Can e-books replace books?

Can e-books replace good old fashioned books that has thrived for what seems like an eternity? today features one writer's views on this matter ....

WHEN STEPHEN KING, the thriller writer, posted his latest thriller on the Internet for readers to download and read at leisure, who would, on the honour system, send him US$1 per chapter, it did not set the world on fire. The newspapers were ecstatic, as they always are with every incremental step in technological wizardry. It was touted as yet another creative way to encourage more people to read. Few discussed it as no more than a fad. As audiocasette books are for the sighted. Though those of you present at the start of this evolution were told of yet another modern discovery that would be as important, if not more, than the e-book.

The audiocasette book has an important niche in the world of reading: the blind can now enjoy the pleasure of reading by listening to the tapes. A blind friend, nearly 80 and blind for three decades, keeps his sanity with it. I meet him several times a month to chat and talk of the world, and he surprises me often with books recently published but which I had not heard of. He tells me he bought, at the onset of his blindness at 48, the aids for the blind, a computerised reading machine with large letters that his five per cent sight in each eye could make out, special lenses that magnify objects and words 20 times. But these have their limits. Reading today is so difficult for him since he can only make out two or three letters at a time. The audiocasette transformed his life.

He lounges in his favourite chair, slips a tape into his audiocasette recorder, connects its speakers to his ears, catches up with the world. The "books" are expensive, he has them sent over from the United States, but not as much for the blind, and gets concessional rates. He is also addicted to satellite television channels like the National Geographic Channel, pulling his chair to as close as a foot from the television, the commentary helping him understand. He is now alone. The well-known Singapore lawyer, Mr David Marshall, went blind in his final years, depended on audiocasette books to keep his mind active.

But the audiocasette book is a byproduct or a presumed larger revolution that now helps the blind. The sighted ignore it as a novelty, who would rather buy the book and read it at leisure. Dyslexics and others with a reading impediment could find it useful but not those who can read. Likewise the e-book. The technology to read it is still primitive, as the audiocasette book in its infancy; miniaturisation could well bring about a contraption one could slip into one's pocket to download and read but it forces the reader to put himself into an unaccustomed straitjacket.

As it is for the audiocasette: an aid to spread the reading habit to those who otherwise cannot and not as a substitute to reading a book. If, unlike my friend, a blind man, uninterested in the world around him, unused to reading, lives in his own world, a surfeit of audiocasette books of the most stirring adventures could shock him out of his world. The e-book is not about to set readers on fire or get non-readers into the habit. The most it can hope to is as an aid that some could adopt to overcome their inability to read.

Technology running riot?
The e-book is yet another instrument in the arsenal for technology's dominance. But a society, as cyberspace is, without a culture, not in the loose way that word is used but in its empirical worldview, cannot create one out of thin air. The corpus of philosophical writings about this world, Negroponte notwithstanding, confines itself with a flat technocratic vision of the world, of which the e-book is an offshoot. This is discussed not culturally but technically. The "wired society" is the aim, in which culture of that society is ill-defined, making its inhabitants virtual robots, with those who challenge it sidelined or worse. It is, to put it bluntly, a dictatorship.

Singapore has built showpiece homes whose inhabitants -- one cannot describe them as anything but that -- can control their lives with a flick of a switch: groceries automatically delivered when supplies run short. In this world, no doubt, the e-book would have a place. The high technology inherent in this make-believe world would make it old fashioned to read a book. But for it to succeed, it must replace the extant human nature that governed civilisations. It is after all the barefoot Vietnames army which annhilated the United States armed forces, armed with electronic wizardry and awesome killing machines.

Neil Postman argues in his book, "Technopoly", how culture as we know it has surrendered to technology. People, like kids, are attracted to new toys. Technology has become the new toy. But when the toy rules one's lives, not because it is necessary, but that it is fashionable and correct for reasons that has nothing to do with thinking it through. So, Malaysia has the Multimedia Super Corridor hyped to a technological vision that must falter without the underlying sinews that make it work. Vietnam, despite the West's perception of it as "backward" and without this worldview, challenges India's edge in computer programming. Singapore, for all its commitment to a technological society, must depend on Indian computer professionals to see its vision through.

The e-book falls into this hype that technology must dominate, not as a necessary evolution of culture, but as the framework into which human civilisation must forcibly subject to. That is challenged. Political confrontations have changed little from the past. Only the medium with which they confront has. Technology demands that the cultural resonance which govern human existence be discarded or modified to its worldview.

But this arrogance is not new. Dictatorships through world history so demanded. It cannot be sustained. The Malaysian political crisis is one example. Here, one side of the political fence insists upon its commitment to a technopolic world, while the other uses the technology extant but keep close to its cultural roots as possible. It does not reject technology's place in politics or in any field, as an aid not as its raison d'etre.

When Sir Vidya Naipaul -- V.S. Naipaul, the writer -- whom I first met more than 20 years ago, was in Malaysia a few years ago, I asked him how he copes with his publisher's demand for manuscripts accompanied with diskettes his computers could read. He writes in long hand so painstakingly and meticulously that his hand often bleeds when his work is finished. He said he has a computer for several years, into which his secretary keys in day's effort. It adds another layer between his writing and its publication. But he writes as ever the old fashioned way, in long hand and sweating blood.

Sir Vidya writes to a strict regimen of but 500 words a day; even less, he tells me, as the years go by. Stephen King thousands. His literary books would not attract an e-book publisher as King's potboilers would. People buy his books because they want to; and King to while away endless hours in an aircraft -- even that becomes difficult with on-board entertainment. But even King's venture into e-books, I dare say, is not about to start a new trend. In the world of technopoly, potboilers are technopoly's junk food, but could the e-book be its McDonald's?