Increasingly, people are relying on tablets and e-readers for all their reading needs, populating them with books, magazines, comics, and everything in between. Does that mean that someday printed books will become obsolete?
The short answer is: not necessarily.
The Case for Indefinitely Printed Books
There are some good arguments to make for the future of printed books.
· Slow growth. Though eBooks are becoming more popular, the rate of growth isn’t as fast as you might think – right now, only 30 percent of Americans read eBooks regularly. After decades of advancements in digital reading, most adults are still somewhat behind the curve. If, after all this time, only a fraction of American adults are regularly reading on a digital device, it stands to reason that the popularity of physical books will continue for decades to come.
· Advantages of physical pages. There are several advantages that physical books have that digital books don’t. For example, research shows that people are much more likely to remember details they read in a physical book than a digital one – and most readers find it much easier to flip through the pages of a physical book.
· Nostalgia and physical feelings. Some people will never want to abandon physical books because of the feelings they get when holding one, or because of nostalgia. Reading books is a comforting activity that no digital format can physically replace.
· Collectors and historians. Even if much of the population is comfortable reading digital books, rather than physical ones, there are still going to be collectors and historians fascinated with printed materials. Just as music consumers are still buying vinyl records, there may always be a subset of the population willing to buy physical copies of printed books.
· Inexpensive printing and publishing. Book printing has gotten much cheaper and more accessible over the years. Thanks to better printing technology and a more connected internet, publishing books is easier than ever before.
· Luddites and people who hate change. Even if you could demonstrably prove that digital books are better in every conceivable way, some people will still be resistant to technological change. They will insist on reading physical books simply because that’s what they know.
The Case for Printed Book Obsolescence
There’s also a compelling case that printed books will eventually become obsolete:
· Practical advantages of digital books. Digital books do have many advantages over physical ones. You can mark them up in different ways. You can buy and transport them much easier. You can maintain vast libraries without needing any physical space. You can also share and exchange digital books quite easily. In fact, practically speaking, the advantages of digital books typically outweigh the advantages of physical ones.
· Rapidly improving technology. Tablet displays already feature technology designed to make them easier on the eyes, addressing one of the chief complaints of early adopters of digital reading technology. It’s conceivable that after a few more generations of development, tablet companies will iron out all the issues that prevent people from wanting to read in a digital format. If innovators can replicate the entire experience of reading a physical book using nothing more than a digital interface, there won’t be many reasons left for people to prefer printed books.
· Generational differences. Older generations may be reluctant to transition to a digital reading experience, but what about younger generations? People born in the mid-1990s or later have no memory of a time before widely accessible internet, and they’ve developed with a norm of consuming content using a digital device. These younger people may be quicker to realize that the advantages of physical books aren’t enough to outweigh the advantages of digital books – but this remains to be seen.
· Supply and paper concerns. To a lesser extent, people may start demanding digital books over printed books because of supply and paper concerns. Printing books requires access to ample quantities of paper and wood products, and on a large enough scale, this could spark environmental concerns. Most book printers practice sustainable habits, such as replanting trees, but people may still prefer consuming content in a digital form so they can reduce their potential impact to almost nothing.
· The distant future. The question is whether physical, printed books will ever become obsolete – and “ever” is a very long time. Even if traditional books don’t become obsolete for many decades, or even centuries, it’s impossible to predict what could happen in 1,000 years.
Given this massive time horizon, it’s feasible to think that humans will someday have information transmission in a format that makes books look incomprehensible by comparison – and all forms of physical and digital “books” will disappear.
So will printed books ever be obsolete? In the very distant future, it’s a definite possibility. Before the time being, physical, printed books still have too many advantages to ignore. Printed books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.