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Print Or Online: Which Is More Selfish?

An endless and sometimes fatiguing debate persists in many circles about the future of printed media. From what I gather, tensions in this debate tend to fall along these lines: the downside of profligate tree-killing vs. the upside of instantaneous searchability; the downside of cold, semi-glowing devices vs. the upside of the tactile delight that seems unique to books, newspapers, and the like.

The main problem is that all of the tensions overlap. Who wouldn’t be for felling fewer trees, enjoying quicker access to information, and cozying up on an autumn morning with a jacket-less first edition all at the same time?

I would wager that for most readers, deciding how to read something consists of a messy and porous matrix of deeply personal factors. These factors might include a person’s age, the text being read, one’s comfort with technology, and environmental principles. In other words, we seem no closer to justifying either side of the argument than saying, “It’s just how I prefer to read.” Which is no justification at all.

So it recently occurred to me that we could frame the question around something a little more abstract, yet possibly arrive at clearer reasoning: selfishness. Namely, which platform–print media or electronic media–is more selfish, and which is more selfless and giving?

Consider the environmental argument. Proponents of e-readers point out the benefits of using less paper–and it could be argued that cultivating a healthier environment amounts to a gift for future generations. But as has been well reported, electronic waste is taking an extraordinary toll on the environment, leeching toxic chemicals into the poorest yet most populated areas of the globe. That doesn’t speak to selflessness as much as good old Western capitalist negligence.

Yet one of the biggest environmental impacts from book publishing actually comes from shipping books from place to place. If the publishing industry ever eliminated the petroleum-heavy model of selling books on consignment, then we could also eliminate countless tons of diesel fumes from the globe. But selling books by printing on demand or in reduced runs could have a potentially bigger environmental impact–and constitute a more selfless act–than just converting every printed word to a device chock full of lead, copper, nickel, and zinc. Which is to say, it might be–though the debate continues–more environmentally selfless to print books than embrace e-readers.

But here’s where I find the frame of selfishness most compelling when evaluating print vs. electronic media: the gift economy of physical objects. David Foster Wallace’s recent death reminded me of his visit to Kenyon in October 2000. After his reading that night, Wallace told a group of students gathered around a table in what was then called the Cove that he had decided to visit Kenyon mostly because of Kenyon Professor Lewis Hyde’s classic work, The Gift. Hyde argues that objects accrue value as they are passed along, functioning in a sort of gift economy. The object becomes a vessel for the sentiment of the givers. Art can become currency in a gift economy more effectively than in a market economy, in part because gifts don’t need the laws of supply and demand to accrue value. I love giving (and receiving) first editions of favorite books, but not because they’re rare or exceptional–I like them best when they meant something to the person who’s given me the book. I appreciate the giver’s consideration and selflessness. Conversely, I can’t imagine anyone ever gift-wrapping Grandpa’s Kindle years from now, explaining, “Your grandfather read Henry James on this device.”

The truth is that even the most elemental print media hold the potential to become gifts. I think of families who save newspaper clippings of marriage notices and obituaries from previous generations, and pass them down to future generations. In each instance, the clipping becomes more valuable–even though it’s just a few lines of linotype on yellowed newsprint. Then again, does the limitless compilation of such records on servers and databases, permanently at-the-ready for almost effortless search and location, provide an even greater gift to anyone in a community looking for their ancestors? I don’t know.

And we haven’t even gotten to the nuances of cloud computing, blogging, mobile messaging, and social networking. All of these rely on industrialized electronic objects and the user’s seemingly infinite capacity to stare at himself, all-the-while pushing the stock of the companies that support and engineer those platforms. (Possibly damning disclosure: I in fact work for one of those companies.)

All I can propose at the end of the day is perhaps asking yourself this question before you read something: Are you reading in a way that encourages a stronger gift economy, or a stronger market economy? Maybe that’s the question that could settle the debate, at least in a philosophical sense, around the future of printed media.

Whether we would choose to act on the conclusion would be another matter….

David F. Smydra Jr. is a reporter, writer, and editor living in Silicon Valley. He occasionally posts similar bursts of media fancy here.