Taxation without Representation

Revolutions announce their arrival in subtle ways. Last month, two friends were visiting from Florida. Now in their early 80s, they have been living there since they retired more than twenty years ago. They play tennis and bridge, travel (with a preference for being away during the hurricane season), and have a remarkably good time.

As consumers, they’re not the demographic you think about when you think of Early Adopter technology. Yet they were the third couple over 60 I’ve met in the last few months who travel with a Kindle. It’s their way to easily take their reading with them.

You’ve probably heard of the Kindle (even if you haven’t seen one), but if you haven’t, it is the most successful version to date of a technology some have dreamed about for decades, the electronic book. The first version had 6-inch pages like a paperback and holds some 1,500 titles. The newest version has a 9.7-inch page and holds 3,500 titles.

Books can be purchased and downloaded anywhere that Sprint offers service. You can also subscribe to a variety of magazines, newspapers and blogs. Basically, you can do all your reading with a single hand-held device and suffer a lot less eyestrain than you would trying to do the same reading on a back-lit computer page.

Is Kindle the ultimate e-book? I don’t know. Sony has one, but it hasn’t done very well. Last week it announced two new versions. Prior to that announcement the Gadget Lab page on the Wired website listed five other e-books that are either available now or will be in a matter of months. So there are many contenders---and that’s today. One, the Fujitsu Flepia, offers color. It is available only in Japan and costs $1,000.

So the printed page may soon be another quaint memory, like fax machines or cars without air conditioning.

Some readers will scoff at the notion that paper books and periodicals will be displaced by something electronic. But it will happen. It will seem like a long transition, and then it will suddenly be over. Printed books will become accessories for interior decoration, collector items, or wood pulp looking for a new use. Skeptics should consider two examples of earlier improbable changes:

  • Digital cameras. Eighteen years ago they barely existed. Film buffs opined that it would be decades, perhaps never, before a digital camera would have a pixel density and cost that was competitive with traditional film. Today, film is for artists. Digital memory is cheaper than film, point-and-shoot digital cameras take 12-megabyte pictures, and hard drives are cluttered with billions of unexamined digital photos.
  • The PDA. Apple’s Newton, the first PDA, failed dismally. But the Palm succeeded and was cross-bred with a mobile phone. Later, it was reborn as the iPhone. Thirty million iPhones have been sold, and every mobile phone maker is racing to capture as many of its capabilities as possible. Its functionality has expanded enough to allow some people to eliminate a personal computer, become a game platform for others, and be a music library for others. Yet it was introduced only 2 years ago.

So it is reasonable to expect that electronic publications will displace paper publications in more than 2 years, but less than 18 years, beach reading notwithstanding.

This isn’t something I greet with glee. I’ve been carrying books around all my life, always hoping to give them the bookcase home they deserved. That finally happened about five years ago when I commissioned a local craftsman to build two beautiful hand-carved bookcases. Some of the wood, he said, came from old roof boards of the restored Adolph Bandolier house in Santa Fe, NM. The two bookcases have a total of 100 feet of shelf space, with about 11 books to a foot.

That’s 1,100 books.

All of them would fit --- with room to spare for magazines, newspapers and transient books to read for entertainment--- in the smaller Kindle.

As a book lover this is definitely a “read this and weep” story. But it also portends a ubiquity of access to knowledge. It is yet another step in what Buckminster Fuller called “emphemeralization”--- the constant trend of doing more with less. Those 1,100 books probably weigh about 400 or 500 pounds. They may be replaced with a device that weighs 10.2 ounces and, trust me, the price is going to be smaller, too.

On the web:

Wired Gadget Lab:

Amazon: Kindle

January 17, 1999: The Emperor’s Clothes

Adolph Bandelier