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The Paradox of the e-reader

May 30, 2010

How times have changed. Instead of heading to your local bookstore to grab your favourite novel, you can turn on your e-reader to download a book from the selection on offer. The book and the e-reader are completely different ways of publishing. However, they offer consumers the same product; language, text and your own personalised interest.

No one can question the impact the book has had on society. On the other hand, the e-reader is a relatively new publishing technology. The positive attributes of the e-reader have caused many consumers to consider it a positive device in today’s society. However, issues with privacy and control have meant that some consumers have become cautious of this new platform for viewing books. The paradox of the e-reader has impacted society as it is to be feared and loved at the same time

All these books fit into the Kindle.

Where would we be without the book?

Life would be definitely different. Language, religion and education would not exist in the way it does today. The book has given the world information about all areas of society.

Even before the book humans had the urge to publish by writing on anything from stones to bark. I have often been found imprinting my name in the sand for the world to see. According to Bruce (2010) “at first, writing was restricted to inscriptions, e.g. on stone, seals, brooches, and containers. The Sumerians then developed baked clay tablets, which can be regarded as the first books.” In 500 BC the Ancient Egyptians started to use scrolls made of papyrus. The Chinese invented paper in 105 AD and printing using wooden blocks in the 9th Century AD. And that’s a bit of history from me to you.

Ancient Egyptian papyrus.

There is a never ending list of books that have influenced society. According to Seymour- Smith (1998) the top ten most influential books of all time are:

  1. Chinese classic texts, I Ching in 14th Century BC.
  2. Jewish scripture, Hebrew Bible, 13th 14th Century BC.
  3. Homer, lliad and Odyssey, 8th Century BC.
  4. Hindu scripture, Upanishads 7th-5th Century BC.
  5. Lao Tsu, Tao Te Chang, 3rd Century BC.
  6. Zoroastrian scripture, Avesta, 3rd Century BC-3rd Century AD.
  7. Confucius, Analects, 5th-4th Century.
  8. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Way, 5th Century.
  9. Hippocrates, Works, 400 BC.
  10. Aristotle, Works, 4th Century BC.

Human beings have a natural desire to record and publish their experiences, memories and beliefs. ‘The Bible’ has sold from 2.5 billion to 6 billion copies, making it the best selling book of all time. Let’s not forget another great book J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” which has sold 150 million copies. Go Frodo! Whether the book is educational, political or used as entertainment it has been and still is an indispensable part of society. But how has the publication of the book changed?

All that is solid melts into air

Marshall Bernan's book "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air."\

Marshall Berman had a point when he wrote “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.” Where is everything? It has all become digital…and what the hell is digital? Can we hold it? No… We no longer hold the book in our hand; instead we have access to the digital version. So you can hold the device that holds all your invisible digitalised belongings.

Nightengale argues that convergent devices highly influence the digital world and the media within that world. She states that this may, “disrupt existing media industries by precipitating, deconstruction and disintermediation.” Ito Mizuko (2005) suggests that communication is enabled at a distance despite “institutionalised phenomenological time constraints.” Technological convergence has meant that we are no longer tied to space and are able to carry our mobile media with us. So mumbo jumbo everything is melting into air…digital air that is.

With convergence comes divergence as the one device has been separated into many devices for all our different needs. According to Appelgren (p. 238, 2004), “Divergence, being essentially the opposite of convergence, is commonly defined as a drawing apart.” I mean who doesn’t need a computer, a laptop, an iPhone, an iPod and now the e-reader? Please give us more to consume! Appelgren (p. 244, 2004) says, “The core reason for convergence might lead to divergence as the range of content becomes fragmentized. As seen from the consumer’s point of view as an individual, a wider range of information channels indicates divergence.”

Not even the book can withstand this digital revolution. Nightengale suggests traditional media is becoming less relevant and there has been a ‘redistribution’ of power. The media is no longer owned by the broadcast media but the consumers. However, the e-reader has created questions of privacy, controls and copyright. Has there been a collapse of the commons or are the elite institutions still in control?

The Paradox of the e-reader

There are two conflicting responses to the e-reader. The first is that it contributes to society and makes life easier. The second is that it is not an independent platform as there is too much control by the creators.

Amazon (2010) describes their Kindle wireless reading device as “a convenient, portable reading device with the ability to wirelessly download books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers.” In competition Apple (2010) has brought out the new iPad that is described as “a magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price.” Pretty sure Apple is not Harry Potter and they haven’t found the philosopher’s stone. But anyway… it is a convergent device where you can go on the web, listen to music, take photos and read e-books. It is like a laptop which can rotate to fit any book, newspaper or magazine pages. Sim’s blog (2010) states, “I believe it’s a game-changer because it will hyper-personalize the experience a person has when interacting with media and change the times and places at which they do so.” Writer Sherry Sontag (2008) says, “My favorite toys are now my Kindle, my Mighty Bright booklight, and the WaterField travel case designed just for the Kindle 1 carry it all in.”

Magazine published on the e-reader.

