Packing Up Libraries

Yiran Sun

E-readers are peculiar objects in today’s world. On one hand, it is commonly considered an electronic device that is in the same class as the Pads, which then usually appears side by side with computers or smart phones; on the other hand, it is relatively narrowly fixed on just on task: reading e-books, which would make it more similar to digital cameras and other task-specific electronic devices. The first e-reader as we know it today was released in 2004 (the Sony Librie; Amazon’s Kindles started from late 2007), so it is also peculiar in the sense that it combines the most ancient medium, inscriptions, with an extremely new technology, the electronic paper. According to an IDC study from March 2011, 48% of all e-book readers sold worldwide were the Kindle models. I myself used to own a K3 and now a Paperwhite. But what’s inside those little devices? Since they are so single-tasked, they can’t possibly be too complicated, can they?

An object: What is inside the device

But it is complicated. The Kindle Paperwhite has an awful lot (see illustration below) packed in a 6.7’’x4.6’’x0.36’’ body: the battery, the WAN board, the circuit board, the 3G antenna, the WIFI antenna, the e-ink display, the touch screen, and the light guide with the LED lights. Physically, the core technology of Paperwhite lies in two parts: the e-ink display and the lighting system. The e-ink display sets the e-readers apart from similar devices such as the mini iPad and the Kindle Fire, while the lighting system makes the Paperwhite stand out amongst a number of models and brands. However, neither of them are revolutionary technologies: the lighting is intricate, yet people have been using clip-on LED lights from 2007 and it worked fine; the e-ink is eye-friendly, but it also limits the content possibility because of its low refreshing rate.

A platform: Software and what lies beyond

A great part of Kindles’ power resides in the “Kindle” application, a software that can be used across various operating systems, from Mac to PC, from iOS to Android. This standardization of platform enables users to make most out of the Kindle system, and it also greatly increases people’s likeliness of exposure to it. But a platform would be useless if there is no content, and this is THE factor that made Kindles the major market holder: behind it stands Amazon, the most influential bookstore of this decade. (There is another entire story behind the power of Amazon, but let’s not delve into that for now.) Almost every published book can be found on Amazon, and a great many of them have a free or purchasable Kindle version, while for those that do not, the user can always click the “Tell the publisher” link to inform an interest in a Kindle version. As time passes, more and more “nodes” (e-books) are added onto the “network” (the Kindle system), and the more nodes there are, the more powerful the network becomes.

An Interface: Pathway to the most ancient

But why do people bother to purchase these e-readers, if their contents can be accessed on any operating system? For this question, the hat should be tilted towards a most ancient function in our society: the inscription function, and two functions that derived from it: the book function and the library function. The latter two has been deeply incorporated into our society via important cultural cores like history, religion and legislation, that they have come to be “naturally” associated with knowledge and prestige. Combined with the single-task design of e-readers, a person with a Paperwhite would most likely be identified as learned or at least interested in pursuit of knowledge, while the same person reading books off the Kindle application on a smart phone would not trigger such association.

It is also fascinating how closely a Paperwhite resembles an actual physical book. (Even its name suggests this!) It is of a similar size, the screen is matte and feels like surface of paper, the e-ink display with the LED lights makes the texts against background the same contrast as texts on paper… Every aspect of the interface design is aimed at creating immediacy, making an illusion that the user is holding onto an actual book, only lighter and holds potentially unlimited information. In fact, this is exactly what I have been telling my friends and family: It’s just like a book!

A Revolution: Yes and no

And the best thing about it is that it’s not just one book: It’s a library. This is the part where many find the technology of e-readers to be revolutionary. However, as mentioned before, none of the technologies in e-readers is particularly cutting-edge or exclusively unique. The use of its content is the same as well: one can read the books, add bookmarks and highlights, making notes, but one cannot change the content of the published book, nor can he/she republish it. The e-readers allow users to do what they can do about a physical book, but nothing more… except having the content of countless books in the size of one. This feature certainly is useful for people on the move, for those who cannot afford to physically store a large quantity of books. In my case, since I have not yet made any plan to stay in any particular city, I cannot store a lot of books with me. For this I am grateful towards my dear Kindle. Yet I still purchase physical books, usually after I’ve read it either from library or from the e-library, and have them directly shipped to my home in China. Through time, books have taken on a symbolic value that is somewhat hardwired into its materiality, and people of our generation still feel “a different vibe” when we lay our hands on the leaves of paper. I do not know whether or not this superstitious view of physical books would carry on to the next generation, but I do know, that e-books would keep on with their pursuit of immediacy creation, and soon even our generation may not be able to tell apart the analogue-analogue and digital-analogue versions of texts.