obsolete hardware finally breaks and I have nothing that’ll read my old files? Sorry, no.

    Right now, I buy PDFs. They’re not perfectly pretty, but they work and I can read them on anything. If anyone asked me whether I own an e-reader, or planned to get one in the next year or two, I’d say no, and they’d likely report that I Loathe and Despise e-readers (and possibly e-books) too. Which is crap. But there you go — you get more attention when you talk about people who Loathe and Despise! something than when you talk about people waiting for the technology to settle down.


  3. I just moved, which involved putting my considerable book collection in boxes. Those boxes are now in the garage, waiting for me to decide where to put bookcases and also waiting for me to sort through them. I swear that this time I’m getting rid of at least a quarter of them.

    Believe me, while I was packing I wished that 90 percent of those books — all but the ones that are art objects in their own right — were on my tablet. I’m not a collector; I’m a reader and a re-reader. I like to have books around, but I’m not wedded to the physical object.

    But — and it’s a big but — what happens when the tech changes and I can’t access the books on my tablet? Amazon only gives you six downloads to different devices — apparently they assume that’s as long as anyone would keep a book! (Some of mine go back to childhood and many go back to college, and that doesn’t include the ones that came from family members.)

    The technology isn’t mature yet and won’t be until there’s a system in place that makes it possible to keep and use ebooks at least as long as we can keep print ones.

  4. I expect it’s about selling stories more than factual reporting. Pity, that.

    However, I can say that as a technology instructor, I find resistance to new technology the bane of my existence. By the time the people come to me, the organization has already adopted something new. Do the complaints, huffs and eyerolls wind up addressing genuine issues when it happens in my classes? Of course not.

    I’m there to teach and in general, I am not hired to consult on whether or not new systems are brought in, only to teach how to use the ones that have been adopted. It’s a done deal by the time I get there.

    I tend to be an early adopter, but that’s at least in part because it’s my job to teach the new stuff. Legitimate concerns about technology and its implementation have a serious place in lots of discussions and yes, they should happen. There are real concerns about media, and yes, it’s a great deal more complex than being for or against the Internet.

    But the huffing, eyerolling and complaints of being “too old” in my classroom really need to stop. I sometimes wonder if the Luddite accusation comes from this sort of behavior in the business world and IT’s frustration with it.

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  6. Why? Because it is SO much easier to handle black and white than it is gray. Gray is nuance and detail, weighted down by fact (which means learning new stuff and maybe even changing opinion); it is so much easier to make people afraid when issues are presented in black and white; once you start looking at the exceptions to the rule, the argument often falls apart. (Much stronger to be AGAINST whatever than to be against whatever, except for this and that and the other thing.)
    Politically – we’re lulled into thinking about things except in terms of the soundbite presentation and the fear-mongering – and deliberately so because, let’s face it, most (if not all) right-wing positions fall apart once you begin to look at the detail. It’s a lot easier to defend locking Muslims up in Guantanamo when “all Muslims are Islamist terrorists”.
    But anyway – that’s preaching to the choir here.
    Your comments about maturing technologies and the rants against e-books (rants that I often spout) reminded me of two things: first – think about pencil and paper and how “mature” that technology is. Renewable (to a point), NO moving parts, etc., etc. If we’re waiting for ebooks (or computers for that matter) to achieve a similar maturity – it’s never going to happen.
    Secondly, it reminded me of how different the great Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last” (with Burgess Meredith) would be if it had been written in the age of ebooks. No need to break the glasses. Once the batteries run dry – “It’s not fair! It’s just not fair!”

  7. I agree with Steve–it’s a lot easier to see things with two sides and then take one.

    I don’t think it’s at all unique to e-readers; Le Guin mentions that an “us versus them” mentality is maintained by the Right in the USA but it seems to me that mentality has spread to most spheres of our lives. In all cases I think it’s a lazy way to support the biases of the author/editor/speaker. The trouble with presenting “gray” opinions is they’re more ambiguous and we’re told every day that readers want certainty, they want conclusions.

    I want to boil it down to the fault of the media but that gives in to the argument! We’re all to blame in some way, for consuming easy narratives and black/white oppositions. The main way to change that is by altering our media intake (and–if you’re a writer–altering your output). Support articles that make you think and come to a decision. Support art that asks questions rather than providing answers. Support education rather than indoctrination.

  8. I’m finally getting more interested in e-readers after being very uninterested for a long time. Took a few things happening:

    1. I realized that the vast majority of my “reading” is already digital: audiobooks. So while when I sit to “really” read a book, it’s 99% of the time a printed book, about 80% of my overall “reading” is already digital, despite my fairly holier than thou attitude and preference to “real” printed books.

