Meanland: The obscure object of e-reading desire

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.

Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's latest books are Towards the End and Marx and Art. He's a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

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  1. I think I’m starting to enjoy Ali’s sustained campaign to prick the bubble of digital boosterism in all its forms. I’m guessing that Zizek’s use of “interpassivity” was there to emphasise how modes of cultural consumption have shifted but this in itself doesn’t necessarily guarantee a change in its essentially passive nature despite the emphasis on all that interactivity from the new digital devices. I think this is an important and useful observation.

    Ali, it seems to me, then goes onto develop the point in a slightly different way, ie that readers are transferring the “desire for passive satisfaction (that is, the simple pleasure of reading)” onto the device in the illusory promise of new interactivity and because of this are possibly precipitating a reduction in reading and perhaps literacy, sophistication and even civility (!).

    I don’t own a e-reader or “smart” phone (that adjective would seem to support Zizek’s contention) but I am aware of how the internet has transformed my reading. Part of the “distraction” it offers, for example, is to make the conversation and views of others about what I am reading much more present and immediate. Inevitably my reading of any text is broken up by this conversation and by me pursuing different lines of interest raised by a book or article. A lot of this might be distraction (interpassivity) but maybe some of it is not just distraction.

    I can’t help wondering about the conservatism (?) of a position that seems implicitly to defend the passive satisfaction derived from the simple pleasures of reading in the face of new technologies that apparently foreshadow the decline of civility (civilisation?). Isn’t there a tradition on the left from the Russian formalists through Brecht etc that would want to see the break up of this “passive satisfaction” also? Come to think of it, Brecht did see the potential of various technologies and interruptions of different kinds that could be brought to assist this progressive project.

    Why should we give over the notions of ‘interactivity’ and ‘dialogue’ and ‘distancing’ etc to the Amazons and Apples? I guess I’m wondering whether there is an opportunity here to contrast, however tentatively and provisionally, authentic and illusory notions of interactivity so as to still move beyond passive cultural consumption?

    1. Thanks, Gary. In addition to what you’ve said, Zizek’s point here (as in much of his work) is that contemporary capitalist ideology works precisely by mobilising nice-sounding notions such as interactivity (and other progressive values like multiculturalism, environmentalism, etc). In my view the sort of radical opposition to bourgeois cultural consumption you’ve very correctly identified with early 20th century avant-garde has now been co-opted by the bourgeois cultural mainstream to, among other things, empower us to consume more and more gadgets. My point is that our very relationship with these gadgets itself should be anything but passive. The original Luddites were, after all, not ‘conservative’ opponents of technological advancement, but a revolutionary working class movement (in 19th century England) who destroyed machines (mechanised looms) that were clearly aimed at making workers more disposable (by objectifying them as mere machine operators) and making bosses richer. (And haven’t we all made Jobs and co very, very rich?)

  2. The flipside to attempting to burst the bubble of digital boosterism is accidentally fighting on their territory. While undoubtedly our relationship with media and communication has changed I think there is a risk in over-emphasising interactivity and the passivity of reading.

    The nature of reading or most kinds of interactions with media are very much active. Though some hypertext theorists attempted to distinguish the supposedly passive old media against the active new media where everyone was an “author”, I think we have enough distance to see activity in both reading and playing computer games. Even the notion of interactivity is highly fraught. That is not to say it is the same kind of activity but is our relationship to writing diminished by the need to do more than just turn a page? What about the role of print that demands more than this (Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems or Exercises in Style and the works in general by members of Oulipo)?

    I do have an ereader (and an iPad which is a different breed of portable device) on which I read ~10-20%, 30% print, and the remainder is on a computer screen (mostly due to work). If anything, e-readers and even iPads reduce interactivity if we extend this to a term that also includes creativity. They are primarily designed to sell you “content” (that’s the catch-all commodified word for books, cinema, games). If you want to make apps for the iPad you need to do this on a computer (and even more specifically a Mac).

    My Kindle does one thing well and that’s displaying the book I’m reading.

    1. Thanks, Benjamin. Nice deconstruction of my argument. As I’ve argued in a previous blog here, I for one am not convinced that e-books will be supplanting print books; and if I’m right, then the e-reader’s ability to have a dramatic impact on the way everyone reads is/will be rather limited. That said, it is important to think about the ways in which the e-reader could affect the reading habits of ‘heavy (e-reader) users’ especially if, say, our sagacious politicians were to make it mandatory for every school kid to have an e-reader or some such as part of an insincere — and I’d argue misguided — attempt at appearing ‘progressive’.

  3. If I found myself writing: “It is very difficult to find reliable statistical proof to confirm or negate a correlation between…” then I’d probably not take such a fierce stance. Just a thought I had along the way…. It is on the minds of many; however, and I thank you for adding to the conversation (that I’m following along on several fronts, my own mind nowhere near made up on any of this.)

  4. There is nothing like the smell of a good book (at the risk of sentimentalism) but it is still just another way to escape dealing with real people, been practising that one since my kids were babies.
    On another note, I like the idea recently proposed by scientists that kindles weigh ever so slightly more when you upload a book. How beautiful is that.

  5. I know myself if I suspend all e-interactivity I read more books (what is generally labelled fiction: not that I know the difference). How and what sort of metaphysical attachment (or not) might accompany e-reading is purely speculative and a position too far at this stage, for mine. Interesting to speculate, yes; but it is future generations who will decide- or have the decision made for them. Now I’ll go and spin some vinyl: the old stuff can be picked up cheaply but the new stuff is horrendously expensive.

