Theres a new gadget on the market which promises to revolutionize the way we read books.
Or, to put it more simply, it promises to destroy books. Forever.
The Kindle, from Amazon.com, is a reading tablet the size of a paperback book which has a high-resolution display screen thats easy enough on the eyes to be considered electronic paper.
Using wireless technology, owners of the Kindle can download books, newspapers and magazines over a Whispernet service on their cellphones. And publications are available for half the price -- or less -- compared to the printed versions.
Thus, within a matter of a few seconds, you can download Gone With the Wind or the Chicago Tribune for half the price. You can also upsize the text on your screen, making your selection easier to read.
Sounds nice, doesnt it? Except that once these electronic tablets catch on, there will be no more need for books on paper. And of course, that will most likely mean the end of bookstores, which will be outgunned by the cut-rate price of downloading. Who knows? Perhaps even the end of libraries in a generation or two, since all books will be digital, and easily accessed from home.
But if such a disaster comes to pass, it will also mean a more spiritually impoverished world, because we will have lost the communal experience of browsing at bookstores and libraries. Seeing your friends, thumbing through books, and sharing good feelings at the great social institution of the bookstore could become a thing of the past.
Oh, books wont disappear, even if theres a Kindle under every Christmas tree for the next decade. Theyll simply become drastically-downsized boutique items, like LP records are today -- perhaps crafted on handmade paper, and sold in precious little shoppes for the benefit of a few eccentric collectors.
What will disappear, however, will be millions of jobs in the lumber industry, paper recycling, papermaking, book manufacturing, distribution, delivery and sales of books.
Where will the people go who worked at those jobs? The same place as those whove been replaced by automation, industrial robots, digital outsourcing, and other technological advances that experts say are draining America of far more jobs than NAFTA or globalization.
Is that too complicated? Then ask yourself, where did the cashiers go at Meijers, Home Depot and a growing number of stores that have been replaced by automated checkout counters?
Ask yourself where you are going to go.
Experts in labor and productivity warn that automation is gobbling up jobs all over the earth, from the United States to Japan to India -- no nation is immune
Robert Reich, the secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, noted that the period from 2001-2003 represented The longest job-market downturn since the Great Depression (and things have gone even worse since 2003). Add in productivity gains that have been growing much faster than the economy, especially in technology sectors, and youve got even less need for labor, Reich adds. Machines can do more.
Its also now commonplace to move American jobs offshore, thanks to digital technology. Thus, its possible for radiologists in India to read the X-ray charts of patients in Northern Michigan.
In 2007, Alan Blinder, former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, estimated that somewhere between 22 percent and 29 percent of all U.S. jobs are or will be potentially offshorable within a decade or two.
And in 2003, economist Paul Roberts, who served as an assistant secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan administration, predicted that America will become a Third World country within 20 years unless we get a handle on the destruction and outsourcing of jobs.
But why worry? Because were the helpmates of our own destruction.
The music CD, which seemed so fresh and new 15 years ago, is about to become extinct. Everyone downloads their music digitally now. Rolling Stone magazine reports that 40% of teenagers didnt buy a single CD last year -- imagine that. So, weve said farewell to many great music stores: Harmony House, Virgin Records, Tower Records... soon there wont be any.
And well say farewell to millions of jobs in the CD industry, not to mention the music business, deliveries, stores, advertising.... For sure, the digital express is no gravy train for musicians, pumping their tunes into the endless void of MySpace or YouTube... As at Amazon.com, a few guys plugged into their computers will be able to take over the jobs of millions, thanks to digital technology.
Newspapers? Same deal. Our industry is doing its damnedest to destroy itself as quickly as possible by buying into a greed-driven scheme in hopes that the Internet will reap zillions of dollars at some distant date down the road for papers that build the perfect website that readers cant live without. Fat chance.
Meanwhile, newspapers are hemorrhaging employees -- particularly the reporters who bring home the bacon of what the news is all about. The New York Times is cutting 100 newsroom jobs this year -- eight percent of its editorial staff -- and the Times is widely considered to have the best newspaper website in the nation.
Newspaper publishers have yet to figure out what every brothel madame knows: if you give it away free out the back door, the paying customers fade away.
Jobs go away, but people dont. And the pain of living without a job is amplified in an affluent society where it now costs $170 a week to put groceries on the table for a family of four, not to mention $50 or more in the gas tank.
So, gadget lovers, consider this: the next time you download a song, a book or a film, chances are youre helping to put someone else out of work by buying into the Brave New Digital World... and sooner or later, that someone may be you.