A book is not a toy.

3 10 2011

You probably already know that new Kindles are coming out in November. Sorry Amazon, but I still haven’t changed my mind about them. Actually, Nick Carr’s yeoman’s work on this new batch of toys makes me want to double down on my previous position, adding a very important new reason to the litany I already had. This is from Carr’s first post on the subject from after the announcement last week:

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.

Carr elaborated in a later post:

When Amazon delivers a copy of The Remains of the Day to your Kindle, Bezos goes on to explain, the company “has pre-calculated all of the interesting phrases” and turned them into links. My, what a convenience! As a reader, I no longer have to waste a lot of mental energy figuring out which phrases in a book are interesting. It’s all been pre-calculated for me! Here we have a preview of what happens when engineers begin to recreate books, and the experience of reading, in the image of the web. The algorithmical mind begins to run roughshod over the literary mind. Needless to say, there are also commercial angles here. Clicking on an “interesting phrase” will no doubt eventually trigger not just Wikipedia and Shelfari articles but also contextual advertisements as well as product recommendations from Amazon’s store. Removing the edges from a book also serves to reduce friction in the purchasing process.

Of course, Amazon wants to bring all of this pre-calculated historical goodness directly into your classroom. While reading new Kindle coverage, I noticed that Amazon has opened an e-textbook rental business. Lovely. When profits are on the line, why should they care what the professor actually wants?

But, of course, it gets worse. This is from the same guy who Historiann eviscerated a couple of weeks ago:

At $199 for the Kindle Fire, a program could pre-load all course video (including lecture capture recordings), and other rich media directly on the device. At $79, it might make sense to deliver course readings (from monographs to articles) on a pre-loaded Kindle.

That’s right, apparently the professor won’t just be push-button in our new tech-driven future. They’ll be push-button and fully portable.

I hear that one of my illustrious colleagues has already banned Kindle books in her class because they don’t have page numbers, which means that they can’t be footnoted. That’s a good reason. However, what really gets to me is the thought of everyone in my discussion bent over their various devices, some reading along, others reading the distractions that Amazon has embedded for them, while others still check their Facebook page. A Kindle is no different from a laptop or a cellphone. They’re all equally distracting.

Telling college students to bring Kindles to class is like giving guns to criminals and telling them not to stick anyone up. You might as well tell them it’s OK to text all through your lecture because the effect will be the same.* This is the latest in a long line of horror stories that UD has dug up:

In one class I decided to count how many different people were messing around on their laptops, or other electronic devices, or doing anything else that was a distraction from the lecture. Almost everyone did something distraction worthy, which made it entirely too easy to tune out the professor.

With new technology becoming more readily available for consumers, students’ attention spans are dwindling. One student cleaned his presumably new iPad for a solid three minutes, and the device was not even turned on. Some people surf the Internet during most of the lecture. Technology makes it easy to not pay attention.

My brother once told me that there was a device they sell in Europe that can disable a Wi-Fi signal anywhere within fifty feet. I think it’s time to ask him about that again. Perhaps I can buy them in bulk and sell them at a discount across campus as a public service.

* By the way, this goes just as well for professors. If you’ve looked around during conference presentations lately and seen too many audience members playing with their phones, you are not alone. It’s human nature, not something unique to 18-22 year-olds.


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5 responses

3 10 2011
Historiann

Thanks, Jonathan–I just learned of that pageless “feature” of the Kindle the other day, when I was asked by a student how she should cite a book because the Kindle doesn’t have page numbers.

Aside from it making it difficult to use them for academic papers and citations, I wonder: am I the only reader who likes to know pretty much how long a given chapter might be, page-wise, because it helps me get a grip on the trajectory of the overall argument? A digression or extended illustrative example is something I’m more willing to read carefully if I know the chapter has another 30 pages in which to make its argument, as opposed to 5 or 10 pages. (I’ve never used a Kindle–can you tell?)

In solidarity with you & all other cranky harrumphers who still think Codex is an excellent technology,

Historiann

3 10 2011
Jonathan Dresner

My understanding is that jamming technology isn’t really street-legal in the US, but IANAL. Doesn’t stop some people, just keeps ‘em quiet.

Basically in agreement on the e-book thing, though I also think that if they’re going to spend their time staring at screens anyway, we may as well put a book or two in their field of vision.

And yes, I like to know exactly where I am in a book/article, whatever, so I can track the argument.

3 10 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Look, I’m a booklover. I like the feel of the pages, the weight in my hands. And my mother impressed upon me the risks of introducing anything electronic in the vicinity of the bath.

But really — it doesn’t have page numbers so we should ban it?

We’re already able to cite webpages. Eventually we’ll figure out other kinds of reference points for e-texts that don’t have page numbers so they can adapt to different readers. But telling students they can’t use the devices that might actually make them enthusiastic learners seems a little overly cranky to me.

My thought is it makes sense to decide when and where to ask people to put down all technologies (pens and books included) and just focus on each other, and it makes equal sense to say: this is a multimodal event, pull out the tool that works for you, but please don’t try to engage in more than one place at once unless you’re sure you can do this without losing your way in this place.

4 10 2011
thefrogprincess

I love my Kindle, but it is manifestly not a tool for academic work. The page numbers thing is just the beginning (although it’s my understanding that the newer models–last year’s update, not last week’s–corrected this problem, but there’s still at least one or two steps required to find out the number). Not all of the academic e-books have hyperlinks to the footnote, making it absurdly difficult to look at the footnote. And maybe it’s just me, but I like to refer to page numbers in class, and I encourage students to refer to their books in class, and the Kindle just doesn’t facilitate this kind of thing.

I’ve got a laptop ban in my classes, and I extend that to e-readers (although I was lenient with a student who purchased the e-book and asked permission, in writing, to use his laptop for that day’s discussion).

But telling students they can’t use the devices that might actually make them enthusiastic learners seems a little overly cranky to me.

Now I’ll admit I’m no expert on teaching and technology, but my read of the situation is that we’re not yet at a point where this technology actually aids learning rather than just speeding it up. Typing notes on a laptop doesn’t inherently enhance the quality of it. Nor does reading a book on a Kindle versus in print. On the other hand, I’ve got no problem playing relevant video clips in class, or incorporating music, or what have you.

7 10 2011
Reading is a solitary experience. Learning isn’t. « More or Less Bunk

[…] all the nasty things I’ve written about Kindles recently, at least the old version of the device allowed for […]

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