Shengliver’s Note: In this entry, Shengliver promotes digital media by sharing with the readers his making a switch from paper books to e-books. In the past two or three years, some big-name bookshops and publishers the world over have been closed down because of growing penetration of digital media into our reading habit. It is a time of change.


Do you read paper books? Do you read e-books? Which do you like better? Do you believe that someday you will read only on the computer? Or do you believe that you are so used to paper media that it is impossible for you to read on digital devices?


I was grappling with a choice between paper media and digital media back in 2003-2005, during which period I was learning to use the computer and the Internet. Before I had access to the Internet, paper media were the means by which I worked. I read magazines, newspapers, journals, and textbooks. I wrote with a pen on paper. The first time I read on the computer, I felt the discomfort. My head had to be tilted up. Staring at the monitor hurt the eyes. Instead of a pen in hand, I had to click with a mouse. What was missing, I felt most keenly, was the tangibility that came with reading a paper book. When reading a paper book, I held it in hand. My fingers caressed the leaves. I heard the rustle when I turned a page. Anytime I came across an interesting word or phrase, I could make notes in the margin or between the lines. However, all those physical experiences were gone when reading took place on the computer.

ebooks vs physical books 

The struggle was mentally painful as well. I read mainly some online British newspapers to start with. Even if I knew I had covered a lot, I still had an empty feeling in the stomach when the machine was shut down. What if I had done the same contents on paper? The newspaper would still have been there on the desk, and the notes I made would still have been found in it, black and white, or red.


Habits are formed through long and repeated exposure to an experience. Habits can be trained and changed. As time went by, my familiarity with the computer increased, and without being aware of it, I started to enjoy reading digitally.


Digital media can be manipulated in some ways instead of being read just once and then replaced by a new page. With news stories, I copied them into Microsoft Word. When I was reading them in Word, I could highlight an item by bolding or colouring it. I could also comment and annotate by using the Review function. Most e-book applications such as the Adobe Reader allow a user to handle his document in similar manners.


A new tangibility has been born of doing something with the reading material on the computer. It differs from the experience with pen and paper, but once I have got acclimatised to it, there will be no going back.


Digital media do have drawbacks. You would need the hardware and software to access the data. A human error would obliterate what you have stored, or a cracked hard disk would leave no trace of the reading material at all. Also on the Web distractions are a mouse-click away. With a click you may have strayed onto a site you had not planned to visit. You might linger on the page for hours before you realise that too much time has been lost. Nonetheless, the advantages of digital media far outweigh their minuses.


Digital media in the first place are not as bulky as paper media. A traditional library would fit perfectly well into a mobile disk, believe it or not. The convenience this feature brings about is beyond description. Once you have built your personal digital archives on a hard disk, you need not go and visit your local library any longer. How much time would you save? Carrying a lot of paper books is indeed tiring. When you think of all the resources stored in one cute tiny disk, you will never trouble yourself over paper books again.


Increased use of digital media will save the trees which would otherwise have to be felled for the production of paper books. Before the Digital Age, there was a global concern that we might exhaust the forests, which would in turn see global warming deteriorate. This concern is laid to rest by the advent of digital media. It absolutely delights environmentalists that e-books never wear out. You would never worry that a page has been thumbed so many times that the words on it are unintelligible. An e-book is forever new. The only issue at the moment is that many guys find their old habit dies hard. Some readers, when they find what they need online, print it out and read it in the paper way. They are real resource killers, consuming both the power it takes to run the computer and the paper on which the printout is done.


Besides their physical size, digital media are much easier to process than paper books. Sorting, copying, pasting, editing, and searching are all done in a split second. Retrieving info is fast and accurate. It could take as long as hours to locate a physical book in a traditional library, and often longer to dig out the specific paragraphs you need in it. Yet in a matter of a few seconds, what you are seeking is presented before your very eyes on the computer, indexed in any order of your preference.

calibre ebook and news manager 

Compared with paper media, digital media are multimedia. While traditional books are of a visual and linear nature, digital media stimulate almost all human senses: aural, visual, and perceptual. In a sense, the word ‘book’ should be redefined in our times. Since books are a medium of information, in our age they should include e-books, and audio and video contents. We learn by reading the printed word; and we do learn better when we hear and see what is being learned.


