Tag Archive for papercentrism

Kindle, Reloaded

On Monday Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled version 2.0 of its popular e-reading device, Kindle, which the company will release to the public on February 24th. The price is $359.

As with most things Amazon, the reaction thus far has been mixed.  Some see Kindle 2 as a great leap forward for e-reading (mostly Bezos here), while others are nonplussed about its redesign and modest upgrades.

I haven’t had a chance to test drive the new Kindle myself.  Only a select few have been granted that privilege.  Still, as a Kindle 1.0 owner, I cannot help but be struck by several aspects of its younger sibling.

First, am I the only one who finds it odd that Amazon would release the next generation Kindle a scant 14 months or so after the release of G1?  I know the company is offering Kindle 1 owners priority dibs on Kindle 2.0s, but the short time between generations leaves something of a bad taste in my mouth.  As a Kindle 1 customer, I feel as though I’ve been treated as a means to an end — that is, of generating excitement over what now essentially amounts to a prototype.

Okay, enough with the kvetching.

Kindle 2’s redesign intrigues me.  Where Kindle 1 was modeled in size, dimension, and weight after a paperback book, Kindle 2 is about the thickness of a pencil.  It’s also much lighter as a result.  This was  a smart move, and not only because it makes Kindle 2 more portable.  It also makes it less “papercentric,” or less beholden to the idealized form of the bound printed volume.  This isn’t to say that Kindle 2 doesn’t still take many of its cues from the world of print, but at least its designers are beginning to show that they understand the specificity of the new medium.

I’m also intrigued by the legal implications of the K2’s text-to-speech feature.  The Author’s Guild is already making a stink about this new capability, claiming that it results in illegal, derivative works.  I’m not sure what to say about this beyond the obvious.  Lawsuits clearly lie ahead on the horizon, and unless they’re settled out of court, there will be a thorny matter for jurists to decide: can a machine, acting essentially on its own, produce a copyright-infringing derivative work?  Another way of asking the question would be: is it the unique provenance of human beings to infringe on another’s copyright?

The last feature I want to address is Whispersynch, which keeps all of your Kindle titles backed up on Amazon’s servers and allows you to synch them to as many Kindles as you own.  First things first: Kudos to Amazon for allowing content to migrate across devices.  (Now, if only they’d get rid of the DRM and allow readers to share content with one another….)  Here’s the potential downside of Whispernet, which is essentially the downside of cloud computing more generally. How much can we trust a private company to store our content?  Now, I’m reasonably confident in Amazon’s financial solvency right now, as evidenced by its recent profit despite the economic downturn.  But remember Gimbles?  Or B. Altman?  Or all those other department stores that used to rule the retail roost, but that no longer exist?  Nothing lasts forever, especially in such a competitive environment.  Consequently, I’d like to see Amazon explore additional — client-side — ways of backing up content when Kindle 3 comes around.

Probably in another year or so.

I’ve blogged at length about Kindle 1.0 on my other site, Differences & Repetitions. You can read the posts here, here, and here.


Why Bother Calling it a "Book?"

I was excited to come across Virginia Heffernan’s recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, “Click and Jane.”  In it she explores her young son’s refusal to call an online book a “book.”  Here’s a short excerpt:

In a hundred ways, we pretend that screen experiences are books — PowerBooks, notebooks, e-books — but even a child knows the difference. Reading books is an operation with paper. Playing games on the Web is something else entirely. I need to admit this to myself, too. I try to believe that reading online is reading-plus, with the text searchable, hyperlinked and accompanied by video, audio, photography and graphics. But maybe it’s just not reading at all. Just as screens aren’t books.

It’s a lovely reflection, really, and intriguing in that her 3-year-old son, Ben, is highly adept at differentiating paper books from Blackberries, Amazon Kindles, and other on-screen reading devices.

So much for the heady claims of the e-book denizens.  Young people, they say, will be the ones finally to embrace electronic reading with open arms — so much so that the distinction between printed and electronic books will eventually become irrelevant.  But with Ben the conventional wisdom seems to be incorrect.  Books aren’t just books, regardless of the platform.

Even more important, though, is the larger issue Heffernan’s article points to.  Why, after all, would someone want to call the type of on-screen reading she and Ben have been engaging in, book reading?  Clearly it’s a matter of wanting to capitalize on the cachet or cultural authority that bound printed books command.  But isn’t that precisely the problem here, too?

Gary Hall’s wonderful new tome, Digitize This Book! (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), which I cannot recommend highly enough, offers some helpful perspective on the matter.  Hall observes that “papercentrism” abounds in conversations about the future of books and reading.  By this he means printed books and the reading of paper objects more generally are the yardsticks against which all claims to the categories of “book” and “reading” get measured.  Anything digital inevitably comes up short.

What Hall suggests is that those who sing the praises of e-books are, in effect, undermining their cause.  In referring to these objects as such, they are constantly reaffirming the priority — even the pre-eminence — of their print-on-paper counterparts.  Ironically, “e-books” cannot escape their own papercentrism.

So let me end with a modest proposal.  Perhaps it’s time we cease referring to electronic reading devices as “e-books” and instead find some other, less papercentric, name.  Maybe then, when the technology no longer feels compelled to prove its worthiness in relation to paper, will digital reading achieve what’s been expected of it for so long.