Thursday, 13 August 2009

Review - Sony Reader PRS-505

Reading is something of a static technique. The last cultural revolution in reading prior to the digital age was the invention of the Gutenberg Press which ushered in the analog age of reading by allowing cheap manufacture of books and leading to increased education of the lower classes. But that was in the 1400s and until the late 20th Century, books and reading remained the same culturally and individually: for centuries, people have learned to read as children and then continued in the same fashion to the grave.

That is why the Sony Reader comes across as a refreshing piece of technology: it injects a little dynamism into the static nature of reading. It makes reading slightly different and breaks up the monotony of custom.

When people talk about ebook readers, there are generally the following stock problems:-

1. The wonderful tactile nature of books – feel, smell, skimmability, etc.

2. The sensation of ownership that accompanies a hefty paperback, a brand new hardback, or a treasured personal library.

3. The mantra “Why fix what isn’t broken?”

I understand all these concerns. I love books, I love reading, and I love writing. I work in libraries; I studied philosophy (a book-intensive subject); I have two bookcases stuffed to bursting within a square metre of me; I set the background of this blog to emulate the comfortable look of yellowed paper. It is precisely the love of books that led me to buy a Sony Reader: specifically the desire to carry 100+ books in a tiny device – the convenience of carrying my library with me.

Thus far the device has not disappointed: it is light enough to hold for extended periods, the text is readable, and the menu is simple to navigate. Although the Reader functions better when presenting dedicated ebook formats (ePub, LRF), it handles PDFs well enough: a necessity when you want to read PDFs which, because of headers, footers, or weird formatting, won’t convert properly to a text-based format. The page-turning on ordinary PDFs is not as slow as some sources led me to fear. The only format I’ve had trouble with is RTF. For some reason RTFs seem more susceptible to data errors and even if successfully uploaded they take a long time to format upon first reading.

The most surprising advantage that has emerged is the ability to read with only one hand. It may not seem like much of an advantage and in his interview with Jeff Bezos, Jon Stewart laughed at the idea that the Kindle allows one-handed reading. But it actually makes a big difference: the ability to read while making a cup of coffee or checking your organiser is quite liberating. No more are we shackled by the necessity of using two hands to read. This has always been a problem for me since my reading tastes tend towards hefty tomes that threaten to hobble your wrists or break the straps on those faux-dilapidated student bags that are so counter-culture fashionable. Now I can read my massive fantasy sagas or my complete philosophical treatises anywhere.

It is too early to say whether the Sony Reader will become a fixture for me: an object as necessary as my phone, my USB drive, or my iPod. It’s great to be able to read files that were previously trapped in my computer and download a daily newspaper and carry hundreds of my books around with me. Books have a special charm but now, like music and video before it, text is succumbing to advancement of technology.

Technology marches onward. Ever onward.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

"Self-service or self-serving?"

Today in the Daily Express, Nigel Burke expressed his disgust at the ubiquity self-service machines and asked for a return to being served by “saucy checkout girls”. As is probably clear, there were many things to be appalled by in the editorial including the complete lack of argument for the disposal of self-service machines: Mr. Burke was guilty of a slippery slope fallacy and generalising from his inability to use self-service machines to everyone's supposed inability. But the factor that made me curl my lip in revulsion was the sense of entitlement that the article expressed: the idea that another human being ought to do a task for me that I could do myself.

A couple of weeks ago, I was doing some work experience at an inner-city law firm. It was situated in a building where various businesses rent single offices and their respective employees have an unspoken pact to never smile at one another in the corridors. These offices shared a communal kitchen and after enjoying a hot beverage, I was told to leave my dirty cup and spoon in the sink. “Who cleans the dirty stuff?” I asked. My temporary boss replied with a shrug.

Later that week I discovered that there was a cleaning lady who washed all the cups for the whole floor. It made me feel bad to have a complete stranger cleaning up after me and so during my time there I missed out on a number of hot beverages. I couldn’t bring myself to leave a cup that I had made dirty out on the side for someone else to clean: why should it be their responsibility? What pressing work prevented me from cleaning my own cup? Why should I let someone do my work for me?

My moral code could be broadly classified as utilitarian: I believe in minimising suffering as much as possible. This means that if it is possible for me to have a minimal amount of suffering by cleaning my own cup rather than allowing someone else to suffer by adding to a large pile of cups to clean, I will do the former. Unlike Mr. Burke, I don’t believe that it is the purpose of the working class to provide inconsequential little luxuries to the middle class. I don’t believe that someone should suffer minimum wage for a task I can perform myself. I don’t believe that one person should do all the work if that work can be spread over a number of people.

Until machines can take over all of our tasks and take all the suffering onto their non-sentient super-consciousnesses, my utilitarianism and my pride will keep me cleaning up after myself and using self-service machines. The day I become lazy enough to desire a human servant is the day I lose my soul.