Digital Isolationism

Karen and I had some friends over for dinner tonight. Amongst this particular group of friends, there is a consistent loaning of books and good discussion following those books. In fact, over the years, Karen and I have had to keep a list of what books have been loaned to whom if we ever hoped to hold any chance of seeing their return to our shelves.

And some, let’s be honest, never make it back…but they’ve found a good home, so its not really sad. Its just that we frequently end up replacing those books.

At the outset of the so-called ebook revolution, there was much discussion about what one could and could not do with an ebook. I’ve written about it myself here previously, and I’m not going to re-visit an old topic again. It’s just that during our conversation this evening after our friends left, I commented to Karen that, sadly, loaning is one thing that I wish I could do with an ebook.

And, of course, it is possible with some books, at least through Barnes & Noble…as long as the publisher has the option set up for the ebook (and we know how suspect I find publishers’ motives), and the other person has a Barnes & Noble account, etc. Still, it’s not as simple as just handing someone a book along with a recommendation after dinner.

Karen and I occasionally read books together (it’s rare…usually one of us reads one after the other if we are interested in both reading said book), and are currently doing so. I purchased it as an ebook, and we take turns with the Nook. I had some downtime at an appointment the other day, and read through a couple of chapters on my phone. That’s one of the huge conveniences of the ebook world for me: we can purchase the book once and have the equivalent of multiple copies within the house. Loaning that book, though, becomes more complicated.

I don’t write this to be a technical critique of active or missing features, but rather to point out  the cultural implication that this technological trend sort of sets us up to be an even more individualistic, selfish culture. There’s a sense of ownership of the book and its ideas, and that, if you want to experience those, you need to buy your own copy (again, I’m sure publishers love that idea).

A couple of years ago, Karen and I pondered how to merge our music libraries. The complexity of the task led me to give up. The system is just inherently set up to work with two iTunes accounts under two different machines, or at least two different users, syncing to two separate iPhones. Putting all of our music on one computer only works when we each have a user account on that computer distinct from the other. The infrastructure is set up to work with individuals, not families or groups. This leads to some degree of isolationism, as we think of the family living room in which everyone is engrossed in an iPad or laptop instead of in conversation with each other, or the busy father who can’t put his Blackberry down at the dinner table. There’s a trade-off with all of our technological advances…something we’re giving away in order to gain  convenience.

As much of a futurist as I am,  I sometimes find myself wanting to forego some of that convenience, because the cost in the cost-benefit analysis feels as though it becomes too high.

Photo Attribution: jennifercw under Creative Commons 

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