I’m completely obsessed with efficiency. I try to be as ruthlessly efficient as I possibly can, simply because I want to get as much done as possible. If there’s a new system that saves me time, whether it’s accepting e-queries, embracing Google docs so I can work anywhere, getting an e-reader so I can read anywhere, you name it, I’ll do it.
But I’m also obsessed with efficiency in a broader sense as well, because I think it is something critically important to society and history and technology. We humans, whether we’re conscious of it or not, are all obsessed with efficiency.
Nearly every single thing that has ever been invented and achieved mass adoption has one thing in common: it’s an improvement in efficiency.
Whether it’s speech, writing, the postal service, telephone, or e-mails, we have been moving closer and closer to efficient, instantaneous communication across vast distances.
Whether it’s domesticated animals, chariots, railroads, cars, planes, we have been moving closer and closer to efficient travel across vast distances.
Whether it’s fire, windmills, steam engines, or the internal combustion engine, we have been moving closer and closer to the most efficient energy production possible.
And as we decide whether to adopt or dismiss a new inventions, nearly every consideration other than efficiency (usually) dwindles in importance.
Cars aren’t as safe as railroad travel or walking (or at least walking where there are no cars), but we’re willing to make that sacrifice because cars are efficient. Every energy technology seems to pollute more than the last, but we make the tradeoff because the other technologies are less efficient. Nothing can compare to the experience of listening to live music or, barring that, vinyl records, but we’d much rather listen to music on mp3 players because we can listen to music whenever we want.
Human beings are always scurrying around trying to find more efficient ways of doing things and freeing up time for the things we’d rather be doing. Efficiency allows us to be more productive and relax more and spend time creating still more efficiency.
And this is why I believe e-books are going to win in the end, and probably sooner than we think. It’s simply vastly more efficient to download any book you could possibly want instantaneously and read a book on a screen (even better if it’s a screen you already have, hello smartphone) than to cut down a tree, make paper, print ink on it, bind it, ship it across the country in a plane or a truck or both, and make someone walk or drive to a physical store (who may or may not have the book they want) every time they want to read a book.
I think we’ll look back on the print era and marvel about all those people who were responsible for delivering all these individual printed objects, kind of like how there used to be a fleet of milk men in every city rather than one guy driving a truck to a couple of supermarkets.
To be sure, no technology disappears completely – people still ride horses, go to plays, type on typewriters, listen to record players, and send handwritten letters. And printed books aren’t going to disappear either. All of these technologies have advantages and an associated nostalgia that people will always want to preserve and experience. There will still be printed books and physical bookstores, even if there are far fewer of them.
But things tend to move in one direction: toward greater efficiency and productivity. There’s always a delay as people adapt to the new technology, but prices come down, the technology gets better, and the efficiency spreads.
Printed books have their advantages, but they don’t win where it counts. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but human nature abhors a bottleneck.