The advantages of e-books are clear. E-books are immediate. Sitting at home in Pakistan, I can read an intriguing review of a book, one not yet in stores here, and with the click of a button be reading that book in an instant. E-books are also incorporeal. While traveling, which I do frequently, I can bring along several volumes, weightless and indeed without volume, thereby enabling me to pack only a carry-on bag.
And yet the experience of reading e-books is not always satisfactory. Yes, it is possible to vary the size of the font, newly important to me at age 42, as I begin to perceive my eye muscles weakening. Yes, e-books can be read in the dark, self-illuminated, a reassuring feature when my wife is asleep and I am too lazy to leave our bed, or when electricity outages in Lahore have persisted for so long that our backup batteries are depleted. And yes, they offer more frequent indicators of progress, their click-forwards arriving at a rapidity that far exceeds that of paper-flipping, because pixelated screens tend to hold less data than printed pages and furthermore advance singly, not in two-sided pairs.
Nonetheless, often I prefer reading to e-reading. Or rather, given that the dominance of paper can no longer be assumed, p-reading to e-.
I think my reasons are related to the fact that I have disabled the browser on my mobile phone. I haven’t deleted it. Instead, I’ve used the restrictions feature in my phone’s operating system to hide the browser, requiring me to enter a code to expose and enable it. I can use the browser when I find it necessary to browse. But, for the most part, this setting serves as a reminder to question manufactured desires, to resist unless I have good cause.
Similarly, I have switched my email account from the attention- and battery-consuming “push” setting to the less frenzied manual one. Emails are fetched when I want them to be, which is not all that often. And the browser on my slender fruit-knife of a laptop now contains a readout that reminds (or is it warns?) me how much time I have spent online.
Time is our most precious currency. So it’s significant that we are being encouraged, wherever possible, to think of our attention not as expenditure but as consumption. This blurring of labor and entertainment forms the basis, for example, of the financial alchemy that conjures deca-billion-dollar valuations for social-networking companies.
I crave technology, connectivity. But I crave solitude too. As we enter the cyborg era, as we begin the physical shift to human-machine hybrid, there will be those who embrace this epochal change, happily swapping cranial space for built-in processors. There will be others who reject the new ways entirely, perhaps even waging holy war against them, with little chance — in the face of drones that operate autonomously while unconcerned shareholding populations post selfies and status updates — of success. And there will be people like me, with our powered exoskeletons left often in the closet, able to leap over buildings when the mood strikes us, but also prone to wandering naked and feeling the sand of a beach between our puny toes.