Get it All

Photo Courtesty Bob n Renee @ I remember being a teenage drummer in the late 80’s and early 90’s, looking through issues of Modern Drummer, the bible for kids such as I. And I remember looking at images of these strange, flat disks with cords hooked up in what approximated the shape of the drumset I knew and loved with big-name drummers sitting proudly behind them. People would read over my shoulder and say, “that’s the end of drummers! Now that they can have a drum machine do what you guys do, they don’t need you anymore. And soon they just flat-out won’t need musicians at all.”

Some part of me found this whole line hysterical, but a large part of me worried they might be right. What would happen once a newer, presumably better technology came into prominence?

We’ve had a few decades to learn the truth and the truth is just fine, thank you. Drummers are still very much needed and revered in the musical community, as are musicians of all stripes. Yes, there is a large segment of the music landscape dominated by electronic instruments, but even in these genres, when a really nuanced musical touch is called for, they call in the instrumentalist. And as it turns out, just because you don’t play a traditional analog instrument does not in any way make you less of a musician or artist.

What is the lesson here, and how does it apply to eBooks like the Barnes and Nobel Nook or the Amazon Kindle?

Fundamentally, there is a difference between the evolution of a need-fulfilling technological niche and the further development of new needs to fulfill. There are certain needs which are common to humans and even life itself for which science and technology have provided solutions. There are also human needs which never existed in the past that are a reflection of our technological and intellectual growth, and where these needs arise, new technological niches follow. eBooks fall under the category of digital media, generally, and while they certainly fulfill a role similar to books, they do not altogether replace that need because they occupy a different set of spaces.

Consider for example the common need to travel: even plants need to get seeds away from the parent tree in order to spread their influence. Humans have invented shoes, domesticated horses and other animals, invented chariots and eventually stage coaches to get where they need to go. Ultimately, we get to our modern era, when a curious thing occurs: our need to travel has cleaved off in many separate facets. Trains and ships have existed for many years without replacement because they fulfill a role of bulk transportation. Automobiles have not been replaced by air travel because air travel is only efficient in groups over relatively long distances.

It is true that one does not see horse-drawn carriages as a practical means of transportation anymore, save for a few isolated Amish societies. At least not in most industrialized settings. In rugged terrain like Afghanistan or even the Grand Canyon, however, four feet remain the only truly reliable means of transportation. So even in the case of technologies urban societies have long-forgotten, sometimes usefulness does not go away simply because something newer has come along.

Scrolls definitely disappeared once bound books became available. But books did not get replaced by radio. Radio did not get destroyed by television. Television remains irritatingly powerful in our Internet society. And after all this time, what reason have we to believe that books will get replaced by the Nook? One good power outage should disabuse us of that notion.

Hey! Who remembers the “Scream Sheets” of William Gibson’s future? All those disposable computer screens that could bring you the latest in the news? Well, Amazon’s going to be the first one to try and market such a device with the new Kindle: a wirelessly-connected little PDA type thang that connects to their service for free.

Kindle will allow you to connect to Amazon, find the book or newspaper you want to read, buy it and read it from anywhere. You don’t need a wireless Internet connection service like Verizon or AT&T, because Kindle comes with its own “Whispernet” wireless network. Plus you get free access to Wikipedia: Kindle: Amazon’s New Wireless Reading Device: Kindle Store

# Revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper. # Simple to use: no computer, no cables, no syncing.

OK, that’s cool. But now for the down side. . .

For one, this Whispernet is available through Sprint’s network, which is fine if you live in one of those “good zones” of Sprint’s network. But I bailed on Sprint for the simple fact that I had the worst time getting reception with them in Rochester. I could literally walk ten feet from my house in either direction and get a signal, but directly in front of my house, no go. Now, I realize there was probably some sort of microwave interference in the area, but my Verizon phone never had the same problem.

So, the network is a problem. A second problem is the volatility of the media. This may not matter to some, but I guess I’m old fashioned enough to want to be able to keep a book for a while, whereas if your Kindle becomes kindling, all those books you read are gone. I’ve never been able to quite comprehend the people who have music stored on their iPods without any kind of backup, now we’re going to do it with print media as well.

But the biggest thing is: that damned thing is $400! If you’ve got $400 to spend on something you can only read books on – and you really like reading books that much – knock yourself out. But it seems to me that the entire purpose of those “Scream sheets” of William Gibson’s fantasy was that they were cheap and disposable. If you left your scream sheet on the subway because you were too busy fiddling with your latest “Teach Yourself the Mambo” sub dermal chip, no biggie.

But unless your Paris Hilton on a bender, you’re probably going to want to keep your Kindle where you can find it.