Today a great big truck almost ran me down as I cowered in our frail Honda Civic, the one whose engine I replaced the other month. What a waste of a nearly new reconditioned engine it would have been not to mention human life if that truck had continued its path of lumbering ferocity. But its driver, far from having not seen us, knew we were there and wanted to just give us a little existential thrill, a near death experience before breakfast.
However this is not what caught my eye, which was: that truck has really old fashioned low-tech cartlike axles. That was really what I was thinking as the monster ground into view and loomed over us before shuddering to a halt millimetres from the car’s thin shell. The truck was a huge one used to haul pulverized stone. It was new but the design- the heavy axles and thick cart springs dated back centuries- this is how wheeled vehicles have been built ever since the invention of steel. But strip away the gleam and glitter and all working trucks look like this. Saloon cars might have fancy suspension and integral body shells but when it comes to doing a job- cart springs and a cantilever ladder chassis is standard.
In other words trucks have reached their technological prime.
To attempt to improve them would be like trying to improve a table. Which is also a piece of technology, a very old one that reached its prime in prehistoric times. Actually someone did try and improve on the table in the 1970s with a design based on a flat plate of aluminium that hovered over a massive electric field generated by AC current going through specially arranged coils- the same system used for certain monorail trains. This hitech table could be any height. It could be raised or lowered with a simple dial, or even at a distance with a remote control. But strangely it never caught on. I mean never. Because tables have reached their technological prime. They do being a table better than any amount of electronics can. There is no economic, aesthetic, or even plain dumb reason why a high tech table should instantly make all normal tables redundant.
Now you see where the kindle electronic reader comes in. It’s a high-tech table. It does lots of clever things. But it misses the point completely: a book is a piece of perfected technology- it’s reached it’s prime- it can’t be bettered, except in an economic sense by being made more cheaply or aesthetically by being made more beautiful.
Of course, for academics needing to lug a trunkful of books to a remote hideaway to read- the kindle makes good sense. For anyone with a ton of reports to refer to on an aeroplane flight- it will have its use. But for people at home, who HAVE to read on screens all day it’s madness. We want a break. I edit on paper because I need variety. Humans, believe it or not kindle people, like change. And for normal folks, who enjoy the feel of flipping back and forth with no pauses, who enjoy spilling their coffee on a paperback, who enjoy turning the page over at night before turning over to sleep, who enjoy buying their three for two before their beach holiday, who like looking at books on their shelves in their library at home- well those are technological requirements the poor old kindle just can’t meet. You see, the designers made the humongous mistake of thinking that a book is just content the way a digital track is just content. But it isn’t. A book is size, shape, smell, font, font size, author’s dedication, coffee rings and ultimately something to wipe your backside on in a tight situation. Can’t wipe your ass on a kindle even if you wanted to.
And though that would have been the right note to finish on there is the final thought, that element of apology that always comes with a bad idea: ‘we’re almost there with this thing, give it a few more years and the electronic reader’ll be perfect’. Uh? Did the Sony walkman come with a caveat? Did the CD have a label saying ‘almost OK’? Did mobile phones apologise for not being good enough? Real breakthroughs are self-evident, they don’t need explaining. If people stop using tables I’ll eat my kindle.