A few years ago, during a frustratingly long car trip, I had an interesting conversation about ebooks, ebook readers and the future of an ecosystem that was just blooming at the time and still hadn’t had the chance to show its true colors.
In that occasion I made a prediction that actually turned out to be quite accurate: “we will soon have a device that is like an ebook reader, uses the same e-ink technology current ebook readers do, will have a lit screen, and a battery life of eight weeks like the current Kindle.” At the time the answer I got was a dry “impossible“, and in fact the object I was describing was more of a science-fiction fantasy than reality. And yet, a few months later Amazon was presenting the first Kindle PaperWhite: I gloated silently, and the ebook reader market exploded for real.
Fast forward to today, a little more than one year later: Amazon launches its second generation Paperwhite, much more silently than the spectacular keynote that marked the first one, and now that it is finally in my hands, I had to say a few words about this extraordinary piece of technology.
At the Internet Festival in Pisa, in an half-empty room with participants who couldn’t wait to leave for dinner, I listened to Antonio Pavolini say something fascinating about connected TV and different modalities of content fruition. In our time, the true scarce (and thus valuable) resource is attention: and this is the exact same reason why cinemas haven’t suffered substantial losses, and the experience of watching a movie at the cinema is still considered something worthy of being paid for handsomely. You pay in order to be closed in a dark room, with no other stimuli than those presented by the movie, a situation where you are actually forced to canalize and concentrate your attention and what you’re seeing. A deprivation of the exceeding freedom and attention dispersion among the numerous screens available in your living room.
I couldn’t avoid tracing an analogy between what Antonio explained with great precision regarding the fruition of multimedia content, and what I observe regarding reading. Rivers of ink have been spilled to discuss the paper vs. digital matter, the balance of advantages and disadvantages, and even apparently irrelevant collateral elements, but that are still capable of a strong emotional impact linked to the reading experience (do you remember “the perfume of paper”?). David Orban, in an interview we did a while ago, told me he slowly came to terms with the idea of parting with his physical books by sending them to 1dollarscan.com, a service that scans books and only gives the digital version back to the owner, while the physical one goes to recycling.
The point is that human beings seem to have a very hard time giving up an experience that is so deeply hardwired in their memories and habits. Not one of today’s adults has ever had the chance to hold an ebook as a child. What I wonder, when I hear someone bring up sentimentalisms and nostalgia when speaking about books (and why paper books are supposed to be better than their digital counterparts), is whether we’re not looking at the whole matter from the wrong point of view, whether this isn’t an entirely emotional problem, rather than a rational one. It’s about the experience, not the tool per se. If this is the case, then no type of technological improvement will ever be able to solve the issue, because it’s being tackled from two very different points of view. In terms of practicity and savings, buying ebooks is undoubtedly the most convenient solution for the consumer. no more overflowing shelves, no more books to dust, lacking space, books that are nowhere to be found right when you need them most, higher prices because the production of paper versions is more expensive, and so on and so forth.
The ebook reader as an object is in a position of true strategic advantage in this scenario: on the one side it solves the problems of space, book cost (ebooks are often sold at a fraction of the paper version price), availability of books at any time, even on the go, the possibility to do quick searches by keywords, write and save notes, share with friends on social networks, etc. It allows users to have that extra something that makes the book truly transparent, a resource that can be accessed with ease.
But what truly makes the ebook reader special is, IMHO, what makes it similar to the paper book: first of all the e-ink screen, that somehow recreates the sensation of reading a “real” book, but most of all the focus of attention Antonio Pavolini talked about. Unlike a tablet, that offers a vast choice of use, an ebook reader allows you to do just one thing: read books and documents. Period. It is an immersive experience that excludes the possibility of easy distractions (unless you’re holding an iPhone with the other hand, in which case my whole argument becomes mute).
It is this characteristic that has determined the success of such a best selling gadget. It hits a slowly transitioning market, that wants but doesn’t want, stuck in the past (rich of autobiographic, emotional, sentimental, romantic elements) but still projected into the future (characterized by a more rational, pragmatic, mechanic vision).
So my question is: what will be the effect of this precarious balance between reason and romanticism in the creation and development of new technological tool meant to make our lives better? What type of evolution curve will we see, if the factors we’ve briefly seen here have allowed an object as the ebook reader not only to exist, but to obtain a stable place among our daily use objects?