I’ve been reading Nicholas Carr’s post from last week about the Kindle, where he points out that e-books not only reduce books, but add unnecessary elements to them (such as Amazon’s linking the “interesting phrases” in a text). He knows that the “reading medium will, as always, influence the act of reading”. I understand his despair. But I think one of the problems is that “e-readers” are being called “electronic books” because they have text. But they aren’t books. They are, for lack of a better term, web pages without the web.
How do we deal with the efforts of the new technologies to couch themselves as the updated version of the old technologies? They call these products (Kindle, Nook, etc.) “e-book readers” in the same way that they called automobiles “horseless carriages”, because people hadn’t yet developed a new vocabulary for a new technology. E-book readers have little to do with the book or reading, although initially that is their first use. As Carr notes, the model is commercial, and simple reading cannot be enough economic activity to satisfy.
In the early days of e-readers, I often wondered why these e-readers they had wi-fi. If they were for reading books, you could download the books to your computer (after paying, of course) and then use a USB cable to transfer them to your e-reader. This is, after all, what we do with mp3 players. But, as with smart phones, the e-readers let you download items directly over a wireless network. This means the intent is different than just pay-and-consume. The intent is clearly pay-and-pay-some-more, so the transformation of the text was inevitable. Carr writes in another post that the idea of “bookishness” was just a metaphor to Amazon, a marketing tactic to get readers to buy the product.
I think it might help if we depart from the marketing ploy, and start thinking of e-readers as mini-tablets, which are themselves mini phone-OS computers, which are dumbed-down versions of real computers, which are becoming small boxed versions of the internet. The Kindle Fire is clearly a tablet, connected to the “cloud” via a browser. Its only resemblance to something you “read books” on is that it is a pay-and-consume object. Its purpose is to access the web to buy things, to turn everything into the consumer web. Its effect will be the same as smart phones and iPads, a closure of the open web as it is replaced with App World.
So none of this is about books, or even text (except as a form of “media”). It’s about multimedia consumption devices, mini-entertainment centers. Some of that entertainment might be couched as text, but that doesn’t make these pieces of technology “electronic books”. There is no such thing as an electronic book. There are books, and there are electronic devices. I like them both, just not for the same reasons.