Oberlin Blogs

Ethics and E-readers

November 18, 2011

Tess Yanisch ’13

I have recently found myself on the horns of a dilemma. I like that expression--I always picture the dilemma as a blue, bull-like creature with twisting horns like a kudu's. In this case, the dilemma I am attempting to resolve is whether or not I should buy an e-reader, and, if I get one, what kind I should get.

This might seem like an oddly personal and peripheral topic for a blog, but it is not. I tell you now, without any exaggeration whatsoever, that my dithering represents the struggles of our society's collective conscience. Yes! As an Oberlin student, I am a socially aware consumer--very aware, in many different dimensions--and like all mythological Seers I am coming to learn that this is a painful gift. In resolving one conflict, I am potentially compromising my morals regarding another; by satisfying my standards as to one particular, I may be condoning injustice elsewhere. This is not to be borne!!! --And yet, by waiting so long in contemplation, by remaining apathetic, I become part of the problem. I cannot think, I cannot read, I especially cannot spend money without violating one or more personal ethical standards, but I dare not remain indecisive for long. Society hangs in the balance.

I told you. Not hyperbolic at all.

(At my roommate's insistence, I am including a video version of this introduction, to underscore the seriousness of this dilemma.)

So what are the many issues I must resolve? Well . . .


  • a.INDUSTRY. I love books--the feel of them, the smell of them, the sight of hundreds of them filling up a room, the tradition that has come down to us from saint-like Gutenberg's brilliant precedent. I want to keep the print industry alive. I fear that demand for print books is shrinking--they seem to be getting more expensive. I am envious of the days that ads in the backs of old books hint at, the era when you could send in ten cents per book and receive classics or new works or "the next thrilling adventure!" (Yes, I know ten cents was more money in those days, but even paperbacks cost at least five dollars now. Inflation hasn't been that crazy.)
  • b.COMMUNITY. That said, I also love libraries, and perhaps should patronize them exclusively, providing the support required to keep them alive--an even more essential cause and one that, conveniently, is free. Its convenience overlaps with that of the e-reader in many cases--classics that I may only read once, news, magazines. However, it seems nearly impossible to avoid purchasing serious psychological journals if you wish to read those articles, and once I graduate from Oberlin, I will have no college library providing them to me for free. My largest motivation to get an e-reader, in fact, is not books but PDFs, which I get assigned for classes frequently. My Mass Politics in a Media Age class has no physical textbooks, but a great deal of PDFs accessible online. This brings me to my third point.
  • c.ECOLOGY. Much as I love books, I also enjoy trees and clean air and have a responsibility to maintain the environment. Besides the countless trees slaughtered for my beloved books, paper factories are notorious polluters. Should I really be supporting them? No! Not unless I know they are up to code. If publishers listed where their paper came from, perhaps, or used recycled paper . . . . But, alas, to my knowledge, they do not. And then, of course, there's the PDF factor again. I don't like printing them out--I nearly blew through my free print account in the first few weeks of school, and I simply don't like using all that paper, especially for something I'm only really likely to read once. For the rest of the semester I've been reading them on my laptop, which is nice--I can change the size of the text and I know I'm not wasting paper--but I also can't annotate anything as I go and I'm tethered to the computer. (I love my laptop, but it's too heavy to carry with me everywhere.) It's not like a piece of paper that I can pull out whenever I have three free minutes. An e-reader would be a practical, environmentally-responsible alternative.

2.BUYING FANCY ELECTRONIC GIZMOS. In some ways--not all--I am a cheapskate. I have a particularly difficult time justifying spending money on anything frivolous for myself. It doesn't happen when I'm buying things for other people--I can be as generous as I want if I'm getting presents--but whenever I'm contemplating a purchase of more than $20 for my own personal amusement, my conscience steps in and says a gentle word or two in my ear. "Do you really need that Nerf gun? Couldn't that money be better spent elsewhere? You could always put more towards Oberlin, you know--or if you really feel you can afford to spare it, think how much more effective that money would be if you gave it to the World Food Programme. It's your decision, of course, but think of where it most deserves to go. Think of who needs it most. And remember what it is as a representative of your time; divide that price by your hourly wage . . . is it really worth that?" Of course most things are not, and so I usually don't buy them. And of course saving starving people is much more worthy than Nerf guns.

3.SUPPORTING CORPORATE HEGEMONIES. If I did get an e-reader, the best plan to assuage this economical conscience would be to buy the cheapest one on the market, which would be the new Kindle. But that immediately raises thorny issues of its own.

  • a.COMMERCIALISM AND INTRUSIVE ADVERTISING. The new Kindle is only the least-expensive e-reader if you get it "with special offers," text ads that play on its standby screen. If you get it without them, it jumps $30 in price, putting it behind the least-expensive Nook. The ads seem unobtrusive enough, and not that much different theoretically from the ads in the backs of old books that I mentioned before, but I'm generally opposed to them on principle. Intrusive advertising is something that sets off my anti-corporate alarms. The fact that it could be targeted makes it worse. I also distrust the idea of being required to pay to get rid of ads. That ought to be a consumer's right--to purchase a product free and clear. (I don't like shirts with big logos either--if I am to become a walking billboard for a company, I shouldn't have to pay for the privilege; it should pay me.) This could set a precedent, a dangerously slippery slope.
  • b.EASE OF USE. If I've rejected the frontrunner, my options open up considerably. The basic Kindle's drawback is that it has only five buttons on the interface. It's theoretically possible to buy books online with it, but that would involve scrolling through the alphabet to type. I would probably end up buying things on my computer and then putting them on the Kindle like I do with music for my iPod. There's nothing wrong with that, but if we're looking at other options, all Nooks have at least a touchscreen operating pad; most of them have a full touchscreen. Another slippery slope emerges by the mere contemplation of this possibility--I could end up being seduced into paying more money for a marginally easier interface. Similarly, a larger screen would also be nice for PDFs with figures--lots of statistical tables in psychology articles--but this would have to be balanced against portability and price issues. And there's more.
  • c.ETHICS BASED ON HEARSAY. According to my roommate, "Amazon has been a jerk to publishers. You should get a Nook." Also, at least when she got her e-reader, a few months before the new Kindle release, only Nook would allow downloads from any source; Kindles will supposedly only let you get documents Amazon has a claim to. Further research is required to corroborate this claim.
  • d.ETHICS BASED ON FACT. This is, perhaps, the most troubling issue. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are both contributing to the demise of local independent used-book stores, as dear to my heart as libraries. Can I in good conscience support either one of them? I already use Amazon for textbooks, along with a number of other sites, and if I can't get them online in time I'll buy them at the Oberlin College Bookstore, which is a Barnes & Noble in disguise. However, textbooks are not usually carried by indie bookstores, so at least I am not directly contributing to the downfall of civilization. If I started relying on these hegemonic corporations for my own self-directed education and entertainment, I'm not sure I could ever think of myself the same way again. I would be partially culpable for all the horrors they inflict on society.

And yet, even if I do nothing, the price of hardcover books goes up, I pay for public-domain classics that I could get for free, libraries get their funding cut, Amazon and Barnes & Noble dominate the market for hard-copy books, and trees turn into paper. It will be a difficult decision, but I must come to a conclusion soon. I will not shirk my responsibility to the natural world, to society, or to my own conscience.

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