I Can't Read Anything Longer Than This Headline

The introduction of the iPad has re-energized an ongoing technology debate. Is it better to have one device that does a whole lot of things, or do certain activities require a device all their own?

I have a device vibrating in my pocket, resting on my lap, sitting on my desk, hanging from my wall, and soon, blinking and buzzing in my car dashboard and everywhere else.

Wait a second, what was I talking about?

The Two Titans: Steve vs Jeff

Today the battle between multi and single purpose devices pits two titans against each other. Amazon with their Kindle. And Apple with their iPad. Both of these companies understand consumers extremely well and are renowned for their ability to adapt and create longtime, loyal customers. It is, in that sense, a fair fight. It’s not like we’re considering the fact that the Zune just added an e-reader.

Jeff Bezos believes that reading is an activity that deserves a dedicated device while Steve Jobs believes in a multipurpose “magic” tablet that among its many tricks, can largely replace traditional books.

Amazon has a significant head start in a marketplace where fewer and fewer people read. But the Apple device more accurately mirrors the way we work and even read today. There will be hundreds of apps around note taking, essay writing, text annotating and other behaviors that will feel natural and maybe even (though it’s a scary thought) necessary to a new generation of readers.

See Spot Concentrate

More important than the particulars of these two devices, however, is the presence of the third (seriously hobbled) titan in this discussion: The human mind and its ability to focus on thick, complex material for a few hundred pages at a time. For this titan, the Kindle and iPad are merely two more items in an increasingly unmanageable cesspool of shiny distractions.

That’s why, on a certain level, I’m not sure this debate matters anymore.

After a decade of browsing, blogging, linking, clicking and Tweeting, I find it nearly impossible to focus on a book even when I try to recreate a reading environment that mirrors a more technologically simple time.

And I’ve tried. Inspired by Mad Men, I come home from the office dressed in my Don Draper suit, place my hat on the counter, layer an extra dab of Brylcreem into my hair, watch my aproned wife tear herself away from preparing dinner to drop the needle on the new Bobby Vinton album, have my kids bring me a tall, stiff drink and silently shuffle back to their rooms, flick the switch on my energy-inefficient table lamp, crack open my black leather briefcase, pull out a crisp new copy of Atlas Shrugged, sit back, cross my legs, light up a Lucky Strike and start to read. I’m OK for the first few lines, or maybe even paragraphs. But even in this setting, by the time I get to the second or third page I start to think, “Man, this whole chapter could be condensed into a pithy Tweet and a short link to something cleverly ironic.”

I can’t unplug. I still feel that web-driven sense of urgency and the distraction of the realtime stream even when all of my devices are off. Ultimately, the whole reading debate is less a question of whether our devices can effectively multitask and more a question of whether we can.

This post originally appeared in Tweetage Wasteland which has been merged with NextDraft.

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