Technology for technology’s sake.

For a lesson in how to be an unthinking, crowd-following maroon- yet also self-righteous in the misguided notion that you’re really embracing the alternative – you could do a lot worse than Virginia Heffernan’s article in today’s NYT.  It reeks of apology.  Heffernan positions herself as anti-technology – those iPhones, they just offer too many features; a reader can’t filter out all that noise, that distraction.  What’s truly the worst thing about this article, though, is that she fails to write about the one thing the Kindle does offer to people on long flights, and on trips – the ability to carry a lot of reading matter in one compact package.  For $360, though, I think I’d rather take a few minutes to make a decision about what I will and will not be reading on a trip.

Why so grumpy?  I dislike poorly reasoned arguments in favor of needless “improvements” aimed at enabling laziness.  Heffernan launches her article with supporting the idea of monetizing “cold spots” – places where you can’t get the wi-fi.  Is she joking?  Half-joking, I think.  Is someone a regular column for the NYT really unaware of offline reading?  Does Heffernan really lack the self-control to not take advantage of available wi-fi?  Does she really want us to think that this is something that people would pay for – the service of not having to concern yourself with engaging in any self-control, or any decision making about how to spend your time?  I have to think she’s just throwing this out there to lay down a foundation for the ramshackle defense to come.

Heffernan then proceeds to lurch back and forth between being a completely enamored Kindle apologist, and unable to figure out why she wasted her money on this ugly piece of junk.  “It’s almost like a book,” she says, as though this is a selling point.  Do we need technology to provide us with things that are almost as good as the “real thing,” when the real thing is readily available and inexpensive?

This being a tech column, Heffernan soldiers on.  After a nonsensical assertion that Kindle reading is like reading “used to be,” she shifts to buyer-beware.  The Kindle as an electronic device worthy of adoration is “a complete bust… the bumpable buttons that constantly flip your pages and lose your place, the pointy and cruel keyboard that is stiff and ineffective, the lily-white casing that is ugly when new and dingy and gross when used. Really, it’s terrible. How this prototype ever made it into production I don’t know.”  If they think they can find enough stupid people to buy the product to make the venture profitable, they’ll fire up production.  That’s how.  If you’ll drink the Kool-Aid, Jeff Bezos will be more than happy to mix it up for you.  (Oh, yeah.  Bezos style.)

Heffernan admits at this point that she’s looking for a silver lining on her ugly dirty brick.  Which, apparently, is that the Kindle enables her to feel like she’s disconnected from the internet without the horrible inconvenience of actually being disconnected.  If this woman isn’t an argument for internet addiction’s inclusion in the next version of the DSM, I don’t know what is.  Does someone who really enjoys reading so much as to swoon over Marilynne Robinson’s recently released Home feel like having such a great book with her isn’t enough?

I’m not just contrarian, here.  Money quote: “With a gray screen that uses actual black ink that has been given an electric charge (wow), the Kindle does everything you long for from a book and everything you may have despaired of finding again.”  Um, what?  I’ve never really longed for my books to have electricity coursing through them.  I can write in the margins and dogear the pages without Bezos’ electromagic assistance.  What despair is Heffernan talking about?

Forging onward, the Kindle holds the promise of keeping Heffernan informed: “if the apocalypse came while you were shut away somewhere reading, the machine would get the news from Amazon.com and find a way to let you know” (does it really feed news into the Kindle?) – but, next paragraph, Heffernan returns to wi-fi territory and, oops, “Emerge from the subway or alight from a flight, and the Kindle has no news for you.”  So does the Kindle ensure your ability to keep the IV of 24 hour news in your arm, or does it stop the flow?

Heffernan ends this article with a seatmate voicing some genuine problems with the device – the screen is “way too dim” – which unsettles Heffernan so much that she can’t focus on her Robinson book for a good ten minutes.  She overcomes her existential crisis by embracing her clunky, poorly designed Kindle: “My Kindle announces me as an oddball, a wallflower. A reader, then.”  I think that what “announces” you as a reader – and why you’d give a rat’s ass whether or not your seatmate thinks of you as a reader is beyond me – is when you spend the entire flight reading a book, instead of engaging in poorly conceived defenses of a piece of junk.  Defenses that, when they fail, send you into spasms of self-doubt.

It’s a nice conceit, justifying the Kindle by embracing the “outsider” status it confers on you – I hear a lot of Zune mp3 players have soothed their egos in a similar way – but, again, it doesn’t really strike me as a good way to spend $360.  That kind of money buys a lot of real Marilynne Robinson books.  This article does little more than to elevate a poorly designed device over a device that’s worked perfectly well for many, many generations.  Come back when someone releases an e-book reader that actually works well, make some reasonable, thoughtful arguments – then we’ll talk.

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