570_Michael_Hart_and_Gregory_Newby_at_HOPE_ConferenceWe are on vacation this weekend, and so could watch cable television, normally AWOL from our household.

One of the ads we saw was for a weekly debate show where a panel of commentators debate a question of the week. This week’s question was, ‘What is the most important invention of the last 50 years?’

I’ve love to say it was e-books. But of course, the Beloved had the probable answer right away: the Internet. Without it, the whole e-book ecosystem couldn’t really exist.

The whole appeal of them is how instantaneous the process is. You can go from wanting to having in seconds. And I think one of the most under-rated websites on the Net is Project Gutenberg, founded by Michael Hart, shown to the left in the above photo with Gutenberg’s current leader, Greg Newby.

On the Fourth of July in 1971, Hart typed the U.S. Declaration of Independence into a computer. He would go on to put online thousands of books for free to anyone who wants them, and many others would follow. Just how is that anything less than a miracle?

So can a case be made for arguing that e-books are the second most useful invention, after the Internet itself?

Well, that depends on how you define a ‘book.’ Travel guides used to be printed in paper books. Now, the integration of Google Maps and other Internet technologies makes such things interactive. My phone can not only answer questions about what attractions are near my vacation hotel, but it can also tell me which ones are open or closed, and recite driving directions for me to get there.

And search engines can take what used to be book contents and make them instantly searchable. I have found this especially useful for health matters. Just type in whatever the problem is, and Google can find an answer. What temperature is normal and what constitutes a fever? Basic questions like these used to be found in reference books. Now, they are a click away.

To me, I think the paradigm shift—both regarding the internet in general and e-books specifically—is that on-demand nature of it all. This isn’t, ‘The networks have offered you these five shows tonight and that is what you get to watch.’

You can watch, or read, or buy anything you want to these days. And you can do it immediately, without getting up off the couch. That is going to set up consumer expectations in the coming generation that are unprecedented. A child growing up today is going to have far less patience with vendors who will not supply things to them due to issues like vendor lock-in or geographical restrictions.

You can argue that patience is a virtue worth teaching young people, and there is merit in that. But it is what it is. If you want to make money off these future customers, it pays to understand the world they are growing up in. Regardless of the ranking of the Internet or of e-books in the “last 50 years” comparison, we need to mull over the ramification here.

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"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


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