Although we now clearly live in a digital age, we are often still very hesitant about accepting its robustness. In fact, though I am an enthusiastic user of every digital device and all electronic media, even I can be uncertain about their durability. A couple of years ago I was asked by a group of schoolchildren to advise them what format to use for electronic data they wanted to put in a time capsule, to be opened in 100 years. Paper, I said without hesitation. I could not be sure that a disk, or a memory stick, or a DVD would still be readable in 100 years time, or indeed that they would not have degraded in the interim.
So what does that mean? Should we assume that what we consume in digital format is for the moment only? This question has been raised on some occasions in relation to ebooks: is reading literature (or anything else) in this format the same as reading a paper-based book, or is it in some way different? The author Jonathan Franzen has recently suggested that the ‘impermanence’ of ebooks makes them unsuitable for serious reading. This becomes an issue in universities when the prospect arises of distributing course materials entirely in digital format, so-called ‘etexts’. Some argue in favour of using these, others are more cautious; but the early evidence is that they can be very effective educational tools.
Personally, I am willing to read pretty much anything in ebook format, though if I believe that I will want to read the book again and may want to reference it in future, I’ll buy a paper copy. But textbooks are different anyway. Most students dispose of them after they have completed their studies. There is therefore little reason to conclude that having etexts is somehow worse than having traditional books; indeed the use of etexts may provide lecturers with an opportunity to use innovative pedagogy.
I still do not know how the digital world will develop, and I am absolutely ready to believe that what we use now in electronic format will not be useable in 30 years time. But I do believe that the principle of electronic reading will continue to be adopted, and the technology will eventually produce more durable products; and I see no evidence of any pedagogical disadvantage. We must continue to innovate, even if the books on my bookshelves will remain also.