Reading

Mark Nelson
05/13/10: “Reading”
Revision 3, Draft 1

I spent some time earlier today writing about aspects of our rapidly approaching future that I feel are not, precisely, a step in the right direction. This was all indirect, of course — the writing was more of a stream of consciousness where this theme happened to manifest. Despite this, I found that some elements of the topics I touched on are important enough to revisit, albeit in a less haphazard manner.

The element that initially drew my attention in my work was a small claim I made: “real books don’t need batteries.” Perhaps I thought it up on my own, perhaps I read it somewhere — regardless, the idea resonated. Real books, as in the physical “dead tree” object, do not need batteries to be functional. The end user does not need computers, special proprietary software, or other hardware to use the book. Furthermore, any notes a user takes in the work are theirs. There is no DRM or TOS, no kill switch that can take the book away at a moment’s notice.

My deepest worry, perhaps, stems from the eBook hardware itself: as a piece of electronic hardware, it suffers from the same environmental concerns as many other consumer electronics. Gold, heavy metals, and the other elements that go into creating your Kindle or Sony Reader pile up, and this doesn’t even take into account the possibility of producer malpractice. Planned obsolescence, whether through shoddy workmanship or a simple case of being unable to replace a spent battery yourself, seems to be a constant element of modern electronic design, and I maintain doubts about the likelihood of this being phased out simply due to the change to a subscription model. Indeed, the change to cloud-based architecture virtually guarantees that the current manufacturing modus operandi remains unchanged.

With cloud-based computing, for those who don’t know, the electronic device itself is merely a gateway to display your data; the data itself is stored in a separate location entirely, independent of the machine displaying it. This provides a unique freedom from the fear of product loss due to a system failure, and when combined with proprietary, Digital Rights Management (DRM)- and Terms of Service (TOS)-protected eBook file types, gives a vendor a nearly foolproof way of gaining guaranteed income. Consider: with a piece of eBook reading hardware having an artificially short lifespan thanks to planned obsolescence, a consumer would be forced to purchase a new piece of hardware to have continued access to their collection of purchased eBooks — eBooks rendered useless without the hardware and inoperable on an opponent’s eReader system via the embedded DRM and corporate TOS. While I haven’t heard of this being put into play by any of the major forces in the eBook industry, the prospect of it is undeniably terrifying.

My concern for the content delivery systems for eBooks goes beyond the aspects that lead up to the potential for abuse that I outlined before. The human capacity for concentration is a feeble entity when faced with the prospects of the electronic frontier. Certain expectations have appeared when working with digital media: hyperlinks in the footnotes and tables of contents, embedded search tools, digital annotations. This interwoven, interactive experience directly attacks our ability and capacity for deep reading. Our attention is constantly divided, called away from the main body of the text on innumerable hyperlinked tangents. As the New York Times pointed out several months ago, our understanding of a given text suffers.

A final atrocity against the spirit of the book is committed in the margins. Seeing the empty space as a form of untapped natural resources or real estate, eBook providers began to sell the space for advertising. While the idea of a book as a medium for advertising predates the invention of the eBook, historical examples were almost exclusively seen in documents whose publication was vital, but whose audience was small enough that a publisher would need to subsidize the work with ad-based revenue to avoid printing at a loss. This differs from the purely value-added advertising revenue we see in the modern context. Indeed, when examined closely, the nature of the beast is striking.

Services such as Amazon’s Whispernet, an element of the Kindle reader which offers users the capability to access free wireless Internet in an ever-expanding number of countries around the world, take on a different light when viewed through the lens of corporate profit. This service not only increases the number of opportunities for potential eBook sales (not necessarily a bad thing), it also offers advertisers a chance to deliver fresh, targeted material to the margins of an eBook regardless of the reader’s geographic location. More ads displayed means more revenue earned.

