Objects of Desire

Now that Amazon have brought out their new e-reader device, the usual torrent of caveats and dismissals have been descending from the blogging heavens in response. The same arguments recur: my handheld can do the same thing and doesn't cost XXX dollars or pounds; I can carry a real paperback book on the train/plane just as easily without needing batteries; and so forth.

I feel the need to defend these devices, in concept at least, if not in terms of the currently available - yet very pricey - lumps of hardware. Part of this defense is levying the same rejoinders that have also been wielded elsewhere:

The technology is not the same as your PDA or your laptop. It is, in fact, fundamentally different, right down to the physics employed. It can best be described in the same way I have previously explained the difference between, say, an image displayed on a television screen, and the same image printed on a piece of paper, in the context of my work as a graphic designer/layout person:
  • When you see a picture of a tree (say) on a screen, the screen is projecting light onto your eyeball. This requires quite a bit of power.
  • When you see a picture of a tree on a page, ambient light (the light from your lamp, window and so forth) is reflecting from the page and into your eye. Which means of course if you take away that source of light (turn the lamp off, close the curtains) you can't see the text anymore.
These two approaches are so fundamentally different that the means of creating the image itself are also very different. A projected image is constructed from three colours - red, green and blue, giving you RGB projection. These three colours combined - as Isaac Newton discovered - are extremely efficacious at reproducing a remarkably wide spectrum of hues and shades.

Printed colour is another matter however: this is based on the CMYK model (cyan, magenta, yellow and black [the 'k' is used since a 'b' might confuse it with blue]), these being the inks that, on paper, can produce the greatest variety of colour. Which means e-paper is particularly clever because even though it has a screen, it is instead reliant on ambient, rather than projected, light.

In other words, this is most certainly not your PDA or your laptop.

Ah, but, I hear you say: I can read a book on either a PDA or a laptop. And, if I were your optician, I might encourage you in the hopes that your rapidly failing sight might bring me business within a relatively short number of years as the strain of reading hundreds of thousands of words via traditional screen technology knackered your retinas. Well, yes you can, but speaking personally, the only time I read a book on a screen is when I'm forced to because, well, I'm writing it.

Yet the act of reading a printed book is a fundamentally passive act for pretty much the entire human race, allowing as it does for a kind of trance-state wherein we cease to be entirely aware of our surroundings. Given that a laptop or PDA is intended to be aggressively interactive, the experience is rather different when reading the same text off a traditional screen format. You are, quite literally, sitting for many hours, staring unblinking into a bright light you are shining in your own face.

One might rapidly come to the conclusion this is not healthy; nor is sitting with a laptop or desktop nearly as much fun as reading a book in your hand while waiting for the kettle to boil or for a delayed train to hurry up and arrive.

Further, as nice as real paper books are, they can in fact be terribly inconvenient. Yes, you can take one onto a train or plane. But first of all you have to go to a shop and buy it, or order it online and wait for it to arrive, then cram it into a pocket or bag where it gets crumpled. It adds to the overall weight of your luggage. Then you bring it home and have to find somewhere to store it, and fat chunks of my home are dedicated to the task of finding somewhere to put these things.

I have known people who could pack pretty much all of their possessions into a backpack and a couple of plastic bags, particularly during my student days. There's a certain implied Kerouac-esque zen freedom to this I envied even back then, given that I already had a couple of hundred books I had to tote with me from flat to flat every time I moved, not counting the endless, gigantic textbooks. I imagined myself like a turtle, slowly hauling around a vast shell made of books while others hurtled around me on their way to grand, lightly packed, adventures. And this isn't even counting the several hundred vinyl albums I owned. I liked the idea that if I wanted to simply light off somewhere - anywhere - I could do so, without having to worry about a couple of tons of paper and plastic that felt somehow essential to my sense of self-identity.

