Monday, January 24, 2011

Our Golden Age

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge had little attraction for the Athenians. They were realists. Knowledge was to be desired because it had value for living; it led men away from error to right action.
Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way

We tend to think of knowledge as good in itself, but knowledge is useful only when we can exploit it to help us reach our goals.
Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind

We are fortunate to live in these times. No matter where we live, each of us can read high-quality information about almost any subject. Not just internet searches, but substantial books. Through eBooks you can carry every book you ever read around with you, for instant reference or—more likely—just the good feeling that it's there if you want it.

Many of us have great affection for physical library spaces, their church-like atmosphere with its incense aroma of paper, ink and glue. They are so pleasant, it's hard to recognize their limitations. Physical books take up space, and that space has to be sheltered, heated, lit and cleaned. People need to organize the books and track the borrowers. Add to that the costs of typesetting, binding, transporting and storing all those books before they were sold. Even for one book this cost is quite substantial over time.

In 1997 I found a book I wanted at my local library. Turning to the checkout record on the back page, I noticed the last checkout was in 1976. Yes, I have weird tastes, but that's not the point. The book had absorbed its share of the library's operating costs for twenty-one years, and the only thing we could say for sure about the benefit it offered was that it was available. Up to now, there was no point in thinking about saving these costs because it wasn't possible. Libraries were the only game in town.


eBooks are changing all that. The Amazon Kindle Store offers 800,000 titles you can get in a few seconds, and keep on their reader or a personal computer. [My beloved library houses 165,000 titles.] Some Kindle eBooks are free, most you have to pay for. Recently Amazon began its own eBook lending program, details on their site. Pricing of eBooks is becoming more regular, and few books cost more than $10. There are exceptions, but I think it's likely that the average price will settle below $10, due to competition. 

The next eBook I want will cost $7. The cheapest used copy will cost $5.50 with shipping and I'll have to wait a week for delivery. I'm impatient and I hate accumulating objects, so the extra $1.50 is worth it to me. It doesn't take me long to earn $7, so I'm inclined to buy this eBook even if I could get it from the library, to save time. 

I won't buy a Kindle Reader because I don't want two machines when I could have just one. For me the most elegant life has the fewest possessions. I'm happy for now with my white MacBook, but I dream of a smaller, 11-inch MacBook Air. It's the size and weight of a magazine. The storage memory in the Air is a flash drive with no moving parts. This makes it less prone to failure when moved around. I probably won't buy one this year; I'm waiting for the capacity to get larger in the 11-inch model. 

I think it is in the interest of the publishers to bring prices of eBooks down, for two reasons. First, it'll make purchasing an easy decision for readers even slightly interested. Second, it'll nearly eliminate free copying of texts, which is a publisher's big nightmare. Amazon has gone to great lengths to lock out all copying ability in its software, but this is not ultimately possible. Hackers claimed to have broken through the copyright protection one year ago, and no matter what Amazon rights, someone somewhere will successfully hack it. The way to minimize illegal copying is to make the product inexpensive, so it's easier to buy it than to steal it. 

The model for this happy relationship is iTunes. I bought the long playing record album above in 1973. At the time, I made my money by mowing neighbor's lawns. I had to work about 35 minutes to pay for each song on the album, then get my mom to drive me 46 miles to the nearest record store. 

Flash forward to today, iTunes will sell me a song for a couple minutes' work. I'll have it in a few seconds, and I don't have to buy the whole album. Just a few years ago, the recording industry nearly committed suicide over their anxiety about copying music. It was a real concern, because it's much easier to make high-quality copies of digital music than it was to make copies of LPs. Sony put anti-copying code in its CDs. They didn't see the larger picture: CDs are going out of existence anyway. 

Apple recognized the best solution to the problem: Make the music so inexpensive, it's easier for the average customer to buy it than to steal it. Whatever hack or recording I would do to get around paying, it's going to cost me more—in time—than the $0.99 Apple charges, so why do it? 

The other incredible deal available today is digital audiobooks. I buy mine from The audiobooks range higher in price than the eBooks, but you can get around that if you plan ahead. I listen to several hours of reading each week, so I buy credits in bulk from Audible, at a serious discount. This is the book I'm listening to now:

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

It's a long book, but I liked the sample and decided to download it. As it turns out, I receive an excellent entertainment value in this transaction. My price per hour of reading: 21 cents. 

Audiobooks put thousands of pages in my head that I wouldn't have time to read. In this banquet of delights, its important to think hard about how I plan to use the information. Happy reading to you all.

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