The moral relativism of the e-book reader

That’s a strange title for a post, isn’t it? More important, I allow, it’s mis-leading. How-ever, this line I scribbled on a sheet of paper after I engaged, during the mid-class break, this evening, in a not-yet-(and, probably, perpetually un-)settled debate on technology, progress, autonomy, and, as I accused my class-mate, Charles, of, ultimately, advocating, moral relativism

I started the conversation innocuously enough (or, so I should like to contend), lamenting the electronic-book storage-and-reading devices, such as that offered by Amazon and the product developed by researchers at the Universities of Maryland, College Park, and California, Berkeley, (Reminding us, as Paul M. Weyrich, writing, as part of his series on the Next Conservatism, on a Conservative New Urbanism, in a piece that I wish, later, to discuss, say, that “God knows we dare not entrust culture to the universities.”)

Researchers from this university and the University of California, Berkeley, recently released a prototype of a new e-book reader aimed to revolutionize how people read and study. [My emphasis. – NPO] (From the 17 July 2008 issue of the University of Maryland Diamondback)

I offer the seemingly out-of-place Weyrich quotation because I believe that the electronic “book” may, in fact, be more pernicious than the iPhone G3, more a sign, and cause, inevitably, of the end of Western Civilization than this damned, culture-damning, isolating cellular tele-phone-cum-mini-computer. Thus, my lament. Thus, the ensuing accusation, how-ever it arose, that by demonizing such excessive uses of technology (which I do for reasons where-about you can read in the linked piece on the iPhone G3.), and the consequent judgment of those who replace books with electronic “books”, or conversation and engagement in the public sphere with the iPod (To this day, even, now, running, semi-regularly, I refuse to own a personal .mp3 player.), I, wrongly, attempt to force my beliefs on others, wrongly make snap-shot judgments of others based on what I witness, briefly, of them, in public. Summed up, Charles indicts me for suggesting that what I believe to be problematic, wrong, even, could be, as I aver, wrong. He then denied, to my dis-may, that his rejection of such a possibility constituted any sort of moral relativism.

I admit that, on the face, my contending that Charles’s suggesting that my belief — that the electronic reader, some-thing the existence where-of he ascribed to “progress”, ought to be used by no-one — is an un-fair attempt to force my views on others amounts to moral relativism is, perhaps, un-charitable. How-ever, upon more thorough consideration, we must recognize that, first, all choices have moral components and moral consequences and that, second, ultimately, a failure to issue some, even pre-liminary, judgment on what we perceive to be maleficent actions and decision, because we wish not to “impose our views” on others, is an abdication of our moral responsibility. Finally, most important and relevant to the spark that ignited the conversation, and, thus, this rambling, barely coherent post, the electronic-book reader, truly, does pose, at least potentially, a serious threat to culture and civilization, there-by making it a device of morally questionable status.

Here, more than any-where else in this prolix philippic, I may range beyond reasonable limits and declare some-thing absurd. I dis-agree, but I may err. I aver that, the book, be it hard-, paper-, or cloth-back, represents a human and personal connection with the author, and with all of those who made possible the conversion of the author’s manuscript into some-thing in the hands of readers, that disappears when, rather than a book, a reader devours the words, paragraphs, pages, and chapters, generically, from a device that lacks the uniqueness of each book by de-personalizing each with-in the electronic confines of the hand-held device. A reader cannot smell the history of a collection of Faulkner’s novels, as I can, in the volume that I purchased at Erasmus Books, in South Bend, Indiana, when reading As I Lay Dying on a computer screen. He is in-capable of benefitting from notes that the previous owner of his copy of Aristotle’s Politics wrote in the margins of the text.

Perhaps, the most fundamental danger intrinsic in the electronic-book reader, as I tried to assert to my judicious co-interlocutor, is that it represents one additional means where-by we latch, further, on to the demon of technology that, as Patrick so astutely asseverates in the iPhone pice, threatens to separate us from the world. Further-more, echoing Wendell Berry and, to a slightly lesser extent, Wilhelm Röpke, I argue that this reliance on technology renders us impotent and incapable; it de-humanizes us.

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2 Responses

  1. […] the doctrine of progress has categorically — or, even equivocally –benefitted man-kind, most assuredly, is fact, […]

  2. […] to the violent upheaval that something that we take for granted as much as printing — I’ve previously lamented the risk that Kindle and similar products present to books! — I have remained woefully oblivious. […]

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