Monday, February 27, 2012

Books, reading and owning our stuff

Leon Wieseltier has this article on The New Republic's website which is a wonderful and thoughtful examination of his book shelves as he moves and the impact and nature of the book as artifact. There's some distinct similarities between this and Walter Benjamin's essay Unpacking My Library found in Illuminations.
This article has been kicking around the interwebs for the past week and made it onto at least one of the librarian list-servs I subscribe to. One of the librarians responded to the article with the suggestion of the a technology that would seek to individuate (his word-and a good one) the use of ebooks. Driving at a technology that would help or cause ebooks to seem less infinite or as Wieseltier suggests "There is something inhuman about the pristinity of digital publication. It lacks fingerprints." So why not then create a technology that allows one to fingerprint their electronic copy? This isn't a bad idea except waiting for waiting for some app to cause ebooks to feel or be more personal misses the point of what texts do. What follows is the somewhat rambling email I sent back to this individual. It's nothing new but I spent some time on it and figured I would share it here.

While appealing this notion of “individuation” (good word!)  seems counter-intuitive to the very nature of technology, as it has been presented to the end user/consumer. The customization of an interface or device is not the same as individuation even if those who push customization as personalization would like the users to think so. Technology does not succeed based on its ability to create individualized experiences but rather via a platform that is abstracted out enough to pull in the widest possible user group that is willing to bend to the concession of the maker’s terms. The iPhone is a good example of this. The closest thing to an individualized iPhone experience requires jailbreaking or hacking the phone’s operating system in such a way as to remove the system of blocks that come installed by Apple. The problem is you have to do it every time a new iOS is issued so that it takes a significant amount of work to maintain one’s “individuation” of device because the content providers don’t particularly want individualized users.
My own struggle with the idea of individuating technology is the buying into the idea that the digital copy on my device is unique. One does not typically purchase books with the expectation of replacing the same volume in 3-4 years because that volume has become obsolete.  However this is the expectation when purchasing a computer and I would suggest e-readers are included in this category. The principle of planned obsolescence prevents the digital item from truly becoming an artifact that is able to genuinely fingerprinted by the user especially when the content provider still retains power of control over the items on that device. (Netflix, Amazon, etc.) As the physical book is self-contained one is not worried about porting previous purchases from a pre-existing platform to a new one. Really the main problem one has with moving a book is making sure there is room on one’s bookshelf.
Since the Kindle, and other e-readers, require an online connection any option for individuation would be subject to this connection being monitored, not to be overly paranoid here, by the content provider. The similar parallel are the discount cards we use at the grocery store-even if we get gas points/etc. those points are simply in exchange for getting our buying habits. (See Vaidhyanathan’s Googlization of Everything) As new books are purchased this monitoring would leverage that information to track, compile and then market the consumer’s taste choices (Facebook, Google, etc.) for additional profits. It’s not the other reader(s) this technology would be benefiting in sharing the previous reader’s “fingerprints” but the publishers, e-readers or content providers.
I don’t mean to sound cranky about e-readers. I think they are a great idea, necessary to a certain extent. and provide healthy competition to the overblown prices of physical objects, also to an extent. I think, based solely on anecdotal experience, that more people are reading with their e-readers.
The problem with most, if not all digital content, is that the idea of owning has dramatically shifted. The expectation of owning our digital content so that we can fingerprint it (marginalia, sharing) is going to be at the mercy of content providers unless we are willing, I think, to hack our devices so that the content on those devices is truly ours.

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