It all became tricky when trying to read (comfortably, the thought asserted) “The Disappeared,” the piece on Salman Rushdie in the latest issue of The New Yorker. I tell myself I will read it in each device I have and in print, and see what works best. I ignore the Macbook Air as trite and move on to the iPad (“The New iPad”, echoing the relationship between New York and York). The New Yorker on iPad is a hulking beast and doesn’t lend itself to casual use: every issue has to be “downloaded,” all 130 or so megabytes of it, before you can peruse it. So I do. The progress bar starts to move and I can guess that the thing is coming down at half a megabyte a minute, a tenth of what my connection should allow, but that is irrelevant here. The issue is arriving at a speed that makes it feel as if there’s a physical process involved that is heavier, somehow more involved, than what it really is. It strikes me as a stunningly anachronistic concept to hang on to. It’s almost as if someone at the magazine was interpolating the notion that this magazine should be delivered to the reader that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it will be into a digital world that hasn’t as much discarded the concept as never really seen it as relevant and anything more than a temporary annoyance on the road to a future were everything is instantaneously here, no matter where it comes from and where here is.
At any other time, I would have walked away muttering at the metaphor, but I want to read this article and I am committed to this experiment and so I wait. In the meantime I wonder if I should instead read, first, from the actual magazine which the mailman also delivers, but suddenly I can’t find it. Curses! The issue finally arrives. Tap. Wait. It loads. There’s an ad of some sort. I swipe left into some other article. This always happens to me when reading The New Yorker on iPad. The magazine is organized in some sort of grid, ever-present but invisible, with articles on columns and article pages on rows (shouldn’t it be the other way around? or is it because it’s in landscape mode?). No matter, somehow through swipes and taps performed but unremembered I end up at the main index page, and tap on the Rushdie article. Off we go.
I relax into reading.
It’s only about three pages in that the battery alert pops up. I can’t remember the last time this happened, but it’s happening now, naturally. Fine, ok. Plug in the iPad. Look for the next vessel. How about the Nexus 7? I go find it and after the usual fumbling for the small etch of plastic that will turn it on (a hidden power button being one of the few features that the 7 shares, improbably, with the Kindle Fire HD) I press. Nothing. Did I not do it right? Again. Nothing. Again… but this time I am paying more attention and I notice a tiny tiny TINY block of text at the top left of the screen, block of text in block letters like a 1980s arcade game. Something about the battery. Et tu, 7? I want to exclaim, but decide that I’ll leave that for a more momentous occasion. I just plug it in and move on to the Kindle, also known as the Kindle Fire HD.
At last, I know this one has a full battery, but I also know it doesn’t have, and may not even support, the New Yorker app, and what I need is the app, not the magazine, which is also available as a Kindle subscription but can’t (won’t) acknowledge that I am already a subscriber. I trigger search, which in trying to allow to search for everything, apps, newsstand, books, web, etc., has managed to be less convenient by obscuring obviousness with a jumble of choices. The first search fails, trying again I end up finding the Kindle magazine subscription, another one leads, somehow, to a search of books that match the term, and on the fourth try the app appears. I am taken to an Amazon purchase page that says this is free, and I marvel briefly at the idea that even if something is free, we still apparently have to purchase it, which I’m pretty sure is a mangling of the term… no matter. Fine. I purchase it. This forwards me to another screen with app details, the “cloud” view of amazon apps where I can tap another button to install. Yes, please. Install already. Tap, nothing happens. Delayed response? Tap again. Twice. Suddenly the button grays out and another progress bar is moving along.
The clock tells me that by now it’s been some twenty minutes of this existential void that is fumbling through the physical/digital landscape of tablets. And, I tell myself, I know exactly what I’m looking for, I know exactly what I want to install, from where, why. And it still takes this long. Not a good sign. Perhaps knowledge puts me at a disadvantage here, perhaps not knowing would just allow me to frustrate faster and then leave the thing be and go for a walk. How much am I paying for this…? While I’m pondering this the app has finished installing, and the button now says Open. Helpfully, there is also a notification that says the same and invites me to open the app as well. Thanks, invisible leprechauns! Got it. Open it is.
Inside, the magazine pretends to be all there and ready, like on iPad, but I know it isn’t. I know that the way to make this work is to look for the tiny “Sign In” text, top-left, really a hyperlink or frameless button if you will, that allows you to access your subscription. Ok. Tap. Keyboard appears, and a pathetically small box with scrawny fields where I am to input a username (really an email) and a password. The first attempt fails — but I typed it properly, I think. Careful inspection, meaning device nearly pressing against my nose to discern the distance between letters, shows that the system has helpfully split up the email address in two in the middle of the hostname. The leprechauns are working against me now. There’s a space, imperceptible almost, but there all the same. I try to tap to delete it, but the field doesn’t allow it. Tap-hold pulls up no loupe, instead, there’s a menu of choices that are all wrong for the moment — select all, cut, copy, and such. Tap again and even though there’s no cursor I decide that delete will probably do what I want. I delete all the way back to the space, eliminate it, type again. Sign in. Success.
Now, I must download the magazine again, this time into the Kindle, all 130 megabytes of it, so, tap and wait as the bits flow in. Here’s why the physical metaphor overload is not a good idea, I’d like to tell whoever thought of this. While the thing downloads, I go make myself some coffee.
— oOo —
After I’ve read the article, which is, incidentally, extremely good, I have no energy or interest left to waste time in tussling with the other devices. They are charging, anyway. Beyond the actual content of the article, what I’ve learned isn’t much, and I resist the easy path of thinking that the publishing and technology choices the New Yorker people have made are the main culprit. A different version of the experiment has been ongoing; with various publications in various forms, including The New York Times, the Atlantic… discovery, browsing, navigation all working differently in each medium… more notes on that another time.
At the moment though, the most interesting thing seems to be that the mechanics of the software and devices broke in loudly at every step of the way, and, if I wanted to just read the article, experiment be damned, I would have had to go through pretty much the same thing — or jump on the computer. An equal time of fussing about, wasted really, orthogonal to that which was the purpose — reading. It’s not just a matter of this magazine or that device because to truly make something disappear and minimize its mediating, the medium would have to have a humility that few in our modern media seem to have. Who has it? HBO comes to mind. But a lot of the web seems to be incredibly insecure in its loud, overbearing jumble of advertising, cross-promoting and social network plugin obsession. I recognize that the source of security in the example and counterexample, HBO and a lot of the web, is rooted in revenue streams and business models and the demand for revenue and profit. It’s there nevertheless. That it has a source proximate or directly on top of that third rail of online businesses can’t be an excuse. Something has to change, no?
— oOo —
And this is really what I’m wondering about: how in our zeal for enshrining a winning ecosystem for the digital world, the ultimate purpose of all of this technology, all this effort, is somehow getting lost. To some degree, making the devices and software truly disappear and make way for the content is something that just isn’t all that common. Neither Android nor iOS, stand-ins for Google and Apple, do this well; both have put too much effort into exposing and making known the boundaries of their respective boxes– boxes in a Kantian sense (with apologies to Kant for stretching the metaphor). An ongoing battle requires battle lines to be drawn, and this isn’t really helping.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I keep coming back to something has to change. If what we build is so obsessed in getting in the way of what we build it for and constantly congratulates itself in how good a job it is doing in ways big and small, we will make slow progress. A hammer that advertises itself as such every time you pick it up gets old quickly.