Up until this year, I had never read an ebook. I assure you this is not because I’m a luddite. I’m a true blue gadget-loving nerd; for fiction, I simply prefer the singular focus of print. But this summer, unable to quickly get my hands on a print copy of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (symbolism!), I settled for the ebook, and read it on both a tablet and a phone.
It was a revelation—in no small part because whatever highlights and notes I made followed me around, regardless of device. It was both fascinating and discombobulating to think about a book not as a physical object, but a thing I could access from anywhere. What’s more, it’s not so much that it was immaterial, as the way it made materiality keep changing. If just a day before, my tablet had been a thing to read the news or watch movies, now it was a book, too.
Digital tech has always been multifunctional and mildly confusing in that way—and it’s about to get even more so. This week, Microsoft is set to release Windows 8, the newest version of the ubiquitous software that still runs most of the world’s computers. And though no one can decide whether it’s great or awful, one key aim of the new operating system is to erase the divisions between devices. Rather than different software for different gadgets, Windows 8 tries to be the one platform for everything: desktops, laptops, tablets, and even phones. Even more radical, is that the company is also trying to make those devices merge into each other.
For most of recent history, we used certain digital devices for certain tasks. A computer was for things that needed a keyboard and a big screen, a phone was for communication, an MP3 player for music, and so on. It’s not that those devices couldn’t do multiple things, just that they were best at a few specific tasks. The arrival of the touchscreen, though—an interface that, in its very nature, is almost infinitely adaptable—upset that neat symmetry of physical interface and device. Suddenly a device could do and be almost anything: camera, news reader, recipe book, videophone, and so on.
It’s that multifunctionality Microsoft is relying on with Windows 8, most notably in its own Surface device. When the ‘Pro’ model launches next year, the device will, in one form, operate just like a tablet: users can poke at the touchscreen whether reading the news or video-chatting with a friend. But prop up the device on its kickstand and attach a keyboard, and you now have a fully-functioning laptop. Not an iPad with a keyboard attached, mind you; I mean the kind of computer on which you do spreadsheets or web design.
The aim is to shift away from the idea of a computer as an object, toward computing as a practice: a paradigm in which the device itself becomes far less important than the thing it’s used to do. It’s a bold step, and in an abstract sense, certainly appealing in how forward-looking it is. But whether or not it’s a good thing is part of a larger question raised by digital technology: do we need specific objects for specific tasks? Or is the malleability of digital—in which a tablet can be both a book and the thing with which you write one—a superior approach?
For obvious reasons, print lovers specifically have recently thought about this question a lot. Is it the content of a book that takes primacy over form, irrespective of whether it’s print or a screen? Or is there a phenomenal quality to print that somehow makes it ‘better’ for long-form reading? Those are queries that cannot be answered easily, partly because the responses often assume an almost-mystical relationship to physical stuff—that even when we aren’t aware of it, we can ‘sense’ the materiality or purpose of an object. Neither is it something that necessarily has one answer either, as Microsoft seems to be going it alone in their device-agnostic approach; Apple and others are for now committed to the idea of different gadgets for different tasks.
What is clear, however, is that the relationship we have to the physical objects in our lives—whether books or computers—is profoundly changing, as their once-unfixed nature becomes altogether more ineffable. The sticky question underpinning it all, however, is whether understanding and analyzing all this change requires the kind of permanence we associate with print—or if ideas and thinking persist regardless of where they appear, whether on a fancy new tablet, or one made of stone.