One of the most spectacular characteristics of higher organisms is their capacity to rise above their instinctual programming and learn new things. The ability to learn, and to learn well, is often tied directly to survival success, or at least to level of prosperity. Humans have proven to be particularly adept at learning, and take full advantage of this tool in their struggle to get ahead in survival and non-survival situations.
Thanks to the wonderful plasticity of the human mind, an individual is capable of devoting varied amounts of its brain processing power on the subject of its choosing. If they choose to know just a little about a particular subject, only a small amount is retained. Yet, if they decide to know everything there is to know about a subject, the brain is capable of applying substantial information storage and processing capacity to that subject. This accounts for people who can carry encyclopedic knowledge about one subject—say, Star Wars—whilst simultaneously having incredibly minimal knowledge about another subject—say, girls. (I started off vowing not to use that particular analogy… but man, it was just too frakkin’ easy…)
This mental talent extends to the physical, as well. This makes sense; the mind controls the body. Therefore, the mind is capable of teaching the body new tricks, practicing and honing certain reflexes, responses to certain stimuli, etc, designed to support that subject to which it has devoted so much processing power. This is what teaches a baseball aficionado to throw, hit and catch a ball, or a skater to perfect a pirouette. This is what taught me to type on a virtual keyboard on my first PDA, on a space that would not have held twelve keys of the Royal typewriter on which I learned to type in the first place.
For years I have had a mantra—and in the spirit of my writer-idol, Arthur C. Clarke, I tend to think immodestly of my mantra as Jordan’s Theorem—that describes this phenomenon, to wit:
“You get used to what you want to get used to.”
Though there are obviously exceptions to most every rule (or theorem), this one applies to most human effort applied to doing things.
I, of course, applied this principle often in life… for instance, when I taught myself the complex balancing skills needed to ride a bicycle… or the hand-eye coordination required to type on a keyboard… or the dexterity to cleanly crack and open an egg with one hand. In each case, I chose to hone a new skill that I desired to have, and kept working at it until I was proficient at it. As I have done these things, so I have seen others do similar things, providing proofs to my theorem every day.
I think of my theorem often, but most especially when I engage people in discussions of e-books for the first time. Such discussions often take familiar paths: After the establishment of whether or not the person actually knows what an e-book is, the response I hear the most often runs along these lines:
“Oh, I couldn’t read on anything but a regular book. I don’t like reading on computer screens. I like paper.”
This is where the immodest portion of my mind jumps up and starts yelling and waving a massive banner, with Jordan’s Theorem printed in radioactively-bright letters, in the forefront of my consciousness. Suddenly I feel the urge to engage that person, to attempt to explain Jordan’s Theorem to them, and to convince them that if they were so inclined, of course they could learn to love reading on computer screens, or PDAs, cellphones, dedicated reading devices, even their iPod screen… all they had to do was want to do it.
Of course, it is considered impolite to actively try to convince another person that they may be wrong. So, out of a sense of politeness, I try to suggest that they may not have given e-books a fair try yet… that it might be better than they expect. The general response I receive from that runs along these lines:
“Electronic screens hurt my eyes. It’s weird reading on a screen. I can’t get comfortable reading on a screen. Don’t make me hit you with this book.”
(And for the record: No, I never get the “Hmm… that’s an interesting point. Perhaps I shall try to check out some e-books, myself… and thanks so much for pointing them out to me!” response. Might be my approach.)
At this point, the immodest portion of my mind reaches down and grabs another banner, imprinted with what I refer to as the Corollary to Jordan’s Theorem, which reads:
“If you won’t get used to something, it is because you just don’t want to.”
Now, I realize that Jordan’s Corollary to Jordan’s Theorem has some decent-sized holes in it: For instance, a blind man can’t learn to drive a car, no matter how badly he may want to. But in most cases, the corollary holds water, and in the case of probably 90% or more of people who haven’t tried e-books, I consider it well-nigh watertight.
This is because, over the years, I have seen people teach themselves to do things that they were sure they would never be able to do… but once they decided it was in their best interests, they learned to do it, and to do it well. People have taught themselves how to work with computer programs, in order to do their jobs. People have learned how to properly write resumes, in order to get better jobs. People have learned to cook, in order to not starve when they moved out of their mother’s house. People have learned to take public transportation, when driving to work became too slow, frustrating, expensive, or all of the above. Women have trained themselves to walk with an eye-popping sexy strut in 3-inch heels (trust me, no women born knows instinctively how to walk like that). People have learned to type messages on tiny Blackberry keyboards, despite the one-time universal belief that no one could ever use anything smaller than a full-sized Royal typewriter keyboard to type anything significantly longer than a shopping list.
And I have witnessed people who have said things like “I only like to read on paper,” then checked out an e-book… usually because there was something about the e-book that drew them in, for instance, it was a book they wanted, or needed, that could not be found in print. Because they really wanted to read that book, they obtained the e-book, and taught themselves to get used to the differences between reading on paper and reading on an electronic screen. And lo and behold, eventually they found that they could read e-books as easily as reading printed books, and could even tune out the differences between paper and electronic formats and focus on the book itself.
So I firmly believe that most—not all, mind you, but most—of the people who provide reason upon reason why they can and will not read an e-book… have, in fact, already unilaterally decided that they will not like it, even if they have never tried it, and as long as they feel that way, e-books have no chance with them.
Method of attack… uh, I mean, “Encouraging people”
As a writer of e-books, obviously this concerns me. Not so much that I feel every e-book reader in the world should be reading my books… but because I’d like to see more e-book readers out there, and hopefully, the small proportion of those people who read my e-books would end up equating to a larger actual number (I am not being entirely altruistic here, I admit). So I have given plenty of thought about what to say to such people, to encourage them to see e-books in a new light, and to maybe see what they are missing.
So far, I have come up with a big goose’s egg. Why? Because it’s hard to convince someone of something against their will. If they have decided something is so, even showing them something is not so isn’t always enough to convince them that it’s not so. (Hmm… maybe I should consider that my corollary’s corollary…) But I still find myself trying to assert Jordan’s Theorem by convincing people they can learn to love e-books, if they just give them a chance.
Since the theorem suggests a psychological effect at work, I try to hit them in their psyche. But that can be an elusive target to hit. Some people will respond to reverse psychology: “Your loss, pobresito!” Others can be gotten to by appealing to their love of iconic personalities: “Girlfriend, Oprah loves ‘em!” And some respond to basic peer pressure: “Everybody else is doing it…”
And sometimes, you have to bypass Psych 101, because some people are smart enough to know that’s exactly what you are doing. So you have to use approaches that appeal to them more directly: “A $200 reader can hold thousands of dollars’ worth of books.” “Think of the shelf space you’ll get back!” “Dude, Ashley loves ‘em, and she was totally checkin’ you out yesterday!”
Hey, whatever works.
The goal of any such effort is, of course, to get more people to read e-books. I realize that my effort won’t work on everyone. But I try not to let those who are simply unwilling to try something new deter me from helping someone else who is more open to new things, and honestly doesn’t know what they are missing.
The cool thing about psychology is, it’s not absolute. Unlike many things in life that are not reversible, mental attitudes and desires can be reversed, given enough incentive to do so, and with enough help from interested parties. People can decide to change, just by… deciding. It really is that simple. Sure, the change itself will require more effort… but as I’ve said once or twice before, You get used to what you want to get used to.
So, until Jordan’s Theorem gets completely busted, I will keep applying it wherever I can, using it as my guide to help those who continue to type on Royal typewriter keyboards, go to Mom’s house for a decent meal, and read only printed books.