Yesterday, on the trail where my daughter and I like to jog, a spandexed man with a broad back and very small legs – from the back he reminded me of those pictures of Frog and Toad - weaved by on a bicycle wearing Google Glass. And I found myself wondering – I can’t help it, it’s how I think - how long it would be before the world came with a scroll bar.
How long before we’d be able to see the news inside our heads while making dinner, or bathing the baby.
How long before we’d be able to check the Dow – or watch the inspirational movie of our choice - while making love.
It would make sense: The layers of technology between us and the world have been quietly thickening for some time now; looking back from 2030, we may see the growth of this techno-fog as one of the great transformative forces of our time.
By ‘great’ I don’t mean great; I mean disastrous.
But I want to talk about something deliberately small, because sometimes the forces at play in our world, busily re-engineering it for their benefit, are most clearly visible in simple things. Because it’s not just God who dwells in the details.
I want to talk about the book and the e-reader, or e-book, because by looking at these two technologies, the first analog and old-timey, the second digital and very hip (or so they want you to think), it’s possible to get a sense of what’s happening.
What’s happening is that a group of clever people out in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts have figured out that they can take the stuff we already have, repackage it into a slick product that does pretty much what the old stuff did, only less well, then sell it back to us at a mark-up. It’s something they’re very good at.
They’re not doing this because it’ll make us happier. Or stronger. Or more intelligent.
They’re not doing this because it answers some essential need.
They’re doing it because replacing ‘dumb’ stuff with ‘smart’ stuff will make the dumb things obsolete, create an economy of dependence (otherwise known as addiction), and, incidentally, make them a shitload of money.
“I believe,” the computer design specialist John Walker remarked at the dawn of the digital age, that “in the fullness of time, every object in the world, manufactured or not, will be modeled inside a computer. This is a very, very big market. This is everything.”
Whatever else you may think of these people, you can’t fault them for thinking small. “In the fullness of time,” says John – I love the way the Bible is linked to business here, giving the whole idea this wash of divine inevitability – we’ll model everything. Why? Well, it’s a very big market. A very, very big market.
It’s the millennium, brought to you by the Chamber of Commerce.
Back to the book. Admittedly, I love books. Particularly good ones. I can’t imagine a home – much less a world - without them. I love their smell and heft. I love the way they look on shelves. I love the way a particular book gathers history to itself, reminding me of where I was, or who I was with, or how I saw the world when I first read it.
If that makes me a sentimentalist, too bad. There are worse things. Still, even from a purely engineering perspective, the physical book was an amazing technology – after all, there’s a reason why it hung around, essentially unimproved, for 600 years.
Lots of reasons, come to think of it. Let’s see . . .
It was compact.
It was cheap.
It was portable.
It was durable as hell – it could last a century with care. Or three.
It was ‘giftable’ half a millennium before that amazingly ugly word was hatched – all you had to do was sign it (or not) and give it to somebody.
It was user-friendly: You could read it on the beach, mark it up, personalize it. You could spill your drink on it. You could treasure it in fancy, glassed-in bookcases or burn it in large numbers to establish your fascist bona fides.
Oh, yeah - it never grew obsolete, never malfunctioned, never had to be charged.
Obviously this thing had to be ‘improved.’
So how have the digerati improved the book? By coming up with a device (which costs us), that enables us to read ‘books.’ True, this device can malfunction or break or run out of power, and it makes a more ‘granular’ track for Big Brother to follow so that he can keep track of what you’ve been reading (as well as analyze your digital margin notes, the better to sell you shit, my dear), but, hey, on the upside, this ‘book’ can be read on the beach (that is, if you purchase ‘Paperwhite™’ for your Kindle, which looks, well, like paper), and if you’re good, they’ll let you ‘gift’ it a few times (what a romantic gift idea – a virtual book!), after which you’ll have to purchase the right to continue.
Thank God for progress.
