23 September 2010

Kindle in the House

In an interesting turnabout, Tani has become the new technophile in our house. First she bought a new Zune HD, then a very swish new computer, and this past week she got herself a Kindle. As for me, I mostly listen to an old hand-me-down ipod nano, my computer is an ugly beige retro-tower from the 90s, and I'm buying and reading more old-fashioned tree-based books than I have for years.

And honestly, I don't want a Kindle. No interest at all. First, I'm no longer willing to pay just to read something. I read on the internet for free constantly. I read books at my university for free constantly. So I've become unwilling to pay for words just to read them. Words are so plentiful and cheap that I can no longer see in them any economic value. And in fact, there is almost nothing I could possibly purchase on the Kindle that I could not get for free by other means. I see Kindle book purchases as the buying of a convenience, and for a mere convenience, the price per unit is far too high.

My second issue with the Kindle is that I read from a screen continuously. I spend more time "interacting" with words on a screen than I do with human beings by a ratio of probably 10 to 1. That's a conservative guess, and I'm really not joking. And I regard it as a sterile and numbing activity, an activity demanded by necessity. If I could sustain employment and feed my interests through purely analog means, that would be my strong preference. But books are just too inefficient to fill most informational needs. I'm surrounded by several hundred books in my office all day every day, and rarely is one taken off the shelf. Internet resources have long surpassed their academic utility, and that makes me very sad.

My need for analog is one reason why I've been buying paper books lately. No surprise, mostly I buy and read books of photography or on photography. As I've written (here, here, here), the printing of photographic images has reached such a peak of high art that it can now approximate a photographic print. Viewing such books is an intensely aesthetic experience and, by extension, owning them feels like collecting art. It is collecting art, but very often at pulp paperback prices. I still don't know how, economically, one can buy a $50 coffee-table book, new in shrinkwrap, for $5. But it thrills me.

Most surprising to me is that I now find my experience of reading an analog book much more immersive than I ever remember it being. Maybe I've just forgotten, or maybe I'm at a different place in life. It's not just that I lose myself more completely in the book. I swear I feel a more intense connection to the content, the characters, the ideas than I do when reading on screen. Books and LCDs convey information equally well, but I find I have a relationship with print that I do not have with pixels.

Maybe I am just an analog man, but I think there is something more universal to it. There is an impressive revival in vinyl record sales, now at their highest point in 20 years. Even tape cassettes are coming back. Film photography is not only surviving, but is rebounding in some segments. Kodak even just released a new film emulsion. This is not being driven by oldsters, but youngsters, who are rediscovering the joy of analog. The limits of analog are seen as creative constraints and lovable idiosyncrasies. Analog's defects, often inherent in its materiality, also make it personable, something capable of being loved.

Producer and artist Brian Eno touched on the reason for this in an article some years ago in Wired. He is speaking specifically of artistic tools, but the principles here are more general:

    With tools, we crave intimacy. This appetite for emotional resonance explains why users - when given a choice - prefer deep rapport over endless options. You can't have a relationship with a device whose limits are unknown to you, because without limits it keeps becoming something else. . . .
    This is the revenge of traditional media. Even the "weaknesses" or the limits of these tools become part of the vocabulary of culture. I'm thinking of such stuff as Marshall guitar amps and black-and-white film - what was once thought most undesirable about these tools became their cherished trademark.
    Since so much of our experience is mediated in some way or another, we have deep sensitivities to the signatures of different media. Artists play with these sensitivities, digesting the new and shifting the old. In the end, the characteristic forms of a tool's or medium's distortion, of its weakness and limitations, become sources of emotional meaning and intimacy.
    Although designers continue to dream of "transparency" - technologies that just do their job without making their presence felt - both creators and audiences actually like technologies with "personality." A personality is something with which you can have a relationship. Which is why people return to pencils, violins, and the same three guitar chords.

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