Kindle Me This

The KindleThe excavators have become intrigued by the criticisms and praise heaped upon Amazon.com’s new e-book reader, the Kindle, and what connections can be made in regard to their explorations of Heliopoli. They have persuaded the chief archivist, at first reluctant, to examine the situation.

After a cursory investigation, only one comment has been found on the Internet in praise of the Kindle’s design aesthetic, calling it “1970s retro styling.” The chief archivist agrees with this praise. Nearly all others decry it. One said it looked like something that fell off the original Battlestar Galactica. Others have called it “dated,” “copied from the Atari 2600″ and from “some 70s alien movie.” What is remarkable beyond the comments themselves is that so many mention the 1970s in connection to the Kindle’s design.

What is it about the Kindle that reminds one of 1970s aesthetics?

Why are 1970s design aesthetics automatically regarded in a negative light?

What conclusions can we draw from an assumption that 1970s design looked to the future, and now that a piece of that future has been made manifest, it is regarded as a relic of the past?

How quickly does design that looks to the future become outdated, even if you eventually are holding a functioning sample of it in your hand?

How does the Kindle kindle these reactions?

The chief archivist, upon first seeing the Kindle, assumed that its design was merely utilitarian. Its white color, its wedge shape and a certain fumbliness of buttons can be ascribed to pure functionality. But then he remembered what the Kindle reminded him of: the Olivetti Divisumma 18.

Divisumma18_350The Divisumma 18 was a printing calculator made by the Olivetti company in 1973. It was designed by Mario Bellini, who was trained as an architect.

According to an article by Larry Gilbert published in 1998 and reproduced on www.vintagecalculators.com, Bellini’s intention was to “produce a technological product that was totally humanized, almost playful, and that invited human touch.” Gilbert describes the Divisumma 18 as “infused with the Pop spirit of the age” and “a true period icon, appearing in many books that discuss landmark 20th-century designs.”

When the Divisumma 18 was released, something like the Kindle was, of course, science fiction. Now the Kindle is here, and reminds us of the Divisumma 18. The Divisumma projected itself into the future; the Kindle, according to the critics, projects itself into the past.

The KindleThe Kindle has a wedge-shape design when looked at edge on, meant to reproduce the feel of a book. This recalls the 1975¬†ad campaign for Triumph’s TR7 sports car, which touted it as “The shape of things to come.” The ad copy reads, “From ancient instinct to computer design, the shape that cleaves the air is the wedge.”

TR7: The Shape of Things to ComeIs there a cultural afterimage retained in the collective mind’s eye that assigns the Kindle’s shape to the past — a shape once ascribed to the future?

Is it better to wish for than to have? We anticipate, as children, our Christmas presents, as we can anticipate the future. When we think about some cool device of the future, we only imagine its perfection, its functionality. When such things become real, there are always flaws: glitches in service, the entropy of battery life, design elements convenient for one type of person and not another, placement of certain buttons that seem illogical, a price that seems too high. It never seems to come into being in that perfect state we wished for.

We do not recognize that catches in design are part of making such things real. We do not recognize that there is always a price to pay. There are manufacturing and other practical considerations to take into account.

Is this the source of negative reaction to the Kindle, even from those who do not yet own one? Has the anticipation of the future set up unrealistic expectations? Are we playing with our Christmas present, only to find it is not as good as wishing for it? The criticisms, at least, will drive improvements in design.

Are only people of a certain age enthusiastic about the Kindle’s design? Not that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had a direct hand in its construction, but perhaps he signed off on certain design elements, if they were not purely functional. He was, after all, born in 1964.

One must wonder if such things contributed to the collapse of Heliopoli. What disappointments were discovered once the city was made manifest? Did the sidewalk pavings develop cracks? Did the pedway rubberized surfaces become frayed on the edges? Did the chrome and glass not remain shiny?

There is always a price to pay.

The chief archivist would like to own a Kindle, for the chance to step into the past.

One can only hope that a future version will be colored orange.

The Kindle