Why haven't Physical Books died yet?

It's all about convenience... and cognition.


A world without physical books

I’ve been reading The Singularity is Near, and one of Kurzweil’s predictions had to do with the end of physical books.

He depicts the end and rise of technologies in a sort of cyclical manner.

New technology replaces the old. That new technology grows exponentially in usage. Enterprising figures then detect inefficiencies in what has now become the dominant technology and create alternatives thereof. These prove to be incapable of dethroning what has become an established piece of technology, that is until the dominant piece of tech slowly dies out after becoming less suited to tackle the ever-increasing needs of the populace.

For a technical narrative derived from inferences of logarithmic graphs, it’s still quite the tale. One that starts off calmly until it reaches its climax, only to plateau into a slow-paced, yet somewhat understandable ending. But as we are the participants of said story, this cycle repeats itself continuously and depending on your view, either cumulates in a cyclical or sinusoidal(S-like) pattern.

Kurzweil predicted physical books taking the same path and being disrupted in the same way. However, back in 2005, he saw ebooks replacing physical books. But even back then they struggled. As Kurzweil noted, the size of e-readers was an issue. So were the flickering screens.

It’s safe to say that issues of cost and other technicalities no longer hold e-readers and ebooks back. But have they replaced physical books?

Ebooks have proven a terrible challenger

In spite of the obvious technical advances e-readers and other mobile devices have made, people generally prefer physical books.

So, why exactly is this the case?

Well, we’d have to look at personal reading preferences.

In a more recent survey, millennials showed a greater preference for physical books. When asked why many cited reasons that had far more to do with ebooks not being like their physical counterparts.

But if ebooks were to emulate their physical counterparts, it would be a regression of the electronic medium than an advancement thereof. If the point is to create better, cheaper, and more portable alternatives, why would people prefer what is seemingly archaic technology?

Ebooks simply don’t feel the same

I am of the assumption that it has quite a bit to do with our physiology and perhaps unconscious evolutionary mechanisms. And studies do bear this out!

Take issues of comprehension, for example, studies have been done on the comparison between ebooks and physical books as well as the cognitive benefits and drawbacks thereof.

In this realm, physical books constantly come out superior. Memory and comprehension of reading material are more significantly illustrated and enhanced in physical books.

I can also attest to this from personal experience. Have any of you experienced the ability to recall material from books so vividly that it was as if the book’s pages were still visible in your mind’s eye?

Reading is a cognitively demanding task primarily because it is an experience in itself. When you lift weights you can feel the muscles in your arms work. The same may apply to reading physical books. The turn of pages, the note-taking, the movement of one’s hands are all physical actions that constitute an experience. They are all heavily intertwined with sight and motion.

The missing piece in digital reading may be tactile feedback.

Now let’s say you’re reading an e-book. Wouldn’t this experience be drastically be diminished given the absence of a meaningful physical experience?

If you read from a PC, you’re limited to scrolling with a mouse or a single button. If you’re using a tablet-like reader, the action involved is limited to flicking back and forth a screen.

The reason why paperback books haven’t died can also be observed in why it is audiobooks and not ebooks that have risen in popularity. Much can be said about the ages through which we have transmitted information orally. There’s a certain convenience in hearing information. Feedback is immediate.

As we read, we first subvocalize regardless of the extent to which it occurs. When you hear information, you simply hear it. Whatever processing goes on in one’s head isn’t hampered nearly as much as could be with faulty habits one may have picked up.

It’s easy to forget the fact that the question that spawned our information age put by Claude Shannon (the man who would do the spawning) was that:

The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.

The essence of all mediums of communication lies in tackling this very problem. How do we best experience and process information in a way that isn’t too cognitively demanding? Ebooks so far aren’t suited to tackling this problem.

The future of reading

As such, the reason physical books haven’t died can be attributed to the fact that for many, they are a far better way of not just recalling information, but experiencing it.

Kurzweil while being the remarkable prophet he is, made the mistake of confusing technological advances at the time, with future happenings. It didn’t and hasn’t made him wrong about the macro trends just yet. While physical books aren’t dead there is very certainly a growth in alternate media to experience stories and other information.

Kurzweil would touch slightly on video game adversaries being an example of sophisticated AI in this book. But he had omitted and was probably not cognizant of the huge industry video games would become today.

The future of communication as such will depend heavily on the trends of physical books, an item which saw its sales increase dramatically this year due to the pandemic. Their decline will be directly tied to having found a far more convenient way to share our stories. Whether this change comes in the form of VR, Neuralink, or plain audiobooks is yet to be seen. But for now, physical books still reign supreme and may for quite a while to come.


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