Syncing books, rising texts

Getting back to the text with ebooks

There must be a name in business school for the curve of ebook reading v. real books, for the shape that flares up at the beginning for individual readers, drops way down, possibly to zero, and then gradually climbs back a bit to some lower, steady level, like this:

Percentage of reading on device over time

Every ereader I know experiences some version of this curve. If we do it at all, we fall in love with the novelty of ereading, the cost and time savings, the ease of carrying around a pile of books on one device. The features of the ereader itself, like its bed-time back-lighting. But all or most of that leeches away in the face of this creeping feeling that we’re not actually reading, not actually absorbing the words as we flip through them, not seeing scenes, or having the recommended catharses, not getting into the text.

I’m on the steady, later part of the curve now, reading maybe half of my books and some magazines on a Kindle 1 device. The whiz-bang novelty has worn off, and so I feel like I’m finally in a position to appreciate the genuinely useful features of a digital reading device, the ones that are not pale versions of the book but advantages:

  • Searching in an ebook is real. It’s fantastic. The more you do it, the more you use this habit you acquired from web-surfing to locate, say, the first reference to a character, the name of a town.
  • e-Ink is really nice now. I tried reading on an Android tablet and the reflective glare and dim screen made that a non-starter outdoors.
  • Back-lighting and font control: I’m getting older! It’s nice to read on a device whose illumination, font-size and layout I can control. Keeps me from having to use readers. Plus I can read at night and disturb my wife [less].
  • integration: If you can get over how bummed you are about how big and monopolistic Amazon is with the experience of reading, you can like how your lists on–to-read, currently reading, etc.–are integrated into the ereader. A related item is that you can share your highlights and notes in the ebook as its own text, and can see sections and passages in a book that have been highlighted a lot.
  • Send content to your device to read later.

The feature of Kindles that I was most eager to try is this WhisperSync, which is a bridge between an ebook and its audio version. Amazon, having purchased Audible, allows you to move back and forth between the ebook and audiobook versions seamlessly, reading then listening, then reading. (The audio version is often advertised for this at a cheaper, “buy also” cost.)

For me, the whole point of returning to ebooks after having fallen down the ereading curve above, like everybody else, was not to take the place of actual books but to get a digital reading experience that wasn’t smothered in sidebar ads, cloying, embedded “read also” links, and bad layouts; hidden behind paywalls or hopelessly short or slapdash. I want digital long-form. I send myself readable versions of articles and focus on them as texts.

The ereader is pretty good for this. As you get used to it, it keeps improving, in my opinion.

And when you sync an ebook across the Kindle, the Audible version on your headphones 2, and maybe also the Kindle app on your phone for a quick few pages at the grocery store, it gets….really different, and maybe great! You can read a chapter, then hear the next one read by the author in a voice that’s completely consistent with your own internal one. It gets to be (again) like: I’m going to dive into the book. Too early to tell yet, but maybe syncing between these different formats can be even more absorbing, can reclaim “the text” for what it was before all these devices and distractions started diverting us.


  1. Which reading platform to use—the Kindle, the Nook, or another device, like the Kobo—is another story, and one I want to write about soon, since I used to do pro-indy, anti-Kindle work for bookstores, have owned various Nooks as well, and now use this Kindle.
  2. You can use Bluetooth or aux headphones in newer Kindles

Jaron Lanier’s “Metahuman Determinism” and Motherless Heroes


There are lots of things to think about in Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. In fact, one of least successful elements of the book is its title, which implies a much more circumscribed and traditional anti-technology, anti-smartphone argument, when in fact the book is way different, way larger.

Cognition is easy

Lanier’s main conceit is that technology is leading us into this dangerous area—dangerous tendency, I should say, because we do it to ourselves, we love it—of “metahuman determinism”. Metahuman determinism is when we over-simplify what it is to be human in order to attribute “humanness” to machines, or simplify what it means to have cognition in order to impute it to “thinking” machines. They’re not thinking! You’re not thinking! Human-ness is not so easily contained or described or rebuilt in silicon. To imagine so, we practice this radically reductive version of ourselves.

Lots of humans = super-human

Metahuman determinism is also what we’re engaged in when we imagine that getting a bunch of smartphones or a bunch of people-with-smartphones or a bunch of data-about-people-with smartphones together in one place or database will somehow cause intelligence or cognition to emerge out of the collective whole. “Emergent” is big in tech. This is where the title comes from, mostly: People’s very specific work responsibilities, or their movie-watching habits, or their dating profiles, or their 2 penny donations on indiegogo will create a metahuman whole, which will then be described, in hundreds of Silicon Valley startup pitches, as intelligent, smart, predictive,…human. Actual humans in this model are merely nodes. Or gadgets.

De-humanize FTW

For me, the juicy part is this other idea Lanier brings up in the book but doesn’t dwell on. It’s in there but not the main point: This corollary to metahuman determinism is that we remove the human from things–works, people, figures, technologies—in order to worship them properly. We can’t and don’t worship humans!

Things that seem messy or human or born of a mother or learned don’t work. Jesus, however, and other gods, and really big celebrities, masterworks and the other products of “genius”, crop circles and aliens….They seduce us with their un-born-ness, their lack of contingency. Motherless heroes. We actively mythologize and make absolutes out of people—or else we suddenly rediscover or transfer all the humanity back into them so we can despise them. This is the ritual of the scapegoat. De-humanize, oversimplify, reduce, and then you can adore. Only then.


By happenstance I heard a version of this same idea yesterday, in the Hidden Brain podcast on “Grit”, attributed there by researcher Angela Duckworth to Nietzsche as his “messy origins” idea.

A neat corollary of that idea, according to Nietzsche, working in full psychologist mode 1, is that we worship geniuses because their apparently effortless mastery and lack of perceivable development spares us—for once!—of the need to feel envy or competition; we can simply sit back and watch the violin solo or whatever it is, becalmed by greatness.


  1. I’m reading Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist right now, and loving it