The Public Sphere Goes Paperless

I’ve written in this space before about my conditional
enthusiasm for ebooks. Today Amazon announced its new ebook reader, the Kindle. Based on a breathless Newsweek article, I placed it on my Amazon wish list. I still have some questions about the device, but the prospect of having instant access to Amazon’s catalog without taking up more shelf space at home is tantalizing, although I know it’s also an invitation to bankruptcy.

In his wide-ranging Newsweek
cover story on the Kindle, Steven Levy clearly thinks he’s happened upon a history-changing device, and he may be right, although it may have more impact on the history of electronic devices than on the history of reading itself.  He points out that the Kindle appears to resolve some of the problems that have dogged the Sony Reader. The Kindle has a wireless connection, offers a connection to an established bookseller with a huge inventory (although the backlist will take a while to come online), and allows full-text search and annotation. On the other hand, the Kindle is still black and white (evidently color E Ink is still a ways off) and it’s pricey–$400.

And the Kindle is an electronic device intended to replace the printed book, a proposition that people are making a bigger deal out of than they should be. One commonly-voiced objection to ebooks is that they’re not immersive, as if oblivion were the goal of all reading. Does Amazon’s ebook reader offer the same immersive experience as a print book? Theoretically, yes, depending upon how old you are. As several people have pointed out, a computer screen is already the primary mode of reading for people under twenty or thirty. That ebooks will play a major role in publishing and reading seems beyond dispute at this point; the only question is how quickly, and how deeply, they will penetrate the market for books in the United States. Will the Kindle do the trick? Will it be the iPod of books? Without seeing the device, it’s hard to venture a guess. Maybe.

Levy realizes that speculation about ebook technology has moved on to questions of reading on a screen to writing itself. Writing will change, and so will the public sphere itself. "Readers will read in public. Writers will write in public," is the slogan of digital text advocates, including the people at the Institute for the Future of the Book, who run the terrific if:book site. Levy quotes Bob Stein, the head of the Institute, wondering aloud about the future of the model for authorship that has existed since the Renaissance: a lone writer cut off from his or her readers until the work is finished. The discussion doesn’t start until the work is published.  In the new model, readers will be able to meddle while the work is in process. The public debate will begin on day one of the writing. As Levy has it, "the notion of author as authoritarian figure gives way to a Web 2.0 wisdom-of-the-crowds process." In a lot of ways, that day has already arrived, too. Then again, I wonder why people want an ebook reading experience that is immersive while demanding that writers open up their processes. 

The reason why the Kindle is such a big deal has less to do with the fate of the book, which is just a technology, albeit an incredibly important one, than with the nature of the Internet as a medium for writing. Breakthroughs in online audio and video get all the publicity, but the digital revolution in writing is even broader and more profound. The Internet now has a near monopoly on the public sphere as a realm of open debate about culture and politics. The free exchange of writing became all the more inevitable when two major print media outlets, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, either eliminated or scaled-back their paygates. The public sphere is quickly going paperless. It’s also encroaching more upon the private sphere than perhaps any other time since the late 1700’s. In this context the Kindle is merely riding the wave, rather than on its leading edge.

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