I’m delighted that less sycophantic views of the career of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs are being voiced – here on Overland, and also in the Guardian – and it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one bewildered by the businessman’s glorification as a ‘visionary’ and a ‘creative genius’. While it may be uncouth to speak ill of the dead, I would like to begin this blog by citing journalist Tanya Gold’s view of Jobs’ consumer gadgets as objects which, far from revolutionising the world, have simply made it easier for people to ‘routinely ignore each other in public’. The now common pathological indulgence in the virtual stimuli provided ad infinitum via iPhones has made us less connected to our physical environments and has, according to Gold, made it possible for us to ‘communicate [our] indifference better’. If so, could it be said that e-book readers such as iPads, despite their appearance of making books and writing more accessible, have in fact made us more indifferent toward books and have turned us into worse readers?
In his superbly prophetic 1997 book The Plague of Fantasies, the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek observes that the much hyped ‘interactivity’ of cyberspace is accompanied by ‘its shadowy and much more uncanny supplement/double, the notion of “interpassivity”’. According to Žižek, our belief that ‘with the new electronic media, the passive consumption of a text or a work of art is over’ is supported by the crucial fantasy of the electronic medium itself transcending the position of the object and becoming a subject that actively ‘takes from me, deprives of me, my own passive reaction of satisfaction … so it is the object itself that “enjoys the show”’. In other words, for us to become interactive participants in the electronic universe, an electronic object (a computer screen, the internet, etc) is subjectified – or, if one must, humanised – so that it can absorb and sublate the passivity of our traditional role as mere spectators. The electronic equipment, in short, takes on a life of its own.
I believe a similar interpassivity could result in the e-reader becoming a subject capable of depriving people of the pleasure of reading. Here, to paraphrase Jacques Lacan’s notion à la Žižek, the electronic gadget may become the subject supposed to read. The thing’s owner, compelled by the fantasy of limitless electronic interactivity offered by the object, is likely to transfer her desire for passive satisfaction (that is, the simple pleasure of reading) onto the inanimate thing that is now no longer just an electronic device but an infinitely erudite subject which, in the words of one e-reader enthusiast, ‘allows you to carry a library in your pocket’; the e-reader becomes, in the true sense of the word, the reader. The iPad, the Kindle and the like, by virtue of being entrusted with so many very cheap (and in many cases, free) ebooks and other digital publications, come to take up, contain and hence enjoy these electronic texts, and therefore the gadget’s owner himself is relieved/deprived of the chore/pleasure of dealing with – i.e. reading – the texts. And it follows that this freedom/deprivation would make the owner of an e-reader read fewer books.
It is very difficult to find reliable statistical proof to confirm or negate a correlation between a rise in e-reader consumption and a decline in reading among e-reader users. Surveys conducted into the effects of e-readers on reading habits are mostly rapturous about the supposedly beneficial effects of these devices as these surveys are almost all conducted by the very companies that manufacture e-readers. When such data is collected by putatively impartial researchers, the analyses and interpretations of results are often always pro-business, i.e. favourable to the agendas of electronics manufacturing giants and publishing companies determined to maximise profits by eliminating the cost of printing and distribution.
According to a United Business Media report, for example, the results of a recent poll in the United States supposedly prove that ‘those who have e-Readers, in fact, read more’. This statement is one among many extremely problematic hypotheses in this report. The e-reader owners surveyed had most probably been avid book readers prior to purchasing their e-readers – hence their purchasing an e-reader in the first place – and they would have read more than non e-reader users with or without the electronic equipment. The answers to the only question asked of the participants in this poll concerning ‘change in reading habits’ does not at all confirm e-readers as reading enhancement devices: 62 per cent of the e-reader users surveyed believed that the gadget had not compelled them to read more than before; and of these, 19 per cent answered that they read less than before or not as readily as before.
None of this will dissuade Amazon, Sony and, of course, Apple from inundating bookshops, electronics stores and, increasingly, supermarkets and even pharmacies with their e-readers. These corporations have already gambled more money than a person like me could possibly care to imagine on a future in which what is referred to – rather tragicomically – as p-books (yes, ‘paper books’) become a thing of the past. That the very devices necessary for reading non-‘p-books’ may result in people reading less and our societies becoming less literate, less sophisticated and less civilised is not a concern for celebrity CEOs of these companies. This is one among many reasons why I’m not mourning Steve Jobs’ death.