  6. Firstly (which I missed in my earlier comment), great post.

    Ali, I kind of want to respond to a number of your replies. I have a lot of sympathy for the Luddites but I also think we need to understand the technology in its social context (science is neutral but its aims and implementations are not). Yes, most things err towards bad under capitalism and the products generated by capitalism are in constant conflict between purely maximising profit and being useful (TV, mobile phones, etcetera). For the Luddites the mechanical looms were a problem because they destroyed the basis for the skilled textiles artisans and workers (as a skilled IT worker this is a regular risk to me). But manufacturing technologies are not in themselves the problem — they are a good thing. They’ve reduced the amount of time it takes to produce what humans need, eliminated unsafe jobs, and provide for a potential better future society. It’s just that the system undoes all of this.

    Tablet devices have been useful to nurses that visit the elderly, ereaders will save the backs of high school students from numerous and heavy textbooks, and mobile phones and iPads were used to record the police violence internationally at the Occupy protests (and publish it instantly).

    The idea that reading can be disrupted is also an argument for the activity of reading, if it were truly passive it would be no more difficult than wearing a t-shirt (and so undisruptible). So as an activity the threat to reading comes from other activities (and in this I agree with Gary’s comment about distraction). These other activities are the demands placed on us primarily by communication media (phone, social media, email) but also the opportunity to read and reply to blog posts like this any time of day or night. In which case we’ve already lost the battle given the ubiquity of computers.

    I haven’t read Zizek’s The Plague of Fantasies (though you’ve helped put it on my list) but the context, 1997, was a period of overspruiked interactivity. Perhaps I can understand the argument for the subject transferral (though not agree) onto an interactive piece or a piece of eliterature (the text being the object of the writing / artwork itself) but it seems that the physical technology only facilitates this (that the computer is merely an extension of the writing / artwork or the reader—like two people meeting on a bridge).

    In contrast to the “interactivity” of eliterature (Interactive Fiction, digital poetry) the ebook and ereader (not the iPad) mostly lacks “interactivity” (or “interpassivity”?–even with hyperlinked footnotes) and is a restricted environment.

    Reading an ebook is a very strange experience. The interface itself, apart from the text, changes very rarely so is quite forgettable. This has a less than real feeling because when you read a print book you remember the shape, the thickness, the fold in the page of where you were. The ebook discards all these aspects of the book as object and so the only object left is the non-material narrative. Aside from the activity of reading it is one step away from having the narrative (either fictional, non-fictional) injected into your brain.

  7. I read The Sea and Chesil Beach via Kindle(as much as I hate the plugs)before reading them in Book form. If a novel takes you, no image, no matter the material form through which they’re read. Perhaps terminology is the problem: an ebook is not a book as such. A Kindle is a qualitatively different material object to the book. I would have loved to have experienced the reading activity being one step away from having the narrative… injected into(my)brain but it didn’t happen that way for me. On first reading the Kindle as material object existed; next time the book: and on each reading those two marvellous ways of telling stories.

  8. I have increasingly felt that my advancing years were consigning me to an era, made long redundant, of technological ignorance. Ali’s analysis was like ‘manna from heaven’ in a desert prevailed over by the allure of techno-science’s supposed activity, vitality, confidence and diversity. We are told to submit to our technological destiny as our inevitable becoming. It is no longer enough just to keep up with technology; we are to be subsumed by it. As the growth of the technology/information juggernaut accelerates, our only option to avoid being crushed by it is to become ‘faster’ ourselves; to become more efficient and accomplished for our allotted consumer role. To be ‘technologically savvy’ and consumer-ready may simply mean a more mechanistic human being; knowledgeable as far its access to software and electronic media allows it to be, reliable in a mechanistic kind of way, functionally conscious, but in fact also spiritually and creatively empty. As neurologist Susan Greenfield argues, the emphasis on process over content, or method over meaning, becomes addictive, significantly altering a brain that is “exquisitely malleable”. She warns that “individuality could be obliterated in favour of a passive state, reacting to a flood of incoming sensations.” The spoon feeding via computer menu options may contribute to the creation of thoughtlessness marked by a total absorption in the present, and to the inability to reflect. Thoughtful and creative books and literary mags nurture free-ranging inquiry and reflection; they safeguard beauty and sensual intimacy, linguistic and visual imagination.
    Despite all this, this is not a rejection of technology; I use it gratefully everyday. We just need to be aware of its extraordinary power that can be overwhelming.

  9. Returning to the comments on Ali Alizadeh’s Meanland post for the first time since making my last comment I can see now the correctness of Shelley’s comment about routinely avoiding the comments of others (a point made in Ali’s post), of which I was part. Apologies to those concerned for that. I admit I am no expert on these Meanland matters, and many others beside. Being able to strip down a narrative and poem in print form with some competence (and possibly write examples of both) doesn’t qualify a person for too much in life, but it is still the best game in town.

    I agree with much of what Ali has to say on these electro matters, as I do with Benjamin Laird. My point of departure from Ali’s position occurs when he makes sweeping metaphysical statements about a technology being discussed (e-readers)without having used one himself, apparently, and not appearing to consider doing so. And with Benjamin’s take on e-readers, I disagree with making too much of a mystery of them. (Calling e-readers, ebooks, is not helpful.) As far as I know people still make e-readers (and not robots) so we should be able to use and understand them without too much difficulty. I concede that much of the world is a magical mystery tour for me, but I do try to understand and keep it simple. That too, I would have thought, is the line taken in such a left-leaning materialist journal as Overland?

    Shelley, I trust this corrects some of the ignorance of which I was part.

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