Commodity Hardware, Commodity Culture

Peter Brantley -- September 30th, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week, Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire, it new tablet device. Fire is an amazing product with a compelling feature set, impressive technology, and the ability to secure access to a wide range of media: books, films, and music.  But I think the most amazing aspect of Amazon’s Kindle refresh was not the Fire: it was the price drop for new E-Ink models of basic Kindles to $79.00.

Commoditzing the hardware necessary to access culture translates into more widespread access to culture that is itself a commodity. Even though tablet computers enable powerfully enhanced and interactive e-books, the appeal of text-based stories is persistent; if, for no other reason, because text is cheaper. Despite my concerns about privacy, market share control of books, and proprietary formats, Amazon has been consistent with their latest product announcement: “There are two types of companies: those that work hard to charge customers more, and those that work hard to charge customers less. Both approaches can work. We are firmly in the second camp.”

That is a good thing for books, and I think potentially for libraries, because it means that a wide range of people who would have had a hard time buying an E-Ink reader at $139 — the previous price threshold for Amazon and Nook, are going to be able to afford a reader at $79.  Obviously, this is not exactly the price of a pound of coffee, but it’s within the reach of a wide range of people who have limited income. Pragmatically, it also means that if a Kindle is lost or stolen, it’s not as much of a hardship to replace it as it was before. Similarly, I am delighted that Amazon has visibly trumpeted access to the millions of free Kindle-version books that are available through the Internet Archive and Open Library. E-Reader retailers, such as Amazon and B&N, could further enhance exposure to digital reading by actively helping public and school libraries acquire and manage readers for their patrons and students.

This is an important opportunity to encourage people to become avid readers. B&N has demonstrated admirable support for this market; Amazon, not so much.  But with cheaper devices, there is a new opportunity for Amazon to help people acquire reading habits early. And that is clearly in their interest, as well as in society’s.

Still, if I had to find fault, it’s with our collective imagination when it comes to e-readers. Simple e-ink devices are primarily “pull” not “push.” Although they support annotation, there’s very little way for people to be creative through the medium of reading.  I am not thinking of real-time Facebook integration, but the ability for people to be geekily cool, to have the ability to manipulate simple, useful tools for both fun, and sharing.

So far, it seems we haven’t yet learned some important lessons from studies of digital consumption and production of culture. The OLPC project teaches us that well-conceived, simple technology designed with an eye toward collaboration creates a powerful platform for us to learn together. With our growing comfort with networked computing, we could easily provide new opportunities for many people to build culture, people would who otherwise would have less access than their more privileged peers.

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