Sunday, 29 August 2010

A Very Human Technology

- if you said to me, you can either have your toes cut off or your whole library destroyed, with no chance of ever accessing those works again, i'd say 'take my toes' - because i can more easily compensate for that loss.  of course, you could get into a grisly argument over how much of my biology i'd give up before i'd say, 'ok, take the goethe' - timothy taylor -

Whitney Trettien recently tweeted an article which applied Andy Clark's notion of humans as 'Natural-Born Cyborgs' to Medieval research.  I've been thinking and writing about technology a lot recently, particularly as to how it applies to our common mode of being, and the article's full of great insights into how Medieval 'technologies of the self' (Foucault) were utilised, and might be considered under the rubric of Clark's work.  It's great to see more philosophically and scientifically informed work emerging throughout the humanities, even if the 'neurological turn' doesn't seem, to me, to be a particularly useful concept.  Neurology is too narrow a specificity for the humanities in general to focus on, and we shouldn't settle for only drawing on work in that field, there's too much good stuff elsewhere, in the sciences and just about everywhere else.  It does seem, however, that the time for a pure disciplinarity is justly passing.  It's not that there is no value in specialising - there is, and it is vital to bringing something of real worth to any debate -, but that horribly pat phrase "it's outside my discipline" should surely cease to be a justifiable defence of an unwillingness to engage with a wider intellectual community.  Not knowing about, or even having heard of something is, of course, fine, but a blind belief that then means it's not valuable really isn't. /rant.

Anyway… One quote from the article particularly stuck out:
The late fifteenth-century European humanist Jacobus Publicius's Art of Memory (the first edition of which was printed in Venice in 1482) speaks of memory (by which he means trained memory and its associated memory-practices) as capable of transforming us from "mute beings, incapable of speech…into skilled and eloquent speakers" (quoted in Carruthers and Ziolkowski, The Medieval Craft of Memory, 232).  The theory of locational memory is the means, he assures us, "by which the advantages of nature are strengthened and the endowments of natural ability are augmented" (quoted 236).  And Publicius trusts in science to deliver this enhancement: "It has already been established by experiment that the combining of letters and material objects [images] brings us a great, immeasurable, and almost divine advantage" (quoted 249).
The compatability with Clark's work is obvious, and this chimed with the direction my own thought had taken: that technologies of all kinds, including spoken language and writing alongside tool and weapon use, contribute to a nature which we might consider to be definitively human.  Jacobus Publicus might privilege the written word and the image in granting 'divine advantage' over beings which did not possess them, but Plato before him had denigrated such (in the Phaedrus) in favour of the dialectic, the 'true work' of the philosopher, and this pair's combination of language, writing, and a particular mode of thinking is to say nothing of societies which have deployed and deploy signifying tools such as dance to express things which words cannot, nor any of the myriad of more physical, complex and mundane, technologies that are utilised around the globe, and at all times, to extend the abilities of the human body and mind.  Technology on such a broad definition, I thought, is an absolute of our species unlike any other.  I wasn't trying to suggest any inbuilt homogeneity, a preordaining genetics, instead only that our tremendous diversity stems from our ability (which is both genetically viable and culturally provoked) to look around ourselves, at our environment and culture, and divine what might aid us in our goals, and when nothing fits that bill to create something which will.  As Clark says in a later work: “We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding” (Clark, Natural-Born, 11).  This explains "why we humans are so deeply different from other animals, while being, quite demonstrably, not so very different in our neural and bodily resources" (4).

And I was relatively happy with such a notion.  But a book coming out next month, The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution by Timothy Taylor, seems like it might contribute to my having to reconsider technology as a mark of 'the human,' and instead lead me to say that technology isn't just something we do, nor something which defines us, but something which made (and makes) us.

