Digital Technology Expands Options
Why I'm thankful for digital media in a time of increased book-banning
A decade ago, The Imaginative Conservative ran a piece lamenting the Encyclopedia Britannica going out of print and focusing instead on digital editions. Titled The Decline of the Book & the Fall of Western Civilization, author Martin Cothran claimed this event signaled the dawn of a new Dark Ages. He predicted an era in which books would disappear and libraries would be shuttered in favor of digital devices.
People “won’t even notice that the books have been taken away,” Cothran said, because they will be “staring mesmerized at their screens.”
While I’m pretty sure the pronouncement was intentionally overblown and somewhat tongue in cheek, Cothran’s point was clear: digital devices would eventually kill physical books — and, by extension, cause the fall of Western Civilization. Because, though he doesn’t say it outright, civilization is dependent on “real” reading of “real” books.
“Separating real from false reading, and real from false readers, has been a power proposition with sinister consequences, since the first century AD,” says journalist and cultural critic Virginia Heffernan in Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, “when sofers argued that reading the then-new codices (books with separate pages) wasn't really reading. Until you found your way in a maddeningly disorienting Torah scroll, went the argument that safeguarded the scribes’ elevated status, you haven't really read at all.”
Digital critics make arguments like the sofers all the time. Digital things aren’t real. They’re less than. Deficient. Suspect. Reality is defined by what the digital critic knows, prefers, and deems important and worthy. Little consideration is given to how things the critic deems “false” enrich the lives of others.
Digital encyclopedias, for example, make knowledge acquisition much easier, releasing readers from the burden of having to physically access numerous heavy, unwieldy tomes and allowing them to deeply explore concepts in a variety of ways. It’s odd Cothran chose the “death” of a printed encyclopedia as the catalyst for his predication, since, in the words of Encyclopedia Britannica itself, digitization improved its offerings:
Free of the constraints of the printed page and with users expecting more media of all types, Britannica significantly expanded the number of photographs and other illustrations in its articles and added audio, video, infographics, and other media… For readers unfamiliar with particular words included in the text, a dictionary and thesaurus from Merriam-Webster (a subsidiary of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.) was also integrated, enabling users to double-click on a word to bring up its definition. The licensing of material from other content providers gave readers access to e-books and magazine articles… As both the consumer and institutional Web sites developed, research tools were added that enabled users to view Britannica’s content databases in various ways, such as through biography, subject, quotations, and this-day-in-history browses, a world atlas, and country comparison and statistics features (powered by Britannica’s World Data department).
As with many critiques of digital technology, Cothran focused on what he believes he loses in a digital world, not on what many others (and even he) gained.
Digital devices are a “godsend” to anyone who “historically had little or no exposure to books,” says world-renowned thought leader on global policy and education Jordan Shapiro in The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. “Suddenly, the contents of the world’s biggest and best libraries are available to people who have never had access before.”
And, in an age of increased book-banning, digital devices are a godsend for anyone who can no longer access a physical copy of a banned book. In Ray Bradbury’s pre-digital-age novel Farenheit 451 people memorize entire books in order to preserve them in a world where they are outlawed. But in a digital world, devices allow for easy access, preservation, and sharing whenever physical books aren’t available.
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A decade ago — around the same time Cothran predicted the fall of Western civilization because of e-readers — voters in Jamestown Township, Michigan, approved taxes to fund Patmos Library by 37 percentage points. This week, however, they voted against funding their local library by a 25-point margin, Bridge Michigan reports.
What changed? It wasn’t lack of interest in physical books because people were mesmerized by their screens as Cothran predicted, but rather a negative fixation on specific books by a small group of people in the community. Residents who were upset with the library staff and board for refusing to pull a handful of LGBTQ-themed books from the shelves organized a campaign to reject renewal of the library’s funding. They argued that the presence of those books and a Pride Month display made the library unsafe for children because they were being “groomed.”
Campaigners sought to prevent all residents from accessing any books by defunding the entire library, rather than allow a handful of LGBTQ-themed books to remain in the collection. While this is one of the more extreme consequences from the increase in book-banning efforts, access to many physical books has been impeded in communities across the United States.
Due to the amplifying power of social media, however, swift responses to book-banning efforts have made digital and physical books available to far more people than would have access to the handful of copies in a library. In the wake of a Tennessee school board pulling Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus from the curriculum in early 2022, Nirvana Comics raised nearly $100,000 to get physical copies in the hands of every student who wants one. Other bookstores launched similar initiatives.
Every time news about a book ban breaks, awareness of the book increases, and, often, so does the number of people accessing that book in both print and digital form.
Lest I paint too rosy a picture of digital media being the savior of books, social media undeniably plays a dark role in the increase in attempts to ban them too. As Alexandra Alter, a New York Times reporter covering the publishing industry, said recently, “Before, parents might hear about a book because their child brought a copy home; now, complaints on social media about inappropriate material go viral, and that leads to more complaints in schools and libraries across the country.”
Book-banners are also using social media to harass librarians and educators who support the inclusion of targeted books in libraries and curriculum. “One clear pattern is emerging,” says technology reporter Tanya Basu in a sobering July 15, 2022, MIT Technology Review article, “educators who support teaching sex education and discussing LGBTQ issues are labeled ‘groomers.’” The Patmos library director told Bridge Michigan she resigned soon after a barrage of online harassment: “I had to change my name on Facebook for a time to prevent messages that were starting to come in. I never read any of them fully, but it was the typical fare — that I’m evil, that I’m indoctrinating kids.”
It’s chilling, no doubt. But while social media has escalated book bans and harassment, it didn’t create them. Both existed long before its invention. What social media has created, however, are several options for circumventing bans and calling attention to harassment that didn’t exist in a non-digital world. Unfortunately, when it comes to digital media, we tend to focus on the negative — bad things that preceded social media and are sadly amplified by it — rather than the positive — good, new things that only exist because of digital media.
I believe the good, new things outweigh the amplification of the bad, old things. The bad things were already there, but digital technology gives us new ways to address them.
As for Cothran’s prediction about digital devices spelling the end of physical books and libraries, like many fears about digital media destroying what it means to be human, it hasn’t come to pass. “Despite the shift to digital in almost all aspects of media consumption in recent years,” says data journalist Martin Armstrong writing for Statista, numbers from Publishers Weekly show that, from 2012 to 2021, “good old-fashioned printed book unit sales have been steadily rising in the United States.” In fact, “E-book penetration still trails that of printed books by a wide margin across the globe” says another data journalist Felix Richter — evidence that, rather than killing physical books, digital publishing acts as a complement to physical publishing.
This isn’t surprising if we look past the fearmongering about digital destruction and state the obvious: physical books are different from digital books. They’re not either/or propositions. They fill different (though sometimes overlapping) roles in our lives. Similarly, physical interaction is different from digital interaction, and both have value.
Digital technology isn’t either/or, it’s and. Let’s use that and to build a better world together.
What good things has digital technology added to your life? How do you use it to for good?