Weather Forecast


It's Our Turn: Technology that changed the world

Glancing at the top stories in the Star Tribune in the break room the other day, I came across a truly frightening headline.

No, it wasn’t a catastrophe like an earthquake, tsunami or fire in a Third World country. It wasn’t the ravings of some left-wing political extremist. It wasn’t even a prediction about the dire effects of global warming.

It was something much, much worse.

“Minnesota’s libraries are rushing to adapt to a post-book world.”

I was shocked! I don’t care if Minnesota’s libraries are rushing. I don’t care if they are adapting. The real jolt was the phrase “a post-book world.”

Unimaginable! Is that where we are now, a post book world? Have books really lost their importance, and their ability to change lives and educate? Are we really putting all our hope in digital media that are unreliable, intangible and which invite distraction? Or – worse yet – have we just stopped reading?

I hope that’s not the case. In today’s busy world, it seems like it’s harder than ever for people to find the time to devote to reading a long book. Often, the free time we do have is wasted on e-mail, social media and meaningless Internet browsing. Although there is no end to the reading material available on the Internet, it’s not conducive to in-depth reading because it invites us to continually jump from one trivial thing to another.

Those who do actually read books are increasingly doing so on electronic devices.

Yes, I am one of them – at least to some extent. I received a Kindle for my birthday a couple of years ago and I’ve really enjoyed it. I use it a lot to get free samples of books that I might want to purchase in paper form. I have also purchased a lot of low-cost booklets and reference works. And I sometimes even use it to read longer books.

But I love real books and can’t imagine living without them.

Of course, there really is no difference between information stored on paper in a book and information stored and conveyed electronically. However, I believe real books have some qualities that can’t be and never will be matched with electronic media.

One of the most significant is that a book is a physical thing that can be touched, smelled, felt and even heard. Because of its physical form, it has a feeling of importance, reliability and permanence that an electronic book can never match. Real books invite you to linger and take your time. You may read an e-book, but you experience a real book – especially if it’s old and slightly smelly.

When you think of important inventions that have impacted our world, there are many that come to mind: the wheel, plumbing, the telephone, electricity, engines, medicine, computers and the Internet. However, the one invention that stands far above all the others is the movable-type printing press.

The printing press literally changed the world. Before that, books were expensive and rare because they were laboriously copied by hand. After the printing press, multiple copies that were exactly the same could be produced quickly and inexpensively. Books became common and as a result, more people learned to read. The printing press led to widespread education and an information explosion that in many ways facilitated all later inventions.

We now live in a time where technology and science are worshiped as both our god and savior. Anything new is good, and anything old is bad and needs to be replaced.

But typing isn’t necessarily better than handwriting, texting isn’t always better than talking, and e-books aren’t always superior to real books.

We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss something that has had so much impact as being old-fashioned and obsolete.

I still have hope, however. Just like I believe that people will eventually tire of the novelty of tapping little screens and watching other people’s lives on TV, I also hope that people will see the limitations of electronic books and learn to balance them with real books – real books that can be touched and felt and written in; real books that form a permanent record of the past and which still have the power to change the world.

• • •

“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.