As humanity entered the 21st century, an epochal change occurred – a rapid transition from the book-based to the digital screen culture. The change was so rapid that most of us, especially the younger generations, didn’t even notice it. People get used to comfort and convenience very fast, and this is exactly what happened with the book to iPhone switch – the more advanced and functional device overall has substituted books and paper media in every part of the world. The advantages of digitalization of information and knowledge are plentiful, and many of us don’t even imagine (and many cannot remember!) life without screens.
However, the digitization of information has also come with downsides. We have lost a whole range of benefits and pleasures with this rapid, and inevitable evolutionary switch.
The Relaxation and Privacy that A Paper Book Provides
Reading paper books is often associated with relaxation and isolation. Old photos, movies, and paintings depict people reading books in cozy and warm physical and psychological settings. We imagine someone sitting in a comfortable chair, on a sofa, reading a favorite book, and drinking a cup of tea.
What is it if not relaxation? It is hardly possible to get the same pleasure from reading something on a digital screen. Our eyes get tired much faster, especially in the dark hours of late evenings and early mornings. We constantly get distracted by something else happening on the screen like various messages, pop-up windows, advertisements, system information, and similar attention grabbers.
On the contrary, with a paper book in front of our eyes, we see only what is written on its pages. Our eyes don’t get tired as fast, and above all – we experience solitude, which is very good for comprehending information.
We, the people of the screen, have lost all these pleasures in the blink of an eye if judged by the average pace of technological progress of the past centuries.
The Pleasure of Owning and Holding a Material Object
As biological species, we didn’t form overnight. Our psyche, reflexes, instincts, incentive and motivational systems, mental capabilities, and everything that makes us who we are as biological creatures was formed slowly throughout various historical epochs. The iPhone screens and digital communications in general are alien to our biological bodies, brains, and the nervous system. We grew up on the planet Earth, and the invention of screens and the impact they make on our bodies and psyche, although not as fast, is comparable to the hostile atmosphere of Mars, or Venus.
That said, we are accustomed to touching and seeing material objects. They bring us true pleasure and a sense of belonging. The tactile sensations we get in our fingers when holding a paper book are sending signals via nerves to our brains, where a sense of happiness from owning a favorite book written by a favorite author, is born.
Can we get the same pleasure from owning an electronic book? We cannot see the color of its cover, its geometry – the shape, nor can we smell it. Most of the time we don’t even remember where we’ve stored it on our PC or smartphone, or the cloud storage (that last one is even worse as you can imagine).
What about giving a book as a present to your best friend? Can you make them as happy with owning a digital book as with a paper one? Think about the act of presenting itself – when your friend opens the door, and you come in holding the book in your hands nicely wrapped in a stylish gift paper? A click of a mouse to send the digital copy is not even close to that kind of pleasure.
The Reduction in Attention Span
A hard copy of a book will let us stay focused reading it for a much longer time than with an electronic copy. Those who buy books online, for example, on Amazon, know the dilemma of choosing between a cheaper Kindle version and a more expensive hard copy.
Ever since the advent of electronic screens in the late 20th century, our average attention span, i.e., the time we can stay focused on doing something, has been gradually going down. When the iPhone entered the stage in 2007 and in the few years that followed, that attention-diminishing tendency gained enormous speed.
As of today, our average attention span, the behavioral scientists say, is only 8 seconds. Marketers and targeting ads specialists know this very well, and that’s why most ads that we see on our screens, be it a video ad or text message, are only consuming about 8 seconds of our time to watch and read.
The implications of the loss of attention are going far beyond mere commercial usage. In education, this is already creating a huge problem – students are having difficulties focusing on studying materials and learning! We lost our ability to focus on essential things, and this is all because of the informational overload that digital screens have brought on us.
Preservation of Knowledge
Above 99% of information and knowledge that the world’s libraries contain, has been already digitized. Did this information become easier to preserve? Any new electronic information that has been produced and is not currently stored in paper hard copies, is subject to increased preservation risks. It can get accidentally deleted, erased as part of a disk’s formatting process, lost or partially damaged when transferred to another digital storage device.
Additionally, storage and formatting standards also became outdated. For example, the old low-capacity floppy disks of the 80s and early 90s are already useless and the information on them is inaccessible since we don’t have floppy drivers in our laptops anymore. Similar aging and outdating will happen to today’s Compact Disks, and even USB drives, and to whatever will come after them.
Remarkably, humanity still preserves Egyptian and Hindu books dating back to 2000 BC! What is it if not a convincing victory of the traditional, paper-preserved information, over its electronic counterpart?
In the switch from books to iPhones, we have lost more than just our habits. We have lost in the effectiveness of knowledge preservation, in our health, both mental and physical. We have also lost in privacy and in the pleasure of owning, holding, and presenting a material treasure, which a book made of paper represents. Our attention span has dropped dramatically, and we often cannot remember where we’ve stored information on our devices.
Is there any hope the situation will get better? Unfortunately, not. These changes are irreversible, and a paper book will most likely become a cultural remnant of our past, yet another item in a museum of human history.