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Books: Will That Be Paper or Electrons?

By Rajesh C. Oza Email By Rajesh C. Oza
March 2012
Books: Will That Be Paper or Electrons? SATYALOGUE
with PostModern Gandhiji (PMG)

An advice column offering the Mahatma’s perspective on modern dilemmas


Dear PMG,

As a young child filled with newspaper images of Mahatma Gandhi sitting at a spinning wheel, I always thought of Gandhiji as anti-technology.

Just this past Christmas when my grandchildren gave me an Amazon Kindle, I nearly burst out like a petulant child who received an unwanted gift. I have loved books, newspapers, and magazines my entire life. I’ve loved not only the content of these books, newspapers, and magazines, but also their feel, smell, and shape. When I was younger, I had a collection of clippings of my favorite cricketers. While those clippings are long lost, my books are still with me or have been gifted to family and friends.

I really don’t think the modern world electronic book readers such as the Kindle are a fitting replacement of their traditional hardcopy counterparts. What would Gandhiji say?

Dear Friend,

“Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people’s minds.” (M. K. Gandhi)

Before addressing your specific query about the technological shift from paper to digital, it is important to note that Gandhiji was not anti-technology. Instead, he was in favor of appropriate technology. Several prominent writers have written about this.

Smiling on the cover of E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful is a photograph of Gandhiji surrounded by a bicycle, a butterfly, and a bulb. While the butterfly is not the product of technological innovation, the bicycle and the lightbulb would be consistent with what Schumacher called “intermediate technology,” also known as appropriate technology.

Ramachandra Guha has written movingly about how Gandhiji suggested that “the distinguishing characteristic of modern civilization is an indefinite multiplicity of wants” and championed the “strict regulating of these wants.”

So the question becomes, is there an appropriate place for both traditional books and their electronic counterparts? One answer is that both are forms of technology, and thus both can improve the human condition. Another response is that companies such as Amazon and Apple induce customers to indefinitely buy more and more based on impulsive behavior and infinite storage. Yet another response is that we need to keep up with the times and not find ourselves stuck in the past with publishing technologies that are dependent on the unsustainable destruction of trees. And many would agree with Gandhiji’s assertion that online writing—often unedited—is akin to poison.

I imagine that Gandhiji would have landed on the side of ethical (and ecological) choice. While change—especially technological change— is inexorable, each of us has a choice about what is appropriate technology. Because I want my unborn grandchildren to someday hold a book in their hands and love the wonderful interplay of tactile and intellectual sensations, I only purchase books from bookstores. While I do read some articles online, I know that my choice of what I read and how I consume what I read affects not only me, but also the world that I will bequeath to future generations.

[Dr. Rajesh C. Oza serves as a consultant to organizations and individuals requiring change leadership. We invite questions for consideration in the PMG column at raj_oza@hotmail.com.]

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