Katelyn McDaniel - Ethnography

Society has changed drastically over the past century. What began as marks carved into stone slabs have become intricate computers appropriately named tablets. Gutenberg’s revolutionary printing press has become a digital library whose contents exceed even the grandest of libraries. Needless to say, as technologies evolve, so does society. Advanced technology, such as computers, smart phones, and e-readers are standard in almost every household in American. Any person can access billions of pages of information on any subject with the click of a mouse. We are in the “Information Age.” The ability to access any information at any time for any reason has changed the way people think, evaluate, and process information. More than that, it actually created a generational gap between those who grew up with steady access to the Internet, and those who relied on encyclopedias or textbooks for their information. Where one generation had print books, the information generations have the option to solely funnel their information through digital technologies. The shift to e-readers has already negatively affected print book sales. In July 2010, Amazon reported that for every 100 print books sold, they sold 143 e-books (“Bestsellers: U.S. Kindle books outselling print versions now”). Certainly, e-readers will impact society’s use of print books, but digital books also alter the way people read and take in information.

With new technologies comes the need for new boundaries. A major controversy surrounding e-readers is censorship. If one type of e-reader can download books from only one company, then there are no boundaries for what material the company can or can’t provide. Essentially, a corporation can completely control the flow of information to and from a device, deciding which books are available to their audience. For example, the Kindle is a product of Amazon, and is one of the most popular e-readers on the market today. Amazon sells digital books for the Kindle, and has a digital library that spans over every genre, including great literary classics. One such book is George Orwell’s 1984, which is a commonly taught novel that tells a tale of Big Brother, an all-powerful, unchecked government entity bent on restraining and controlling the lives of those it dominates. I explain the plot so that the irony of the Amazon scandal is clear. In July of 2009, Amazon made a bold and foolish mistake-they removed Orwell’s novel from Kindle devices (Pogue). Amazon claimed that a third party owned the copyrights to Orwell’s politically charged novel, meaning that they did not have the rights to sell or distribute the book (Pogue). Keep in mind that Kindle owners had already purchased the books for their e-readers. Amazon refunded their customers, but did not give them advanced notice that the book was being removed. Customers lost all the annotations they had added to the book. Amazon had valid reasons for removing the book, but the company’s decision brought to light some of the drawbacks of digital books. Through the course of my interviews, I explained this case to each interviewee and got mixed responses. One woman said, “the irony is unfortunate, but at the end of the day Amazon is a company and has the right to recall any product they sell. It’s just that simple” (Sprinkle). This opinion is in the minority, however. All of the blogs I read on the scandal were concerned with where this control of information would lead. The word censorship was thrown back and forth. One blog debated power, claiming that Amazon had “police power,” explaining that Amazon trespassed into your Kindle (which is not the company’s, but yours) and removed a file (that you bought) without your permission (Yablon). The blog claims that there is no difference between Amazon’s trespassing and the police showing up at your door demanding to confiscate the books you rightfully bought.

The Amazon scandal makes me reassess the benefits of e-readers. E-readers will always be produced by one company or another. Period. That company has the legal right to carry any books they’d like and, conversely, not carry any and all books they disapprove. Now that technology is central in day-to-day life, e-readers are likely to replace paper books for the average person. If print books become obsolete or harder to come by, most people will turn to e-readers for their literary needs. If, in the future, the only way to access literature is through digital technologies, then corporations have the power to censor the dissemination of information. Overall, Amazon had the responsibility to rectify their copyright violation, but removing Orwell’s novel without warning revealed the company’s Big Brother-like power.

E-readers affect not only what we read, but how we read it. The phrase “cover-to-cover” comes to mind. Although that particular phrase was intended for print books, I found it’s more accurate in reference to e-readers. I noticed in my own use that I tend to read in a more linear fashion when reading on my Kindle, than I do when reading print books. I skip fewer paragraphs on my Kindle, but I also don’t go back and reread chapters for clarity. I just keep moving on, expecting that later on in the book whatever concept I didn’t understand will be further explained. With print books there’s less finality about reading. I return to previous chapters, skip chapters, or even read the last page first. I also loose my place a lot more and have to reread pages to find my bearings in the book. I noticed that I have yet to reread any of the books I have on my Kindle, but I constantly reread print books. In fact, nearly all the books I have of my bookshelf I’ve read at least twice, some more. I’m better able to escape into a story when I have the paper, the smell, and the feel of a book. I feel like I take away more from a story printed on paper than I do a digital copy.

