Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bye Bye Paper ??

Now that e-readers and e-paper are finally beginning to trickle into the market-place, what are the key issues surrounding these developments and where could this all lead?

It's now been 2 years since the second generation of E-Reader devices hit the market. The past year has seen several additions to the line-up including; Amazon's Kindle and an updated Sony E-Reader. These devices may herald the transformation of the publishing industry, as e-books can be downloaded and updated with these devices, consumer's and scholar's can effectively have their book collection or more significantly the world's libraries on the palm of their hand's.

What's so 'special' and significant about these devices is the incorporation of 'E-Ink' displays. E-Ink, unlike LCD or LED displays, are not back-lit. A kind of 'electronic ink' gets rearranged to form words and pictures as the user switches pages. The technology allows improved readability and reduced eye-strain, in addition to much improved battery life as compared to LCD. The technology promises to marry many of the benefits of a traditional book with the advantages of computers and the Web.

Now that the technology has gone to industrial scale production and sales are 'slowly' creeping up, the market is forming to allow further innovation, proliferation and price reduction. In essence, the cogs in the E-ink machine are slowly beginning to turn. Just recently, a German factory in Dresden (Plastic Logic), went into operation turning out a 'newspaper' version of the technology alongside the 'EBook Reader' devices already in 'circulation'. These devices’s, (the technology still in its infancy), will eventually supplement, and may one-day even replace traditional newspapers. Developing technology and industry growth in this sector means we may inhabit a predominantly 'paperless' world in the not too distant future. A world in some ways reminiscent of that portrayed in Spielberg's film, 'Minority Report'. The devices 'currently' are only available in black and white, other short-comings currently exist such as memory, processing power, battery life and connectivity. However, down the road, it is envisaged that such devices will form part of the 'ubiquitous' web, with multi-coloured screens, multi-media capability and live updating of content. Furthermore, the amount of content and functionality of these E-Reader devices will drastically improve. The latest generation already allow for underlining and note taking of text, in the not too distant future, continual updating of e-books, user's contributing through discussion of passages, as well as enhanced functionality such as automatic summarisation and correlation of note-taking etc, will undoubtedly be forthcoming.

There are a few significant issues which ought to be explored in light of this. Firstly, how environmentally sustainable will such an industry be, as opposed to the paper industry? What will the total environmental footprint be in manufacturing and disposing of these devices? We have already seen from existing computer and electronic manufacturing, that this footprint can be significant. Hundreds of parts, manufactured using harmful chemicals, flown in from around the world to an assembly site before being shipped back around the world; represents industry norms at present. This is before we factor in direct and indirect energy, water and waste by-products. We must also question the short life-cycle of these devices (in a capitalist society) as well as their disposal and replacement. In sum, there is the need to scrutinise and improve the environmental credentials of the electronics industry from cradle to grave. The European WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) directive goes some way to steering the industry in a positive direction.

Certainly the traditional paper industry has environmental shortfalls with much room for improvement. Even with the growth of E-Paper replacing paper, it must be recognised that packaging presently consumes half of all paper produced. Up to 40 of total municipal waste in the US is paper based. Paper production has been cited as accounting from anything between 20% to 40% of global logging and is one of the most water intensive industries requiring c.20 thousand gallons of water per ton of paper. Concern also exists about the degree of wood logging from non-'farmed' forests, particularly in developing countries. This is in light of global paper consumption increasing at over 3% annually into the foreseeable future. On a positive note, recycled paper accounts for about c.40% of total paper used globally, though in some western countries; recycling rates have hit 60%. Thus, there is enormous scope for overall improvements in paper recycling, and in reduction of packaging. With the advent of e-paper, significant environmental benefits may be added by reducing paper use, if an environmentally sustainable electronics industry emerges to supplement it. One that in aggregate outweighs the benefits of recycled paper. In any event, the push and pull factors of e-paper and e-readers looks set to increase!!

There are also other issues that must be considered alongside environmental concerns. Advertising currently subsidises the newspaper industry, can a model be developed that ensures the devices themselves are subsidised so that the gap in information inequality is not increased? Technology has the potential to increase equality by improving access to more information by all sectors in society, but without foresight, technology can also act as a barrier in terms of cost, awareness, understanding and 'computer literacy'.

We must also ask whether more information is better information or even needed information. Are we becoming a society of superficial information junkies? Research has shown we increasingly 'flicker' through content rapidly on the internet, prepared to trawl through a number of articles in order to grab snippets of interesting or relevant information without spending the time trying to get a more in-depth understanding of particular topics. The emergence of E-paper devices may continue and expand this trend for better or worse. With such an abundance of easily retrieval information available, it may seem increasingly difficult for individuals to 'filter' and 'process' the abundance of information. Thus, how will all this impact us psychologically in terms of attention span, memory and behavioural traits? There is belief that it will lead to increased selectivity and 'differentiation', meaning readers can increasingly become selective about what content they wish to know about, perhaps at the expense of democracy and the 'public good'. It is a well known phenomenon that individuals have a tendency to selectivity, choosing information that's agreeable with their prior knowledge, sometimes adopting theories about things which favour preconceived biases or conclusions. Existing Paper formats cover a wide range of content from politics, social issues to economic and lifestyle issues. Individuals 'paying' for a newspaper may be more inclined to read from a wider range of stories and view-points, in-turn having a more rounded knowledge of current-affairs and everyday reality as a result. With E-Paper, users will eventually be able to choose what content (and by whom) they wish to receive by page or even by column. Thus, research which ascertains the information behaviour of e-paper users seems timely.

Ending on a positive note, the maturation of e-reader devices may have enormous benefits for scholars and consumers alike. It certainly means increased access and availability of high quality content. With access through a library portal, students will no-longer need to visit the library for text books; there will be no such thing as limited availability. There will be enormous easing of 'friction' in terms of time and space, as books become almost instantaneously retrievable, illiminating the time and journey involved in accessing content. Furthermore, unlike books on a shelf, e-books don't degrade and can't be defaced. Students and consumers may have automatic updates; newer editions may be factored into the 'purchase' or 'rental' price of content. With online accounts, e-readers that get lost or stolen will not mean the need for repurchasing of content. From this we can gage that the role of the traditional library may change in light of this new model. The issue of 'trust' may become more crucial as 'library portals' and 'publishers' (being gatekeepers of information) may be viewed increasingly like brands, some 'brands' trusted more in terms of providing filtered reliable high quality content.

Finally, where does this leave the traditional book, newspaper and magazines? Notwithstanding the likely negatives in terms of cost and environmental credentials of the paper industry, it seems likely that paper will continue to play a role in our lives long into the future. The vast proportion of information may become solely electronic but; key texts, magazines and fictional works will likely remain in print as well as electronic format. Changes in the academic journal sector in the past 20 years indicate such a possible scenario. Individuals will likely still place emotional value on physical copy. Filled book-shelves may be an expression of personality, an indication of status, or provide a feeling of tangible ownership. The feel and smell of the book, the linear arrangement of text, the ability to personalise, flick through pages; all these unique features are known to aid memory. Books can also provide spatial reference and association of information, provide emotional comfort and value, as well as convey a sense of permanence. Thus, the future it seems may be principally electronic, but reports of the traditional newspaper or book’s death, are greatly exaggerated!!

Copyright © 2006-2008 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.