The sharpest edge of digital media, in my personal opinion, is their interactivity. A paper book allows a reader to decipher what the writer is trying to get across. To understand the writer, the reader has to resort to his imagination besides his ability to read. This communication, however, travels in one direction, from the writer to the reader. There is no way the reader’s feedback reaches the author if he died last year or last century. Digital media, especially those interactive educational programs, function as a platform where the reader/user communicates with the computer, or rather the program which has been set by programmers and developers. When video games were born last century, a lot of people saw the great potential of digital technology in other realms of human experience than entertainment. Now that applications can be programmed for amusement, why cannot they be applied to education and learning? In the past few decades, numerous educational software programs have emerged and impacted on our way of teaching and learning. Some learning drudgery can be turned into fun stuff; and the accuracy that the technology ensures helps to do away with mistakes which result from human error. When it comes to acquiring a particular skill, say how to pronounce a Chinese character, a relevant application is able to make its user as sharp as a razor.


Are educational programs books? They look different but in essence they have the same function—to inform and to teach. In this sense, they should fall into the same category.


Digital media help knowledge spread faster and reach a larger audience than ever globally. In ancient times, access to knowledge was restricted to the privileged few, because of primitive means of communication. It took tens of centuries for the printed book to take form and to circulate among the general public. Even in our age, when printing has advanced to a high level, a lot of our brothers and sisters in the world still are denied access to knowledge in the format of paper books, either because they cannot afford them or because the society they are in does not have the facilities (libraries and services) to provide them. Hopefully the world’s knowledge is reaching more and more ordinary people regardless of their geographical location, economic and social status, and ethnicity, thanks to the nature of the Web. The language of the Web is uniform, and up to now, it has been largely out of national governmental control. Mobile technology, especially that of smart phones and tablet PCs, which is gaining momentum, will contribute tremendously to the dissemination of knowledge. Many people buy their e-books, the prices of which are peanuts compared to the paper cousins. Many more get theirs through file sharing.


File sharing remains a contentious issue. On the one hand, publishers and authors lose profit when people do not spend on their products. On the other hand, file sharing promotes writers and their ideas to an extent that no previous means in human history could have matched. Of course, when file sharing goes so far that the writer cannot maintain himself, creativity will be hurt. But in terms of knowledge benefiting humanity, file sharing is indisputably the No. 1 catalyst.


Personally, I hope the issue of file sharing is resolved to the satisfaction of both the creator of knowledge and the world audience. The world is certainly a better informed community thanks to digital media being reached by such a staggering readership. Hasn’t it been our ideal throughout history that everyone, whatever their background, can access knowledge and seek self-improvement through it?


Some guys are still hesitating to adopt digital media as their new way of being. They complain that reading on the computer is no reading because there is no book. Paper books will not be gone overnight but we should make a switch to the new existence as soon as possible. At the end of the day, it is a matter of habits. Once a new habit is learned, a life of efficiency will come along.


At my workplace, computers and the Internet are already a reality. The staff use them for preparing work reports, writing exams, building projects, shopping, games, and chats. One year a school leader decreed that the teachers write their teaching plans in a paper book and that teaching plans in the digital form be rejected. His concern was that some staff plagiarised their work from the Internet or from another teacher. The truth is that a lot of teachers create their work on the computer although plagiarism does occur with some staff members. Should we forbid ourselves to work the efficient way because others abuse it? No, we shouldn’t. As a Chinese proverb goes, an idiot would omit to eat because there is a chance of choking. In the long run, plagiarisers will hurt no one but themselves by leaving their intellect cramped. Those who would not go the digital way will impair their own efficiency. Sooner or later, paper media will largely be replaced by digital media, or at least be weakened and then phased out.


In China a lot of journals and magazines have been published to help their readers learn the English language since 1949. The ELL (English Language Learning) and the WE (World of English) are two of them. In their heyday, the two journals each sold as many as 300,000 copies for one issue. But that was when people had no access to TV, radio or the Internet. Ever since the popularisation of computers and the Internet, all those tutorial journals have declined. Some have been squeezed out of the market. Even the two most famous brands, the ELL and the WE, have been wrestling with their falling subscriptions. Who on earth would buy their journal that carries English essays copied from English language media while the same articles are available online for free 24/7? If those journals do not change, they will have no alternative but to die.


Likewise my local Xinhua Bookshop and the City Library are faced with the same competition from digital media. The Xinhua Bookshop no longer teems with shoppers. It used to run several physical shops within the town but now only one of them is left standing there. I occasionally popped into the shop, only to find just a few patrons on the premises. And the City Library, which for the most part loans paper books, sees its readership dwindle, too.


We have to change.

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