In Praise of Unnecessary Devices

How I’ve begrudgingly fallen in love with the Kindle Oasis, in a world that’s making it harder and harder to feel good about consumer technology

My attitude towards dedicated e-readers has always been best summed up as Oooo, get a load of JL Gotrocks here, too good for paperbacks, too delicate to read books on his phone, can’t read on his iPad on account of the glare from his monocle!

And that’s after owning one for several years. Six or seven years ago, Amazon was so aggressively promoting the Kindle during some Prime Day or Black Friday or Bezos Yacht Christening Day that it somehow worked out that it would cost me more not to buy one. So I begrudgingly bought a Kindle Paperwhite, and I begrudgingly grew to like it a lot.

I honestly don’t know how much I believe the claim that reading E-ink reduces eye strain, but it certainly does feel more like reading paper than like reading paper after being pulled over in a traffic stop. The biggest appeal for me:

  • Weight: It’s much lighter than a tablet, and lighter that most phones while still having a tablet-sized screen.
  • Battery: It goes weeks without needing to be recharged.
  • Cost: The discounted Paperwhite I got is expensive in the sense that I didn’t actually need to own one, but cheap in the sense that it was a tech gadget holding every e-book I ever bought from Amazon and cost around 75 bucks. That meant I could be a lot less careful with it than I’d have to be with an iPad or phone.
  • Nerdery: I still think E-ink displays are just plain neat, almost straddling the line between analog and digital.

The most practical downside of the Paperwhite is that it’s just an awkwardly-designed device. I could never quite find a good place to hold it: I was always either inadvertently turning the page, or highlighting a section, and before I could undo it, it’d already sent a random collection of letters to Goodreads as one of my favorite passages in the book.

A few nights ago, I was reading an article by Jason Snell comparing the high-end Kindle Oasis with a similar e-reader from Kobo, which had an effect on me exactly opposite what Snell intended: it made me want the Kindle. The biggest draw is that it’s got the design that all the devices should’ve had all along: a space to hold the dang thing, and buttons to turn the pages. I checked how much money I had in store credit on Amazon, checked the cost of the lowest-end refurbished model, checked the number of books still on my “want to read” list, and said “YOLO.”

But quietly, because it was late, and I was in bed.

And dammit if I don’t begrudgingly love the stupid thing. The first thing I noticed about it was that it feels remarkably light overall, but with just enough heft in its weird grip-hump. Second thing I noticed was that it has a grip-hump, which means you can actually hold it with one hand while reading and not worry about accidentally turning a page or downloading a Dan Brown novel.

Since the back is aluminum and the display doesn’t quite look digital, it feels like being an extra in a sci-fi series where all the extras have data pads. But get this: the whole time, I’m actually just reading a book about people who use data pads.

Somehow, it just makes reading more pleasurable, in some not-quite-definable way. Even with the built-in dictionary. I can’t help but picture myself sitting on a deck chair near a pool, or on a porch overlooking my non-existent backyard meadow bathed in Cialis-dappled golden hour light, a pitcher of tea and finger sandwiches artfully arranged on a table next to me, as I sit contentedly holding my e-reader with one hand, thinking look at me I’m readin’ and I’m all classy and shit.

The reason I went with the Kindle, and not Jason Snell’s suggestion of the Kobo is that I’m hopelessly entrenched in Amazon’s “ecosystem” at this point. I’ve got a ton of Kindle books that I bought when I was feeling optimistic but I still haven’t read, plus a ton of Audible audiobooks that I got way back before my daily commute shrank down to 30 seconds each way. When I’m immersed in a story, it’s way too convenient to be able to swap seamlessly between audiobook and e-book, or have everything synced between phone, tablet, computer, e-reader, and car audio.

And that’s what’s annoying me, and the reason for this blog post. (It’s 2021, y’all get what e-readers are about by now, I’m not breaking new ground here). All of the things I mentioned in that paragraph are examples of tech making my life a little better, by making my leisure time even more convenient and leisurely. And yet I hate just about every single thing about that last paragraph.

We were promised jetpacks [and flying cars]” is the now-cliched lament of all of us disappointed in the 21st century, but I think it’s more accurate to complain that I was promised a future where technology is smaller, faster, more efficient, and convenient, without being a constant reminder of the excesses of late-stage capitalism.

However much I’ve spent on Kindles, I spent more donating to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. That’s not to say that I’m “corporate billionaire neutral,” but that I’m conflicted. I don’t like Amazon’s unchecked vertical integration, the stories of its union-busting and anti-labor practices, or its blatant lying about poor conditions for some of its workers. But I’m also convinced that we can have e-books that save your place from an audiobook, without needing all of the garbage that just makes rich people even richer.

(I should point out that I do own a small number of shares of Amazon stock, bought way back when it was still a book company. “Small” to the important shareholders of Amazon, “hugely significant” to my life savings. But none of this is sponsored or partnered or promoted in any way, and the only kickback I get from anyone buying a Kindle is the satisfaction that I’ve helped reduce the amount of eye strain in the world, maybe).

It just seems so unnecessary. None of the things that make the Oasis such a pleasure to use — product design, Goodreads integration, Audible integration, and embedded storefront — are dependent on Amazon actually owning and controlling everything. They could’ve integrated with the social web and audiobooks without having to acquire them outright.

But then, I never would’ve been able to justify the Oasis model if I hadn’t first tried the Paperwhite. And a huge part of what made that device such a pleasure to use — its being cheap enough that I could almost think of it as an impulse purchase, and I could toss it into a bag without worrying that it’d get stolen or broken — is likely due to Amazon’s being so big that it can treat the Kindle and Echo devices like a loss leader.

I do genuinely believe that Amazon is on the more benign end of the Unethical Megacorporation Spectrum: slightly worse than tax-evading, vertically-integrating Apple; much better than co-opting-environmental-activism-for-the-purpose-of-global-dick-swinging Tesla.1Selling solar panels and electric vehicles while also promoting cryptocurrency means you get your own seat in hell, I hope. None of these companies are about altruism, but when Facebook changes its products and services to maximize profitability, the customers always suffer.2Want to see snapshots of your friends’ vacations? Hope you like seeing a billion ads for hair products and shirts first! When Amazon changes stuff to maximize profitability, at least the customer experience is usually made better.

That shouldn’t let any of these companies off the hook, it merely suggests that there is a path towards making this work that doesn’t require us to abandon any pretense of ethics and civic responsibility, but also doesn’t require complete austerity. It’s gotten increasingly common for people to just shrug at the news of some corporation’s3Okay, almost always Facebook latest anti-user, pro-“engagement” move, saying of course a company is going to act in its own best interest, and acting like it’s just bizarre to think a company could exist to do anything other than maximize profitability. At the other end, though, it’s gotten increasingly common to think of tablets, phones, laptops, smart watches, and e-readers as status-seeking displays of grossly unethical excess. Instead of, you know, the kind of shit people should just be able to have in 2021.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to figure out how I can pay Amazon more money to make them stop showing me ads on the device that I already paid for.