Comfortable in the world: ereaders vs. tablets

Paul Raven @ 17-01-2011

Tom Armitage at Berg compares the seductive gloss of the multipurpose iPad with the more homely functionality of the Kindle; an interesting (and user-centric) argument against technological convergence?

The iPad bursts into life, its backlight on, the blinking “slide to unlock” label hinting at the direction of the motion it wants you to make. That rich, vibrant screen craves attention.

The Kindle blinks – as if it’s remembering where it was – and then displays a screen that’s usually composed of text. The content of the screen changes, but the quality of it doesn’t. There’s no sudden change in brightness or contrast, no backlight. If you hadn’t witnessed the change, you might not think there was anything to pay attention to there.

[…]

Attention-seeking is something we often do when we’re uncomfortable, though – when we need to remind the world we’re still there. And the strongest feeling I get from my recently-acquired Kindle is that it’s comfortable in the world.

That matte, paper-like e-ink screen feels familiar, calm – as opposed to the glowing screens of so many devices that have no natural equivalents. The iPad seems natural enough when it’s off – it has a pleasant glass and metal aesthetic. But hit that home button and that glow reveals its alien insides.

Perhaps the Kindle’s comfort is down to its single-use nature. After all, it knows it already has your attention – when you come to it, you pick it up with the act of reading already in mind.

Provocative stuff… but in the interests of journalistic balance (yeah, right), here’s Jonah Lehrer anguishing over the observation that ereaders may be too easy to read:

I worry that this same impulse – making content easier and easier to see – could actually backfire with books. We will trade away understanding for perception. The words will shimmer on the screen, but the sentences will be quickly forgotten. Let me explain. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, has helped illuminate the neural anatomy of reading. It turns out that the literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, which are activated in different contexts. One pathway is known as the ventral route, and it’s direct and efficient, accounting for the vast majority of our reading. The process goes like this: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word’s semantic meaning.

[…]

But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The second reading pathway – it’s known as the dorsal stream – is turned on whenever we’re forced to pay conscious attention to a sentence, perhaps because of an obscure word, or an awkward subclause, or bad handwriting.  (In his experiments, Dehaene activates this pathway in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters or filling the prose with errant punctuation.) Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we became literate, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even fluent adults are still forced to occasionally make sense of texts. We’re suddenly conscious of the words on the page; the automatic act has lost its automaticity.

This suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of awareness. Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.

Someone email Nick Carr; I think we’ve found his next padawan. 😉


Stop press: arbitrary marketing category finally overlaps more respected arbitrary marketing category

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2010

I think we’ll end up looking back and deciding that the favourite critical riff of 2010 in science fiction is the one that goes “hey, look, we’ve won!” Here’s some highlights from a lengthy solo in the same key from io9‘s Charlie Jane Anders:

… the thing that jumps out at you when you read this new wave of lit authors doing SF is how aware they are of the genre. You’re not dealing with Philip Roth writing alternate history without ever having read any of it, or Margaret Atwood denying her SF is SF — Moody is, to some extent, paying tribute to science fiction. Charles Yu’s book is clearly about science fiction. Cronin’s book attempts to channel the style of Steven King as much as possible. Writing a science fictional book without acknowledging the genre would be missing the point for these authors — they’re writing about genre as much as they are about science fictional ideas.

[…]

Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that these two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big. There’s a hunger for heartfelt, even disheartening, books set in the near future, and science fiction authors should be doing more deeply personal near-future stories if they want to catch this wave.

I’ve found myself becoming more and more frustrated with this particular meme, for reasons I’m not entirely able to articulate. I think it’s the underlying sense of patting-ourselves-on-the-back, a subtext of vindication that says “hey, we were right all along, and now everyone else is finally catching up and will have to acknowledge the fact that we were out in front before anyone else”. It’s the last part of that subtext that’s the problem, even if you argue (as I think you can, with a limited degree of success) that the first part is true. Yeah, sure, OK: the ivory tower denizens have looked down upon the works of the barbarians, and found them novel (pun intended). This is not a new thing, really. It’s cultural colonialism at best, and we all know how that works out in the long run: “literature” will use “science fiction” for as long as it’s expedient or interesting, no longer, and there’ll be no gratitude beyond that extended by the writers who’ve borrowed liberally from the toolshed. It’s not about genres, it’s about the stories that speak to readers and writers alike, which in turn is a function of the Zeitgeist – something that, by definition, doesn’t do a whole bunch of sitting still.

Interestingly, Anders ends this triumphalist piece by deliberately undermining the very constructs whose triumphs it seems to celebrate:

So it’s finally come true — the literature of the future has become the future of literature. Our collective literary consciousness is crying out for near-future books that are deeply personal, obsessed with technological change, and viciously satirical. We could just be seeing the first wave of a whole new tide of science fiction novels, with authors from both the artificially constructed “science fiction” and “literary” genres making equally wonderful contributions. Let’s hope so, anyway.

If there’s anything for science fiction fandom (and indeed for everyone else) to celebrate, it’s that there are more good books to read. Much as with the YA craze of the preceding few years, I’m really getting tired about arguing over which particular shelves those good books should or shouldn’t be found on… and the utopian “one day soon, there will be only one set of shelves!” riff just doesn’t wash with someone who’s worked in a public library, I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s to do with the geek psychology of feeling like underdogs or outsiders that causes it, but I worry that science fiction’s thirst for validation from those who once dismissed it out of hand is a sign that, rather than leading the literati into the near-future, it’s being charmed out of the driver’s seat by them. Are we in fact celebrating our own sunset, here?