I took the Unplugged Challenge and gave up my Kindle. Granted, unplugging from my computer or my phone would have had a more drastic impact on my life, but I was surprised at how my reading style changed without my Kindle. Allow me to preface my analysis by explaining that I read constantly. I always carry a book (in some form or other) with me to read when I’m in between classes, on the bus, waiting for the bus, having lunch, or even during classes when I’m reading a really good book. My technique is to sit in the back of a class, open my computer, and prop my book/Kindle against the screen. Perhaps it doesn’t fool the professor, but I get to read my book while going to class. It’s almost guilt-free. I haven’t turned my Kindle on for over a month. I was used to my Kindle and I noticed that as soon as I started reading paperbacks again that I enjoyed the story more. I was able to block out my surroundings more easily and people interrupted me less. When I read my Kindle, often people initiate conversations with me. Sometimes the conversations are about the Kindle, but often they aren’t. It’s not that I mind being interrupted, on the contrary, but I found it interesting that the paperback book seemed to be a way of deterring conversation. It’s as if having a print book shows that you’re truly engaged, while reading an e-reader signifies that you’re not reading anything of importance and are free to talk. We spoke about something similar in class. One headphone in your ear is a signal that you’re available for conversation, while both earphones in is a sign to stay away. Print books are like having both earphones in and e-readers are like having one earphone in and one hanging by your side.

I observed the people around me to see what they were reading and how they were reading it. My first observation was that hardly anyone reads for pleasure between classes, and those that do are doing so with e-readers or computers. Another social norm I witnessed was that nearly every person I passed was either on a cell phone or had their Ipods in. Those that didn’t were usually talking with a group of people. No one used e-readers as prominently as cell phones, computers, or Ipods. If were reading anything before or after class, it was a textbook.

In order to observe a greater variety of reading behaviors, I ventured out to Barnes and Noble on four separate occasions. Barnes and Noble has a promotion for it’s e-reader that allows people to read any book they want for an hour when they’re in the store. There are kiosks in the stores that allow you to download those books to your e-reader. Not once during any trip to Barnes and Noble was the kiosk in use. Yet I saw people of all ages scanning the isles looking for print books. What I took from this was not that e-readers aren’t as popular as print books, but that bookstores themselves are becoming as obsolete as print books. Why would you venture to a bookstore to get online books when you can download them from home? It makes sense that the need for a bookstore declines with the demand for print books.

After this assignment I realized how much I miss paperbacks. I will still use my Kindle, of course, but I think I will use it sparingly. I will probably use it only when I’m out of new books and don’t have time to go to the bookstore. I’ve also decided to collect as many books as possible. Instead of having the classics on my Kindle, I will have print copies of each, and if Big Brother demands my copy of Orwell’s 1984 they will have to forcibly take it from me. I realized that each person should be in charge of his or her own literary education. If you choose to put all your faith in Amazon and rely on e-readers, be prepared for the possible consequences. Overall, no one can stop the booming demand for the newest technologies. E-readers have gained momentum over the past decade, and given that e-books have already surpassed print books in sales, it’s inevitable that fewer books will be printed. Sooner or later, print books will become obsolete. As for me, the more I read the better I understand the world around me. I’ve learned to value my print books, because there is a very real possibility that they will soon be a rarity.

Works Cited

Keck, Steve. Personal interview. 2 March 2011.

“Bestsellers: U.S. Kindle books outselling print versions now.” E-Reader Universe. Shelfari, n.d. Sat. 4 March 2011.

McDaniel, Traci. Personal interview. 25 February 2011.

Pogue, David. “Some E-Books Are More Equal Than Others.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 July 2009. Sat. 4 March 2011.

Sprinkle, Ellen. Personal interview. 6 March 2011.

Stone, Brad. “Amazon Erases Orwell Books from Kindle.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 July 2009. Sat. 4 March 2011.

Yablon, Jeff. “Kindle Censorship in 1984…err..2009.” Ansewrguy. Answerguy: Business Change & CEO Consultant. 22 July 2009. Sat. 4 March 2011.