The future arrives wearing the clothes of the past. The first book that came off a printing press – Gutenberg’s Bible – used a typeface that had been meticulously designed to look like a scribe’s handwriting:
The first TV shows were filmed radio broadcasts. The designers of personal computers used the metaphor of a desk for organizing information. The world wide web had “pages.” The home pages of online newspapers mimicked the front pages of their print editions. As Richard Goldstein succinctly put it, “every novel technology draws from familiar forms until it establishes its own aesthetic.” It’s tempting to look at the early form of a new media technology and assume that it will be the ultimate form, but that’s a big mistake. The transitional state is never the final state. Eventually, the clothes of the past are shed, and the true nature, the true aesthetic, of the new technology is revealed.
So it is with what we call “electronic books.” Amazon’s original Kindle was explicitly designed to replicate as closely as possible the look and feel of a printed book:
When Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, introduced the Kindle in late 2007, he went out of his way to emphasize its mimicry of the familiar, bound book. Here’s an illuminating excerpt from a Newsweek cover story about the first Kindle:
“If you’re going to do something like this, you have to be as good as the book in a lot of respects,” says Bezos … Bounding to a whiteboard in the conference room, he ticks off a number of attributes that a book-reading device … must have. First, it must project an aura of bookishness; it should be less of a whizzy gizmo than an austere vessel of culture. Therefore the Kindle (named to evoke the crackling ignition of knowledge) has the dimensions of a paperback, with a tapering of its width that emulates the bulge toward a book’s binding. It weighs but 10.3 ounces, and unlike a laptop computer it does not run hot or make intrusive beeps.
To put it another way: the e-book, in its early form, used the metaphor of a printed book as the design concept for its user interface. But it was only a metaphor. The Kindle’s aura of bookishness was the modern equivalent of the Gutenberg Bible’s aura of scribalness. It was essentially a marketing tactic, a way to make traditional book readers comfortable with e-books. But it was never anything more than a temporary tactic.
Jeff Bezos is a businessman. He never really wanted to save the traditional book. He wanted to destroy it. And, in introducing the multimedia, multitouch, multitasking, app-tastic Kindle Fire today, Bezos has taken the “austere vessel of culture” out to the woodshed and whacked it with the business end of a mattock.
With the Fire, as with its its whizzy-gizmo predecessors, the iPad and the Nook Color, we are seeing the e-book begin to assume its true aesthetic, which would seem to be far closer to the aesthetic of the web than to that of the printed page: text embedded in a welter of functions and features, a symphony of intrusive beeps. Even the more restrained Kindle Touch, also introduced today, comes with a feature called X-Ray that seems designed to ensure that a book’s words never gain too tight a grip over a reader’s consciousness: “With a single tap, readers can see all the passages across a book that mention ideas, fictional characters, historical figures, places or topics that interest them, as well as more detailed descriptions from Wikipedia and Shelfari, Amazon’s community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers.” The original Kindle, now discounted to $79, is beginning to look like a dusty relic – something for the rocking-chair set.
The press coverage of the Fire has largely concerned its immediate commercial prospects: Will it challenge the Almighty iPad? But the real importance of the Fire is what it presages: the ultimate form of the e-book. Historians may look back on September 28, 2011, as the day the book lost its bookishness.