There are so many disturbing things about this interview of Nicholas Negroponte by CNN’s Howard Kurtz. Negroponte is the founder of One Laptop per Child and Chairman Emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab. In the interview he asserts that physical books will be gone in five years because they cannot be distributed to enough people. He uses his One Laptop program as an example saying that by sending 100 laptops to a village in Africa and putting 100 different books on each laptop, that village that had no books before now has 10,000 books. How sending ebooks on laptops to Africa equates to the demise of the physical book in 5 years he doesn’t say.
What he does say though is that developing countries are going to be the drivers in ebook adoption in a manner similar to the way cell phones were adopted. While this may be the case, and I think it is an interesting one, he makes it seem like developing countries will somehow be better off for using ebooks because they are ebooks than the parts of the world that are still clinging to their physical books.
The interview veers toward reading newspapers online and Negroponte’s idea of “the daily me,” which amounts to some sort of aggregator software that looks for news items you might be interested in based on a profile you create. Kurtz presses Negroponte, asking him if having news tailored to your interests doesn’t threaten to narrow your thinking and keep you from being confronted by ideas and opinions that may differ from your own. Negroponte replies that yes it could, but if you want to see contrary opinions you can change your settings to feed you that sort of news. Can you say, missed the point? How many people do you know who voluntarily seek out news and opinions different from their own?
At the end of the interview Kurtz comments about people wanting to go on vacation and being unplugged for a week, leaving their digital books and news behind and taking the physical books and papers instead. Negroponte, as you would expect, pooh-poohed the need to unplug. He suggests it would be better to take two weeks off and spend a few hours online everyday than it would be to take a week off and be completely unplugged. Kurtz asked if Negroponte ever unplugged for even a day. He was aghast at the notion, no, never he said, and then implied that he could not think of a reason why he would want to ever be unplugged.
Aside from making me grumpy, this interview also made me sad. I don’t believe physical books will be gone in five years or ten years for that matter, but that there are people who believe this to be the case and who have no feeling for what will be lost should physical books disappear, well that is a tragedy. That they do media interviews and imply that people who resist changing over to all ebooks are somehow lesser, well that makes me mad.
So keep stockpiling those physical books! Feel no guilt about your sagging bookshelves or teetering piles and all the unreads! Should the physical book really disappear in five years or ten or twenty, we shall still have plenty to read on our unplugged vacations.