Since then I've converted pretty much my entire vinyl collection to MP3 format, contained on a single player slightly larger than a packet of cigarettes. See where I'm going? Right now I'm sitting next to several shelves of reference material. Given I'm hoping to spend a fat chunk of next year almost literally halfway around the world, the notion of accessing these works from a distance is currently somewhat lacking in the feasibility department.

Now consider the true market of the epaper readers now being marketed. They are not, in fact, aimed at people like me. They are aimed at: engineers, students, people who have to fly a very great deal as a part of their work, people in the movie business, and - possibly most particularly - the vast, manga-devouring hordes of the Far East. Engineers want to access reference works without doing their eyes in. Students want to be able to study both without ruining their eyes or breaking their backs with heavy bags full of books. Frequent flyers don't want to have to spend a substantial chunk of their preparation time ordering or buying books, and very likely don't want to be restricted to the incredibly narrow selection available in most airports. Directors, producers, scriptwriters and actors want to be able to read scripts at home as well as on the move without necessarily having to deal with humongous print-outs.

And as for manga ... well, we're talking graphic novels the size of telephone directories sold out of stores the size of aircraft hangar once you get to the Far East. Endless, sweeping rivers of manga which is now being increasingly found online. If ebook technology takes off anywhere, it's going to be in the streets and the subway carriages of Tokyo and rather a lot of other places too. In fact, I recently read some comics onscreen, using dedicated freeware readers like FFview and Jomix, having downloaded freebie issues of DC's Vertigo range. I used to devour Vertigo at an enormous rate in the first half of the Nineties. I find that I vastly prefer having electronic copies of comic books to the unwieldy, overpriced printed article. Suddenly, that which is notably expensive and unwieldy becomes immensely portable - once you take into account the potential ebook market.

Think of it: with an ebook reader, those with a secret passion for whips n'chains John Norman books - or even those who feel their deeply humanist analysis of posthuman politics rendered in experimental prose might have been better marketed without the wraparound Boris Vallejo cover - will never need feel concerned about their perceived status on the subway, since all around will simply assume you are once again rereading War and Peace on your ebook device in order to gather notes for your entirely nonexistent English thesis paper.

And let us consider one small fact which has appeared in my mind since I began writing this entry: is a book an object, or a collection of ideas? In other words, is a book the actual collection of physical pages, or is it the information contained therein? Is it possible - and I simply put this out there for consideration - that our culture has so long objectified a book as an artifact, that we have lost the means to separate the content from the container? Is it not more likely then, that future generations might see a paperback printing of a book as one possible expression of a book, rather than the book itself? In fact, would it not be philosophically healthier to return books and storytelling to the realm of pure information and ideas, thereby freeing them from the consumerist trap of 'things' which must be owned and lusted after as objects of physical desire in and of themselves?

Clearly I need to drink some more coffee.

So am I about to run out and buy an ebook reader? Well... er, no, as a matter of fact. Because they're still too expensive. But what people seem to forget is that we're still at the 'early adopter' stage, that these machines are aimed at people who can afford to splash substantial amounts of cash with relative whimsy. As with all new technologies, the price of ebook readers can be expected to fall until they become well within the means of the book-buying masses. In the meantime, the idea of having my entire, existent collection available to me on a device that doesn't hurt my eyes, that I can read in almost exactly the same way as a paperback, that can run for days on end continuously (due to extremely low power consumption), onto which I can download new material with a few simple clicks (like the new Amazon Kindle, momentarily avoiding the pertinent issue of DRM) and that I can take literally anywhere in the world without suffering the usual psychological fear of not having my book collection within easy reach does, indeed, appear rather attractive. And as for the inevitable argument that an ordinary book doesn't require batteries - well, given the very low consumption even of the early adopter models of the technology, I really wouldn't be surprised just a couple of years down the road to see solar-powered ebook readers appearing on the market.

And then, yes, I'll buy one - to supplement my existing collection of paperback books, rather than replace it.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, and I'll be pointing all those people who say 'yes, but...' right to it.