Playing with Thoughts and Theories (Technologies, Functions of Technologies, and Humans In Terms of Books and Reading)

While reading this week’s materials about distributed technology, I accidentally saw an article about “e-reading isn’t reading” on Slate Magazine. What’s ironic is that the article itself requires me to read it digitally. However, I am very curious about how ideas or arguments in this article connect to what we read for the class on distributed agency and distributed cognition.

What titillates me in that article is the title “e-reading isn’t reading”. Instead of denying a technology (“e-books aren’t books”), it denies a function. It touches the core question that we are solving in this class. We agree on the argument that technologies are evolving but general functions played out by technologies remains the same. Then why does this article argue that the function of reading is not implemented by e-reading? Interestingly, it approach this question from the perspective of human-technology interaction, which is also the subject we are trying to address for this week. Also I think the thoughts revealed in this article represents a typical way of thinking on issues about human technology interactions. Here is its primary arguments:

  • Reading with touching real books is real reading because touching fulfills functions of books. Functions of books are not only texts but also real material interaction.
  • real mechanical pressure (presses pr squeezes) as appose to touching screen. “Swiping has the effect of making everything on the page cognitively lighter, less resistant. After all, the rhythmic swiping of the hand has been one of the most common methods of facilitating “speed-reading.”
  • tons of other examples that author uses to prove that real interaction with physical books leads to deep reading.

So I want to make a comparison between the way of thinking in this article with Actor Network Theory. From ANT’s perspective, I could argue:

  • It is hard to say function of books (i.e. reading) is decreased or augmented. It’s both. Also, it is true that interacting with physical paper feels different with interacting with digital screens but we also cannot ignore the function of ubiquitous reading brought up by digitalization. However, the function of reading still exists in whatever forms we are implementing. Amazon’s new ways of publishing (self-publishing) creates more efficient ways of communicating. It makes publishing easy without high costs and get distributed globally.
  • The delegation process of human symbolic interaction (reading and writing) to e-books is more complicated than that to paperback books. “Actions emerge out of complicated constellations that are made of a hybrid mix of agencies like people, machines, and programs and that are embedded in coherent frames of action. The analysis of these hybrid constellations is better done with a gradual concept of distributed agency than with the dual concept of human action and machine’s operation (Werner Rammert, 2008.) So when analyzing interaction with either e-books or paperback books, we should see the complexity of invisible power behind visible technologies. Human’s wishes for portable books and ubiquitous reading has been there for hundreds of years. It is the current digital technology that physically carries out this long term human wish.
  • The industry of e-books motivates its development, especially Amazon Kindle. By keeping down the price of the physical reading tool— Kindle, Amazon benefits greatly every year from selling virtual book copies. The costs (production and distribution) of virtual copies are very low, comparing to hardcopy books. I used to work in book publishing industry in China. Physical paper is the primary cost of book production (I think in the U.S. the cost of patent related fee is much higher.) Significant benefits of Amazon grow the e-book market.
  • Policies: It’s counterintuitive when thinking about buying a 11 dollar ebook without really own it. Amazon ebooks are prohibited from sharing, which is done by technical means. You just cannot share it!
  • Culturally, no matter in business world or education, we’ve been digitalizing the action of reading (we use website as course syllabus and professor distribute readings in PDF versions). We always think about e-reading in the form of reading “books”. But we also devote so much time on twitter reading, Facebook reading, blog reading, etc. You name it. The habit/preference/tendency of e-reading is not only in book forms (book technologies) but also slowly built by other reading/writing devices.

It is very interesting to see how much we can break down just from a concept of e-reading. Each of the argument above actually is just a beginning. There are much more things to explore based on each of them because there are multiple invisible forces contribute to the current visible models. We (I think “we” = scholars) cannot just narrow ourself in comparing or analyzing visible forms, like the article I mentioned in the beginning does.