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Is the world ready for the Kindle?
I saw a Kindle this weekend on the subway and it gave me an eerie picture of the future. In the image-creating center of my brain the future looks like the 1950s. Businessmen wearing nice suits and hats dominate the streets, but instead of reading the newspaper they are all carrying Kindles. (And if you look up there are a few operating jet packs).

To be fair, at this stage the Kindle is nowhere near worth purchasing. But as the tide of technology shifts, you can bet they (or some other format) will begin to pop up more and more in everyday life. I predict a cross between an iphone and a laptop that will look something like the Kindles of today.

I am not one to be immediately distrustful of technology, but I also don't want to see books become a thing of the past. Who doesn't love the smell of a used book store or the feel of the paper as you turn the pages? Maybe the technology will be able to produce that smell eventually. But even if that worries me, the Kindle offers such access to a wealth of information, an entire history's worth. You can purchase textbooks and classics, music compositions, and recipes. All downloadable in record speed. You can have hyperlinks from your text drawing you right to background information, allusions, or definitions of unknown words. That will certainly make reading James Joyce easier.

And seriously, think about all the trees we'd be saving!

So yes, I think the world is ready for the Kindle. I think it's the next evolutionary step for publications and I think it will do more good than foul. What will be the effect on libraries though? Will they crumble into disrepair and lose federal grants? Will the librarian lose his art? Will our great-grandchildren even know what a book is?

Do the words lose anything when they are printed on a screen? Does the book hold any power over the reader that the Kindle doesn't? It should be the words that matter not the print, right? But in 1984 fashion, wouldn't technology like the Kindle make facts entirely more transitory? I wonder...

Products Discussed
Kindle DX Wireless Reading Device (9.7" Display, U.S. Wireless, Latest Generation)

It's funny you mention 1984 Mark as there was just now a mini-scandal regarding it, where Amazon actually deleted copies of the book from people's Kindle (because the seller didn't have the copyrights). Apparently Amazon has the ability to delete from people's kindle books which they already bought and  downloaded (something which was obviously impossible in the days of print). Also apparently, it has been doing it for a while but it was just now noticed, and quite apropos that it was 1984 which they deleted. One student complained that with the book all the notes he had on it were erased also. The possibilities here for censorship are scary.

So, though I love the technology (and whether we love it or hate it it's the future), I'm against the kindle. I think it is way too dangerous to allow amazon to have a semi-monopoly on both publishing and distributing books, and soon even controlling your books. Amazon has lately moved to try to force people only to print print on demand books with it in a move which caused several literary organization to call for its boycott, though I don't think much came of it at the end. They are moving to control both the publishing and distribution of books completely, which is very bad, 1984-bad. Now add to this controlling the books you have at home and being able to alter them at will, we see a very real danger here.
Especially as the kindle is also trying to control the file format of the books you read, that you will only be able to read files in the format they choose and thus be stuck always buying with them. (Like the ipod and itunes). If they don't choose to sell books of some sort, for example books about gay people, you might soon not be able to read them at all. Or, as Chris Utterman says in the Ken Loach disucssion:
"I will say again, censorship is almost never saying: This mustn't be shown. It's by limiting the audience, and there are many ways people use to do that. "

But, to be the devil's advocate - if you like the technology, and I certainly do, it needs to succeed in order to develop and no one before amazon managed to get it seriously distributed, so I'm also somewhat glad that the kindle is selling well.

Now to the technology itself. I think for our generation it is amazing. It feels very nice to read (I saw some ebook in a demo), and though it needs to improve - being of size A4, with color, better at adding notes and underline etc., when it will work which might take a decade it will be great. One can have the entire library of congress in one's hand. Think of it, you go to a cafe , take out your small ebook, and you have the entire library of congress with you, in full color. All the extremely expensive art books, and what not. No more out of print books - as a kid I couldn't get my hands on so many books I wanted to read. Heaven.

Devils advocate again - the moment something is easily accessible it loses some of its allure. When books will be so cheap, will we still sit and quietly read one completely, or will we jump through all the hyperlinks and never actually finish a book? I don't think our generation is in any danger of it, but I'm not sure about people who will be born in 20 years, who might not ever see a book, besides in some museums. It might be like records now and soon cd's.

For now, for myself, I am very excited about this technology. The ability for authors to write books with many images, and even sound, and maybe other tools is exciting. The kindle might help it along, but I do hope that soon it will be replaced by a different company, which will probably be no less corrupt than amazon, but at least it won't have total monopoly. And also, that it will be offline, that is, they can't control and check what you read, they can't change it, they can't copy your notes, and so on.
I am not particularly for or against the technology, I think it certainly has its place, but I do agree that it will clearly change the experience of reading. That is all well and good for books written with hypertext in mind, and as Hugh mentions, there is a lot of room for authors to do new and interesting things in the future with sound, color and so forth.

However I can't imagine that this will improve the experience of reading books meant to be printed on paper. Mark, can you imagine anyone actually seriously trying to read Joyce in such a context? It is like trying to meditate with the television on. That is to say: when trying to meditate, there's a whole experience to be dealt with: the silence, the itch one doesn't want to give in and scratch, the position which moves in and out of mild discomfort, the wax and wane of clarity, the spell of the breath. The order and speed at which thoughts present themselves is important. So what happens to this when you tear the fabric of the experience itself by giving hyperlinks, by allowing instant recall rather than forcing the reader into mental gymnastics, or into coming to terms with the complexity of his or her own memory?

It's not just that something is lost, but even more problematically, that a novel which takes the modern world as its subject will,  presumably, conjure up and allude to the the effect of that world as part of its project, whether consciously or not. So by so drastically changing the experience of reading, one also in a certain way renders the book mute.
That's actually a really hilarious story you found Hugh. I wonder what Orwell would think. 

And you raise a point I never even thought about Imogen: the birth of a new artistic medium.

Do you think it's possible that we will see an entirely new media for art? One that hyperlinks every word to another and is infinite and constantly changing?

Or maybe the technology will allow for some relationship between artist and reader/viewer that has never existed before. With technology's focus right now on individuality and personal producting, maybe art will now be in the hands of the recipient. But does that render the artist mute and art itself non-existent since everyone is an artist?

Was there ever a new technology that didn't propel artistic innovation forward? What was the last new artistic medium? Film? But maybe Film is just the evolved form of theater.

Will technology like smartphones and Kindles shape old art into updated forms like theater into film, or will we see new mediums altogether?
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Latest Post: October 29, 2009 at 7:53 PM
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