With Amazon’s new Kindle set to debut next week, the web is abuzz with rumors about Kindle 2.0. Will it have web browsing? Will there be networking features with other Kindles? Will it at least be a little less clunky?

When the original Kindle debuted in fall 2007, Jesse wrote an insightful post arguing that despite the tempting comparison to iPods, the Kindle is really a digital immigrant’s device. It’s designed to mimic the tactile and visual sensation of reading a book, and it has none of the slick elegance of an iPhone. Far short of paradigm-shifting, it looked back instead of forwards. These characteristics opened up the Kindle to criticism, but it hasn’t kept the device from gaining a loyal following. Virginia Heffernan, writing for the NY Time’s The Medium, has a paean of sorts to the very “old-fashionedness” of a Kindle:

Unlike the other devices that clatter in my shoulder bag, the Kindle isn’t a big greedy magnet for the world’s signals. It doesn’t pulse with clocks, blaze with video or squall with incoming bulletins and demands. It’s almost dead, actually. Lifeless. Just a lump in my hands or my bag, exiled from the crisscrossing of infinite cybernetworks. It’s almost like a book.

It’s true, the Internet can be demanding. New email, unread counts, missed calls, text message – they gush at you in a constant stream. It’s comforting, sometimes, to hold in your hands something finite and discrete, something that doesn’t ask you to respond right away. Virginia Heffernan again:

A sustained encounter with just about any good book on the Kindle is a rich, enormous, demanding, cerebral event. It’s like reading used to be — long ago before anyone had ever seen the brightly backlighted screens of laptops, cellphones and iPods that, when activated, turn everyone’s personal field of vision into layers of garish light and sound, personal Times Squares. The Kindle screen — nonbacklighted “electronic paper” that requires little energy — looks dusty, like newsprint.

These extolments of Kindle’s paperness reminded of Jack Cheng’s “In Praise of Lo-Fi,” in which he asks what happens to deep contemplation in a world blanketed in wi-fi and wireless power – a world where connectivity can’t be turned off. He turns to the opposite: lo-fi.

Lo-fi time, I call it. And it’s about blocking off time for sitting still and letting your mind wander. Or going for walks without necessarily trying to get anywhere. I very rarely take my Macbook to cafes anymore and sometimes I conveniently “forget” my phone at home. Even though most of my own work ends up living digitally, there are plenty of things to do that don’t require a computer.

I often find myself in search of lo-fi these days. At first, I tried to battle technology with technology. Leechblock or an user account with “parental” controls disabling Internet, but I found them too easily circumvented when surrounded by multiple web browsers and multiple computers. Even though many of my classes have online readings, I now print out and annotate them by hand, making sure to sit far away from any luminescent electronic screens. When writing a paper, I sometimes shut my laptop and take a walk outside to ruminate by myself. Those with better willpower can take less drastic measures, but I’m too easily distracted.

When the new Kindle does debut, it’ll have to mediate two opposing tensions. One of innovation, it has to compete with all-capable gadgets like the iPhone. On the other hand, it should still be a reading experience, not another portable computer. Will it combine the best or worst of both worlds? If I got a Kindle, I’m afraid I’ll be lured by easy downloads and accumulate a backlog of books much like the way unlistened podcasts have taken over my iPod. Or perhaps, it’ll have better wireless integration and finally get me to read the articles I’ve saved via Instapaper. Convenient or too convenient? What are your thoughts on an electronic reader?

-Sarah Zhang

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