Luminous Prose

The future of books could be paperless. By Hank Green

It's been 2,000 years since the first sheets of paper were pressed into existence, and by all accounts, it was a pretty good idea. Indeed, to this day, we haven't found anything that does paper's job quite so well. But now might be the time to start looking into other options.

The U.S. churns out about 125,000 tons of paper every day. Most of it is used once, and then discarded. And then there’s the pollution factor. The paper industry is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in America. Expanded recycling programs minimize the amount of trees used to produce paper, but still require quite a lot of energy—most of which comes from fossil fuels.

So what can be done? What does paper's job better than paper? More and more people are turning to their computer monitor instead of picking up a newspaper, and the newspaper industry is feeling the pressure. But that shift is slight, and newspapers still account for 20 percent of the paper in America.

The solution to our dilemma likely lies in electronic document readers. These devices, generally called e-readers, are making strides toward replacing disposable printed paper. But there is still quite a ways to go.

Most important to the widespread adoption of e-readers is readability. The ease with which the devices can be read largely depends on two factors. The biggest difference between your computer monitor and a newspaper is luminosity: Your newspaper does not glow in the dark. The imperceptible flicker and bright luminous nature of LCD or CRT monitors devours power and breeds headaches.

Second, a computer monitor has half as many dots per inch of space when compared to newspapers. Filling in all those extra dots tires the eyes as well.

Companies that produce electronic document readers are focusing heavily on improving readability. Electronic ink, or e-ink, is a non-luminous, high-resolution electronic display that consumes very little energy. The display is basically a system of magnetic beads that have two sides: dark and light. When a charge is applied, the beads move black side up, and then stay in that position. So, a page can be displayed indefinitely without using any power.

Several e-ink readers are already available on the American market, but they're expensive. Sony's Reader will set you back $350. The more advanced iRex iLiad—a portable device about the size of half a sheet of paper—has an internal Internet connection that can download your daily RSS feeds and will set you back $820.

These e-readers are already superior to paper in several ways. Texts are instantly searchable, thousands of documents can be stored in one small place, and the environmental impact of each document is negligible. However, their disadvantages may still outweigh these superiorities. The e-readers are small, rigid, and monochrome. Plus, it can take more than a second for the screen to refresh.

Within the next five years, we will see solutions to these problems as well. Sony has already developed a prototype flexible e-reader that can be rolled up to store a large screen. Color displays are in the works, and screen refresh times are being brought down. As for costs, signs point to cheaper e-readers on the horizon. An inexpensive e-reader has just been released on the Chinese market and has a wirelessly enabled e-book reader in the works that will likely be strongly subsidized by book sellers.

Let’s not forget that MP3 players existed for half a decade before anyone beside the biggest geeks actually bought one. We're still in the realm of early adoption here, but after 2000 years of waiting, we might actually have a viable alternative to disposable paper.

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In principle, these are a great idea. In addition to the ecological benefits, it's one device to carry on vacation instead of a stack of books, the type size can be enlarged for those of us with visual impairments, and hypertext links make it easy to locate characters and recap events if we've been away from the book for a while.

My problem with this device is that it can be one more way in which the large media corporations restrict the range of material to which we have access. Vertically integrated publishers, electronics, and media companies can shut out the publications of alternative presses such as New Society Publishers, which for decades has been at the forefront of awakening environmental consciousness and helping people to live ecologically, socially, and spiritually sustainable lives, or Curbstone Press, the oldest publisher of progressive fiction in the United States. When I hear that large booksellers and publishers are subsidizing the development of these devices, it makes me wonder what tradeoffs in terms of access are being made.

I would argue that the widespread adoption of e-readers of this type would strengthen the existence of alternative publishing, much in the same way the internet has increased the availability of alternative news media. Even the current readers on the market can read .doc and .pdf files, meaning anyone with a computer could "publish" his or her works and make them available to a large audience via the internet.

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