My only experience of Taylor's ideas come from a couple of interviews, so I'll use quotations from these to give a sense of his ideas as I know them (there'll a follow up post after the book I suspect):
So you are saying that technology came before humans?
The archaeological record shows chipped stone tool technologies earlier than 2.5 million years ago.  That's the smoking gun.  The oldest fossil specimen of the genus Homo is at most 2.2 million years old.  That's a gap of more than 300,000 years - more than the total length of time that Homo sapiens has been on the planet.  This suggests that earlier hominins called australopithecines were responsible for the stone tools.
Is it possible that we just don't have a genus Homo fossil, but they really were around?
Some researchers are holding out for an earlier specimen of genus Homo.  I'm trying to free us to think that we had stone tools first and that those tools created a significant part of our intelligence.  The tools caused the genus Homo to emerge.
"These tools were not ends in themselves, they were for doing things, like butchering animals, and, perhaps, for making things, such as slings.  The loop of hide that makes the simple sling can not only scare away a predator with a stone, it can be used to carry.  And the most critical load for a little, savannah-dwelling biped to carry would have been its own infant progeny."
"Once you have slings to carry babies, you have broken a glass ceiling - it doesn't matter whether the infant is helpless for a day, a month or a year.  You can have ever more helpless young and that, as far as I can see, is how encephalisation took place in the genus Homo.  We used technology to turn ourselves into kangaroos.  Our children are born more and more underdeveloped because they can continue to develop outside the womb - they become an extra-uterine fetus in the sling."
"Many previous theorists have imagined that hominin young mothers, rendered helpless by their offspring, must have been desperate for base-camp provisioning and protection.  Both could have been provided by an incipient hubby/ape-man, whose innovative skills allowed the emergence of language (communication during the hunt) and technology (tools of the hunt).  Roll on 1950…[B]ut if we can imagine for a moment that females are inventive too, then the fix, [baby-carrying slings] might be considered more technological than social."
"By solving a carrying problem for a bipedal ape, this invention – made, I believe, by an australopithecine female with little more brain power than a modern chimp – opened the way to our becoming human."
Getting tied into neurology and, to an extent, phenomenology is what led me to think of technology as a 'human' thing, as items which we devise, the aptitude for which defines our species.  But Taylor's work, I hope, has triggered a more nuanced conclusion: that technology is not what marks us out, but what makes us us.  We are not human because we use technology, but human because we couldn't be without it; there is no human without technology, and there never was.  No human created the first technology because 'technology' doesn't describe objects we create, or even ways of thinking we establish; from our first breath, the way we encounter the world is through and because of technology, and it seems this may well always have been the case.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Reading in Captivity

War and Peace at Project Gutenberg

- i don’t mean to sound bitter, cold, or cruel, but i am, so that’s how it comes out - bill hicks -

There’s been a new spate of fuss about the Nicholas Carr article over at The Atlantic, the one asking ‘Is Google Making us Stupid?’ (in no way connected to The Shallows release I’m sure...)  It spilled out into The Observer last week, with a host of commentators throwing in their chips one way or the other, and it shows no sign of abating.  There’s plenty of articles in a similar vein, more or less eloquently argued, more or less well backed up with data, and also plenty of arguments against the whole nature of the suggestion - Everything Bad is Good for You, Brian Chen’s iPad article at Wired, and Steven Pinker’s recent rebuttal all spring to mind. There are holes in all of these arguments, but it really isn’t for me to try and correct them, maybe because anything I say is likely to be just as wrong or more so, but also because no one really knows what the effects of adopting new, extensive, pervasive media will be.  The only thing that we can say for certain is that, whether culturally, politically, philosophically, or neuropsychologically, whether beneficial or detrimental, there will be effects.  That’s what makes these discussions so important: not that they’re accurate, nuanced, biased, or foolish, but that their mere existence is enough.  In fighting our corners in such debates we keep the issues alive, and make sure that people are looking out for the fine detail, even if, initially, it is just to trip us up or prove us wrong - “Your opinions about digital reading’s effects on the brain are clearly flawed; the evidence you cite is fabricated or fallacious; and your attitude in general clouds the whole debate...” “...this is fantastic, last month you didn’t even know what a Kindle was...”