    2. Not interested in the locked-in vertical DRM towers of either Amazon Kindle or B&N Nook or Apple iPad; but the newer Kobo readers look to be a sign of a product maker finally getting it when it comes to an open e-book ecosystem, DRM-free standard format, etc. That, and the e-reader screens (not the shiny computer-like screens of the iPad or the tablets, which I find very hard to read on) have gotten more crisp and easier on the eyes to read.

    3. Beginning to read printed books more voraciously again, and realized I was carrying 3 large books on a plane trip with me and wanted to carry a 4th, but… and realizing that, you know, an e-reader would have made that a lot easier.

  9. The “technology isn’t where I want it yet/formats might change” argument seems to be based more in ignorance than in any sort of “loathing” of e-books. This isn’t like having a Commodore 64 before computers narrowed down to Macs/PCs*. Not only are the readers now <$100, but you can be quite confident that Amazon isn't going to go anywhere in the next few years (more likely not in the next decade). It isn't a big investment, and the time frame is long enough to more than justify purchasing, say, a Kindle (I can understand anxiety over getting a Nook, given the fate of other brick and mortar book-sellers).

    *That was kinda a goofy analogy to begin with. The time frame involved was ~10 years; it's not like anyone should have been upset that their 10 year old Apple II became obsolete in the 90's.

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  12. Please note that anyone who buys non-DRM* ebooks will be able to convert them to other formats that may come along. Book buyers may have to search out smaller publishers such as Book View Cafe to find books that aren’t encumbered, and will have to get past the urban myth about which books you can read on which reading gizmos.

    If you have a Kindle, you can read BVC ebooks (the MOBI format) on your Kindle; if you have a Nook, or just about anything else including your regular computer, you can read the EPUB version.

    Here’s how:

    If you go to http://www.bookviewcafe.com/ and scroll down to “Reading BVC eBooks” you’ll find more information on the subject, plus links to free ebook display apps for computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.

    If you go to http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/BVC-eBookstore/ or use the “browse fiction bookshelves” on the right sidebar here, you’ll find non-DRM eBooks by BVC members, including Ursula’s KING DOG and SUPERMOUSE!


  13. The danger of electronic formats is very much obsolescence. While Amazon might not be disappearing soon (or who knows?) companies are very quick to abandon specific formats and the devices that read them. It is already a very common and discussed problem with IT backups. Formats may last 10 years, 20 if they’re lucky … no way 50 or 100.

    I foresee the time when some engineer suddenly needs to figure out how to turn something on … but the instructions on how to do so are inside that same device. Or similarly, the pilot who cannot access his flight manuals because his i-pad has crashed.

    Books don’t crash. They do not change over time. People cannot reach into them from across vast distances and edit them.

    And what will happen to the wonderful pastime of book collecting?
    And authors can’t sign e-books! (yet)
    And much more …

    Anyway … my two bits. I’m sure the argument will span space and time until books are finally forgotten.

  14. Right on, as people my age still say. I occasionally read books on my iPhone — I like to read to my wife in bed, and with my arm around her it’s nice not to have to disengage and turn pages — but I just bought new copies of some of my favorite books to live on my shelf. NothIng like ink on paper.
    I’m a fan, BTW. I’ve given away copies of your “Language of the Night” to several friends who aspire to fantasy writing. Wonderful stuff. I thought the Earthsea movie was botched, but I don’t blame you. You have my admiration and gratitude…

  15. What Michael says . . . Case in point: A university library is collecting my literary papers. Last week they started collecting my electronic files too. Having found some of my email folders from just a few years back degraded or blank, I asked them, how long can you expect to keep these e-files?
    Answer: “Ten years — maybe. We’ll keep checking, and recopying them. And hoping.”
    I wonder how long e-books last? I’m glad I’ve had The Lord of the Rings on paper (ever since 1955 or so). I can re-read it without checking, recopying, or hoping.
    And the whole thing about editing at a distance, unpermitted, unacknowledged — it makes me shiver. As a writer, and equally as a reader.

  16. Zach — you’re assuming the only investment is the hardware. I’ve bought over a thousand e-books already, at a total outlay of probably around four or five thousand dollars. Telling me that an e-reader only costs about $100 is completely irrelevant.

