why cory wins

I love paper books. That’s an understatement. Anyone who has helped me move will attest to how much they hate my love of books. So, of course, when i wanted to read Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe, i grabbed a paper copy of it. Digital is nice and all, but i’d rather have the nicely bound version available to flip through.

Then, today, i’m writing an email about the value of Rolodexes over Palm Pilot displays. I’m referencing the power of the visceral display – the ability to see the older entries, to fully grasp the size of the connections. In writing this, i remembered a passage from EST:

Art signalled the counterman for their bill. The counterman waved distractedly in the manner of a harried restaurateur dealing with his regulars, and said something in Korean to the busgirl, who along with the Vietnamese chef and the Congolese sous chef, lent the joint a transworld sensibility that made it a favorite among the painfully global darlings of O’Malley House. The bus-girl found a pad and started totting up numbers, then keyed them into a Point-of-Sale terminal, which juiced Art’s comm with an accounting for their lunch. This business with hand-noting everything before entering it into the PoS had driven Art to distraction when he’d first encountered it. He’d assumed that the terminal’s UI was such that a computer-illiterate busgirl couldn’t reliably key in the data without having it in front of her, and for months he’d cited it in net-bullshit sessions as more evidence of the pervasive user-hostility that characterized the whole damned GMT.

He’d finally tried out his rant on the counterman, one foreigner to another, just a little Briton-bashing session between two refugees from the Colonial Jackboot. To his everlasting surprise, the counterman had vigorously defended the system, saying that he liked the PoS data-entry system just fine, but that the stack of torn-off paper stubs from the busgirl’s receipt book was a good visualization tool, letting him eyeball the customer volume from hour to hour by checking the spike beside the till, and the rubberbanded stacks of yellowing paper lining his cellar’s shelves gave him a wonderfully physical evidence of the growing success of his little eatery. There was a lesson there, Art knew, though he’d yet to codify it. User mythology was tricky that way.

The digital copy let me grep, copy, paste, and reference that passage. If it weren’t that easily accessible, i wouldn’t have bothered referencing it because i know that the reader of my email will not have read (?or even heard of?) the book. But i could actually put the relevant bits into the conversation, make a reference and a recommendation all at once. With ease.

I’m not going to give up my paper copy. But oh is it nice to have both the digital and the physical. How i long for the authors of all of my other books to wake up and give me that option.

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11 thoughts on “why cory wins

  1. Pickford Antwerp

    Concievably it shouldn’t be hard for a small team to write a program that would seach a digital picture of a bookshelf for words. A subscription service could then be linked to amazons database. Although I’m not sure how many people would pay for such a service.

  2. Ben Chun

    All that should tell you is that the people who made the point-of-sale terminal in the story should have also provided decent reporting tools. All a stack of papers tells you is order volume. What about the size of the tab? Or the upsell percentage on a per-waitperson basis? Or — this is crazy — profit? Paper is nice, aesthetically, but I’m not buying this “it’s a better interface” crap.

  3. zephoria

    I’m not arguing that it’s better; i’m arguing that it’s different. Visceral displays have a value that are not replaced by numerical ones. Both have strengths and weaknesses.

    I truly doubt that my physical books can ever be displaced by digital ones. There are certain reasons that i want both; grep is the obvious one. I associated memories with books. They become artifacts upon which connections are made. Imprints are left in them based on my relationship with them. The same is true of my computer, but it holds a vast array of emotions and relationships and those are tapped into the whole computer, not simply the book. Personally, i’d be glad to get rid of the huge volumes that only hold dreadful memories… like my damn Algorithms textbook. Search is AOK by me on that one. Besides, i hide it under my bed anyhow rather than leaving it on display to have a connection with the book.

    The big shift that i suspect we will see is that books will become artifacts instead of data storage units. People will preserve them because of their artifact status, just as people preserve momentos like matches from special events or fliers. Personally, i will never stop reading books because i value that artifact element so highly. So much of my life revolves around books and so much of it is connected with the books that i stare at every day. It’s like having my history before me.

  4. Andrew

    The brain scans information in different ways and there are uses for a stack of slips of paper when a tiny PoS screen won’t do. Perhaps the best of example of when a screen UI is not cure-all is when we need to compare and contrast features of two documents. Alt-tabbing is not the same as having two maps in front of you, or two photographs, or two hand-writing samples.

    The screen UI obviously has its own advantages when reading and creating documents. Copy/paste must be well up there. Also as both a grpahic designer and a conventional artist I have lost count of the times I have painted or drawn something incorrectly on paper and my instantly thought has been, “Ctrl-Z… oh darn.”

  5. shiner

    hi danah… just chanced upon ya blog while aimlessly surfing. ya blog’s a good read. will check back often… keep it up

  6. Faisal

    I moved to California in stages, and my books came out in two seperate shipments. The first set arrived before i’d settled down, and all 17 boxes moved into a friend’s apartment, then back out, then into my “final” residence. And the other 2/3 of my books showed up. After this my friend declared the “wood rule”, wherein anything made of or from wood was to be banned. In punishment, the powers that be gave to him a professional painter for a wife, and his apartment is now full of canvas frames. The powers that be are not without a sense of humor.

  7. andrew

    I found this since I posted my comment yesterday – it is a discussion of a system of remembering every thought you ever use. The moleskine link then discusses using a PDA v. a notebook. Both are worth a read as is the book itself(although it is pretty wild stuff).

  8. Prentiss Riddle

    I agree with the counterman. Andrew, sure the PoS terminal could have some better reporting and a graphical representation of sales volume — but not one that could be glanced at from any point in the room. (Unless it used an Ambient Orb, maybe.)

    The importance of paper is perhaps of modest significance in Cory’s diner example, but it’s crucial in one area of public policy right now: voting systems. Digital voting may be an improvement over the worst paper-based systems, but it is not demonstrably fraud-proof. Between the head of Diebold being an active Republican donor and specific instances of digital voting systems being hacker-friendly, now’s the time to insist that digital voting systems give voters receipts and produce auditable (recountable) hard copy.

    Then there’s the fact that paper has a known shelf life, even in the face of neglect, whereas digital data requires constant vigilance to make sure (1) that the bits don’t get lost and (2) that they get migrated to new data formats so people can still read them. A strictly paperless world is one in which history is at greater risk of being forgotten.

    Finally, Zephoria, a coincidence: the one e-book I’ve ever read in full was Cory’s novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Despite the crappy display on my cheap old Palm, it was a surprisingly good experience. The worst of it was that I spent a week or so looking like a horrible antisocial geek in the coffeeshop where I do a lot of my reading. When I became self-conscious I felt compelled to explain to the other regulars that I was reading a book, not playing Adventure or working on my taxes.

  9. nick

    The big shift that i suspect we will see is that books will become artifacts instead of data storage units. People will preserve them because of their artifact status, just as people preserve momentos like matches from special events or fliers.

    We’re already there. You just have to look at the open shelves of Duke Humfrey’s in the Bodleian to see the transformation of old, scholarly texts — usually renaissance Church fathers — into artifacts. The question is whether their data will be absorbed and made obsolete, refuted and made obsolete, ignored and made obsolete, or just plain forgotten… Sam. Johnson has a good /Rambler/ on all this.

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