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Kindle screen failure reveals repressed memory of earlier technology

February 5, 2012

Kindle Screen Fail: A permanent cloud of E-ink

A dark cloud has settled over my Kindle landscape. Unlike the Kindle Cloud, a service that  allows me to access and read my books from the Web using different devices, this one is permanent, and remains “printed” on my Kindle screen even after the device is turned off.

The Kindle is one of the many E-book readers that uses E-ink technology to create a simulation of a printed page. Unlike laptops and tablets, they display text and images using reflected light, rather than emitted light. Tiny, electrically charged white particles float in black dye between two plates. A change in the magnetic charge in a matrix of electrodes on the plates creates the illusion of printed paper (if attracted to the surface, the white particles reflect light like paper; if repelled to the back, the black dye absorbs light like ink). The cloud on my Kindle is like the repressed memory of an earlier technology that has been erased through the act of simulation.

The ghost image is a fragment of one of the Kindle screen savers – an Albrecht Dürer engraving (1519) depicting Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg. This is what must have been displayed when the pixels in the upper quarter of the screen suddenly suffered some kind of machine dementia, or stroke, and died. The colour of their small square tombstones, in one of sixteen shades of gray, is their silent epitaph. The resulting text, although just a fragment of some larger narrative, is confidently inscribed in Roman capitals that are familiar to us from Trajan’s Column (and the posters for too many Hollywood films).  The monumental letters, first chiseled in stone, then etched on printing plates, printed, and digitized, are now memorialized on my Kindle screen.

As Arthur C. Clarke says, “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The technology that makes E-books (and other digital displays) possible is pretty impressive. However, like other magic tricks that we’ve seen many, many times before, this one, too, has become expected, predictable, and ordinary. The real magic is not the technology, but its invisibility. All technologies become invisible through repeated use – until they fail. Then, we are reminded of the magic, the seeming impossibility of how it works, and the fact that it can stop working. The distortion of a cellphone call, a frozen video frame, and the crackle of a radio transmission are all wake-up calls.

When technology fails, the penny drops – like the light fixture that falls from the “sky”  in The Truman Show. In the same way, the existence of social structures, organizational systems and other abstract tools that we (or others) have devised to enable us to deal with the complexities of social life is brought into high relief when they break down (or work against us). So, we should welcome limited technological failures when they occur, because they remind us of the many ways that we have extended ourselves, and they provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the artificial nature of the world that we have made and inhabit.

I suppose I could have my Kindle repaired or replaced (assuming I can find the printed receipt), but I might just leave that cloud hanging there – as a reminder, and a warning.

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