Embodied content: or, Thoughts on ebooks after spilling coffee on a real book
[As you can tell, I’m really digging this Dr Strangelove-style formatting for all of my post titles lately. Anyway]
So I just splashed some coffee all over my hardcover of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a book on my nightstand that I’m alternating between devouring and slowly savoring.
- First reaction: this
- Second reaction: “This, while somewhat sucky, illustrates why I can’t see myself ever seriously getting on board with ebooks.”
Ebooks are sorta fun in the superficial way that any new sci-fi-ey technology is fun, like augmented reality. And in certain very narrow contexts, like when I’m on a long trip, I often pine for them. But mostly I find them (and their increasing, overheated popularity/significance) off-putting and vaguely sinister. Allow me to indulge in some pointy-headed armchair philosophizing:
Spilling the coffee on my nice new hardcover didn’t make me think “aw fuck, my book is ruined,” but rather “Heh, now every time I re-read that book and see that huge stain I’ll remember that silly mistake, and how funny/ridiculous it was that I screamed “FUUUUUUCK” at the top of my lungs for a split second (did my neighbors hear me? I do that a lot during the workweek too — do they think a crazy person lives upstairs?), and how it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been loving the book so much that it was a permanent fixture on my nightstand at a specific point in my life when I was newly married without kids in Brooklyn and had time to leisurely read stuff on Sunday mornings, and how I had bought the book on impulse in Manhattan one day after a particularly grueling session with my therapist because I wanted a story I could escape into,” and so on and so on.
Books are physical objects that (like all physical objects) have their own stories that link to other stories in your own life. They are not just “content”… they’re embodied content. The “bodies” are not just arbitrary containers — they have unique histories that are valuable and meaningful in their own right.
In contrast, if I had spilled coffee on an ebook, it would just be broken. (Or rather, the container would be.) I would have thought (in worst case scenario) “aw fuck, my book is ruined” — or more accurately, “aw fuck, my current means of reading any book at all is ruined.”
Ebooks are just content. They’re not embodied, they’re encoded. Damage the decoder, lose the content (temporarily or permanently). The story stops there — but then again, it always does when you flip the “off” switch anyway.
Does encoding content have to mean disembodying it, and does disembodying it have to mean sealing it off from the possibility of having those valuable, meaningful “extra” (hi)stories associated with it? I’m not enough of a semiotician to know, but in my own practical experience, it sure seems that way. Saying “there’s no way to dog-ear an ebook” can seem pat, but there’s more going on there than knee-jerk Luddite-ism.
At this stage in our society’s evolution, encoded content is fundamentally disposable and difficult to “fix” value to (monetary or otherwise). Embodied content is fundamentally durable, and is intuitively simple to “fix” value to — because the value isn’t just “for” the content itself, but for all the shared connections and stories (aka, “meaning”) that travel along with that body in its physical past, present, and future.
And that’s my inability to “get down with” ebooks (as a mainstream replacement for “books”) in a nutshell. Besides the fact that they’re expensive and fragile, I just can’t help but feel I’d be losing more than I’d be gaining. I’d gain portability and links to other content, but I’d lose embodiment and connection to other stories… and I daresay, other meaning.
[Postscript: Obviously it may not always be the case that disembodied/encoded content (or anything) is intuitively difficult for us to fix value to, and Kevin Kelly points the way in this brilliant essay. But even those “generative values” are of a completely different kind than the values we’re “used to.” I just hope the two can peacefully and generatively co-exist, rather than be caught up in some fake and ultimately destructive zero-sum battle royale cooked up by futurists. Embodied values will never go away — unless we all encode/upload our minds post-Singularity — but the dismay I feel (crystallized in the evolving importance of ebooks) is just that these embodied values themselves (as opposed to any particular means of embodiment, like scrolls — after all, I don’t really wish I had more scrolls than books in my life) will become ghettoized in mainstream culture.]
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