Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Electronic Reading

by The Man

A friend recently bought me a Kindle 3G, the latest generation, so over the last week I've been busy loading it up with books, playing with the Kindle iPhone app with which it syncs, and shopping for a carry case and night light, which I bought tonight. Basically, I've been getting to know my Kindle. Now, I have no intention of writing a product review here, but I do think a couple of things are interesting about this electronic reader—things that are applicable to electronic readers in general—and worth writing about. To start with a few positive things, it's wonderful to be able to highlight text without having to worry about "ruining" the book, it's fun to be able to scroll through the text that you've highlighted (this is easier to do on the iPhone), and I think it's amazing that it's possible to do a word search across all of one's electronic books—it's like having a search engine for your own private library. It's no longer necessary to have to walk around looking for the right book, search through the index, etc. With the Kindle, I was able for instance to do a search for "anthropic principle" and find in just a few seconds the relevant sections of several books that addressed this subject. This is an immensely powerful tool, and it is aided by the fact that if, due to a sudden but overwhelming curiosity, you are studying a particular subject and wish to read a book that addresses it, you can rapidly obtain the book while your interest is still "hot," taking advantage of your motivation before it fades.

On other hand, I was struck by how confining the Kindle is when compared to a physical book. With the latter, one can very rapidly flip through pages—not just one at a time, but many at once. The Kindle also enables one to find one's way in a book quickly, and perhaps I simply haven't mastered its navigation system yet. There will undoubtedly be a technological solution that will enable electronic books to equal and probably surpass the ease with which one can maneuver through a physical book. But it isn't there yet, and I am more impressed by this aspect of physical books than before I used an electronic one. I also think there is an aesthetic aspect to books, having to do with their color, size, and weight, that I hadn't fully appreciated before. And I'm not talking about the status feature of possessing a book collection, which is a feature of physical books that a number of people have mentioned to me: "Now you won't be able to show off your collection." Well, I frankly think that's a bit shallow. Those who do possess such collections, however, will struggle with certain "Schumpteerian" anxieties, as the new technology diminishes the value of the old. What value is that old collection of music CDs when you have all your favorite songs stored in iTunes? I even found myself purchasing a book that I already have a physical copy of, just because I know how much I love having it with me. The problem of sharing is a real. My wife doesn't have a Kindle, but there's a book we would both like to read. If I get it electronically, my wife won't be able to read it (there's no way I'm "loaning" my Kindle to her just so she can read this book). But I think this problem will be solved, in the same way that Apple has enabled sharing of songs on iTunes.

By the way, Amazon has an incentive to solve that problem. If I'm selling something, I want to make it as easy as possible for people to buy. That also means eliminating or otherwise weakening any impediments to buying. So, if I hesitate to buy a book because I know I won't be able to share it, that's potentially a lost sale. There's another side to this, of course, which is that Amazon doesn't want me to buy the book and then make copies and distribute them to all of my friends: that may reduce sales. But couples and families are slightly different, because they tend to make purchases as a unit. So, it's a tricky business, but, again, I think there is a solution. Electronic books will continue to improve in quality, come down in price, and eventually they will eclipse the old-fashioned paper book.

This last point reminds me of something I've heard a number of people say, and which I think may be a very common misconception: fewer paper books, the argument goes, will mean fewer trees are cut down, and therefore electronic books are good for the environment. This argument isn't in the least bit compelling. Consider the elementary point that when the demand for a resource falls, other things being equal, the supply will also fall. Therefore, to the extent that the demand for trees is determined by the demand for paper, as the demand for paper falls so will the supply of trees. Yes, trees have an important ecological role to play, but the benefits flowing from that role are widely shared and so market forces will most likely supply too few trees for ecological purposes. That's all the more reason to be glad that there exist market goods, such as books and wood products generally, that require (for the time being, anyway) trees.


  1. Excellent post Baxter...I've been thinking about purchasing an electronic book, probably the Kindle because it seems to be the best of the electronic reader bunch and is really affordable. My reticence comes from a strong motivation to possess actual physical books. I like having books and carrying them around. I like taking them anywhere and not worrying about having to charge a battery. I like their look, their feel, their physicality. Still, in the end, I'll end up getting a Kindle or something like it.

    You know I like music,so the fact that I resisted getting an iPod (or any other type of portable mp3 player) for a while suggests that sometimes I just like to see a technology proven before I adopt it. And also, that my comfort with current technologies, even if they're centuries old like printed books, takes some time to overcome. I think you're right to assume that Amazon will overcome the limitations you noted. Even more, knowing you, I'm sure you'll have all of the ins and outs of your Kindle figured very soon. When that happens I want a full report. Maybe you can convince me to purchase a Kindle sooner than I anticipated.

  2. Okay, The Man, I do want to follow-up on the economic point you made regarding the effect of lower book production on the number of trees.

    My understanding of basic economics tells me that lower demand for a product leads to lower prices and therefore lower supply. So, if there was less demand for paper for books there should be less demand or paper and wood. But that's not the same thing as saying there will be fewer trees. Wood and paper are products produced from the raw natural resource - trees. Trees exist in nature; in fact they grow and multiply on their own. If fewer are cut down for wood (and wood products) I don't see how this would reduce the overall numbers in nature.

    Perhaps logging companies would have less motivation to reseed and grow new trees, but if less are being cut down in the first place then wouldn’t that result in the same ends? If wood as a resource is less valued, economic activity will shift to harvesting other natural resources. Perhaps the lands that forests occupy would be seen as more valuable for another resource, like cash crops or ranching? This seems to already be the case in many places around the world where deforestation is rampant. In our country though, I don’t see that as an issue.

  3. You raise a few important points. You are right that trees reproduce themselves. So do cattle. But the more vegetarians there are, the fewer cattle we can expect there to be. This is for the reason you suggest in your comment: reduced demand will create an incentive to use the land where trees were previously grown for other, more profitable uses — maybe cash crops or ranching, or maybe housing developments, strip malls, or factories. There's no reason to assume that fewer trees will be cut down in the first place.

    Not all land-use will shift — I take no position on the magnitude of the effect — but it will on the margin. As you say, we can actually observe something like this happening in the developing world, where the effect can be, as you say, rampant deforestation. However, the reduction in supply needn't be so dramatic. It depends on the elasticities involved. The point is simply that fewer trees will be the result.

    Of course, this is all said with the critical proviso that ceteris paribus. Perhaps with a growing awareness of the ecological significance of trees, or simply an increased demand for trees to serve other purposes, the actual demand curve will remain constant or even shift to the right. Moreover, it may be that we are clearing trees at an unsustainable rate even from a narrow business perspective. Private property has helped to solve this problem, especially in the United States. If a logging company takes down too many trees from a business point of view, it will suffer the consequences in the long term.