Watching the basketball game last night – just go with me here, there’s a connection - I saw a commercial for a phone app. I had the sound turned off because watching commercials makes me want to drown myself in a shallow puddle, but the rapid-fire images showed a multi-racial group of beautiful, deliriously happy people writing “I Love You” in different colors very quickly on their phones.
And it occurred to me that every four year-old has been accomplishing more or less this same thing with a box of crayons and a piece of paper since the dawn of time.
Except the crayons smelled better.
All this innovation and progress made me think of e-books.
That something as elegantly functional as the book would actually lose market share to a technology as flawed as the e-reader is testament to the taste-making power of big advertising, a force which has proved it can convince us of basically anything: that fast food is about friendship, that Facebook is about community, that Monsanto cares about the future of sustainable food, that the Republican Party bleeds for the working man.
Add enough zeros to the propaganda – sorry, advertising – budget, and you’ll sell stones to the drowning. For a while, anyway.
Take a few steps back from the racket, and common sense asserts itself. An electronic book? Seriously? Whose idea was this, and what did it actually do except provide another fix to a screen-addicted populace, thereby deepening our dependence?
Aside from a relative handful of professionals (critics, agents, editors, etc.) who truly need to juggle dozens of volumes at a time, what essential need did it answer? Was it an interior-decorating problem? Were the masses crying out for wall space? Was it the weight thing? I swear if I had a dollar for every time someone my age (because it’s the Boomers who seem most besotted, unlike the Millennials, who are getting wise) explained to me the benefit of being able to take two hundred books on vacation, I’d be on vacation. With a book. A paper one.
Honestly – how many books do you read in a week? Two? Three, max? How did anyone manage to go on vacation ten years ago? Did they even go on vacation?
Here’s a thought: Pack a couple of used paperbacks and whenever you finish one, give it to somebody. Or leave it in the hotel or hostel. (When my son and I went on a week-long hike in the Sierras, we took turns reading a cheap paperback of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which we got a kick out of, then tearing out the finished pages to start our campfires.)
If someone happens to steal your analog book – which they won’t because no one’s going to steal a damn book, not even one of mine, alas - you’re out ten bucks. Or two if you bought it used.
But maybe you won’t give it away. Or use it for kindling. Maybe you’ll bring it home, torn and loved, stained by that guacamole you were eating in the hammock in Nicaragua; maybe it’ll be scribbled in in the margins. Maybe it’ll have the address of that girl (or guy) you talked to on the bus to wherever, who started a conversation by asking you about your book, and suddenly her face then (because it’s twenty years later now, and she’s calling from the kitchen), will come back to you and the book itself will exist, a kind of memory bank, for as long as it endures, and every time you open it and push your nose into the crease and breathe, it’ll all come back.
Try that with an e-book.
But what’s the big deal, some will say. Physical book, e-book, what’s the difference? People are still reading, right?
I agree. Taken alone, the e-book is pretty small potatoes. The problem is that it’s not alone; it’s a window onto larger things, and if you look through that window, you’ll see that those spuds have grown and they’ve just eaten your dog.
OK, some extended metaphors are weirder than others – sue me.
But let’s say that you’re like me and believe that some ‘dumb’ things – books, salmon, cocktail shakers, bellhops, and so on – are fine the way they are; that ‘smart,’ as Orwell could tell us, doesn’t actually mean smart at all – just electronic.
Here’s the rub: ‘Fine the way it is’ doesn’t make money. ‘Fine the way it is’ means a lot of clever people will have to find something else to do with their time.
Who needs these ‘improvements?’ The people who make them, that’s who. The ones whose job it is to sell you something unnecessary (as well as cold, impersonal, and expensive) by making it seem indispensible, modern and sexy.
They’re selling ice to Eskimos.
We’re the Eskimos.
I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy here – I’m not Oliver Stone.
It’s just business.
Which is what people in the movies say when they’re about to screw you.
For the moment, here’s the good news:
As the tech-tide rises up around our necks, we can always fall back on first principles, which are as lovely as they are unarguable, to wit: It exists because you buy it.
Don’t, and it disappears like a dream on waking.