My Shiny New eBrain

I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to start with a reference to Gutenberg. In 1439, movable type was invented, and blah blah blah. Add in a few more "blahs" and you'll have covered the pamphlet, mentioned Penguin pocketbook editions, thrown in a sly reference to papyrus (a better, simpler time), and arrived here, today, at the Kindle.

The Kindle, for the lucky few of you who read The American Prospect Online from the comfort of your well-appointed cave and have thus escaped the buzz machine, is Amazon.com's new digital book reading gizmo. Its introduction was heralded by a Newsweek cover story, a flood of blog commentary, snarky parodies, and encouraging words from James Patterson and Toni Morrison. The eBook revolution, so long expected and so inexplicably delayed, seems, once again, imminent.

And maybe it is. The operative analogy everyone is using is the iPod, but that actually understates the case. The iPod does not make music sound better or rock harder. Its great leap forward was simple, portable, storage. Now you could carry more music around via a gleaming, elegant device that was much likelier to get you robbed. 

What the iPod did not do was change, in any substantial way, your relationship, or your interaction, with music. The Kindle -- and its successors and competitors, some of which might not share the Kindle's potentially fatal flaw of closed, proprietary formats -- might.

There is much to be said for the book: its pleasing concreteness, its physicality, the crackle of its pages, its portability -- all have evolved over centuries to create an exquisitely designed entertainment device and information transmission system, among the most advanced in the world. So far as the entertainment goes, it is hard to see how the book could be bettered. Curling up with a hardcover and a hot drink is a rare joy. But as a device used for the collection and dissemination of data, the book does have a weakness: our brains.

If our minds worked more like recording devices, silently whirring in the background as they absorbed, categorized, and stored all the information we took in, the book would be an excellent vehicle for the data we seek. But our minds do not work like that. They are sieves, with the holes and hooks seemingly randomly distributed. Few are immune to the frustration of glancing at our bookshelf and realizing that a tome we read a year ago has disappeared into the tangled mess of our grey matter, the information and key arguments so fully lost it's as if they never were. I have, in fact, talked to prominent authors who complained of an even worse shock: opening an old book they had written only to feel as if they were reading something entirely new.

Over the years, many of us have developed ad hoc mitigation strategies. Notes scribbled in the margins, a complex but tightly defined set of symbols and underlines meant to signal the import of useful passages, a psychedelic rainbow of highlighted sentences, multicolored sticky notes jutting out from every sixth page, key arguments written down in a central set of notebooks somewhere, anything to more effectively keep hold of those gorgeous words and facts and paragraphs that were our reward for spending hours interpreting small masses of type.

The Kindle promises to take us much further. Annotations, highlighted passages, and random notes can be centrally stored, searched, and automatically attached to the book. The text itself becomes searchable, offering up its secrets in response to a well-chosen keyword, readying an answer to our mind's most common informational query: "Remember when you read that … that … thing?" This central repository of all we have thought or noticed or felt while reading promises to give us access to what physical books have always sought: A more perfect version of our own brains.

On some level, this is what Google does now. But the mind offered isn't ours, it's the hive's. You have access to part of my brain through my blog, access to a bit of Bob Kuttner's through The American Prospect's archives, access to an insane person's through lolcats. Indeed, in recent years, services like del.icio.us, Digg, Reddit, Wikipedia, and others have sought to formalize that feature, asking large communities to come together in order to create, sort, rank, and archive information.

Devices like the Kindle promise to do that for us. They pledge to archive our personal intellectual histories, make them sortable, searchable, accessible, and, most importantly, permanent. They will not replace paper. More than likely, nothing will. But they will allow paper to focus on what it is best at -- delivering an enjoyable experience -- and relieve it from it what it is worst at -- transmitting large amounts of information to imperfect receivers.

And as the information-transmitting task falls to a medium better suited to it, documents seeking to broadly inform will change as well. Authors will update books as new information becomes available, primary sources will be linked throughout the text, communities of readers will be linked together so the text stands next to an enlivening and enriching discussion of its arguments rather than alone in your hands, readers will vote on the bits that are most important and they will be highlighted or marked as you travel through the text. Or maybe some of that won't happen, and other things that now seem unimaginable will. Greater flexibility with form will allow us to tailor the delivery method for content. Our computers and electronic readers will honor our books in a way we could not: by remembering them.