Like millions of my fellow denizens of this deeply troubled planet, I’m looking forward to purchasing an iPad. And then, three or four years from now, I’m going to throw it into the garbage or, as we euphemistically like to refer to it, the “recycling bin.”
Don’t tell me you’re not going to do the same thing, or something very similar. If you’re reading this post, you’re reading it on some sort of electronic device and — unless you’re, oh, eight or nine years old — that device is most likely not the first one you’ve ever owned. So where are all your old cordless phones that looked like a box of Velveeta cheese, and all your comically outmoded computers the size and shape of the engine block from a ’57 Chevy?
Well, I can’t actually see inside your house (though the Reverse Blog Peephole app, or RBP, which allows the writers of online postings to observe the readers of said items surreptitiously, is rumored to be in development) but my guess is that you have a bristling metallic heap of once-cool and now-outmoded electronic trash, and all the attendant cords and cables, piled up somewhere in your basement or attic. Or maybe you’ve sold these old items piecemeal on eBay or given them to friends or to charity, in which case, I’d wager, they’re now in someone else’s basement or, ahem, in “recycling.” (The power of the wishful thinking that underlies our assumptions about what actually happens to recycled electronics could light Los Angeles for a year.)
Consider, as an example, one Charlene Anderson, “a 52-year-old artist and writer in Jackson Hole, Wyo.,” who, as a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, “has had a Kindle since the device first came out, (and) is thinking about swapping it with the iPad as an e-reader.” Why? Well, she says, “(t)he color screen opens up a whole new kind of book that will be readable.” Her point is completely understandable; the iPad does everything a Kindle does, and much, much more.
So what happens to the poor, orphaned, and now faintly ridiculous-looking Kindle she once treasured and is now going to “swap”? Recycled? Let’s hope so. Thrown in the trash? Let’s hope not. Most likely, she’ll sell it, give it to a friend, or give it to charity, whereupon it’ll either break or become laughably outmoded and in either case will end up being trashed anyway. Have you seen people on trains and airplanes reading the first generation of Kindles, by the way? They already look almost as silly as those poor souls “puffing” on those smokeless electronic cigarettes at down-market shopping malls. I give standard laptops another half-dozen years before they, too, start to look completely ridiculous.
There’s nothing ridiculous-looking at all about the iPad. Based on what I’ve seen so far and the reviews I’ve read, it’s a wonderful device and, very likely, a laptop killer as well as a Kindle killer, and will continue to be so until an even-better device comes along and makes the iPad itself an embarrassing anachronism.
This cycle of ephemeral fashionability and utility was driven home for me a few weeks ago when I heard that my community was holding an “electronics recycling fair.” I thought the readers of WFTC would like to see what I found in my basement, and “recycled,” or, let us hope (there is no way of knowing for sure) actually recycled:
- Kenwood KRC-200S cassette player/receiver with removable faceplate, possibly broken but in any event useless
- IBM ThinkPad laptop, extremely slow, very outmoded, and clogged with viruses
- Hewlett Packard Deskjet 648C, broken
- Cyber Home “progressive scan” DVD player, broken
- Six assorted remote controls, useless
- A dozen or so light bulbs, including bulb-shaped bulbs and the new spiral ones, burnt out
- Sony Video 8 Handycam, broken
- Rechargeable flashlight, never worked properly
- Several other flashlights, broken
- Ultra-cheap clock radio, broken
- 10 or so printer ink cartridges, empty
- Three cell phones, broken
- Large bag of assorted batteries, dead and corroded
- Canon Elura 100 digital video camcorder, broken
- Various power adapters and extension cords, purpose uncertain
- Aiwa CA-D205 CD boom box with “3-mode electronic preset equalizer,” broken
- HP PSC 2175×1 printer-scanner-copier, broken
- Insignia DVD-CD-R/CD-RW/DVD-R/DVD+R Progressive scan CD player, broken
- Compaq Presario computer with mortising A500 NEW CRT unit, abandoned by former babysitter and outmoded
- Bose 4-disc multi-CD changer, ordered in error and never used
- Lexmark 2705 printer, broken
- Various lamps, one toaster oven and one sewing machine
Does this lengthy list shock you? It should. It shocks me. Do you consider it faintly obscene? I do, and yet I participated in, and by purchasing an iPad, will continue to participate in, this ongoing obscenity. (The list doesn’t even contain several fat and ugly non-flat-screen televisions I donated to a nursing home, by the way.)
Would your list be similarly lengthy, or even longer? Don’t be so sure it wouldn’t be; I tend to accumulate a lot of junk in the basement over a number of years and then give it all away at the same time, whereas you may be likelier to discard your old electronics one item at a time, and so may not be fully aware of the number of devices you’ve owned over the years.
The point of all this is not to discourage anyone from purchasing an iPad, nor to criticize Apple, which is one of the most innovative companies in American industrial history, and certainly not to critique the continuing cycle of competition and innovation that brings us more useful products and services in every sphere of our existence.
I’m making, rather, two narrower points.