    Vonda — I don’t buy e-books with DRM, ever, so sure, I could theoretically convert them all when/if my reader device’s file format went obsolete. I don’t want to, though, and shouldn’t have to. I already have over a thousand e-books, and I’ve been buying them for only a few years. Ten or twenty years from now I’ll probably have 12-15 thousand. No, I don’t particularly want to convert all those files, much less do it every five years or so when the commercial file formats get a major upgrade. I know about Calibre; I just don’t want to have to pull it out on a regular basis. :/

    I’m with Michael — changing file formats are going to cause a lot of literature to be lost in time. It’s already happening with music and movies that were only released on now-obsolete formats — casettes or 8-tracks or Betamax or laser disks. Bestsellers are probably safe, just like classic music and movies, but the more obscure titles that were released onto the new, gosh-wow hot format of their day and nothing else are pretty much gone. I’d rather that not happen to books, but I’m not willing to bet it won’t.


  17. Hi !
    This is just a little message from one of your most devoted readers here in France.
    I’m a guy who is planning for one or two years to write to you what, in the beginning, was a very formal letter about something touching to e-format, and will probably, in the end be a “heartfelt letter”.
    Well first of all, thanks for being there, thinking with such a straigtforward brain, and writing it.
    Now, as for this “binary attitude” and childish moods you so accurately point out as regarding technology and specially computer technology, I’ve been meditating for years about the fact that it very quickly extends to all terms of social, political and economics life.
    As for me I link it mainly with the growing mportance given to “e-science” in our day-by-day. I’ve also read some very intersting analyses from a family-therapist you’ve perhaps heard about : Serge HEFEZ. What he talks about is related with a “narcissization” of the society and there would be a lot to say about, which I won’t allow myself in this short comment.
    Even if not published, would be glad to know those few words reach your eyes. In any case, please keep on letting us know the views of so acute a sight of this seemingly complicated world.
    Sincerely yours,

  18. Titles like these are just silly ‘link-bait,’ meant only to attract page views. I work in the realm of the internet, and I don’t care for e-books either. The sound and feel of pages turning, the weight of the thing, the assurance that no matter how many times I open the book the content always remains the same. There are a good deal of reasons to love physical books, and one does not need to be a Luddite to see them.

  19. Dear UKL,

    Your comment to Michael—it’s very strange to hear this from you. Not because of futurology/sci-fi stuff, but because you seem like a person who gives fair chances to different—people, genders, etc. And you also seem to carry out your thought experiments with care.

    So, yes, right now storing information digitally might be dangerous—your laptop crashes, you didn’t do backups, all gone. Or a CD doesn’t read anymore, all gone again. And suddenly, paper format seems more secure. But it wasn’t like that at the dawn of that technology—I mean, storing information in a written/printed way. How many books/manuscripts were burnt, gone forever, before fire was tamed not to be an everyday threat. How much time passed before people learnt how to deal with this kind of fragility. So, please, give new technology some time and a chance to develop before bashing it like that.

    With kind regards,

  20. If you don’t embrace the latest -even if it isn’t perfectly tested- technology, you’re betraying the buy-and-replace idea of world economics… thus an enemy of market economy.

    I do love the idea of e readers, but don´t think they are yet developed to satisfy basic customer needs. SO I won’t buy one till they are more developed. BUt that doesn´t mean I’m a luddite. Nor are you, ma’am.

  21. There is something going on here because when I say I will not use a particular technology, even if I explain why quite articulately, I am assumed to be “stupid by reason of age.” So for instance, I do not use automatic tellers of any kind, including the library, because they are a way to take jobs away from people. Simple enough. But when I say so people almost always say, “There, there dear. It really isn’t that hard. I can show you.” (By the way, being patronized for my age absolutely infuriates me.) So aside from the arrogant presumption that when I hit a certain age, my brains fell out on the street, I think that we have a very culty way of looking at things. That is, if you are not in the cult or do not want to be, then you are misinformed, ignorant, stupid, subversive and so on. The same way many people relate to their religions. Not as ways to get to something and as if there might be more than one way, but as commitments that are “correct” and will allow no alternate view.

  22. ‘ I had my joy in reading of inscriptions on stone from the time before the Flood’ said Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria in the seventh century bc. Nabonidus, last king of Babylon dug down in one temple to recover the foundation document laid 2200 years before. In 1872, in the British Museum, George Smith found himself reading the tale of the flood on baked clay tablets recovered from the same Ashurbanipal’s torched and buried library. Literature from from four or five millenia ago, preservered by fire. We have more Mesopotamian literaure, law, tax returns, bills, letters, and schoolboy writings by a couple of orders of magnitude than anything penned by a Greek or Roman. Practically all their work has gone up in smoke or rotted away, victim of technology – the invention of ‘paper’ in this case. We have one copy of Beowulf, fire damaged. There is nothing new under the Sun.