by Barry Chudakov on January 12th, 2010

Savonarola vs. the Kindle

About 60 years after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, in 1497, a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola and his supporters collected and publicly burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art and books in what they called the Bonfire of the Vanities. This was held in Florence, Italy during the Shrove Tuesday festival.

 

Girolamo Savonarola.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Girolamo Savonarola. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


And while mirrors, fine dresses, paintings, playing cards and musical instruments made it onto these bonfires, the event itself and the specter of Savonarola is regularly raised when people refer to censorship. It is often referred to simply as “book burning.” Getting rid of the book as a medium of transmitting ideas has cropped up at various times in history, including the destruction of the Library of Alexandria; during China’s Qin Dynasty where not only books were burned but scholars were buried alive; and during the infamous Nazi book burnings that anticipated World War II.

 

Despite the efforts of various cultural factions and fanatics, the book has successfully withstood the assults of Savonarolas and censors throughout history. It has held its own against the introduction of competing communication technologies including newspapers and magazines, photography, cinema, television, the Internet, the cell phone and other digital gadgets that populate our world today.

Until now.

Amazon Kindle DX.  Source: www.e-ink-info.com

Amazon Kindle DX. Source: www.e-ink-info.com

 

In a recent Newsweek interview Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and the Kindle, was asked, “Do you think that the ink-on-paper book will eventually go away?” His answer:

“I do. I don’t know how long it will take. You know, we love stories and we love narrative; we love to get lost in an author’s world. That’s not going to go away; that’s going to thrive. But the physical book really has had a 500-year run. It’s probably the most successful technology ever. It’s hard to come up with things that have had a longer run. If Gutenberg were alive today, he would recognize the physical book and know how to operate it immediately. Given how much change there has been everywhere else, what’s remarkable is how stable the book has been for so long. But no technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever.”

 

As I have said previously, 5000 years ago the alphabet built the Alphabetic Order. Our metalife was distributed by texts and was characterized by rule-based injunctions which gave rise to the great world religions and many of our social institutions. In essence, the book became holy—its power rivaling its content, its form structuring our view of the world. The final-word attribution of the book clashed—and is still clashing in virtually all cultures—with the more recent Visual Carnival which is distributed by images (these do not honor the word as the text does) and is characterized by observational learning; we mimic and try to become what we see. Presently we are just coming to appreciate our newest metalife, Network/Play, where computer and device-based collaboration stimulates connected intelligence.

 

Gutenberg Showing a Proof to the Elector of Mainz, New York Public Library.  Source: Flickr, wallyg.

Gutenberg Showing a Proof to the Elector of Mainz, New York Public Library. Source: Flickr, wallyg.

While this whirlwind history provides a context for the arrival of the eReader, there is a more basic premise at work in the unique value of the Kindle: riffing on the Louis Sullivan dictum, eReaders show us that form swallows function. In other words, censorship has historically focused on content as the communication element that, if eradicated, would make the world right again. But as McLuhan wrote in 1964 “… the ’content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” Savanarola and his cronies were using an erroneous logic to accomplish their nefarious ends. Form, not content, warps our minds.

 

The Kindle, like the traditional book, is indifferent to content. The Kindle challenges the ink-on-paper book as form, reinventing the book’s form for a digital age. In so doing, the modest Amazon reader that became the company’s “best-selling product” may manage to do what reactionaries for centuries have tried to do and failed: kill the book. In the Bookslayer fantasy battle of Savanarola vs. The Kindle, the Kindle wins. But what is instructive here, is how this “victory” was accomplished—namely by maintaining a calculated disinterest in content and focusing instead on formal reinvention. Suppressing content failed; reinventing the delivery system for content changes not only the form that delivers the content. What is unspoken and, perhaps unrecognized until now, is how this transformation will ultimately affect and significantly change content itself.

 

Today a number of thoughtful writers are beginning to ask how eBooks will change the way we read and write. These are highly useful discussions, at the center of which lie two questions from Nicolas Carr, author of the forthcoming The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. “[Will] traditional books — and the people who read and write them — have much influence on the culture in the future?” And, “is that segment of the population going to just dwindle and be on the periphery of the culture rather than at the center, which is where printed books have stood for centuries now?”

 

Metalife provides this answer: Culture can no longer remain book-centric because we adapt our lives to (and build our metalives around) our communication technologies. Thus, circa 1960 with the widespread adoption of television we began moving from the Alphabetic Order to the the Visual Carnival, creating what Bruce Mau dubbed the “Global Image Economy”. Daniel J. Boorstin noticed—and railed against—this in his seminal book, The Image. Fifty years later, now that “everyone is a media outlet” the agora for ideas moves from the confines of thermally bound pages to the cloud of digital transmission.

 

Source: paper vs. Kindle DX, Flickr, TevK, all rights reserved.

Source: paper vs. Kindle DX, Flickr, TevK, all rights reserved.

 

So how might we use this understanding of form swallowing function? Six centuries after Savonarola, as the book morphs into a new incarnation (Kindle and Kindle DX with global wireless), what’s in store for us? Here are my thoughts on how widespread adoption of eReaders will change how we read, think and especially what we value:

 

The Kindle: So What, Now What?

1. As technologies divorce us from the formal confines of the ink-on-paper book, we move from the metalife of the text through the Visual Carnival to the collaborative Network/Play metalife of pure information, thought, connection, and connected intelligence.

2. We are slow to see the implications of this change because we are still caught in the book’s orbit, the book’s logic and the book’s worldview. Newer technologies will momentarily mimic that orbit, logic and worldview but will not confine themselves to it.

3. Central to this understanding is seeing the logic of the tool: this is essentially the logic of the tool’s form.

4. There is no absolute requirement that ideas be packaged in the linear format of a book. (what I mean by the ‘logic of the tool.’) For example, ideas may be arranged in conversational, visual, orbital, and other configurations that the book could not achieve due to its inherent linear structure and single viewpoint, one-at-a-time logic.

5. Although it is not always immediately apparent, when we change the form of any communication tool we also transform its content. This is the crux of the metalife mystery. Just as we see that content and the media that deliver it share equal power to inform our worldview, so too we see that changing media tools has a transformative effect on the message conveyed. Texting Johnny to come home for dinner still gets the point across but the process is not what it used to be. Look for this to become more apparent as eBooks become more popular.

6. As we invent ever more useful and intriguing communication tools, the rate of invention is challenging us on a number of levels:

a. Each tool arrives with a different logic than the tools that preceded it.

b. These logics compete with one another.

c. According to Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project “People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology.”

d. In other words, the logic-gap is shortening and now is not only intergenerational, it is intra-generational. Again, Lee Rainie: “College students scratch their heads at what their high school siblings are doing, and they scratch their heads at their younger siblings. It has sped up generational differences.”

7. The Kindle, like other communication tools such as Twitter, is showing us that consciousness is moving from formal containment to a more dynamic flow. We are just beginning to appreciate what this means. (See Stephen Marche’s comments on the ‘transbook’ below: “The Book That Contains All Books.”)

 

Related Information

The Children of Cyberspace

The Book That Contains All Books

Mind Reading (Reading in the Brain)

The Dawning of Ambient Streams

Worth a Thousand Words

Envisioning Information

 

I want to thank Steve Haines for his excellent suggestions, ideas, and editorial rigor; all contributed significantly to this post.

 

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