The fact that some eReaders have this always-on connection to their parent corporation means a further opportunity to expand their database of usage statistics and consumer habits, giving a fresh way to specifically target any given user with improved sales and advertising systems. While this may not seem like a large concern to begin with, one need only turn to the Facebook privacy fiasco to understand the potential for abuse. Efficiently gathered, this data could quickly and easily be anonymized and sold to interested third parties — or, with the right spin to the TOS, it could even be sold with its identifying material left intact, part of a privacy-destroying opt-out few would ever notice in the multi-page wall of legalese.

So yes, this headlong rush down a primrose path concerns me. The potential for wholesale exploitation is above reasonable levels, the possible loss of privacy too steep, and the technological and ecological challenges too severe for me to be entirely comfortable with this fresh new direction. As I said: I believe a real book will never need batteries.

This document was adapted from a diary entry written on May 11th, 2010, and was written on a Olivetti Underwood Studio 45 typewriter for preservation purposes before being digitized with optical character recognition software.

Patience

Mark Nelson
03/09/10: “Patience”
Revision 1, Draft 1

I just spent the better part of an hour, viewing old WW II propaganda posters and reading about the history of their use on the home front. I was surprised by the depth of emotion the images evoked in me — to be honest, many of them put me on the verge of tears by the time I was done. The feeling of unity the images pressed on me, the idea of our country‘s entire population drawn together to complete a goal, overwhelms me.

An aspect of the posters I had not anticipated was the number of them that called for the donation of books, as a source of amusement for the soldiers abroad. It caught me off guard: it is a part of the history of the war that we do not often hear about in the history books. Indeed, for the most part, the subject of a soldier’s methods of occupying their minds never entered my thoughts.

The calls for donations of books, the talk of victory gardens and war bonds, made me stop for a spell and think on the difference that time brings about in society. There is a gap, now, sociologically speaking, and it is growing. The subject of the World wars brings it into sharp relief. On whole, the willingness of our people to accept the necessity of sacrifice, and their ability to display and utilize patience and restraint, has faded. The American society of today is a poster child for the ideas of instant gratification. We are so focused on giving into our fleeting consumer hungers that we have forgotten the concept of savings. After all, why put up even a token struggle to save when there is the option of having what we desire without delay? That is the magic of a credit card.

This childish need — no, demand — to have needs met instantaneously concerns ms. To be blunt, it makes me question the safety of my future, given that virtually everyone around me is only looking into the short-term, at the immediate. When the yardstick used for measuring the success of the products available to me for purchase is quantity as opposed to quality (as it must be, to keep up with the unstaunchable hunger of the average consumer’s hunger, need, desire for an instant world) I find that I have cause for worry. After all, if nobody is looking into the long-term for products, nobody will build for it; a quality product has a higher production cost than a piece of disposable garbage, and a society that is used to goods that have a lifespan that is measured in years rather than decades won’t know the difference — and seldom looks further than the price tag.

Would the present population of America be willing — or, for that matter, psychologically capable — of carrying out the same level of heroic sacrifice that the members of the Greatest Generation shouldered? Viewing the national fiasco that we call a debate on climate change, I have my doubts. The opportunity we have at our fingertips to advance the technological prowess of our nation, while simultaneously showing the world an image of a nation standing as a united front against what could be a nearly unimaginable global catastrophe, is a golden one regardless of the validity of the science behind the theories. Despite this, our nation’s leaders have instead embraced partisan bickering over such pressing issues as whether or not our President was really born in Hawaii.

If this is truly the level our proud country has fallen to, color me ashamed and disappointed. This land of liberty deserves far better.

To avoid being accused of a form of social criticism that lacks any suggestions for improvement or change, allow me to close with a piece of advice: compromise, but do not compromise your ideals. Patience, and a mind willing to take up the burden of sacrifice so that those who follow may lead a better life, are traits that are in short supply in today’s world. Practice them.

This document was adapted from a diary entry written on March 9th, 2010, and was written on a Olivetti Underwood Studio 45 typewriter for preservation purposes before being digitized with optical character recognition software.

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