Why I Hate the iPad...and the Kindle...and the Nook...

I feel like I've touched on this before, but with the emergence of the iPad I feel like it's a topic worth revisiting.

I read a lot. In a week I can plow through two or three books; in a year my tally rises easily to over 100. In my bag there are always a couple of books while in my home there’s always one tucked in the bathroom, a couple next to the bed, a handful in the kitchen. I would, on the surface, be the perfect candidate for the new line of electronic book readers such as Amazon.com’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, or the somewhat more versatile Apple iPad, but like any true Luddite I stubbornly refuse to acquiesce to this latest technological trend.

Don’t get me wrong, their light, sleek appearance does have a certain allure. I’m sure my back would appreciate a lighter handbag and the idea of books on demand definitely appeals to my inner Veruca Salt.

But from what e-readers mean to the environment, to their potential to negatively shape our society, opting out of this technology is my way of practicing the precautionary principle, and questioning its ability to fundamentally shape our society in negative ways. Ways that I’d like to fully consider before jumping on the latest technological bandwagon.

The negative environmental effects of electronic waste have been well-documented: from the leaching of heavy metals into ground water supplies, to the dictatorial regimes that are propped up by our need for hard to find, but necessary-for -their-functioning minerals such as coltan, e-readers are as far as one can get from cradle to cradle sustainability.

Most metrics, I’ve found that rank the sustainability of e-readers, say that if you read 100 books or more a year than e-readers outweigh the carbon footprint of purchasing paper books. The problem, with such analysis, are twofold. Environmental sustainability does not begin and end with carbon foot print analysis. As the poor people who have to live near "electronic recycling" places overseas have discovered the hard way, e-waste is nasty, nasty, stuff. While carbon is one measurement of sustainability, it’s hard for me to believe that a product comprised of cadmium and lead, and then wrapped in plastic that will only be disposed of in a few years courtesy of planned obsolescence is sustainable.

As blogger the non-consumer advocate states succinctly:

The Kindle takes a recyclable and virtually indestructible product – a book — and replaces it with a fragile, toxic device that will be obsolesced in a few years. Drop a book and it can get bent pages. Drop a Kindle and you’ve just made a nasty piece of electronic garbage.

In addition, even the most voracious readers don’t purchase 100 new books a year. They borrow books from libraries and from friends or they purchase them second hand.

It is this latter element that really has me questioning the sustainability of e-readers. As a kid, I would wile away my days at the local library, plowing through books and taking community classes on origami. It was the library's way of continuing to get kids to learn, of stimulating community, and to help reduce the kind of naughtiness that kids will get up to when left to their own devices. Kindle strips what was once a communal activity – reading and sharing books – and individualizes it. You can’t share e-books, you can’t borrow e-books from the library, and I may be showing my stripes here, but you can't leave cute little notes in their margins. What was a common good is increasingly becoming an individualized one.

A library card is free – making knowledge available to everyone from the penniless homeless to the richest baron. An e-reader costs several hundred dollars and each book an additional $10 dollars or so. If books were to become exclusively electronic, they would create an expensive barrier to knowledge. Suddenly, knowledge would cost, further driving the wedge between the haves and the have nots.

I can't in good conscience be a party to that.