No Snacking Between Books Please!

April 29, 2008 by Thad McIlroy

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little weary of all the Amazon-generated hype about the Kindle, its proprietary eBook reader (described by Amazon as a “revolutionary wireless reading device [emphasis mine]). We’re told incessantly how “visionary,”exceptional,” and, yes, “revolutionary” this little device is, but we’re not told why (with regard to features that differentiate it meaningfully from its nine competitors). The Amazon site states: “Revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper.” But all of its competitors use ePaper.

We’re told that it sold out 5-½ hours after release, but have never been told how many units had been produced. And now, when you go to Amazon’s home page, you’e greeted not by the usual smorgasbord of new product releases in various genres, but by a somber yet upbeat letter from C.E.O. Bezos himself, advising that this magical Kindle is once more in stock. Hallelujah!

The letter goes on to invite us to read president Bezos’ just released (April 14th) annual Letter to Shareholders. He goes on to explain that he doesn’ ordinarily link to this sort of communication from the Amazon home page (I’d hate to think what would happen to Amazon’s sales if he got in the habit of doing so), but, Bezos explains, “this letter is all about the Kindle,”mas if that would help us form some sort of logical connection in our minds about the appearance of this missive.

On behalf of my readers, and in the interest of Kindle-lovers everywhere, I clicked on the link and a 5-page PDF file slowly overwhelmed my browser window. The last three pages are the shareholder letter; the first page-and-a-half contain Bezos’ verbose paean to the Kindle.

It takes until page 2, paragraph 2 to get a sense of why the Kindle has turned Bezos into a born again eBooker. Here are his insights:

1. “We change our tools, and then our tools change us.” (A widely-accepted view of the impact of technology.)

2. Writing “changed us dramatically.” (Well, yes!)

3. Gutenberg made books cheaper, and “physical books ushered in a new way of collaborating and learning.” (Amongst many, many other things, Jeff. See Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, available on Amazon at an 11% discount, or for 25 cents less at Barnes and Noble.)

4. “Lately, networked tools such as desktop computers, laptops, cell phones and PDAs have changed us too.” (No problem there.)

5. “(Networked tools have) shifted us more toward information snacking (sic), and I would argue toward shorter attention spans.” (I recommend reading Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s famous and prescient 1997 column “How Users Read on the Web,” which begins with the memorable line: “They don’t.” Nielsen continues: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.” So is the issue really shorter attention spans, or new techniques for coping with the vastly increased amount of textual information we’re asked to consume each day?)

6. “Kindle is purpose-built for long-form reading. We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools.”

OK, I’ve got it. Without quoting any evidence, Bezos warns that new digital tools are inducing a form of ADD in the public at large. I’ll look into the research for you, Mr. Bezos, and report my findings shortly on this site in the Literacy section. In the meantime please peruse my updated section on eBooks: I am not without bias towards the supposed wonders of eBook technology.

Though the letter is evangelical in tone, Bezos forgets the apocryphal preacher’s advice on a successful sermon: “First, I tell them what I’m going to tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them what I just told them” Perhaps he was information snacking when he wrote the letter.

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  • Gene Gable

    Apr 30th, 2008 : 10:05 AM

    Great comments, Thad. Those of us who suffered through the first eBook revolution have been skeptical of the Kindle since day one.
    Even if we accept Jeff’s enthusiasm, the Kindle has a limited lifespan as a product. It may be true that true book readers are looking for a more practical, less-expensive alternative to the printed book (though I would argue the demographic of book readers is typically one of higher-than-average income). But this demographic, I believe, is an aging one. Most of the studies on media consumption show that book-length reading is not on the agenda of young people (and may never be).
    I too hope the Kindle is successful, if for no other reason than it’s environmental pluses. But in my experience book readers are among the most vocal on the topic of “reading as a tactile art.” They don’t strike me as a group that considers the ability to download Miley Cirus’s biography while laying on the beach a big breakthrough.