Friday, January 1, 2016

The Luddite Buys a Do-Funny

To say I have mixed feelings about Jeff Bezos,
the genius behind my new Kindle Fire, is an
I'm composing this essay entirely on my new tablet, as a test of personal endurance. I never much asked for a tablet, because I never particularly took them seriously. I already have two laptops and a desktop, so what profit did a tablet offer? Besides, I'm a clumsy two-thumb typist; simple text messages can take me hours to compose.

Yet I was given this tablet for Christmas, and it seems rude to not at least try. It behooves me to remember that I haven't always been the most receptive technology audience. The household I grew up in refused to embrace new tech until we believed the makers had run all the bugs out—a process often so slow that my parents never purchased dial-up Internet until it was already obsolete. My sister describes herself, with evident pride, as "a Luddite," even though she bought her tablet a year before I received mine.

Back in my teaching days, I was the first member of my English department to get a Kindle. The technology was still new and strange, and many colleagues cooed over it like I'd introduced my baby. But I quickly got frustrated with the slow-turning pages, the sluggish download speeds,the easily damaged keys. I suppose I still have that Kindle, somewhere. If I look for it.

Besides,I never particularly enjoyed reading from it. Reading, for me, has always been a multi-sensory experience. Books have differed not only by their content, but by their weight, color, aroma (associated often with their age), even their size. Simple mass distinguishes hardcovers from paperbacks. You don't read books interchangeably, because you don't hold them identically.

My early Kindle sanded all such distinctions away. Everything I downloaded had the same page size, line spacing, font, smell. Only the content separated one book from another. Before long, I found myself using my Kindle to download books where information mattered but aesthetics didn't, or where timeliness held a premium. Where I hoped to enjoy a book, I bought (and still prefer to buy) the paper book.

But it's difficult to resist tech's forward march. I bought a smartphone, not for calling or texting purposes, but for the streaming media players, so I could enjoy music beyond the uniform corporate blandness broadcast over small-town airwaves. Then I connected Amazon streaming video to my phone, because why not. Then I saw a new novella advertised by a favorite author, for some ridiculous price in hardback, or three bucks on Kindle.

And kaboom, I downloaded the free reader app.

Because sometimes the content really does matter. Because sometimes getting the words before your eyes, without counting the price of dead trees or burning hydrocarbons, makes a difference. Because my desire to open myself to other people's experience through the medium of words trumps my desire for ideological purity.

I still prefer paper books, just as I still prefer typing on an external keyboard (autocorrect is driving me nuts). And I'm not alone. Shlomo Benartzi cites studies going back to the 1980s showing that readers who read off screens understand, recall, or even finish less than when reading off paper. Back during those Apple  IIe days, researchers assumed low-quality 8-bit graphics impeded comprehension; but that remains true into the present, when many smartphone and tablet screens have better graphic resolution than most paper books.

Benartzi attributes this continued retention deficit to modern screens being too easily readable. When our eyes move fluidly over the content, we invest too little effort to trigger memory retention. I disagree. As Marshall MacLuhan wrote, the medium is the message; books and screens are just different. When I turn paper pages, the content remains, but turning a digital page returns the content to the primordial byte soup from which it emerged. I pre-consciously believe this, even if my rational brain knows otherwise.

That's why my new tablet will never replace books, because they do different things. They create unique experience in unique ways that have divergent effects upon my life. My laptop's word processor, my old IBM Selectric, and my mom's manual Remington all do the same thing in different ways. My tablet and my paper books enter my brain divergently, to different consequences.

But nevertheless, I've come to appreciate the virtues of networked access. My tablet isn't a substitute for books, but it's a parallel. Having access to content maybe lacks books' aesthetic pleasure, but sometimes, the trade-off is acceptable. Advancing technology needn't mean leaving tradition behind, just expanding the choices available moving forward.

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