The Deeper Meaning of Kindle

The Kindle ebook reader, the Wacom digitizing tablet, and a variety of scanning digital pens. Add it all up, and you get a possible revolution in one of the oldest technologies of humankind: written language. Only an impact on fire or the wheel could top a serious revolution in reading and writing. This is not a product blog, and for a technophile (but not gadget-phile) engineer, I am surprisingly behind the times. While my wife is all about the iPod, personal DVD players and electric toothbrushes, I am still at two-bladed shaving. But reading and writing (and drawing) get to the core of who I am, and constitute possibly the only sphere of gadgetry where I am willing to be an early adopter. So here are some deeper thoughts on what this potentially perfect storm of technologies might mean for us slaves of the written word.

Framing it Right

Like I said, this is not a gadget-phile blog (or post), so let’s set the context at the right level before I dive into Amazon’s Kindle and what it means. To understand what a change in reading technologies means, check out Kevin Kelley’s controversial Scan This Book in the New York Times Magazine (May, 2006), an extended and elegant riff on the Google book scanning project. Relevant excerpt:

So what happens when all the books in the world become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas? Four things: First, works on the margins of popularity will find a small audience larger than the near-zero audience they usually have now. Far out in the “long tail” of the distribution curve — that extended place of low-to-no sales where most of the books in the world live — digital interlinking will lift the readership of almost any title, no matter how esoteric. Second, the universal library will deepen our grasp of history, as every original document in the course of civilization is scanned and cross-linked. Third, the universal library of all books will cultivate a new sense of authority. If you can truly incorporate all texts — past and present, multilingual — on a particular subject, then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don’t know.

Next, moving down a few thousand feet, consider this Kindle-launch publicity blitz sound-byte from Jeff Bezos from the Nov 26 Newsweek.

Some of those features have been available on previous e-book devices, notably the Sony Reader. The Kindle’s real breakthrough springs from a feature that its predecessors never offered: wireless connectivity, via a system called Whispernet. (It’s based on the EVDO broadband service offered by cell-phone carriers, allowing it to work anywhere, not just Wi-Fi hotspots.) As a result, says Bezos, “This isn’t a device, it’s a service.”

Let’s throw in a modern Luddite, John Updike (quoted in same article):

In May 2006, novelist John Updike, appalled at reading Kelly’s article (“a pretty grisly scenario”), decided to speak for them. Addressing a convention of booksellers, he cited “the printed, bound and paid-for book” as an ideal, and worried that book readers and writers were “approaching the condition of holdouts, surly hermits who refuse to come out and play in the electric sunshine of the post-Gutenberg village.” (Actually, studies show that heavy Internet users read many more books than do those not on the Net.) He declared that the “edges” of the traditional book should not be breached. In his view, the stiff boards that bound the pages were not just covers but ramparts, and like-minded people should “defend the fort.”

And another, for dessert,

In 1994, for instance, fiction writer Annie Proulx was quoted as saying, “Nobody is going to sit down and read a novel on a twitchy little screen. Ever.”

And an affirmation from an older forward-looking writer, John Donne (1572-1631), focusing on a not-so-well known quote that sits next to a more famous one:

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In order, a visionary has gotten excited about it, one of the best business minds of the century has bet on it, Luddites have been scared by it, and a poet has been inspirationally prescient about it. Let’s face it; it’s going to happen. The book is about to be iPodized. Libraries are about to be thrown into a blender. Reading and writing are about to become public performance arts.

Now for the Gadgets

The Kindle is all set to be the iPod of books and reading. With the addition of an always-on and free wireless connection, an iTunes-like payment model, and the world’s best backend (until Google finishes scanning stuff), this is no idle curiosity to sneeze at. It’s the first stab at the real thing (picture from Amazon.com), and if not the disruptor, the promise of disruption to come:

Kindle

This is the star of this post, but let’s round out a view of the emerging technology set: an Wacom Intuos3 high-resolution tablet, the Logitech IO2 Digital Pen ( 965154-0403 ) that works on special paper, and the Skymall digital Notepad that works on any paper:

Intuos3 Logitech

Digital pen

Of these, I only own the Intuos3. I’ve held back from the Logitech class of devices because of the need for special paper, and from the digital notepad because something about a fancy and costly version of a device I am used to being careless with (I am a Bic and Papermate guy) bothers me — What if this company goes out of business and I can’t buy refills?

The Kindle of course, is a mind-stopper, once you understand what it could do. I can’t afford it yet, but will grab one the moment it breaches my upper limit. I own several hundred books, and am just in the middle of an apartment move, so much as I love them, the high personal costs of being a bibliophile are on my mind. Would I make the jump? I think so. I’d probably be jittery without the ability to store all my purchased books as backed up PDFs on CDs, but we are getting more comfortable every day with increasing amounts of our lives being online in anonymous earthquake -resistant, geographically-redundant data centers. Truth be told, my collection of books is probably safer in a data center than with me, and I just have to make the leap of faith. The idea that my book collection might go the way of my tape collection (a “wish I could easily digitize it” white elephant) is a little saddening, since the damn things are also my primary interior decoration, but I suspect, eventually I’d make the jump.

What Does it Mean?

Frankly, I don’t know. The iPod disaggregating albums into $0.99 songs that are merrily swapped around — that’s still a very contained revolution because music is somewhat subliminal and emotional, and doesn’t really lend itself much to mix ‘n match and atomization. The book, on the other hand, is almost infinitely disaggregate-ble down to the word. It is the cornerstone of our intellectual lives and development. Put all books into one gigantic, universal and universally (up to Wi-Fi reach) accessible collection, and I can see my life being turned upside down, not just as a voracious reader, but as a writer.

The input end is harder to parse. I still don’t know what it means to write in this new medium, where what you write is just the start of a conversation, where you can expect to be live-engaged with your readers, and your words to dissolve into the soup of language being churned by new torrents flooding into it everyday. Now, not only must I think how my blog posts will be received in the cognitive context of all embedded links AND reader comments, I must ask, what does it mean to write in a way where every happy phrase charts its own memetic future, cutting loose from its home piece of writing? An example of a radical thought — might fortune cookie writing be the message of this new medium?

Add to this the idea of replacing the humble pencil or keyboard with an intelligent scanning pen that corrects, translates, inserts citations — all sorts of pen-computing functions. Throw in the potential of contextual music (some pen models can play MP3s; perhaps they can be made to scream if you attempt to annotate a horror novel?) and you have a scary new world of thought inseparable from communication and communal thinking in the collective consciousness. Might I go nuts with my scanning pen and compose entire books entirely from scanned phrases found around me?

Endnote

I’ll admit, I am excited by the possibilities. Let me end with one of the most provocative pieces I’ve read recently. One that sheds light on how to deal with that last annoying hangover that we’ll need to get rid of before diving into this brave new world: copyright.

The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem (Harper’s, February 2007)

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Marco Bressan says:

    Venkat, the terms of service of Amazon Kindle are controversial, e.g. the DRM issue is far-from-solved.
    Interesting perspective in:
    http://diveintomark.org/archives/2007/11/19/the-future-of-reading
    (I got there through boingboing)
    http://www.boingboing.net/2007/11/20/amazon-kindle-the-we.html

    Marco

  2. steve hoover says:

    reading and replying from my kindle in my car. and it does have issues, but it is a phase change step forward in terms of content access and always on . so, yes drm isn`t alll figured out, but does this thing matter – oh yeah.. the ui and design need work too but this is a huge step forward .