So, I guess all I can contribute is another voice to add to the cacophony, another voice I’d like to keep alive: what if all of the “internet reading gives people ADD, they can’t focus on one thing for more then 10 minutes, it’s the death of long form reading” type of arguments actually mask an attack on the mediocrity of existing media?  An example: I’m stuck in an airport waiting for a delayed flight.  I’m in my third hour with a projected four hours to go and I have a copy of a newspaper.  That’s it.  My iPod is down, my laptop is down, I forgot to bring a book; all I had was a quid for a paper and cup of something warm.  Do I read the paper?  You bet.  Cover to cover.  Crossword: done, sudoku: done, ridiculous quiz: done.  I don’t care if that paper’s The Sun (No, I’m not linking to it, primarily because one of their cryptic crossword clues was “not dog (3).”  Also: Murdoch) or The Sunday Times with all the supplements, it’s getting read.  If I find an abandoned novel it’s getting read.  If all I can find is a three year old copy of Heat then sure, I’m learning the three hot tips for a bikini body in 2007.  Long form reading isn’t a measure of quality, it’s a measure of captivity.  If I have an amazing novel to hand then that’s a form of capture to; think of all the great things it’s distracting me from...

Reverse the situation: I’m alone in a copyright library, at least one copy of every book is available to me.  Surrounded by the best literature in the world do I settle down with one thing?  No, I browse and I flick and I plot and I plan and generally act like a kleptomaniac butterfly around the stacks, bringing back piles of essentials and rarities.  Nothing gets read as such.  “Ah,” Nicholas Carr and the rest would say, “this is the crisis of too much choice!  This is like your life on the internet”  “No,” I would say, “this is the crisis of not living in a copyright library.”

The internet, like much of the world, and like copyright library catalogues, is full of dross.  And the worst thing about that is not that the dross exists, but that there is no dross filter to leave only the undeniable brilliance of the minority of its contents.  Signal to noise filtering is a problem, I’m not saying that it isn’t, but maybe it’s the problem.  Does the internet cause ADD-like behaviour?  Sure, but only until you find something worth reading.  If I spend my morning following links, reading the opening paragraphs of things and hating them, or taking just enough information from them only to move on to somewhere better, but then I find an interesting article, like Carr’s, or some amazing archived work from David Foster Wallace, and I read the whole thing on my computer screen, and I take notes, how is that the death of long form reading?  Just because I browsed a thousand other things on my way to tracking it down?  This isn’t attention deficit, it’s a deficiency of things worth holding my attention.  If time is precious then doesn’t it make sense to put in a little effort to fill it with something good?

Perhaps people flit about online, not fixing on one thing or another, because they can’t find anything worth fixing on.  This is a problem very different to having our brains ‘rewired’ into infantilism by the internet.  In the mass exodus from the novels, newspapers, and magazines we’ve been recommended in the restricted-to-the-average-by-shelf-space world of print, I don’t think that we can immediately say that people are moving away from a certain form of engagement with the written word.  Perhaps we’re just not stuck in the airport anymore, instead we’re getting to grips with living in the library.  Once the novelty wears off I have a feeling that a lot of us will settle into deploying new, highly personal filters to get to whatever we consider to be content of quality, indeed that’s what a lot of us are already attempting to do.  When we’re promised something good we find it a lot harder to settle for something mediocre, and we’re also prepared to invest a lot of effort in seeking it out.  To suggest that we’ll always settle for the banal but familiar when we’re faced with an overabundance of new and exciting bounty (or worse, to suggest that we should) seems an unnecessarily cynical conclusion.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Also on the Problems of Defining ‘Technology’

- those who have already begun their heavenward journey the law does not compel to go down into the darkness beneath the earth; they pass their time journeying happily together in the brightness of day, and together, when the time comes, they receive their wings, because of their love - plato - phaedrus -

