When the new Kindle was announced a couple months ago, I had a revelation that I am sure everyone else already had, like most of my revelations. The sheer quantity of analysis/verbiage/content circumambulating this “event” amazed me, a mass delusion that the creation of a new gadget (comically similar to past gadgets) is something to get excited about. Or an enforced delusion, a ritual. My reward for reading all these numbing specification-speculations was a depressing awareness; I felt sure that prose about the Kindle would dwarf prose created about any single book on the Kindle.
The moral is this: we love our content delivery systems more than content.
If you do not believe me, walk into your neighborhood Apple Store. This is an act that used to thrill me a great deal—the heady smell of newly manufactured electronics, the eager acolytes in blue tight-fitting T-shirts. Everything is sterile, clean lines, rows, there is the tiny rectangle of the iPhone, the larger rectangle of the iPad, more rectangles, some standing up some sitting down, all on long rectangle tables which desire not to be seen, to be plain, glistening, polished. Anything resembling content—applications, games, iPhone cases with wacky designs—has been banished to the corner, to the basement. And you can see why, it looks bad. Content is too personal for selling here, it musses the message. A sofa placed there would be stared down by everything else, until it disintegrated out of shame. Its cushioniness is, like content, obsolete. You sense content is obsolete. The Apple Store is the opposite, the nemesis of (say) the English library, filled with dark wood and must and dust and books stacked to the ceiling and leather chairs and a desk with grandfather’s will locked in the bottom drawer. It does slightly amaze me, the consistency of the message here, and particularly the lack of desire to have anything at all ameliorating the severity of the thing, any sign of heritage or aging, and how much we love it as such.
So many happy excited faces walking in, out.
As content delivery devices become more and more important to us, it becomes more and more important that they be sleek, impersonal, industrial slabs. For God’s sake, just consider the original iPod. Now it’s a Chiclet of metal. We’ve been on a long journey from the LP with its huge cover art and from the act of laying the needle gently down on the vinyl, the scratch of contact … to this hard drive encased in polyethylene, clicking through menus, calling up files in a flash. Our wide, fat, tubed TVs have become flat ginormous screens, trying to vanish into the wall, satisfying our urge for bigness while still nodding to a national obsession with youth, slimness. There is a general desire not to have anything particularly distinguishing about the object; the device should be semi-invisible, neutral, like every other object, but somehow also status-laden (size, speed).
Think how desperately the corporate persons must be searching for new ways to sell us content delivery systems, one in every possible size, to fit in every possible nook and cranny of daily life, which at a certain point feels like humanity is eating itself, walling itself in, from the App to the much more boring Application to the operating system, walls of menus, hierarchies of ways of delivering things, ways of encountering things. Paranoiac, I found myself surrounded by menacing content delivery in my own home, phone, Kindle, laptop, desktop, TV … and lastly my eyes rested on the piano.
By now it’s probably sunk in with me that a book’s just a file. Many bleak mornings I have meditated on this. It has nothing to do with the pile of paper I used to call a book. My pile of paper was a sentimental attachment, wasteful, destructive, forest-raping. But don’t you see, in this little war of content versus content delivery … once a book is just a file, once the complete Beethoven Sonatas are just so many megabytes, etc. etc. content is suddenly looking awfully contentless? It vanishes into digital 1 and 0 existence, a great equalizer, river of electrons. With the weird consequence being, that delivery devices are more tangible “things” than the books they hold. No wonder we obsess about them, since the things we used to call things are suddenly files, endlessly electronically vanishing. Our right to them is held in a server somewhere, whereas our computers/Kindles/iPads are ours, we hold them obsessively in our hands, like lovers.