The first is that you can be green or you can be digital, but you really can’t be both. This is an uncomfortable reality for many, because a Venn diagram would likely show that the overlap between enthusiastic users of digital technology and lovers of the environment is quite substantial. But it is a reality nonetheless. Electronic devices contain a tremendous number of rare and sometimes dangerous chemicals; they require you to tap into an enormous power network, even if your device is operating “only” on batteries; and, when you’re done with them, they don’t just magically vaporize. Are some components and products fully and effectively recycled? Sure. Are many others currently residing in a layer of landfill underneath a pile of veal bones, moldy men’s magazines and grapefruit peels from 1994, where they’re leaching the rare chemicals that once upon a time made them work? Absolutely.
The second point is that there is a wonderful existing technology that doesn’t in any way replace the iPad or iPhone, but does, in every way, replace the Kindle, the Nook, the eReader, and all of those other soon-to-be-outmoded dedicated book-reading devices. It’s called a printed book.
Some months ago, I posted an item here on WFTC called “I’ll Give You a Free Kindle,” which made the fairly modest point that the Kindle and other dedicated e-readers are a temporary, and inherently wasteful, technology, whereas printed books are forever. The premise of the piece was that the current generation of Kindles isn’t likely to be around long enough to outlast any of the printed books on your shelf, and that I would give a free eReader to anyone who still had an operating model 29 years from the date of the item’s posting. (Why 29 years? You’ll have to read the piece to see.) The successful introduction of the iPad inarguably proves that I was right and virtually ensures that I won’t be giving any eReaders to anyone 29 years from now.
And, indeed, the current incarnation of the iPad itself will soon be gone. Give it, optimistically, another five or six years.
Whether or not the printed book continues to thrive is another matter. Its fate depends on a group of professionals, including those in the publishing industry and the library business, whom I perceive to be alternately infatuated with, and terrorized by, digitization. Many of them, though books are putatively their livelihood, lack the insight or the imagination to see that while electronic devices can easily replace CD players, cell phones, iPods, train schedules, maps, magazines, and virtually anything else in our world that can be digitized, they are unsatisfactory, wasteful, and environmentally irresponsible replacements for printed books.
Speaking of which, I’m writing a book of my own on the subject of the pusillanimity of publishers, paper companies, and librarians, who have collectively done such a poor job to date of defending the honor of the printed book. It’s called The Future Is an Empty Room (based on my article of the same title), and is currently being marketed by my literary agent, who just received the following rejection notice from the senior editor at one major publishing house:
“…sadly it looks like I have to pass. Michael is undeniably a strong, articulate writer, but I fear the proposal is a little too counter-intuitive and would present an uphill battle — the peril of losing our beloved physical objects (note: he’s referring here to printed books, not electronic devices) pales in comparison with the peril of crowding and destroying the planet with manufactured stuff, or that’s the perception he would be playing against. I personally prefer paper and binding.”
This note is nothing short of astounding. Bear in mind that I’m not engaging in special pleading for my project, nor am I objecting to being rejected per se. As a writer, I’m used to it. Rather, what I find astonishing is that this editor actually believes it’s “counter-intuitive” to wish to see printed books, one of the glories of our civilization, continue to survive and thrive.
It’s also astonishing that he thinks (if indeed such a viewpoint is running against the currents of our age) that being counter-intuitive is somehow a bad thing, and that it isn’t part of the mission of publishers to present unpopular, unfashionable or controversial viewpoints.
It’s also astonishing that he thinks easily recycled books present the “peril of crowding and destroying the planet with manufactured stuff,” but somehow difficult-to-recycle Kindles and computers do not.
It’s also astonishing that this professional editor considers his own viewpoint, which is undoubtedly shared by many of his colleagues (“I personally prefer paper and binding”) to be somehow irrelevant to the discussion.
And, lastly, it is not so much astonishing as disheartening that this editor “fears” an “uphill battle.” Anyone with experience submitting proposals and manuscripts to major publishers knows that the word “fear” is ubiquitous in rejection letters, as in “I love your work, but fear it will have difficulty in finding an audience,” or “you’re clearly a first-rate writer, but I fear it will be hard to find a suitable marketing platform.”
Granted that the word often is merely a polite way of saying “sorry, Charlie,” there is little question that editors are, by and large, a fearful bunch; in this economic environment, it‘s difficult to blame them. But when editors are afraid to publish books that support their own viewpoint, yet gladly publish others that are complicit in their profession’s eventual destruction because they don’t want to appear to be fighting an “uphill battle,” (how many battles worth fighting are anything but uphill?), it makes me very glad indeed that I have spent my professional career in a field other than publishing.
Let me add a fear of my own: If publishers, editors, librarians, bookstores and even paper manufacturers continue to allow themselves to be ruled by fear, and continue to ignore or rationalize away the very real environmental consequences of an unthinking abdication to wholesale digitization, the printed book will find itself on the ash heap of history, buried right next to piles of pork bones, plastic bags, wadded-up paper cups, and all of those temporarily cool electronic devices, including the iPad, that we’re lusting for right now.
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