Last week I talked a little about the problems of defining what a technology actually is.  I care because the first chapter of my PhD is a phenomenology of technological interactions posing as an extended definition of that term.  The thesis as a whole considers the resistances we see to reading on screens, particularly in the popular press - including: ‘Is Google Making us Stupid?,’ Kindles don’t feel right, iPads don’t smell like a good book does, technology isn’t natural, and every variety of ‘you can’t read it in the bath/in bed/on the beach’ type arguments - and I want to get to the heart of where these resistances stem from.  Why does materiality matter so much?  If technology is so ‘unnatural’ then why is it also so damn natural?  None of these questions can be answered without defining just what a technology is.  My own definition isn’t quite ready to face the world; it keeps collapsing under the scrutiny of drafts on an almost daily basis, but the kernel of the idea is becoming harder, shinier, more resilient to the constant chipping away that seems to always come with a new idea (like Jacques Ellul in his The Technological Society, I started with seven criteria for technology, but have now whittled it down to four.  Ellul’s position is very different to mine, he mourns the technological society, the deployment of ‘technique’ in our every thought, the machinic separation of worker from work, and therefore from responsibility.  I come from a different angle, though whether it’s more or less deterministic I’m not sure: technology is a not a modern thing, or a pre-modern thing, it’s a prehistoric thing; a dance can be a technology, a knife can be a technology, a computer only can be a technology; technology is the experience of approaching equipment in a certain way; technological/technical thought is our way of apprehending the world.  The only thing modern technology has to differentiate itself is the complexity of the artefacts around which technological interactions cluster, but do we really live in a more technological time?  Are skilful interactions (surely the defining mark of the technological…) at the heart of most people’s experience of their world in our society?  Or more so than any other culture, past or present?  Is a culture which sees people everyday hunt/fish/weave/otherwise manufacture, skin and butcher the catch, prepare food, and engage in a rich participatory (rather than passive) cultural milieu really less ‘technologically’ minded than in cultures where we wake, drive to work, input at a computer, drive home, prepare food, and watch television?  The artefacts in the latter are of a higher complexity, but are the interactions really stronger?  Technology need not be pejorative, it is just a way of experiencing an object in order to accomplish a task.  But this is not an argument for this post…).

Anyway I thought I’d put up an adaptation of the introduction to the first chapter as it continues that discussion of the difficulty of defining what a technology actually is:

‘Technology’ is a remarkably loose term; we might agree on the objects under discussion - computer: yes, coriander: no -, but the specifics of why this might be so are vague.  What makes a hammer of the same order of objects as an industrial press?  Does everyone experience this mysterious parity in identical ways, allowing for the consensus - “these are technologies” -, or does ‘technology’ define items across a range of unrecognised or undefined responses?  What sort of impact on our lives might be common to objects defined as ‘technologies?’

So abundant is the use of items that we would identify as technological in all human society, from hand tools and basic weapons to industrial machinery and nuclear bombs, that the question seems redundant at first glance, an elaborate point of clarification perhaps: what is a ‘technology?’  We can at least be certain that humans have technology at their hearts.  We can look at the lives led by any nomadic or settled people, in any human habitat, from Inuit tupiq to Bedouin bayt char, from favelas to penthouses, and the single defining trope of homo sapiens’ existence would be the use of external equipment which extends our ability to ensure our thriving survival.  Recent evidence suggests that basic tool use, what we might see as the first technological interaction, may have been a part of our hominid ancestry for over three million years, but without a doubt it has been a part of Homo sapiens sapiens’ life since its very beginnings, shaping our social structures, eating practices, and basic survivability.

Let’s attempt to identify the assertions implied by a ‘commonsense’ or lay definition of ‘technology’ which might encompass the entire spectrum of human equipment use, from hammers to computers: technologies are the implements onto which we offload tasks in order to reduce our expense of time or effort, and humans have proved themselves uniquely suited to their invention and use; our interactions with such items are ‘technological’ or ‘technical;’ ‘a’ technology is an instance of an artefact with which we interact to achieve a goal, e.g. a car, a hammer, a computer.

This, I would take to be a fair starting point as a comprehensive contemporary lay definition of technology.  When Heidegger asked the ‘Question Concerning Technology’ - what is at its essence?; how does it affect Being? -, he too began with a common sense definition, more refined than that above:

We ask the question concerning technology when we ask what it is.  Everyone knows the two statements that answer our question.  One says: Technology is a means to an end.  The other says: Technology is a human activity…[This] definition of technology is indeed so uncannily correct that it even holds for modern technology, of which, in other respects, we maintain with some justification that it is, in contrast to the older handicraft technology, something completely different and therefore new.  Even the power plant with its turbines and generators is a man-made means to an end established by man…[T]his much remains correct: Modern technology…is a means to an end” (Heidegger, Basic Writings, pp312-313)

Aside from introducing the matter of complexity in technology (which he rules out, rightly I believe, as significant to the ‘standard’ definition in any case), Heidegger gets to the same point from common sense here: technology enables, technology is a human activity.

