The Cult of Kindle and the Myth of Digital Utopia

by Kelly Roberts

1 February 2010

If I could read more with a Kindle, it stood to reason that I wasn’t reading enough without one. Getting and consuming increasingly MORE information is an end in of itself these days.

Will Amazon’s Kindle Forever Change the Way We Read?
READ MORE, the Kindle ad beamed from the margin of my Yahoo! mailbox. It was a promise, but it was also a subtle rebuke: If I could read more with a Kindle, it stood to reason that I wasn’t reading enough without one, and getting and consuming increasingly more information is an end in of itself these days. About a week later, as if it could sense my indifference to its high-minded sales pitch, Amazon’s intrepid e-book reader emailed me. It thought I’d like to know that it only cost $299, and that over 300,000 of its most popular titles were available for “free wireless delivery in less than 60 seconds.” I logged out and anxiously waited for the Kindle to rap, ever so curtly, on my front door.

You can’t really blame the Kindle for trying. The idea that someone might not want it, or might not be able to afford it is simply not part of its program. When the first generation hit Amazon’s cyber-shelves in November of 2007, it sold out in mere hours (we’re currently on Kindle no. 2). Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote a letter a few months later, and while reading it out loud to his shareholders, it came out sounding awfully like a love poem to his new toy. “Kindle is purpose-built for long-form reading,” he wrote (not “the Kindle”, you’ll notice, just “Kindle”).

“We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools.” (“Information snacking”, he explained earlier in the letter, is our networked devices’ tendency to drive us to distraction.) The Kindle, in other words, unlike that nasty iPhone (on which Kindle books can be read) and Twitter, is the solution to our mind-shrinking malaise. It’s spreading the Written Word in electronic ink, and Bezos is the self-described missionary whose “admittedly audacious goal is to improve upon the physical book.” The fact that he is “fervent” about making billions along the way is almost to miss the point.

Before I’m dismissed as some sort of frothing neo-Luddite and/or would-be saboteur of the House of Bezos, let me first say that I’m an unwaveringly enthusiastic Amazon customer—when I buy something, that’s where I get it. So I want to assure the Kindle, as part of the Amazon family, that I bear it no ill will. In fact, I think it’s really cool. I had a hell of a time finding one, (as they’re only available through the mother ship), and apparently everyone in my city is, like me, too vindictive to want to READ MORE—but I digress.

The Kindle is super light, easy to use and the screen is easy on the eye, unlike my computer monitor or the iPhone. The ability to change text size is genius, especially for the visually impaired (though the blind have a powerfully legitimate gripe about the text-to-speech feature), and if I were a business traveler, I’d probably own two Kindles. What bothers me however, is not the Kindle’s functionality, or the decommissioning of the physical book (to the sound of Taps) that will inevitably result, but the outlandish, and at times outrageous rhetoric surrounding a machine that displays a fraction of available texts for a minority of people who can afford yet another endlessly upgradeable technology.

Even Better Than the Real Thing“At the beginning of our design process,” Bezos says in the same letter quoted above, “we identified what we believe is the book’s most important feature. It disappears… We knew Kindle would have to get out of the way, just like a physical book, so readers could become engrossed in the words and forget they’re reading on a device.” He’s talking sense here, despite the overall creepiness of the address, and even though many people have come to regard reading as an intellectual and tactile pursuit. A book is fundamentally a bunch of words strung together to tell a story of some kind, and it shouldn’t matter how those chains of text are transmitted to the eyes or ears or fingertips, provided they are equally and readily intelligible.

So if content is king and words are just words, why then, do we need the Kindle? On the one hand, Bezos says he wants to “[improve] upon the physical book.” On the other hand, he admits he can never, in fact, “out-book the book”. What gives? Well, Bezos decided to add lots of cool stuff to the Kindle, that’s what—stuff you don’t and can’t get with traditional books. I’ve mentioned a few of these extras already, but did I mention that you can also search texts, instantly define words, access Wikipedia and basic web functions and keep running notes while you read? Not to mention the fact that you don’t have to lug around hefty tomes or flip pages on windy beaches. According to Bezos, the most important capability however, is the “seamless, simple ability to find a book and have it in 60 seconds.”

Even though Kindle books, when available, are generally cheaper than paper copies, I don’t see how uninterrupted access to the Amazon book store and the web make the Kindle “get out of the way”, thereby shoring up the ever-eroding art of long-form reading. The Kindle is very much in the way, as Bezos very well knows. He has to redefine the book to beat the book, and the only way he can do that is by making it more like a portable PC—something that flaunts all the built-in shortcuts and distractions the wired generations have come to expect, where a traditional book, by its very (soon-to-be outmoded) nature, has none.

Steven Johnson, who wrote the most even-handed article I’ve seen on the Kindle so far, put it this way: “(The Kindle) will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them.” He goes on to say what everyone already knows: that the Kindle will eventually allow us full access to the Internet (a la that nasty iPhone), the sine qua non of information snacking. And if the Kindle doesn’t, another e-reader surely will, although at that point it won’t really be an e-reader anymore. “As a result,” Johnson continues, “I fear that one of the great joys of book reading—the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas—will be compromised.” And if the book is redefined, entrepreneurs are already refashioning “one-dimensional” novels into multimedia extravaganzas and interactive, “open work” experiences—how we “read” them will also change. 

There is no denying the excitement of having every single book ever written instantly available and searchable and cross-referenceable. The prospect of downloading a recently “found” history of ancient Greece while standing in the shadow of the Parthenon is awesome, but only if one actually reads the book. The Kindle makes the first part possible, and that’s a great thing for those who can afford the privilege. But to say that it somehow increases the likelihood of the second part is disingenuous. And yet Kindlers and journalists alike insist not only that they can read twice as much on the machine, but that, in the words of Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, it “provides a fundamentally better experience” than printed paper. Clearly I’m missing something here.

Did Bezos endow his product with magical, cerebral and visual cortex-enhancing powers? If I shell out for a Kindle 2, should I expect glassy-eyed men from Amazon’s Sunshine Carpet Cleaning Division to beam into my abode offering up the divine secrets of READ MORE in exchange for the one thing that can’t yet be collected over the internet—a blood signature? 

Topics: amazon | kindle
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