December 03, 2012 - Comments Off on 75p of User Experience

75p of User Experience

Amazon has prepared it’s e-reader Kindle Fire in time for Black Friday or Mega Monday or whichever pre-shopping day you’d care to underline but as the tablet – described alternatively as ‘shiny’, ‘crashy’ and ‘sexy’ depending on who you speak to – finds its way under Christmas trees over the world, I’m left considering what the result is for user experience.

Let me be clear: I’m not examining the interface. The software – based on Android – does an admirable job most of the time. The hardware is robust enough to be thrown in a bag.  All those things are, as one would expect from a quality modern product, a snip at £129.

In a small, brown parcel

It was not a Kindle Fire that arrived wrapped in a small, brown parcel last Friday.  It was something decidedly less glamorous. At a cost of 75p and featuring some rather dodgy wrapping courtesy of a less-than-conscientious eBay seller, I received a novel bent at the corners and with a faded spine. It had obviously sat on a shelf for a long time, exposed to sunlight.

Opening the pages, they seemed to gasp theatrically and snap, as the glue that held the spine together cracked, allowing the bottom of the pages a little too much freedom. They fanned out, yellowed around their edges, displaying their age.

That age, as revealed by a written inscription on the front leaf, was around nineteen years. “Josie, 14, 1994.”  Someone, one assumes Josie herself, had left a bookmark around a third of the way in.  It noted that “Ray Bradbury is quet (sic) a good writer but I liked George Orwell more.”

Let us not mistake this for nostalgia

Some things are just old.  Wine gets better with age, but beer goes off and this is no paean to paper.  There are many good reasons to have a Kindle rather than a library and many good reasons to download rather than collect novels. However, it is not hard to feel a swell of emotion toward one and feel a little unmoved by the other.

The Kindle holds a thousand books, it displays well and, as if that were not enough, it plays movies in HD.  I wonder if even Josie’s authors of choice – dystopic forbears to many – could have pictured a future where not only a library, but also a cinema, could be carried in one’s pocket?  The experience of using a Kindle is only unremarkable because of its ubiquity.  Had you put the idea of an e-reader to Josie in 1994, then it would surely have seemed the stuff of science fiction.

Perhaps it is not the user experience so much as the experience of the user that stirs my feeling of dissatisfaction.

A world where everything is new

Online we live in a world where everything is new.  The website we look at today is limited to this instant and goes out of date the second it has been viewed.  What is more, the website we look at is – by its nature – a repeat.  Even if we could freeze our Facebook timeline when we revisited it, we would be viewing an extremely accurate copy.  When we share a page we point someone to another version of a thing, not the same thing.

We can simulate the passing on of cultural notes. We can annotate music on Soundcloud, we can review books on Amazon, we can write blog posts about things. However, standing with Josie’s book in my hands, I realise that passing the same thing from one hand to another is beyond us online.  We have a world of infinite plenty with no need for two people to have the same copy of anything.

And this is a very good thing, and we should be glad of it.  Everyone in the world can have access to every book ever written. The Great Library of Alexandria could only dream of such wealth.  But only I can have Josie’s notes, the scribbles in the margins she may have made on later pages that I have yet to reach, the experience of exposing oneself to a piece of obviously shared culture. There is something tragic about the demise of that.

Something sad

There’s something tragic in the loss of scribbled-in-the-front-of books and forgotten bookmarks. There’s something sad about the fact that the thing in my hands passed through hers and who knows how many people’s since, but might meet its end.

It’s sad that the life of this book is something that the Kindle Fire – itself a replacement for the Kindle, which was launched less than five years ago – will never have. It is perhaps made sadder because of the specific book that dropped through my letter box in that brown package and its juxtaposition with the aptly-named Kindle Fire that may represent its end.

The book was Fahrenheit 451.