E-books Are Not Horseless Carriages

Model T

Photo by thehenryford on Flickr

I’m reading the book (on my iPad) What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly the co-founder of Wired Magazine. It’s an optimistic look at the nature of technology and our relationship to it. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in philosophical, historical, evolutionary look at technology. I can’t say that I agree with all his arguments, but I’m finding thought provoking passages on almost every page. This one from chapter 12 stood out in light of the current issues in the library world:

“We make prediction more difficult because our immediate tendency is to imagine the new thing doing an old job better. That’s why the first cars were called “horseless carriages.” The first movies were simply straightforward documentary films of theatrical plays. It took a while to realize the full dimensions of cinema photography as its own new medium that could achieve new things, reveal new perspectives, do new jobs. We are stuck in the same blindness. We imagine e-books today as being regular books that appear on electronic paper instead of radically powerful threads of text woven into one shared universal library.”

We gravitate to what we know and what we’re used to. An e-book is not a book on electronic paper. It is a completely new medium that will have myriad unanticipated effects, both positive and negative. I’m guessing “electronic paper” and “e-ink” are both going to sound a lot like “horseless carriage” in 20 years. Also the way we consume, share, and interact with e-books is going to be different than paper books. We are inventing the future right now through our action and inaction. We should be mindful of the past, but not so wrapped up in it that we aren’t able to see the future.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. Right now, what I’m looking for in an ebook IS a “horseless carriage”: something as much like reading a print book as possible, plus the advantages of getting books without leaving the house, carrying around lots of books without lots of weight, etc.

    In the longer run, though, there are all sorts of neat things that should/will be possible with ebooks, that will eventually make books and reading a different experience. Maybe just for non-fiction (I’m thinking of images in scientific journals being 3D and rotatable, for instance), maybe not.

    For simply reading large amounts of text, though, they’ll have to go far to beat e-ink.

  2. I see where you’re coming from Lis. I really enjoy traveling with my ipad instead of multiple books stuffed in my bag. And I think in the short term we are still going to be looking at books as horseless carriages. Right now we’re in that technological transition period where we are still used to the old method and just want “books but better.”

    Like you said, the experience is going to be completely different. Just like with cars (Kelly mentions this in the book) there were tons of other revolutions and inventions that came from them: the highway system, ubiquitous gas stations, drive through windows, and drive in theaters. There will be similar revolutions because of the e-book. Like you mentioned, enhanced images are now included in some e-books. Very easy book publication is another implication. It’s hard to imagine everything, but we’ll see them soon enough.

  3. Well said. I agree that it’s very early days when it comes to e-books and look forward to seeing how things evolve over time. I just wish that we didn’t have to expend so much energy arguing about things like formats and platforms. It would be better spent on real innovation. Maybe we’ll be surprised….

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