Tag Archive for Apple

E-Reading on a Schwinn

I just wrapped up an interview about Late Age, where my interlocutor asked me about my scholarly relationship to e-books.  It was such an intriguing question, because it forced me to admit to, and to begin working through, a contradiction with which I’ve wrestled privately for quite some time now: the amount I write about e-books is incommensurate with my consumption of them.  Or, to put it more straightforwardly, I haven’t read many e-books, despite the fact that I write about them all the time.

There you have it, then.  The cat’s out of the bag.  Truth be told, I’ve read exactly two e-books “cover to cover” (although we cannot exactly say that about them, can we?) since I began writing about the technology back in 2001: Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration; and Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning and Unfair Game.  Currently I’m halfway through the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs.  That brings the tally up to two-and-a-half, and it may be as high as three, four, or five once you’ve factored in all the sample chapters I’ve downloaded and read.

The question is, why have I kept my distance?  I’m not lazy — of that much I can assure you.  I’ve spent countless hours studying the designs, interfaces, capabilities, terms of use, and any number of other aspects of most major commercially available e-readers.  And I’m not one of those fly-by-night academics who picks up on some trend but has no personal investment in it.  I don’t read a lot of e-books because I can’t read a lot of e-books.  The technology as it currently exists is ill-equipped to handle my particular needs as a scholarly reader.

I’ll show you what I mean.  Below are three photos of a book — Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness — that my graduate students and I discussed two weeks ago in seminar.


The first shows the inner flyleaf, where I’ve created an index based on key ideas and themes from the text.  The second is the title page, where I’ve jotted down a brainstorm about the text in general.  The third shows another small index consisting of passages, themes, and so forth that I wanted to address specifically in class.

I know what you’re thinking: Kindle, Nook, and iBooks all allow you to take notes on a text, mark passages, and more.  You’re absolutely right.  The difference for me, though, is the way the form of a physical book allows you to organize this information, both spatially and temporally.  You’ll see, for instance, the double lines appearing in my index in the image at left.  That’s a “generational” marker for me, cuing me to notes I took upon rereading (and rereading and rereading…) the text.  This also then signals ideas and themes that were most recently on my mind, ones that I ought to be returning to in my current research.  Ditto the brainstorm page, which allows me to take notes on the text independent of any specific passage.  (Sometimes these pages of notes become quite elaborate for me, in fact.)

It’s an archival issue, I suppose, and as a scholar I have unusually specific archival needs when it comes to reading books.  And with this I realize that however much the Kindle, Nook, and iPad may be devices for readers (that’s the tagline of a marketing campaign for the e-ink Kindle), they’re actually designed for general or nonspecialist readers.

This isn’t really surprising, since to grow market share you want to capture as broad an audience as possible.  But beyond that, most people don’t need to read books like scholars.  In fact, that’s a reason why portable, paperback books became so popular in the late 19th century and again in the mid-to-late 20th century: books can actually be cheap and even disposable things to which readers might not ever return. Very few people want or need to treat them as sacred objects.

So why am I not a prolific e-reader?  I’ll put it this way: would you rather ride the Tour de France on a clunky, off-the-shelf Schwinn or a custom Italian racing bike?

I’m not drawing this analogy to be snooty.  As I’ve said, most people don’t need the expensive Italian racing bike.  It would be a complete waste of money, especially when most of the time you’re just out for a casual ride.  Instead, I’m trying to underscore how the mark of a good technology is that it seems to disappear for the user — something I discovered, incidentally, from reading the Kindle edition of the Steve Jobs biography.  The present generation of e-readers forces me to get caught up in and become frustrated with the technology — this in contrast to the technology of the physical book, which has more of a capacity to disappear for me, or at least work with me.

Maybe I’ll come around in the end, or maybe Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple will continue adding features to their devices so that they become more agreeable to specialist readers like me.  Until then, though, I’m sticking to atoms for serious reading and bits for fun.

P.S.  Please don’t forget to like the Late Age of Print Facebook page that I just launched!


How Publishers Misunderstand Kindle

Last week, in a post entitled “The Book Industry’s Moneyball,” I blogged about the origins of my interest in algorithmic culture — the use of computational processes to sort, classify, and hierarchize people, places, objects, and ideas.  There I discussed a study published in 1932, the so-called “Cheney Report,” which imagined a highly networked book industry whose decisions were driven exclusively by “facts,” or in contemporary terms, “information.”