With our lay definition in place it is important to ask why I believe we need to abandon (as Heidegger and many others, including Ellul and other so-called ‘technique’ philosophers, Foucault (‘Technologies of the Self’), etc. have done) the definitions of ‘technology’ that we already have which use these assertions as their base.  It is because they are not specific enough to deal with our complex interactions with items which extend our abilities.  Some things are blithely referred to as technological, a supercomputer or particle collider say, when we, as amateurs, encounter them in much the same way we would encounter a worn-down inscription on a monument - we are dimly aware that there is a meaning attached to the object, that there is information others may have gleaned, but to us it is inaccessible, corrupted, and so smoothly excluding as to be ignored as an inert facet of the world.  This doesn’t seem to describe our interactions with a hammer or a knife, and yet these too are certainly technologies, the technologies on which all of our current interactions are founded.  A nuanced definition of technology should be able to account for our experience of the knife and of the collider, to account for initiate and expert use, and to recognise that these encounters are not of the same order.  A technology is not just an artefact, it includes the encounter which surrounds the equipment deployed.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Work in Progress

- Prometheus

I swept the dirt out of the corner, and there, in a small pile of dust, movement.  The moth beat in my hands like a panicked mouse heart as I walked to the door to put him back out into the world, and all I could think was: I’m 26 and I’ve never held a moth before.

“SOCRATES: They say that there dwelt at Naucratis in Egypt one of the old gods of that country, to who the bird they call Ibis was sacred, and the name of the god himself was Theuth.  Among his inventions were number and calculation and geometry and astronomy, not to speak of various kinds of draughts and dice, and, above all, writing.  The king of the whole country at that time was Thamus…To him came Theuth and exhibited his inventions…[W]hen it came to writing, Theuth declared: ‘Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of Egyptians.  I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.’  ‘Theuth, my paragon of inventors,’ replied the king, ‘the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practise it.  So it is in this case; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function.  Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources.  What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.  And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality…And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.” - Plato, Phaedrus, pp95-97

I’ve been thinking about technology a lot recently.  Not just digital reading technologies, but technologies in general.  I think I’ve been trying to work on a phenomenology of technology if I’m honest, which is even more scary to put down in words than it is to contemplate.  But how are we meant to write about the effects of iPads and Kindles when that word, ‘technology,’ encompasses the hammer of a stone-age hunter, Gutenburg’s printing press, Karl Benz’s automobile, my mobile phone, and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN?  What could possibly link all of these things?  And should they be linked?

“Men have become tools of their tools” - Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 61

Because I’m writing about the resistance to the digitisation of reading, contested ground if ever there was any, I want to know why there is a constant discourse of fear about technology, when the only thing that I can say with any certainty is that humans have technology at their hearts.  We can look at the lives led in any human habitat, by any nomadic or settled people, and from Inuit tupiq to Bedouin bayt char, from favelas to penthouses, the single defining element of homo sapiens sapiens’ existence is the use of equipment to ensure our thriving survival.

“Emerson, who had once embraced invention and the ‘mechanic arts’ as expression of ‘Young America’s genius and vitality,’ grew increasingly restive” - Merritt Roe Smith, Does Technology Drive History?, 26 - “What have these arts done for the character, for the worth of mankind? Are men better?  ’Tis sometimes questioned whether morals have not declined as the arts have ascended.  Here are great arts and little men.  Here is greatness begotten of paltriness.  We cannot trace the triumphs of civilization to such benefactors as we wish.  The greatest meliorator of the world is selfish, huckstering Trade.  Every victory over matter ought to recommend to man the worth of his nature.  But now one wonders who did all this good.  Look up the inventors.  Each has his own knack; his genius is in veins and spots.  But the great, equal, symmetrical brain, fed from a great heart, you shall not find.  Every one has more to hide than he has to show, or is lamed by his excellence.  ’Tis too plain that with the material power the moral progress has not kept pace.  It appears that we have not made a judicious investment.  Works and days were offered us, and we took works” - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works, Vol.7 Chap. 7, ‘Works and Days

The resistances most often stem from two related arguments: (i) using technology is ‘unnatural’ (ii) technology gets between us and experiencing the world ‘as it is,’ an unwanted mediating layer that we would jettison if we could.

“Machines were not so much to save time as to save dignity that fears the animate touch.  It is miraculous the energy that goes into inventions here.  Do you know that it now takes just ten minutes to put a bushel of wheat on the market from planting to selling, whereas it took three hours in our colonial days?  That’s striking.  It must have been a tremendous force that would do that.  That force is fear that robs the emotions: a mechanism to increase the gap between touch and thing, not to have contact” William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain, pp182-183

But what if technology is at the fundament of our nature?  What if technology was one of the few ways we are able to experience the world?  What if we need technology in order to feel, rather than in place of feeling?

