When I was still in college, I remember meeting a friend of mine and asking
where he was from. He said, "It's nowhere . . . really, nowhere," and then
he named the town. Another friend of mine spun around and said, "That's the
town where barbed wire was invented." He was right, and as he explained to
me once, he gathered most of his random knowledge by reading the
encyclopedia as a kid. Sure enough, he later made it all the way to the
pinnacle of trivia, Jeopardy.
In fact, a lot of us flipped through the encyclopedia as children, and for
that reason, Wikipedia.org never ceases being one of the greatest sources
of wonder ever created. Online, we are able to read encyclopedic entries
about anything in the world and if they mention something we do not know,
then the very words that baffle us link to an explanation of what they
This love of odd facts, encyclopedias, and technology has fueled my outrage
over an absurd piece of propagandistic trash on the rise of electronic
textbooks which appeared in the New York Times earlier this week.
Ostensibly intended to describe the increased use of e-textbooks and online
material in public school classrooms, the reporter spent the first third of
her article in near rhapsodic euphoria for the new technology. Her
inference was that the use of e-textbooks is already so commonplace she
need only tell the reader that they are great, rather than explaining how
they have and are being developed or the ways in which they may be used.
Only after this unabashed endorsement of e-textbooks does the piece raise
even a single balanced perspective that passes for what would be called
journalism. The reporter accurately cites the fact that beleaguered state
budgets and general destitution in this economy could make electronic
textbooks an attractive future option for use in public schools. What she
withholds for much of the article is that many teachers are unable to
access even a single computer for their students let alone the kind of
technology that would make possible a broad use of electronic textbooks.
The problems with pieces like the Times article are multifold. First and
foremost they present the future as fact, narrowing our reckoning with the
present and suggesting that new and untested technology are already wholly
accepted, unalterable truths. By providing nearly no content, the piece
leaves readers with something worse than an all or nothing proposal, simply
suggesting that the reality it presents is so settled that there is nothing
the reader can (or need) do to learn any more about the issue.
In actuality, e-textbooks are still quite a way off for most schools and
that is a good thing. Their advent may offer tremendous advantages over
current school textbooks. In the coming years I believe e-textbooks will
become the only truly viable part of the e-book market, as the rest of the
publishing industry shifts toward small, localized print-on-demand
facilities. But their development and use will require the vigilance and
assistance from parents, teachers, and scholars alike.
Articles like the one in the Times stilt progress. They are needlessly
exclusive and ultimately appear to be advertisements rather than news. I
rarely believe that complex conspiracies occur, so I am not suggesting that
the reporter for the Times is part of an e-textbook plot to write positive
pieces about the industry. Rather, what I am suggesting is that this kind
of writing, in the volume that it can be found every day in major news
sources, is dangerously sloppy and lazy. This kind of journalism has an
incremental, lasting effect on how much individuals feel able to
knowledgably contribute to the development of our society, and for that
reason it needs to be challenged every single time it appears.
Alex Green is the owner of Back Pages Books and editor of Back Pages Publishers, both located on Moody Street in Waltham.