I’ve been trying out the new Kindle from Amazon for the last two weeks, and I have to admit that I like it. It is interesting that the last “mass” medium to be remediated is also the oldest; the book. Many have raised concern about the transition from paper to e-ink screens, since these screens different from the medium on which we are used to experience the older version. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter, and also a short review of the new Kindle.
Just think about this: the possibility of presenting text in the computer has been around for a long time – one of the first interfaces with the computer was in fact text. The mobile phones has, ever since they got displays, also been able to display text, so why do we need ebooks if all computers and mobile phones that we have today can present text? The answer is the screen. It does not matter if you have a 40 inch flat Liquid Crystal Display, a 15 inch Catode Ray Tube, or an iPad or iPhone since they all are using additive light to display the picture on the screen. this is tiring, and very energy inefficient if the sole objective is to show you some letters. Hence, we need a new gadget with a new type of screen to remediate the text in the proper style of the book. The ebook uses e-ink to display the text or graphics on the screen, now this technology is just able to display grey scales, but a new version coined Trition is also able to show pages in colours. The e-ink use almost no power, since the screen is only using power when a transition is made, this makes it excellent for e-books since the only times you have to refresh the whole screen is when you flip to another page.
A transparent experience
When the device is started for the first time, it shows a text telling the reader not to think of it as a device, but to enjoy the experience of the content. To me, this sounds like a wish for the Kindle to do its remediation transparent, this means that you should not think about the technical aspect of the media. Another example illustrating this is how cinemas have digitalised their theatres, but this is in many ways transparent to the user who just sees the screen, without being aware that the projector is an 8K digital running a digital copy of the movie, and not an older one running 24 still pictures per second through a light beam. The Kindle however is not transparent. Even though the screen is brilliant and the visual experience of reading is almost the same of reading a ‘proper’ book there are differences. One is that you can’t feel how far you are out in a book, this is stated in a progress bar instead. Another is that the Kindle does not smell anything (maybe a bit plastic), and for us who like the smell of print this is a disadvantage, but make sure to brew fresh coffee every morning and you get through it. Another thing is that you can’t put every book you have on the bookshelf since they are stored in digital format on a drive, not being physical. This is also a great thing; do you like to travel, and your book collection, now you can bring it with you without paying for any extra flight luggage. You can make citation directly on the screen using the pad, and write comment on them or post them via social network pages such as Twitter and Facebook. You can also search trough your collection after words. The two biggest arguments are however that included in the Kindle you find two dictionaries – Oxford Dictionary of English and The New Oxford American Dictionary -, and the way these are integrated into the system is nothing short of awesome. Let’s say you find a word, and want to make a search for it in one of the dictionaries, all you have to do is to move the cursor down in front of the word and the device show you what it means in a little window. The other arguments is all the free books you can get. Free book, yes you read right. Due to the Bern convention and a cool part of copyright legislature, literary works where the author has been dead for over 60 years (is different in some countries) are considered public domain. This means that you can download for free all the books that your grandfather had to use his last Farthings to afford. Oh, and the delivery system – Whispersync – is also pretty cool.
The Book store
The whole design of the unit is centred around the content, and this is a good thing. If you want a portable device with a screen and no keyboard then you should buy a iPad or any of its equivalents. The content is downloadable from many sources, but you will probably finding yourself using the Amazon store most frequently. This store contains many books, but many books are not available in a digital format. For example if I want to find some books in Norwegian or anything specific listen in my curriculum I have to use both printed and digital versions. What is very popular on the Kindle is in fact popular science, and old scientific (where nobody longer possess the copyright). This can be downloaded and in many cases the digital copies are cheaper than the printed ones. On the other hand, too many books are available for a lower price as paperbacks than as digital copies. I find this strange, as paper has a physical value in itself, but since the electronic format doesn’t fit in according to the economic models of today (how do you place a unlimited commodity in a Smithonian diagram), and because the governmental decision on inequality between digital and analogue books (ebooks are subject to VAT). Hopefully we are going to see more books in a digital format as the sales of ebook-readers increase.
Is a book just a book?
What is a book? Some paper within bindings? Text on a page multiplied? Books can be many things. Hence, I want to suggest the Kindle to be the new paperback travel novel in penguin format. The screen has approximately the same size, the novels consist of few to none pictures or illustrations. I do not think the Kindle replace the coffee-table book, or books where the visual layout plays an important part. The great idea with the e-book format is that the content is separated from the visual appearance. This enables the reader to change the font or the size of the text, and the kindle to read the text for you with an highly artificial voice. What is a medium, and how does it work is a continuous debate, but to use a McLuhan example would a coffee-table book on Kindle be as a movie from the cinema on your telly (and not the new fancy flat big ones).
Do I like it?
Yes, I do. I almost love it. Why? Its great and portable, and its not tiring or hypnotic to read from as a beam screen. Do I think it will change the book? No, not the content, maybe in which form we store the information, and just some book formats. Do I recommend it? Yes, I do.
The picture is borrowed from Mike McCune and is licenced under Creative Commons, see here for more information.