Due to my recent tech splurge, I’m now the owner of a brand new Amazon Kindle, acquired just before Thanksgiving. I’m quite happy with it. Reviews all over the net are fairly accurate. I like the weight, the screen’s readability, the size, the forward and backward buttons. I don’t like the five-way toggle button and the lack of lighting to read in the dark. I don’t care about not having a touch screen since I despise fingerprints and smudges in almost OCD proportions. I found a cute Vera Bradley bag that fits the Kindle perfectly. I’m happy. The drawbacks and the politics of DRM management and not actually “owning” the intellectual property found in books have been discussed extensively elsewhere; there’s no point in reiterating them here. What I would like to talk about, however, is the utterly tactile experience of the Kindle.
Back in 1995, DN Rodowick wrote a brief and very smart essay in New Literary History entitled “Audiovisual Culture and Interdisciplinary Knowledge,” which discusses the way that new digital media impacts everday life. Now remember, 1995 is the birthday of Java and Windows 95. So in internet years (which is like dog years), this is a century ago. Rodowick calls our current cultural milieux “audiovisual culture” rather than postmodernism, which I think is an interesting move. His reason:
There is a discomfiting circularity in the term posmodernism, an unconscious repetition of the past and a lack of will to invent the future, that can be symptomatic of a certain kind of interdisciplinary cultural studies. However, if we don’t invent the future, AT&T will.
Anyway, back to the Kindle. According to Rodowick, one feature of audiovisual culture is the “fading of tactility,” a turn of phrase I like very much. It names the issue I initially had with the Kindle, one shared by many. The Kindle is an instance of fading tactility. It is not a book. It doesn’t have a binding, or pages to turn or dog ear, or a musty smell or a brand new book smell. I was torn for a long time between the tech toy hunger for the Kindle and whether or not I could immerse in “the book” without holding a physical book in my hands.
Months of deliberation over whether the tactile experience would be satisfying often led me to Jean Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. An amateur archeologist, Picard liked to read actual books. I recall vaguely a conversation he had with either Data or Riker about the feel of a book in his hands. I surfed for a clip, but couldn’t find it. Instead, I found a very curious discussion of “Picard’s Syndrome,” which is basically our cultural bias against ebooks. This idea comes from Gary North, a libertarian blogging for Lew Rockwell, but let’s just set that aside. “Books,” North claims, “are ruins.” Even though ebooks make financial sense because they are cheaper and more practical, people refuse to buy them. The rationale behind this choice is our investment in the censoring process of editors and whoever else mediates between the author’s content and the reader’s purchase and consumption of that content. We associate wisdom with the book production process and we can’t seem to drop that association long enough to feel comfortable buying an ebook.
I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I do know that we’ve experienced a cultural shift since the time of North’s blog article in 2003. Since then we’ve seen the birth of the Web 2.0, or the participatory web, which turned consumers into producers; anyone can publish their wisdom (or lack of it) simply by hitting the enter key. The internet’s proliferation of discursive interactivity through blogs, mechanisms for comments, and other self-publishing opportunities has democratized publishing for good or ill. The production of content has become a highly social, interactive process with more communal input and less screening. In other words, the Web 2.0 allows us to participate in what Kenneth Burke calls the “human barnyard,” where we can fulfill our basic human desire for community, communication, and participation in whatever conversation is at hand. Of course some people would rightly point out that this sociality was always there in the internet, but I do believe the Web 2.0 makes it more pronounced. So, in contrast to the time of North’s article, today we seem to be much more comfortable participating in the social process of “publishing.” Perhaps this explains the success of the Kindle and of Barnes & Nobles’ new ebook reader, the Nook.
Ironically, this cultural shift from consumer to producer may also be the ultimate downfall of ebook readers at least in their current form. Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out that, while content has become part of the social process, the Kindle’s content is static. He writes that you can’t “do“ anything with the Kindle’s content; it retains the consumer/producer dynamic of the old technology of “the book.” Moreover, the Kindle is a one-hit wonder. All you can do on it is read a book. Ok, a little more — you can search, highlight, comment, and take notes — but still you can’t really -do- much of anything. Compare this with all the things you can do with the Droid (i.e., Droid Does). New York Times’ Sam Anderson calls the Kindle’s devotion to text practically medieval.
So, let’s return to the lost thread of tactility. North argues that we won’t buy ebooks until they can reproduce the “intimacy of holding a book”:
At some point, there will be book-sized electronic reading machines with screens that have the equivalent of a printed book’s 1,200 dots per inch. We will then insert a card or download a book. The book will be there for us to read any place or any time, page by page. We will be able to extract passages, mark them with keywords, and in other ways file them for future reference. But until the electronic reader looks like a book and feels like a book in our laps, Picard’s Syndrome will keep the product from selling well.
The Kindle has, to some extent, accomplished this feat. For me, reading on my desktop monitor or the Droid creates eyestrain over time and I can’t comfortably curl up with them. Note that “curling up” is iconic for the tactile experience of reading a book. One reviewer says, “Holding a Kindle seems as nurturing as cuddling a calculator.” Yet, while other devices do not create an intimate experience, the Kindle actually does. In fact, the Kindle is itself an authentic, tactile experience. The case is smooth, lightweight and easy to hold, the forward and backward buttons are comfortable to press, and the pages noticeably fade and resolve though without any real sense of interruption. It’s just a different tactile experience. In fact, while Jeff Bezos coyly claims that we can’t “out book the book,” the Kindle gives every appearance of trying to do just that. Sam Anderson says “it’s like an iPod for Victorians.”
Moreover, a physical book becomes an invisible interface for me when I read, probably because I’ve become so used to its form over time. This recognition is ironic given my desire to cling to the “real” book’s tactility. So I think my doubts were not about loss of tactility, but whether or not the Kindle could become invisible the way a book does. In other words, when people decry the loss of the tactile experience of the book, I think they are actually responding to changes in what Sherry Turkle calls the “interface value.” Because the ebook reader is so new, we are unable to see it as anything other than “not a real book.” A reviewer who suffers from Picard’s Syndrome stubbornly writes about this when she describes the Kindle: “If I can’t figure out how to work something by looking at it, then I’ll remain ignorant.” An obvious book snob, she concludes with, “I could go to therapy, but instead I think I’ll just get lost in a good book, one whose pages I can feel between my fingers.” Basically getting lost, immersion, disappearance of the interface is actually more important than feeling the pages.
As with any new technology, it takes a while for us to turn it invisible. When televisions were first introduced, they took the form of furniture-like clunky wooden cabinets that would blend with the decor of the suburban home. Earlier, telephones were stowed away in little salons where polite conversation could be held in private. Both are examples of efforts to transcend a new medium. Once we are accustomed to the medium and the interface grows invisible, it won’t matter to us that the Kindle is not a “real” book. In the case of the Kindle vs. “the book,” I think the medium really is the message.