“The body is our general medium for having a world.  Sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around us a biological world; at other times, elaborating upon these primary actions and moving from their literal to a figurative meaning, it manifests through them a core of new significance: this is true of motor habits such as dancing.  Sometimes, finally, the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world” - Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 169

With a moth in my hand I get a taste of what it’s like to touch the world.  But the same happens when the surfboard suddenly picks up speed and the sea gives you just a hint of what it can do.  And the same happens when cars push around corners just so, at the limit of their tire’s grip.  And the same happens when I want these words to appear on screen, and the keyboard seems to take them from my hands, not my head, and flicker them up before me.  It is our bodies that give us access to the world, our bodies that are our ‘nature,’ but those bodies are malleable things, a combination of gross anatomy, and mental kinaesthetic image, and into that synthesis can be incorporated(.pdf) the tools which we skilfully deploy.  Plato told us that writing was a ‘receipt for recollection’ and not the path to true wisdom.  I wonder how many resisted the hammer, or did it sit too easily in the hand?  Do we resist the things we must conform to as much as they conform to us?  Or is complexity what’s at stake?  Because a violin is a complicated piece of equipment, with limited tolerances for error, and yet it is evident that it is incorporated into the body of the skilful user: music moves too fast to consciously make decisions on where to put your fingers, every motion must become as easy as breathing.  How does the word ‘technology’ take on all this, and so much more?  Every interaction with equipment, are they all technological?  Where do we draw that line?  And how?

Sunday, 1 August 2010

It Ain’t Cheap, or: Why She Won’t Buy the Kindle 3 Despite (21/3.5) Grams of Internet Access

- 21 Grams, Alejandro González Iñárritu

- deeply shaken, the god who rocks the earth replied,/ 'hera, what wild words! what are you saying? / i for one have no desire to battle zeus, / not you and i and the read of the gods together. / the king is far too strong - he'll crush us all' - from the iliad - homer - robert fagles -

The Kindle 3 was released to much Amazon fanfare late last week; in the sea of iPad and general tablet news at the moment I wonder how many people have even noticed. My girlfriend didn’t know what a Kindle was until tonight, and I really don’t know how this has happened. I can only assume that I’ve been right every time I thought she wasn’t really listening to me. She’s been mocking my iPad cravings for a little while now (I maintain it’s not iPad-lust (iLust?), but borderline-usable-tablet-lust, it’s just I happen to think that that’s a very narrow category right now), but she’s the kind of person that Amazon must hate, because she’d probably rather like a Kindle if she knew what it was and what it could do. See, she’s a neuropsychologist and reads almost everything as a sea of .pdf articles, but hates being tied to reading at her desk. She also reads a lot of popular, modern classic, and classic novels. This seems like a person for whom a Kindle would seem a natural fit: native pdf support with highlighting and annotating, easy on the eye, portable, a store full of books she’d probably enjoy; there’s a lot to love for the scientist in your life. And yet, and yet…nothing.

She’s probably an unfair test subject, I thought, because, well, we’re students. At £150 I couldn’t buy her a Kindle if I wanted to eat; she wouldn’t buy herself a Kindle (she’s funded which makes it a choice, at least, if still an obvious one); and very few of our friends are in a position to indulge themselves either. If we don’t listen to the advertising then the device ceases to exist, as became apparent during our conversation.

And yet we can’t afford an iPad either, doubly, triply so, but still we listen to the adverts, we read the articles, and, in a spate of boredom disguised as love, she even tried to win me one in a variety of online competitions (and I choose to believe she would have parted company with said device if it had arrived at her door). Not only do we know it exists…we have friends who own them. The same friends who complain about money being tight, about savings being hit hard, about recessions double and triple dipping, they get all this information by reading the FT as an app on pin sharp touchscreens, downloading it from 3G networks supported by less than generous pay-monthly plans. The iPad is not dead to us, even if it is out of reach.

