Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Weightless words: devices, choices, and the future of reading

Introducing Kindle™

The following, abridged text was authored by The Amazon Kindle Team: “Three years ago, we set out to design and build an entirely new class of device—a convenient, portable reading device with the ability to wirelessly download books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers. The result is Amazon Kindle…

“Thanks to electronic paper, a revolutionary new display technology, reading Kindle’s screen is as sharp and natural as reading ink on paper—and nothing like the strain and glare of a computer screen …you can be anywhere, think of a book, and get it in one minute… Newspaper subscriptions are delivered wirelessly each morning. Most magazines arrive before they hit newsstands. Haven’t read the book for tomorrow night’s book club? …Kindle delivers your spontaneous reading choices on demand.

“Kindle’s paperback size and expandable memory let you travel light with your library. With the freedom to download what you want, when you want, we hope you’ll never again find yourself stuck without a great read.”

The Illusion of Choice

I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a technophobe. Technological advancements fill me with as much wonder and excitement as they do trepidation. As a freelance writer, these days, without the internet I’d need a new profession, which is problematic since I seem to possess no other skills. And, need I add, you're reading this on a blog.

To be sure, I am by some standards a dinosaur. I covet vinyl –its weight, texture, bottom-rich sound, visual beauty, the decisive pleasure of dropping the needle– and when at home listen to it almost to exclusion of other formats. I go to the movies to sit in the dark with strangers as often as possible. I own the rather morbidly named Magic Bullet (are we meant to ponder the mysteries of the JFK assassination while we whip up our smoothies?), but I grind my pepper with mortar and pestle for no other reason than I have a really cool mortar and pestle and these smooth, well-crafted objects feel good when gripped in my hands. I’ve never downloaded a song or a movie from the internet, above all because it seems the most boring way possible to discover something new, removing all the pleasure of finding.

Yet I was the first person I knew to buy an iPod. I run in the mornings and thrive on music to keep me going. I have an obsessive need to travel light, so I was totally jazzed about not having to fit a bulky wallet of 48 CDs into my backpack anymore. I took my iPod everywhere, all the time, and always on shuffle. I became a walking advertisement for the device, enthusiastically showing it to everyone I met.

Then, without ever thinking about it, something changed. I grew tired of the sterile exercise of shifting music from CDs to my computer. When preparing for a walk, I found myself actually wanting to consider what to listen to, to walk up to my collection, take a disc from the shelf, examine the cover, remind myself of the track listing, what the packaging had to tell me. On my iPod were hundreds of songs, available through a mere finger tap, a seemingly mind-boggling selection –but I wanted to make a choice. Lately, unless I’m going for a run, if I want to move through the city with music I use my discman. A teenager in a restaurant recently asked me what it was.

The principle behind the marketing of Kindle is choice, but the choice it offers is not unlike that of a big box bookstore: contained within are a lot of books, but nothing in particular. How do you choose something from the virtual “everything” on offer? For most of us, managing the babel of infinite choice is a journey dictated by advertising, by whoever has the most money to spend. Does it make me a Luddite that I want to leave my house, enter a public space inhabited by other people, browse, maybe read a random page, linger in the aisles, maybe talk to someone who might share or understand my interests, might direct me toward some unexpected title or even engage me in conversation about a book?

The Unbearable Lightness of the Virtualization of Everything

In Denys Arcand’s
Days of Darkness, a problematic film, but one whose essential despair I find touching, the protagonist, a middle-aged family man and government employee, lives in a world where seemingly every pleasure has been compromised by a draconian conspiracy between labyrinthine bureaucracy and regulation, mindless consumerism, superficial status obsession, and technological distance. The protagonist’s only refuge lays in banal fantasy, yet in this sense he’s no different from his daughters, who when their not locked into some video game have their iPods constantly stuffed in their ears. Everyone around him is continually plugged into some electronic device that allows them to hover in a sort of fantasy realm, cut off from their immediate reality. It’s a comedy, incidentally.

Like other Arcand films, the philosophy guiding Days of Darkness reminded me of Milan Kundera, a writer with a peculiar gift for chronicling the uglification of the world. But the film’s final image made me think of John Berger’s writing, with its emphasis on attending to the sensual world. We see the protagonist sit down at a table, before him a large bowl of apples. Nearby a woman is canning preserves. The protagonist picks up an apple and begins to peel it, and the act yields a sort of quiet, modest revelation. We can smell the inner flesh of the fruit as its peel falls away, feel the spray of juice as the knife traverses its surface.

For the lover of reading (as opposed to a book-lover), Kindle promises an unprecedented freedom: wherever you are, a virtually fathomless selection awaits. Contrasting the dusty, bulky weight of libraries you’re offered perfect lightness, an entire literature cradled invisibly in the ether. It sounds like something out of science fiction –like a dream deal. As I write this I’m still amazed by the prospect and all it implies.

But what about that shed weight? What about the weight of a page, of a real book, with its margin notes and worn corners? What about the weight of an apple? The weight of a real baseball bat? The weight of a real body next to yours? I’m under no illusions that technological progress can be reversed, nor would I wish it so. Our relationship with technology is absolute, at least as old as the wheel, its path is carved deep into our destiny. But I also think, perhaps now more than ever, its worth considering every how and when to use that technology, to question whether we want to simply adopt every new development without considering what’s lost.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are these things available in Canada now? They sound pretty wild! But I totally see your points here, there is something frustrating about people just latching onto whatever new technology without thinking much about it isn't there? But I'm not too worried as people love books, don't you think?

Matt W