But are these features really that good? According to Sontag (2008), “There are still people betting against Kindle and the rest of the electronic readers. One notable: Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, has been scathing of electronic readers “posing” as books.” There are also complaints about the number of e-books available to consumers. Shang Ya’nan an analyst with for the domestic research firm ‘Analysis International states that,’ “The copyrighted resources Shanda Literature has are mostly entertainment-oriented online novels, which are far from what the average person is interested in reading.”

To Peter Kirn the iPad “embodies the exact opposite of all the reasons I’ve invested so much time in computing for the last 25 years as it is a closed platform, you are limited to Apple’s third party apps and Apple alone controls the distribution of media.”

So Apple has a lot of control over the e-reader. Is Apple watching us?

1984's "Big Brother" poster.

John Naughton suggests that the book gave us more freedom, “Our societies have spent 400 years developing legal traditions which strike a reasonable balance between the needs of authors and publishers on the one hand and those of users on the other.” In comparison, the e-reader is taking away these freedoms. He says, “The biggest issue of all, namely the ways in which the technology enables content owners to assert a level of control over the reader that would be deemed unconscionable – and unacceptable – in the world of print.” The transferring of e-books to mobile devices using a USB cable has been removed by Apple. Blogger Robin Waiters warns that, “Naturally, this event adds fuel to the fire for the many observers claiming Apple is far too controlling.”

Are we loosing our freedom? Many are worried that ownership over books is important and by replacing books with e-readers we loose our control. Naught on (2009) compares the e-reader to ‘1984’s’ Big Brother. He says:

“I own my copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four and can do with it what I wish. I can, for example, lend it to friends, family and students. I can, if I wish, tear out pages and send them to people in the post, or stick them up on noticeboards. I can sell the book – if I could find a buyer.”

We are loosing our power as we no longer have these freedoms with the e-reader and at any time Amazon can remove it from our device. We are not allowed to distribute e-books as we please; Amazon is watching our every move. Naught on gives an example of people who had purchased electronic copies of the book Nineteen Eighty-Four and had their books removed from their e-readers. Without warning the texts were deleted, by Amazon. Amazon also has access to our annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings we make in our devices. Naught on says, “Welcome to the world of readers and the arteriosclerotic narrowing of freedoms they bring in their wake.”

Has the e-reader changed society?

The book is an undeniably important part of society. The e-reader offers something different to consumers. The possibilities of a convergent device that allows the reading of books has had positive feedback from consumers.

But…. Many people believe that media companies are always trying to control our media. According to Burman (p.13, 1982), “To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organisations that have the power to control and often destroy all communities.” We are given the selection of books available, we cannot distribute the books and the companies can access our information. The publication of digital books has decreased our control and increased copyright censorship. Broadcast media has taken their power back.

The paradoxical nature of the e-reader has influenced society. As the traditional book changed society through the distribution of information, the e-reader has changed the way consumers access their books. It gives us freedom through the availability of information and takes it away through too much surveillance. Either way there is an undeniable sense that the e-reader has changed the way consumers access their books.


1. Appelgren, E 2004, Convergence and Divergence in Media: Different Perspectives, The Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, Viewed 30 May 2010,

2. Apple 2010, Ipad, Apple Store, Viewed 30 May 2010,|GOAUE&cid=AOS-AP-AU-Google-AA0000018661.

3. Amazon 2010, Say Hello to the Newest Kindle, Amazon, viewed 30 May 2010,

4. Berman, M 1982, All that is solid melts into air, ‘The Experience of Modernity,’ viewed the 30 May 2010,

5. Bruce 2010, A History of the Book, Bruce’s Australian E-book newsletter, viewed 6 June 2010,

6. Ito, M 2005. Mobile Phones, Japanese Youth, and the Re-placement of Social Contact. In Ling, Rich and Pederson, Per, Eds Mobile Communications: Re-negotiation of the Social Sphere. London: Springer-Verlag, pp.131-148.

7. Kirn, P 2010, How A Great Product Can Be Bad News: Apple, iPad, and the Closed Mac, ‘Create Digital Music’, viewed 30 May 2010,

8. Naughton, J 2009, The original Big Brother is watching you on Amazon Kindle, ‘The Guardian,’ viewed 30 May 2010,

9. Nightengale, V 2007. New Media Worlds? Challenges for Convergence. In Nightengale, Virgina and Time Dwyer, Eds. New Media Worlds: Challenges for Convergence. South Melbourne, VIC, Oxford University Press, pp. 19-36.

10. Robin, W 2010, Apple Demands Demoval of USB Sharing Feature in Stanza iPhone App, Tech Crunch, viewed 8 June 2010, <>

11. Seymour, S 1998, The Most Influential Books Ever Written, Wikipedia, viewed 6 June 2010,

12. Sim’s Blog 2010, Keep the Print Guys Away From the iPad App, viewed 30 May 2010,

13. Shang Ya’nan 2010, Chinese companies step up efforts to tap into E-reader business. What’s On Xiaman, viewed 8 June 2010,

14. Sontag, S 2008, The e-reader. An inside look at the leading e-book readers in action, E-Content, Vol. 31, Issue 6, pp. 36-43.

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