Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

those darn screens again

As I have commented on several occasions, errors like the ones noted in my previous post often occur because people are working with a reductive and simplistic notion of what “the screen” is like. But as I have said before, often, there are may different kinds of screens, and we interact with them in different ways.

Let’s keep that in mind as we read this lament from Tim Adams:

The growth in sales of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader – which can store thousands of texts, classic and otherwise, and which may eventually provide digital access to every book ever written – suggests that we are at an iPod moment: books, in particular novels, may well be about to face the fate of records and CDs. In America, Google is currently fighting a multi-million dollar lawsuit for the rights to 10m digital editions of books – a suit being countered by the French and German governments among others – which if successful will grant it a virtual monopoly over distribution of the digital word. This prompts a couple of questions: is reading from a screen the same experience as reading from a page? And further, is writing for a digital medium the same thing as writing for print?

The answers to these questions are maybe not as simple as they at first seem. One consequence of the digitisation of nearly all aspects of our lives is the increasing sense that we live through our computers, that they are extensions of our selves. Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been examining this phenomenon for nearly 30 years. In her prophetic book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, written as long ago as 1995, she suggested that our relationship with our laptops and hand-held devices gave us a Freudian sense of the uncanny. "Like dreams and beasts, the computer stands on the margins," she wrote. "It is a mind that is not yet a mind. It is inanimate, yet interactive. It does not think, yet neither is it external to thought. It is an object, ultimately a mechanism, but it behaves, interacts and seems in a certain sense to know."

All our engagement with the digital world carries elements of this mostly subconscious relationship. . . .

Notice how quickly, how seamlessly, Adams moves from “a screen” to “our computers” — as though reading on “a screen,” any old screen, simply is reading on “our computers.” But there’s not just one kind of screen. Though I have some reservations about the Kindle — often noted on this blog — one of the things I like about it is that it’s so hard to do anything except read on it. It’s not quite a single-use device, but it’s close (ever tried to use its Paleolithic web browser?), and if Steve Jobs is right in his frequent assertion that people are always going to want highly adaptable multi-use devices — like the iPod, or the much-rumored Apple tablet — and single-use devices will consequently fall by the wayside . . . well, I think that would be sad. Because the fact that the Kindle screen is nearly a single-use screen is one of the things I most like about it.

I’m really tired of the “At the Movies” model so many people employ in these debates: you get one thing (“the screen”) to vote on, and you have to give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It’s way past time for judgments that simplistic to be featured, as they regularly are, in highly reputable and putatively serious periodicals.

0 comments:

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]