The media is aglow with the heatless light of Kindle, Amazon’s just launched reading device that is essentially an iPod for books, magazines and blogs. The online demo video trumpets the wonders of this text vessel. You can drop the thing, read it in direct sunlight and, most notably, use it and acquire new reading materials without a computer. Much of the mainstream print media is on board, as are the big publishing houses.
I watched a portion of Charlie Rose’s interview with Jeff Bezos last night, unimpressed by Bezos’s forced-laugh self-satisfaction about this new product that, in his words, will “out book the book.” Fact is, plenty of folks have been tinkering with this concept for years (see my piece about The Institute for the Future of the Book), but with Amazon’s resources behind this endeavor, it seems clear that Kindle will attempt the same sort of market saturation that the iPod has achieved – and here lies the real essence of this development.
Now, the shift won’t be complete, at least not at first, as Kindle cannot handle color images or illustrations, yet. When you receive your daily newspaper, or the latest issue of a magazine, you will be getting only the text. On Charlie Rose, Bezos claimed that the technology to handle images is currently in the lab and hearing him say this, for me, smacked of the planned obsolescence of the gadgetry we have embraced.
The same as the ideas behind furthering the book with multi-media, open-source applications possess a great deal of exciting potential, the notion of enslaving ourselves to yet another always-improving device is something that needs to be considered and not just ballyhooed blindly, for it seems that the issue of reading is at stake in how it relates to the readers. At one point during the interview, Bezos used the term “Amazonians,” referring to the beta group of Kindle users. The term conjures the idea of tribes (something that Marshall McLuhan and Michel Houellebecq evoke in their work when considering the human relationship with technology). Like the iPod, Kindle, if Amazon succeeds in the way they seem hell-bent on, becomes a lifestyle networked into a corporate hub.
As Bezos explained Kindle to Rose he got most excited about what happens when Kindle reaches its new owner: “You turn it on and it already knows you.” You need an Amazon account to buy this thing, and once you do, all of your preferences and browsing history are waiting for you. Filtered through Kindle, it seems fair to say that it is not just about text imparting information to its readers, so much as the text tracking its readers. If you resist the idea of libraries handing over their cardholders’ borrowing histories, isn’t this the same, but on some exponential algorithmic level?
This is not a Luddite’s lament, but it is a call to not let the traditional book be demoted in its status as an invaluable tool. I stopped watching Charlie Rose last night after he asked Bezos about the future of books. Bezos nodded, expecting the question. He answered by saying there would always be that “cabinet of curiosities” but that he saw Kindle as the beginning of the future. The curios, in his mind, are codex books, and this is the wrong attitude because it creates a hierarchy that is a disservice to the exchange of ideas. It also seems to displace the ideas, channeling, in an admittedly off-the-cuff leap by yours truly, Plato’s Myth of the Cave. The word “kindle” denotes the starting of a fire. Light from fire, according to Plato, cast shadows that people mistook for the actual world. The challenge of reconciling the object and the image is as ancient as human thought. Kindle, when talking about books and their content, furthers the metaphor, in a way destined to make the culture, or at least the market, forget about traditional books.
The book, as I seem to always write in these offerings, will never die (especially illustrated books). I believe this. Rethinking the book vis-a-vis the available technology is a natural human tendency. But forsaking the printed on paper words that have documented human history for the convenience of Kindle seems, as one comment on the NYT Paper Cuts blog posits, more like burning them, as opposed to improving them.
Bonus Links: The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts), With blogs available via the Kindle, Ed looks at how they ended up there and who’s getting paid.
This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.