I went to a talk recently where the person presenting used the words: “after all, ereaders are cheap.” They then went on to talk about Nooks, Kindles, and Cool-er Readers. At the cheapest estimates these readers average at £150 (in fairness there’s a version of the Kindle 3 going for £109, it just doesn’t have the free 3G access to the bookstore. I was interested to learn that 3G appears to weigh 6 grams

a number I couldn’t help thinking implied that the internet weighed three and a half times less than a human soul).

I don’t think I’m going too far wrong when I say that £150, or even £100, doesn’t feel ‘cheap’ just yet. And of course, this doesn’t factor in the price of ebooks bought, a figure which remains awkwardly close to how much p-books cost, but without the added perks of actual ownership, rather than what feels like renting evanescent content.

I’ve been trying to work out just why a Kindle 3 doesn’t seem cheap, or rather trying to establish what could make it so. The answer seems to lie not in low cost, but in value. I read around 100 books a year (if you factor in poetry and comics and ignore journals), and I probably pay for about 75 of them (the rest being gifts, a general backlog of unread items, borrowed books, free ebooks, or used works so cheap as to be negligible). Of those 75 I try to get about 50 second-hand (not possible with ebooks), so my average spend is maybe £350 (I suspect it’s a bit lower due to bargains, but that’s close enough). If I bought a Kindle at £150 I’d treat it like a computer and would want it to last a minimum of 5 years, so that works out as an extra £30 a year for its life. Would I make enough savings buying slightly cheaper ebooks over 5 years to cover the cost of the device? Without second hand books I doubt it. Plus my tastes and requirements aren’t always catered for; critical theory, cognitive psychology, and books on the philosophy of technology are probably not at the top of any ebook store’s priority list to provide, and colour graphic novels wouldn’t work on an e-ink screen anyway. So the Kindle would represent no saving unless the ebook market rapidly evolves to accommodate me. If we ignore graphic novels and say that I’ll be able to get everything that I want, then maybe, maybe, the small savings on each book would make me break even or better. But that’s on my 75 books a year for 5 years. Many people read a lot more than that, and they might find it very easy to call the Kindle cheap; abundant ebooks of things you like and a decent device, which I have no doubt the Kindle 3 is, may well represent a solid saving. Most people, however, don’t have the time, tastes, or inclination to turn the Kindle into a ‘cheap’ (i.e. good value) device. If you read 10 books a year or less, if your tastes are esoteric, or you can’t fathom why you would struggle with an e-reader when there’s perfectly good paper kicking around, then the Kindle 3 can only feel expensive as hell.

The iPad’s expensive too, of course, three times more than a 3G enabled Kindle at a minimum, but it’s only been out for a couple of months. The original U.S.-only Kindle, released in 2007, was $400 (£255 at the current exchange rate). The Kindle 3 is $139 (or £88.50; yes we get ripped off here), a better than 2/3 drop in three years. By the same factoring, a $200/£125 (in the U.K. more like £200) iPad in three years time, a device covering near all of your book, video, radio, music, picture, and internet needs, would be an incredibly persuasive set up, possibly even deserving of the word ‘cheap’ in a way that a £150 Kindle 3 could never be. A lot of people are even finding £450+ very persuasive right now it would seem.

Seth Godin’s discussions of a ‘paperback kindle’ make a lot of sense. In societies where we will probably, in the long term, see a waning interest from the majority in physical written media, the best way to get everyone on board with dedicated devices is to put one in everyone’s hand. You need to nearly give them away, perhaps that’s the only way, to persuade people that this is a device worth carrying. Because if tablets (almost certainly not just iPads) do a mobilephone-like sweep of the marketplace over the next decade or so, that will mark the end of people’s appetite for a dedicated apparatus for reading, save for a vocal and significant minority, in many nations. And if the next OLPC project succeeds, converged devices may become the norm for written work in many places across the world.

I don’t know if this is good or bad yet, no one does. It’s an argument for another time, but if we are able to maintain our attention and attraction toward long form arguments I see no reason to disparage devices which can also play movies and connect us to the web. Is a visually ergonomic (go with it) e-ink screen enough to save dedicated readers? Is super-long battery life? Is 6 grams of free 3G? It’s not enough to make a £150 device feel cheap to me (or to her, the tolerant scientist). It’s probably not enough to make a £50 device feel cheap to be honest: “after all,” will go the argument, “that’s money you could be putting towards one of those expensive i-book-pod things.”