It occurred to me, in thinking through the matter more this week, that the Cheney Report wasn’t the only way in which I stumbled on to the topic of algorithmic culture.  Something else led me there was well — something more present-day.  I’m talking about the Amazon Kindle, which I wrote about in a scholarly essay published in the journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (CCCS) back in 2010.  The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  (You can read a precis of the piece here.)

The CCCS essay focused on privacy issues related to devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, which quietly relay information about what and how you’ve been reading back to their respective corporate custodians.  Since it appeared that’s become a fairly widespread concern, and I’d like to think my piece had something to do with nudging the conversation in that direction.

Anyway, in prepping to write the essay, a good friend of mine, M—-, suggested I read Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (New Riders, 2006).   It’s an astonishingly good book, one I would recommend highly to anyone who writes about digital technologies.

Greenfield - Everyware

I didn’t really know much about algorithms or information when I first read Everyware.  Of course, that didn’t stop me from quoting Greenfield in “The Abuses of Literacy,” where I made a passing reference to what he calls “ambient informatics.”  This refers to the idea that almost every aspect our world is giving off some type of information.  People interested in ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, want to figure out ways to detect, process, and in some cases exploit that information.  With any number of mobile technologies, from smart phones to Kindle, ubicomp is fast becoming an everyday part of our reality.

The phrase “ambient informatics” has stuck with me ever since I first quoted it, and on Wednesday of last week it hit me again like a lightning bolt.  A friend and I were talking about Google Voice, which, he reminded me, may look like a telephone service from the perspective of its users, but it’s so much more from the perspective of Google.  Voice gives Google access to hours upon hours of spoken conversation that it can then use to train its natural language processing systems — systems that are essential to improving speech-to-text recognition, voiced-based searching, and any number of other vox-based services.  Its a weird kind of switcheroo, one that most of us don’t even realize is happening.

So what would it mean, I wondered, to think about Kindle not from the vantage point of its users but instead from that of Amazon.com?  As soon as you ask this question, it soon becomes apparent that Kindle is only nominally an e-reader.  It is, like Google Voice, a means to some other, data-driven end: specifically, the end of apprehending the “ambient informatics” of reading.  In this scenario Kindle books become a hook whose purpose is to get us to tell Amazon.com more about who we are, where we go, and what we do.

Imagine what Amazon must know about people’s reading habits — and who knows what else?!  And imagine how valuable that information could be!

What’s interesting to me, beyond the privacy concerns I’ve addressed elsewhere, is how, with Kindle, book publishers now seem to be confusing means with ends.  It’s understandable, really.  As literary people they’re disposed to think about books as ends in themselves — as items people acquire for purposes of reading.  Indeed, this has long been the “being” of books, especially physical ones. With Kindle, however, books are in the process of getting an existential makeover.  Today they’re becoming prompts for all sorts of personal and ambient information, much of which then goes on to become proprietary to Amazon.com.

I would venture to speculate that, despite the success of the Nook, Barnes & Noble has yet to fully wake up to this fact as well.  For more than a century the company has fancied itself a bookseller — this in contrast to Amazon, which CEO Jeff Bezos once described as “a technology company at its core” (Advertising Age, June 1, 2005).  The one sells books, the other bandies in information (which is to say nothing of all the physical stuff Amazon sells).  The difference is fundamental.

Where does all this leave us, then?  First and foremost, publishers need to begin recognizing the dual existence of their Kindle books: that is, as both means and ends.  I suppose they should also press Amazon for some type of “cut” — informational, financial, or otherwise — since Amazon is in a manner of speaking free-riding on the publishers’ products.

This last point I raise with some trepidation, though; the humanist in me feels a compulsion to pull back.  Indeed it’s here that I begin to glimpse the realization of O. H. Cheney’s world, where matters of the heart are anathema and reason, guided by information, dictates virtually all publishing decisions.  I say this in the thick of the Kindle edition of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where I’ve learned that intuition, even unbridled emotion, guided much of Jobs’ decision making.

Information may be the order of the day, but that’s no reason to overlook what Jobs so successfully grasped.  Technology alone isn’t enough.  It’s best when “married” to the liberal arts and humanities.


The Indies and the E’s


Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University.  It’s been a blast so far.  My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture.  More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers.  I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.”  In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading.  Really, it’s an oligarchy.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States.  And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it.  Will the Indies run with it?  Or will all of the students enrolled in my next  “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?