Quaint Brits Cling to Paper

It’s an accepted truth that in matters digital the British are a backwards people.  Their Internet competency trails that of Americans by a decade. With each instance of their technological quaintness we shake our heads and smile indulgently.

A recent poll confirms the archaic mentality of our cousins on the other side of the Big Pond. “Nearly three-quarters of Britons say that they will never totally migrate to a digital-only film or music subscription service,” reports Emma Barnett, Technology and Digital Media Correspondent for Telegraph.co.uk.  And “Seventy-three per cent of the Britons polled in a survey of over 1,000 consumers aged between 16 and 60 said that they could never see a time when they would move over to a 100 per cent digital-only music or film subscription model.” Another example of their antediluvian mindset: Given a choice, 75% of those polled would rather boot up a DVD than watch a streamed movie.

Most egregious of all is that 95% of those responding to the poll said that they prefer paper books over e-books.  Well, that tears it! If there is a more benighted race on the face of 21st century Earth we don’t know about it.

We must try to understand the values underlying this British perversity if for no other reason than they might yield some sociological benefits.  But more importantly, once we understand them it will be easier to convert the British to modern American values and expand the export market for our Nooks, Kindles and iPads.  So, the question is, do the British know something about paper that we don’t know?

A clue may be gleaned in an observation imparted to the Telegraph reporter by Shaun Hobbs, Home Server manager for HP Personal Systems Group UK and Ireland: “In this technologically driven age,” says Hobbs, “it is easy to get carried away and think that everybody is embracing digital and leaving physical behind. Our survey shows that this isn’t the case. Britons are on an evolutionary journey with media still being bought on multiple formats and enjoyed using a variety of devices. We’re not yet ready to give up the old ways of purchasing media.”

In the spirit of openmindedness we’ll grant that there might be some value in the old media. Perhaps Hobbs has been following the research of social scientists like Sandra Aamodt, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, who wrote that “people read more slowly on screen, by as much as 20-30 percent… Distractions abound online — costing time and interfering with the concentration needed to think about what you read.”

Or maybe Hobbs had delved into observations by Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, about the possibly negative impact of screen reading on children:  “No one really knows the ultimate effects of an immersion in a digital medium on the young developing brain… My greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now, perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).”

Or Hobbs might have read a comment by Professor Gloria Mark, a University of California professor who studies human-computer interaction: “I’d much rather curl up in an easy chair with a paper book. It’s not only an escape into a world of literature but it’s an escape from my digital devices.”

Okay, we’re ready to concede  that digital books may be less immersive than printed ones, that they are far more distracting, that they may compromise reading speed, concentration and retentiveness in children, and that they are less beautiful, tactile and comfortable than paper.   But surely those drawbacks are not too high a price to pay for opening the lucrative British market to Yankee reading devices and an American way of life that is unquestionably the quintessence of civilization. American manufacturers simply must work harder to bring truth and e-books to this primordial, childlike society.

Richard Curtis


14 Responses to Quaint Brits Cling to Paper

  1. Spencer says:

    Of the 73% surveyed, what percentage have actually read from an e-ink display for longer than five minutes? Considering the current pricing of e-readers, I doubt many. This alone renders such a poll as ludicrously uninformed.

  2. Lord Tufton-Bufton says:

    Couldn’t get to grips with this article as my printer has broken. You johnnies from across the pond really are all fur coat and no knickers, aren’t you?

  3. William Ford says:

    If you are THE Richard Curtis, that was as patronisingly middle class as everything else you write. It is no doubt very easy to embrace new while it is in it’s infancy if it is no problem to you moneywise to splash out on the required kit.

    That’s what I expect some people might say in response to what seems to be brit bashing, but irony, supposedly unknown to American is a stranger round these parts too.

    I, like many others, will adopt the technology when it suits me, not because somebody whose living depends on me taking notice of them tells me that I am archaic for not buying new tech on day one. New reading platforms are not necessary to anyone except those who invent and hope to sell them, and luckily for them, enough people will feel scared of being thought ‘behind the times’ if they don’t have the newest toys.

    Some people are born sheep, some are shepherds. Advertising/marketing/sales strategists are the former thinking they are the latter. But luckily for them and their egos, most people are the idiots they assume them to be and will eventually fall for the oldest (only?) trick in the salesman’s book: If you don’t buy this product you will be left behind and everybody will laugh at you.

