(Taken with my telephone)
Sometimes I entertain myself by imagining a weight scale, like the scales of justice. On one side is the smart phone. On the other, all the objects displaced by the smart phone. Among them are the obvious ones: a telephone, a handwritten note, a camera, a video camera, and a PDA.
When cell phones first came to market, you could do one thing with them: talk. The idea seems quaint now. A decade and a half later, the first text messages were sent—the length of the average postcard. As cell phones got smaller and spread like germs, the features mutated too. Soon people were carrying "camera phones" around, sending photographs to each other. Then it was video phones. Home videos over airwaves. We were sending pix and flix messages, not just text messages. Why limit yourself to 160 characters when a picture is worth a thousand? In the aughts, cell phones besieged the PDA market and conquered it too, marrying communication and organization in a single device. From that union, smart phones were born. The new generation became the standard, nursed by dedicated operating systems. Today, cell phones are nothing less than computers in your pocket.
With the advent of apps, smart phones are really displacing so much more than computers though. Think of what you have available on your smart phone now: a dictionary, an alarm clock, a meteorologist, a GPS device (itself displacing an atlas), a Bible, a CD player, a photo album, a rolodex, a board game, a calculator, a calendar, a flashlight, sticky notes, a guitar tuner, a translator, color-blindness corrective lenses. . . .
Really, the only things not on my imaginary cell-phone scale of justice are groceries, sunscreen, screwdrivers, and the vibrating bumblebee back massager I have.
What began as a tool (or even a toy) for talking is now (an environment) used more and more for things other than verbal communication. It's hardly a phone at all. I've complained to friends that making a call on my smart phone is one of the hardest things to do. It's easier to find out what song is playing on the radio than it is to call someone I know.
Cell phones have experienced what is called "technology creep." Because they have the capacity to do more, more is added.
Technology creep, I submit to you, is the fate of most portable electronics. Among them, I would include eReaders. At the moment, the fences surrounding eReaders are artificial barriers—perhaps chosen, perhaps restricted only by our current paradigm for "book." In any case, the drive to add features and outdo competitors will send the eReader in the same direction as the cell phone. We will do other stuff on eReaders besides read. And someday, like talking on the cell phone, reading may be the hardest thing to do. You're already seeing it happen with things like the iPad.
What does this mean for the book? Will reading be an collateral victim of technology creep?
Books, for the purpose they serve, are a technology without artificial limits. Unlike cell phones and eReaders, we've reached the limits with books: We print on both sides of the paper. We use them for one thing: reading. As a medium, books are as creeped out as they're going to get. Sure, you could use it to prop up the couch that's missing a leg, but then what would you do with your old cell phone?