Food pills and the Kindle

I’m thankful for many things–family, friends/colleagues, health, the new position…

I’m also thankful that I’m not really writing about ebooks and ebook devices these days. ‘Cause then, you know, I’d probably want to write something about the Kindle (do you really need a link?). Which would probably mean offering opinions about it.

And, well, I don’t particularly have them–except for the obvious ones: The Kindle no more spells the end of print books than any other ebook reader has. (Nor, I’m pretty nearly certain, does Jeff Bezos imagine that it would or should.)

Beyond that? I wouldn’t buy one–but I’m not much for portable electronics anyway, so I’m not a good case study. I haven’t really seen it or used it, any more than I’ve really seen the last sure-fire ebook device from Sony.

The wealth of commentary in various sources is amusing. Gee, textbooks-as-ebooks might make a lot of sense! (I’ve been saying that for something over a decade, so I’m hardly likely to disagree.) DRM-heavy ebooks take away practices that book readers are familiar with, like lending books, giving them away, buying them used and selling them back to used bookstores. (True. Not, to be sure, a death sentence for DRM or ebooks.)

Then there are the really peculiar ones. I’ll name two, the second one bringing us back to the title of this post:

  1. Given that some day, some ebook device really will function well and sell well (which I don’t regard as a certainty, but let’s assume it for the same of this argument), you shouldn’t be negative about this ebook device because you’ll eventually look silly. Some syllogism: The Palm Pilot worked, therefore people were wrong to be negative about the Apple Newton. Huh?
  2. The conversion of all print to digital form is, once again, inevitable. Why? Just because, apparently–I guess because “everything goes digital.”

I’ve seen one interesting rejoinder to that second claim–namely that most of us still don’t eat bytes and are unlikely to do so in the future. That rejoinder as it stands is nonsensical, to be sure.

But let’s modify it a little. I certainly remember some years (decades?) back when some futurists assured us that we’d all eat food pills in place of regular food, assuring us balanced nutrition and saving us all the time and effort of meal preparation.

Food pills (or meal bars, if you will) would theoretically save a lot more than that. Assuming that food pills were prepared where food itself was produced–in farm country, that is–you’d have enormous energy savings because you’d just be transporting those little pills/bars instead of all those raw ingredients and packaged foods. You could probably package a day’s diet (say 2,000 calories) into half a pound of meal bars–not a whole lot less, since as far as I know you can’t get more than nine calories per gram and it’s hard to make a balanced meal of pure fat.

Still, that’s a lot less transport. And, of course, a whole lot less wastage and garbage, with the food being processed once, period.

So isn’t it odd that we aren’t all eating food pills or meal bars. Some of us may eat “meal bars” (most of which are much less than a meal’s worth of food) but not exclusively.

Why not? We choose not to. And, oddly enough, very few futurists now suggest that we will ever switch to eating wholly processed pseudofood, or that it would be desirable to do so. Instead, if anything, the momentum is toward “slow food”–buying as much locally-sourced food as possible.

Here’s a case where the high-tech solution really would have demonstrably good consequences–along with some demonstrably bad ones and a whole bunch of unknowns. Inevitable? Not even likely, now or in the future.

Will print books ever be replaced entirely by ebooks? I think it unlikely–but since I’m certain I won’t be around long enough to see it if it ever does happen, I’m not worrying about it one way or the other.

Will the Kindle do brilliantly or fail? I have no idea. Is it a great device or a terrible one? I have no idea.

Happy Thanksgiving.

5 Responses to “Food pills and the Kindle”

  1. Pete Says:

    “I have no idea”

    Best.Futurology.Ever

  2. walt Says:

    It’s a lie, of course. I do have an idea, but I don’t think it’s important.

    As with the Sony Reader (and the Gemstar and…), the key is to look a year out and see whether sales figures are being touted. Not “percentage increase in sales” or “sold out first day” or the like, but hard numbers. Successes are accompanied by numbers. (Well, sometimes less-than-successes are too, but only when idjits like me are involved.)

  3. Jeff Says:

    The more I am experimenting with ebook technology, the more I see it as an alternative (like audiobooks to print books). I think the only e-reader that will proliferate is when we get the e-ink technology on an iphone type device.

  4. bowerbird Says:

    > The conversion of all print to digital form is, once again,
    > inevitable. Why? Just because, apparently–I guess because
    > “everything goes digital.”

    um, text will “go digital” in order to be discoverable.
    at least any text that _wants_ to be “discovered” will.

    there’s also ease of duplication and of movement, and
    thus, of course, _cost_ of duplication and movement…

    at some point, we will finally decide that it is a good idea
    to provide educational material to kids in the third world
    — and heck, maybe even the kids in our own inner cities —
    and we sure ain’t gonna pay to make and ship paper-books.

    -bowerbird

  5. Michael Golrick Says:

    I love the food analogy. I am about finish Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vetetable, Miracle: A year of food life” which does talk about the eco-footprint of mass market foods brought in from all over the world. They fed a family of four, for a year, on $0.50 per meal per person and used almost exclusively locally grown food.

    The other interesting part of the food pill analogy is when I think of those futuristic projections from events like the 64/65 New York World’s Fair, and then look at the emphasis placed on food today. There is a whole cable channel for food [http://www.foodnetwork.com]. Head chefs in major cities become celebrities. There is probably more discussion of food and good cooking than when Julia Child first made French cuisine something the American housewife could do.

    I agree with your analysis of e-books and their future. After all, how many Sony Beta video tape players are still in use.


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