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. 😉


The Suck Fairy

Paul Raven @ 29-09-2010

Jo Walton takes the mic at Tor.com and puts a name to a phenomenon I suspect most of us have experienced at least once. You know when you re-read a book that you read and loved years ago, and it turns out it’s almost unreadably bad? Well, the Suck Fairy got to it.

The Suck Fairy is an artefact of re-reading. If you read a book for the first time and it sucks, it’s nothing to do with her. It just sucks. Some books do. The Suck Fairy comes in when you come back to a book that you liked when you read it before, and on re-reading—well, it sucks. You can say that you have changed, you can hit your forehead dramatically and ask yourself how you could possibly have missed the suckiness the first time—or you can say that the Suck Fairy has been through while the book was sitting on the shelf and inserted the suck. The longer the book has been on the shelf unread, the more time she’s had to get into it. The advantage of this is exactly the same as the advantage of thinking of one’s once-beloved ex as having been eaten by a zombie, who is now shambling around using the name and body of the former person. It lets one keep one’s original love clear of the later betrayals.

Of course, there isn’t really a Suck Fairy (also, that isn’t really a zombie) but it’s a useful way of remembering what’s good while not dismissing the newly visible bad. Without the Suck Fairy, it’s all too easy for the present suck to wipe out the good memories.

I know I’ve been visited by the Suck Fairy plenty of times (OK, stop sniggering on the back row)… indeed, I expect C S Lewis’ Narnia books have worked the same way for many people, Ms Walton included:

Kids are really good at ignoring the heavy-handed message and getting with the fun parts. It’s good they are, because adults have devoted a lot of effort writing them messages thinly disguised as stories and clubbing children over the head with them. I read a lot of older children’s books when I was a kid, and you wouldn’t believe how many sugar-coated tracts I sucked the sugar off and cheerfully ran off, spitting out the message undigested. (Despite going to church several times every Sunday for my whole childhood, I never figured out that Aslan was Jesus until told later.)

A disappointing revelation for me, too; though I still hold that the metaphysics of the final section of The Last Battle make for a pretty esoteric look at at that particular part of the Christian doctrine. Or at least, the metaphysics of The Last Battle as I remember it (“come further up, come further in! It’s like an onion in reverse!” or somesuch)… I don’t think I’ll be going back to check any time soon.

Truth be told, I’ve done so little re-reading in the last decade or so that I’ve not had many chances to spot the Suck Fairy’s handiwork. That said, I remember thinking not too long ago that Jeff Noon’s Nymphomation was a colossal retrospective disappointment, though Vurt and Pollen still held up well to re-reading (despite being far more immediate in their initial impression than Noon’s latter works).

What about you lot – has the Suck Fairy been at your bookshelves, and whose work did (s)he get at?


The ethics of pirating ebooks

Paul Raven @ 08-04-2010

Via Ars Technica, here’s a New York Times columnist reframing the pirated-ebooks debate as an ethical issue rather than a legal one, in response to a question asking whether it was wrong to download a pirated ebook version of a book already owned in hardcopy. His answer: it’s not legal, but it could be arged to be perfectly ethical. Although that ethical assessment rather hinges on one’s perspective:

Unsurprisingly, many in the book business take a harder line. My friend Jamie Raab, the publisher of Grand Central Publishing and an executive vice president of the Hachette Book Group, says: “Anyone who downloads a pirated e-book has, in effect, stolen the intellectual property of an author and publisher. To condone this is to condone theft.”

Yet it is a curious sort of theft that involves actually paying for a book. Publishers do delay the release of e-books to encourage hardcover sales — a process called “windowing” — so it is difficult to see you as piratical for actually buying the book ($35 list price, $20 from Amazon) rather than waiting for the $9.99 Kindle edition.

I tuned out a lot of the fine-detail wrangling over the Amazon/Macmillan debacle and the events that followed in its wake (simply because I didn’t have the spare time to read it all), so I’m unaware whether the notion of a blanket ownership license (e.g. where buying a hardcopy gives you rights to an electronic copy as well) was ever put forward.

