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Technologically speaking, e-books aren’t super complicated. The use of a screen interface is something that has already been established for other purposes and through multiple devices. The digital ink is interesting, but it really just replicates regular ink. But it is the combinatoriality of the physical book, with the pages and dark script mixed with a touch screen and memory and interactivity that makes the e-reader a mediation of a former book. In a physical book, if you lose your bookmark, your book won’t remind you where you left off. If you lose it and go to buy a new copy, it won’t have the same notes you made in your old one. That computer-like memory and storage adds a new dimension to the reading experience through what’s behind the black box.
E-books are interesting because it’s allowed for the digitization of multiple ancient forms: storytelling, historical sharing, or even propaganda or religion imparting. On a social level, this is an amalgamation of these old-as-time art forms put into a small piece of technology. But thinking about that another way, it’s not all that remarkable considering the evolution the form has already taken from cave drawings to scrolls to tablets (the physical ones) to the physical book. E-books, if anything, took the leaps and bounds achieved through the physical book and expanded on that with the inclusion of the screen interface and digital ink. But socially, e-books also remove the need for certain societal interactions: the trip to the bookstore or the library. Users rely on reviews for book recommendations, or for an algorithmic equation to suggest something, as opposed to a bookseller or librarian or stranger in a store.
In many ways, e-books perform exactly the same as a physical book. The ink, as it has improved, looks more and more like regular ink. With the Kindle, at least, they are trying to front-light the device much as those old-school clip on reading lamps worked when we were kids. The organization stays the same – you have just as much ability to jump ahead or go back as you do with a physical book. They can be lighter, depending on the book, but it’s still something you typically hold with your hands and read with your eyes. They perform the same function – they are there for you to interact with. It’s not going to do much for you without your participation.
However, e-books allow for reproduction to occur instantaneously. It allows for social sharing of books – you can lend a friend a book through the device, much as you would in person, but you can share with multiple people at the same time. Some have software capabilities that transcend the e-reader and can go to other sorts of portable devices as well as to computers and laptops, allowing you to stay on the same page across devices and the ability to see the notes you’ve made on one device onto another. It’s instant gratification, as well. In the past, getting a story into someone’s hands was a laborious process. It took physically hand-copying word by word, or it meant printing new pages and binding them. It was a complicated publication process with hoops for authors to jump through and agents and publishing companies who stood as gatekeepers. It meant going to a bookstore, in the hours when they were open, and looking for something new or even ordering online and waiting for the book to come. Now, it’s a touch of one button. It’s self publishing. The cultural institutions are different now and have merged with technological ones. While seemingly none of this changed the content (though, there’s something to be said for people buying things they might be too embarrassed to buy in a store OR for the amount of typos on e-readers), the reading experience has evolved again. And it is the merging of the old, or even ancient, with the new that is making this experience unique from its predecessors in these certain ways.