When Cell Phones Turn Readers into Idiots

One needn’t be a fan of Barnes & Noble to sympathize with the staff at a B&N store where New York Times writer Nick Bilton and his wife acted like a couple of six-year-olds storming a playpen.

According to Bilton’s article, the couple sat down “cross-legged on the floor” and surrounded themselves with “several large piles of books,” which they “lobbed back and forth” (!) for “a couple of hours” (!!) while researching “ideas for a new home that we are planning to buy.”

Isn’t that nice. Whenever you need a library, just go to a bookstore, Bilton suggests. There you can turn new books into used books for all the customers to follow.

Then Bilton and his wife “snapped a dozen pictures of book pages with our iPhones” and “went home without buying a thing.” Very tidy. Bilton does mention that they “placed the books back on the shelf” like the Good Samaritans they see themselves to be.

A Disturbing Idea

But later that night, Bilton was struck by a disturbing idea: “I asked my wife: Did we do anything wrong? And, I wondered, had we broken any laws by photographing those pages?”

So conscientious! After all, those pages were protected by copyright, a very big word for a very important concept. You’d think an explanation of copyright would be the point to an article with the headline: “Can Your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate?”

But no. The authorities Bilton consults compare the use of cell phones that photograph book pages today with the use of Xerox machines that duplicated book pages during the ’70s, and the use of Napster programs that shared music files during the ’90s.

According to these experts, technology has advanced so quickly that copyright laws can’t keep up, so nobody really knows the exact definition of piracy when it comes to cell phone cameras. But Bilton’s journalistic drive demands a deeper truth: Will he get caught?

“Need I worry yet that a phalanx of lawyers will soon grab me between the Home Decor and New Age aisles at Barnes & Noble?”

Well, if I were the two thugs running this chain, I would have thrown the Biltons off the escalator, but you know, bookstore clerks are nice. They allowed this couple to clog the aisles and rummage through new books on the floor because it might have sounded rude to ask them to put their !@#$%^&*! cell phones away.

That leaves readers to ponder a thought by Julia A. Ahrens, associate director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford Law School: “By the time this becomes an issue,” she tells Bilton, “we might not even have bookstores anymore.”

That’s comforting, isn’t it, Nick? One day the same might be said of libraries.

Bookstore Rudeness

I know that bookstores have long been invaded by ill-mannered customers who blithely sit down in the aisles, break the spines of new titles, “lob” books around or — these I could throttle — buy a book on Amazon and bring it into a bookstore to have autographed at an author event.

But Bilton’s article raises new questions about the effect of cell phones on social manners in general. Maybe we’ve all grown accustomed to cell phone users driving erratically or talking loudly on the street or in elevators and restaurants because for some reason, they think their conversation takes precedence over everyone else’s experience.

What I can’t figure out are bookstore customers who blatantly use cell phones to compare prices with Amazon’s while they walk around the New Release table, or worse, take cell phone photos of books they might want to read so they can buy them on Amazon later.

I won’t go into Kindle owners who actually bring … well, you get the point.

This is not just rude behavior; it’s profane. A bookstore offers browsing opportunities and instant camaraderie with staff and authors that we never find on the Internet. There’s something sacred about a place where censorship is fought routinely, unknown authors are welcomed and introduced and young adults who’ve inexplicitly stopped reading are lured back to books they’ll treasure forever. For a customer to interrupt this kind of sacred exchange because they’re so entirely self-involved seems tragic.

Thanking Our Lucky Stars

The Biltons don’t appear to be stupid or cheap — I bet if you asked them, they’d want to contribute to the betterment of bookstores. Then, too, Nick Bilton is the lead technology writer for the New York Times and author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works (Crown; 304 pages; $25), a book published last fall about the impact of iPads and smart phones. That makes Bilton an expert. Yet he doesn’t know the meaning of copyright? When he and the missus took advantage of the bookstore staff’s good graces, he had to ask, “Did we do anything wrong?”

So come on, Nicky, get off the phone. Think how you’d feel if somebody photographed your book and blithely departed “without buying a thing.” The future you write about can and should provide Americans with every kind of reading option, most especially the bookstore option.

One thought on “When Cell Phones Turn Readers into Idiots

  1. jenna

    *eyeroll* seriously, Ms Holt, you really need to get out of the past and step into the present. you seem completely out of touch with today’s digital generation. you find it offensive that someone takes a picture of the cover of a book at a bookstore?!? i often purchase books at bookstores. sometimes, i am broke (possibly because i buy books at bookstores) – i take pictures of books because i want to remember them and come back to get them when i have more money!

    i also take pictures of things inside books and magazines, so i can remember what i saw or read. i don’t have a photographic memory, but my iphone sure does. i make a point to spend plenty of $$ at actual, local bookshops and magazine stands. i don’t see a problem at all with taking a few photos here and there, but the owner of a particular news-shop i visited recently certainly did. i went in with every intention to purchase both a magazine and headphones; i was taking a picture of an article because it reminded me of something i was meant to look up after a discussion that morning with a colleague. he freaked out at me for taking a photo, i then left his store and intend never to return. i’ll spend my money somewhere with more polite, forward-thinking, abundance-believing shopkeepers.

    … and if you weren’t meant to read the books at Barnes & Noble, why on earth do they put nice cushy chairs and private little reading nooks into their stores?!?!

    Reply

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