Everything we do in life has ethical considerations, even something simple as buying books. Ebooks represent a change, and that change has good and bad consequences.
- Ebooks will put a lot of people out of work. Bookstores may disappear like record stores. This is a horrible consequence in these bad economic times. The digital world is just more efficient than the analog world and that kills jobs.
- Ebooks will also kill competition, reducing the number of businesses in the marketplace. Amazon and Apple could theoretically take over all the book and music business from tens of thousands of small businesses.
- Ebooks are anti-social. Instead of buying books at a bookstore and meeting other people you order books directly. Instead of sharing books with friends, readers are locked into a closed world of DRM.
- Ebooks could damage cultural heritage and history. Printed books can last for hundreds of years, and people value them, but ebooks probably have no lasting power at all.
- Bookstores might become extinct which would be a huge cultural loss.
- Book ownership is probably a deceptive concept and sellers like Amazon shouldn’t describe their ebooks are “for sale.” To be honest, sellers should claim they are long term rentals until DRM copy protection is removed.
- Ebooks are extremely environmental. Wood pulp technology uses lots of water, energy and chemicals, and those chemicals get into the environment. Printing takes both energy and chemicals. Distributing books creates lots of carbon and other pollutants. The carbon footprint of ebooks is almost zero.
- Ebooks could mean more money for writers, editors and publishers because ebooks could do away with the used book market. As long as DRM technology is successful, more readers would actually buy books, instead of borrowing them or buying used, which is more ethical for the writer and publisher.
- Ebooks might encourage more reading and literacy because of their convenience and possibly make reading more appealing to young people because ebooks are available on smart phones, an essential device for kids.
- Ebooks could enhance cultural heritage and history. It’s quite easy to load up an ebook reader with the great books of the western world. Every child or family could have their own library of thousands of free books.
Ethically, the primary conflict is jobs versus the environment. But that will be true of all industries and businesses as time passes. If all books, magazines and newspapers were read on digital readers it would have a positive impact on the environment, but at a terrible cost in jobs.
The secondary ethical concern is which format is better for promoting literacy, knowledge and culture? This is much harder to judge until after ebooks have taken over. We won’t know their full impact for a very long time. But consider this: What if you could hold a device that had every book you ever bought or read in your entire life with annotations, notes, and supplemental reference essays and reviews? Would such a superbook library have a positive social impact?
I already miss record stores and LP album covers, but I don’t miss LPs. I don’t even miss CDs, but I do miss shopping for music at record stores. I have a subscription to Rhapsody Music and can listen to as many CDs as I can cram into my month for $9.99, but the fun of discovering new albums is gone. From about 1965-1995 I bought 2-4 albums a week. I loved going to record stores, but that activity is as ancient as horse and buggy rides.
I’ve been going to bookstores 1-2 times a week since 1965. It’s about the only shopping I still like to do recreationally. I’ve bought far more books than I have ever read, or will ever have time to read. I will truly miss bookstores if they disappear.
On the other hand, I discover all my books and music now from the Internet. I’m in four online book clubs. I’m far more involved with books, authors and readers then when I only shopped at bookstores. Most of my friendships are based around talking about books or music. I never really went to bookstores or record stores to socialize with the staff, or ask them for recommendations, although I’ve always liked meeting other book and music fans.
Amazon, with its supplemental content and customer reviews has been a quantum leap in helping me discover new books to read. It’s far more social in helping me make book buying decisions than bookstores ever were. Web 2.0 technology is a different kind of socializing. It’s intellectual over physical.