  4. reagent says:

    Very funny. My favourite parts were:
    “primordial child-like society” and “an American way of life that is unquestionably the quintessence of civilisation”.

  5. Brett Thomas says:

    Whatever next? You’ll be asking us to drive on the right if we’re not careful, getting our carriage whips entangled while we’re at it!

  6. Devaki Khanna says:

    As a citizen of a country that managed to toss out the British imperialists some 60 years ago, I will cheer on the American effort to encourage British purchases of IPods, Kindles and Nooks. It is eerily reminiscent of the way they went about destroying our textile industry in India to build their mills in Lancashire.

  7. David Whyte says:

    This article is amazing. Who said Americans don’t understand irony?

  8. Bill Glass says:

    I find the objections to eReading somewhat missing the point. I agree that reading on one’s computer can be more distracting and less immersive — but eReaders present a page of text without advertisements, noise or distractions. So I find it a bizarre comment if the subject is the Kindle, Nook, Sony, etc.

    As for curling up in a chair, it’s a lot easier to bring the e-version of Don Quixote on an eReader than curl up with the bulkier printer version. (On the other one can use the computer version if one is interested in seriously annotating.)

    As for the British marketplace, well, I would note that original market research about cash machines indicated that only 6% of the people indicated they’d use them. A lot of people are appalled about reading on an eReader — until they actually try it and find the experience surprisingly comfortable.

  9. Mark says:

    “for opening the lucrative British market to … an American way of life that is unquestionably the quintessence of civilization.”

    Ahh. Therein lies the rub! Perhaps we Brits are resisting ‘the American way of life’ because….

    Well, best not “go there” as you guys like to say.

  10. Stuart Aken says:

    I really can’t decide whether this is a piece of ironic fun, badly presented, or an example of USA arrogance gone even madder than usual. Does anybody, even the most ardent fan of the USA, really believe that the American way of life is better than…well, better than any other civilised country? I know most Americans don’t have a passport and can’t place most countries of the world, or, in many cases, even their neighbouring states, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising if this piece of balderdash were meant to be read at face value.
    As for the electronic age and its multiple devices sold to the unsuspecting public; like all new gadgets, they have their appeal but, when it comes to reading, a book with pages will always beat one on a screen. The exception being reference books, where the ability to search is a useful tool.

  11. Paul Story says:

    Yes, we were sure gratified when that fine American, Tim Berners-Lee brought that new-fangled web-thingy across the pond.

    The real problem is that Amazon has not put the concentrated effort into the UK that it did in the huge US market. Despite being able to buy the international Kindle from the US site, ship it over, pay VAT and import tax on the device and pay 2USD on ebooks for each free wireless delivery, we Brits are still in a pre-Kindle world. No other manufacture will bootstrap the revolution unless publishers band together and beat Amazon to it.

    Now, there’s an idea.

  12. Why does it have to be either/or? Why not both? As a matter of fact, the choice of e-books available in the UK market is little short of pitiful and yes, I have an e-reader. It was just the same with the feminist revolution when ALL women HAD to go out to work in order to be THEMSELVES. The sentiments in this article are just as arrogant, short-sighted and frankly, stupid. As an arthritis sufferer, actually holding an ereader is not as comfortable as holding a book. And, as an aesthetic part of life, I would hate to lose the joy of going into a house and seeing a bookcase full of books, each one a secret world that I can dip into. It reminds me of the Joni Mitchell song. ‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?’ Can’t see Paradise being paved by Sony and Kindle yet awhile.

  13. Anna Jacobs says:

    The point is not ebooks vs paperbooks for me, in the technology sense, but a desire to keep the good books for as long as I live, so that I can re-read them.

    We’ve all seen technology and gadgets come and go over the years – look at the early fight for videos between ? Beta and VHS. Now neither is used much.

    I don’t trust ereader technology to keep my beloved books permanently, which is what I want. I do trust a paper book to stay viable for as long as I’m likely to live.

    That’s not to say I won’t buy an ereader as well as paper books once they’ve come down in price. With a three books a week reading habit, I read some books for ephemeral pleasure only and know I won’t be keeping them.

  14. Litlove says:

    Where’s the sense in spending over ?100 for an ereader, only to have to pay almost the same price as a book, on top of that, for an ebook? I think I’ll just have the book, thank you. Knowing it will not break down on me, run out of battery power or require an upgrade to be read. I hate the way that anything digital has to be replaced every two or three years – it makes me feel like I’m in the middle of a huge consumer con.

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