Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Kindle won’t replace the codex

In the June issue of The American, the economists Richard Swedberg and Thorbjørn Knudsen develop and extend the theories of Joseph A. Schumpeter on entrepreneurship.

In The Theory of Economic Development (1911), Schumpeter argues that there are five basic types of innovation: “a new good,” “a new method of production,” “a new market,” “a new source of supply of raw materials,” and “the carrying out of a new organization of any industry.” Thus he challenges the ordinary conception of an innovation as simply a novelty item, a new product or technology.

But Swedberg and Knudsen are struck by the fact that Schumpeter’s five types of innovation, taken as a whole, describe the entire economic process. What if, they suggest, innovation is conceived as the whole process of innovation from brainstorm to profit? To succeed at introducing an innovation, they point out, “you not only have to come up with the idea of the iPod, but also to produce it, market it, and make a profit.”

And this explains why innovation is so difficult and rare: the person who comes up with the idea for a new item is unlikely to be the same person who produces it, who differs from the person who finds buyers for it. The problem, as Swedberg and Knudsen lay it out, is one of vertical integration, coordinating the stages of the entire process.

Although I am no economist, the provocative article helped to give voice to my initial reaction to the Kindle, which I received as a gift for Father’s Day. After downloading a small library of free texts from Project Gutenberg, I finally purchased my first etext—Jonathan Sarna’s history of American Judaism. Now, I realize that the book, already six years old, is even older than the Kindle, which will be three years old in November. American Judaism is not hypertexted. The footnotes are merely superscript numbers on the screen.

Even if they were not useless, though, the footnotes would be unwieldy. Here’s why. You navigate around the Kindle’s screen with a “five-way controller,” which means that you must click down the page a line at a time. The cursor is also a little stodgy, leaving ghosts of itself and lagging behind your clicking. Clicking other than a [click] line [click] at [click] a [click] time may leave you at the wrong spot. Instead of the four directional arrows on my Apple IIe, I now have a single “five-way controller,” but its use is the same as on an Apple IIe. The technology is not cool enough to transfer any feeling of coolness to you if you master it.

When I read a book in the ancient form of a codex, I often have my fingers at different places, and flip back and forth, checking, comparing, making notes. This is impossible on the Kindle. And once I understood this, I understood something else. While the codex is a physical text—the book exists in space—the Kindle’s files are linear texts. Perhaps split screens, touch screens, and windows would make the Kindle less awkward to use, but they wouldn’t solve the basic problem. Namely: the Kindle is designed for texts that are intended to be read straight through in linear fashion. But few except for the most superficial texts are intended to be read in this fashion.

In short, the Kindle is a novelty item of surprisingly limited use, and despite the confidence of Michael Yoshikami that there is room for both in the market, it will probably be squeezed out by Apple’s iPad and other tablet computers.

Even so, the iPad appeals primarily to geeks and hipsters. The coolness of the technology, in other words, transfers easily to the user. But the problem that bedevils the Kindle remains. The physical qualities of the text must be reconceived—the text must not be left out of the chain of innovation—if any kind of electronic reading device is to replace the codex as the principal human means for storing and accessing knowledge.


R. T. said...

In my view, there is something ironic about e-texts versus ink-and-paper formats: The latter, in many ways, are more durable and less susceptible to corruption, alteration, or loss. Of course, that opinion comes from a confirmed Luddite (in opposition to too much technology), so the source's curmudgeonly preferences may nullify the objectivity and accuracy of the viewpoint.

Biblibio said...

That's a very interesting approach. Obviously there are many flaws and glitches in the new eBook technology (newish, actually... huh...), but this is such a practical point that I'm surprised it hasn't been discussed before. Fascinating post.

panavia999 said...

Lots of food for thought here, thanks for posting. Nothing beats the real thing, but I found one way to enjoy reading electronically. I like to download books from I was very sick in bed and thought reading something fun and frothy would be good medicine, but holding a book was tiring to arms and eyes. I set my laptop at eye level next to my bed, rotated the text counterclockwise and read while laying on my side, reaching out with my fevered finger to the -> button to turn pages. Another reason I like google books is that because they are scans, there is still the visual pleasure of book type in crisp b/w. BTW, the books I read while ill were Ruggles of Red Gap, Richard Hannay adventures and Three men in a Boat. Literary comfort food.