It’s no cure for piracy, of course, but it’s an option that at least acknowledges some of the unaddressed issues currently surrounding content available in multiple formats. I’m somewhat heartened to see that the publishers are thinking hard about it, and publicly; hopefully, if they continue to avoid doing an ostrich impersonation, they won’t go the way of the record labels.

Further evidence that ebook piracy is a geek-o-sphere topic du jour: if Diesel Sweeties is satirising it, you know an issue has really arrived. 🙂


ereaders: an ecological argument

Paul Raven @ 11-03-2010

From Sam Jordison of The Guardian: what difference do ebooks make to a reader’s carbon footprint?

I’ve only managed to find one report – on the Kindle (by The Cleantech Group) – but it backs up suggestions that so long as e-readers are used as book replacements rather than supplements, they soon start to pay back in carbon terms. The report states that a book uses up “approximately 7.46 kilograms of CO2 over its lifetime” and that the Kindle produces “roughly 168 kg” during its lifecycle, making it “a clear winner against the potential savings: 1,074 kg of CO2 if replacing three books a month for four years; and up to 26,098 kg of CO2 when used to the fullest capacity of the Kindle.”

[…]

However, I parted company with Ritch’s positive view of e-readers when she suggested a further advantage: “the consumer who purchases an ebook often has the rights to use it on five or more devices, meaning multiple users within a household would not have to purchase multiple physical versions of a book.” I’d actually view that as a problem, as far as fiction goes. Five or more devices probably gives the ebook a lifespan of little more than 10 years if my experience with such machines is anything to go by – and that’s if you don’t share it. A book (so long as it stays together) can be shared with hundreds of people over hundreds of years.

I also have concerns about the supply side. There’s no information available about the energy required to run Amazon’s “whispernet” and it’s hard to work out the amount involved in supplying other books for download. The internet is too often thought of as a cost-free resource in carbon terms – but it’s recently been suggested that Google alone produces as much as some nation states. Ritch suggested a good comparison would be that “a physical book purchased by a person driving to the bookstore creates twice the emissions of a book purchased online.” But of course, that depends on someone driving rather than walking to the shop.

In short, I think the ecological argument for ereaders is a non-starter for either side, though that could change with time (especially once ereading becomes a software matter rather than a dedicated hardware platform matter. What do you reckon?


Jo Walton on the protocols of reading science fiction

Paul Raven @ 20-01-2010

Have you ever wondered why it is that, for all your efforts and enthusiasm, you’ve failed to convince your bookworm buddies of the brilliance of a favourite science fiction story or novel? As science fiction readers, we know instinctively that there’s something different about it by comparison to “regular” literature, but explaining that difference concisely – to others, or even to ourselves – can be quite tricky.

Well, help is at hand – novelist Jo Walton has hit the nail on the head over at Tor.com with a short and lucid essay on the reading protocols of science fiction:

Because SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques for doing it. There’s the simple infodump, which Neal Stephenson has raised to an artform in its own right. There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues.

It always feels a little elitist to engage in special pleading for science fiction’s literary merits, but it really has evolved its own rhetorical and narrative language; this has become much more apparent to me since I started critiquing manuscripts by beginning writers, especially those who’ve come to write science fiction late in their lives, or via television and cinema. It’s often said that the golden age of science fiction is twelve, but I wonder if exposure at a formative age is an essential prerequisite for the ability to parse it – can that “hard work” of decoding the fictional world be taught later in life and still bring the same degree of pleasure it gives to us?

A few years back, I managed to convince some of my public library colleagues to read Geoff Ryman’s Air, and I know a handful of people from the same generation as my parents who enjoy Ballard’s later short fiction, but reliable and universal “gateway drugs” seem hard to find. Have you had any success converting readers to science fiction, and if so, what books or stories did you use to bait the hook?


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