Last week's news that Amazon is now selling more e-books than hardcovers surely delighted gadget lovers (while saddening booksellers). But as tech news, this was hardly news. Like portable MP3 players and laptops, the Kindle is yet another step away from old media like vinyl and paper. This matters to collectors and nostalgic types (of which I am one), but the really important issues raised by the new technology, the ones all of us face, are social and romantic. Simply put, our gadgets give us too much privacy.
Remember when you could tell a lot about a guy by what cassette tapes—Journey or the Smiths?—littered the floor of his used station wagon? No more, because now the music of our lives is stored on MP3 players and iPhones. Our important papers live on hard drives or in the computing cloud, and DVDs are becoming obsolete, as we stream movies on demand. One by one, the meaningful artifacts that we used to scatter about our apartments and cars, disclosing our habits to any visitor, are vanishing from sight.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent, and more serious, than in the imperilment of the Public Book—the book that people identify us by because they can glimpse it on our bookshelves, or on a coffee table, or in our hands. As the Kindle and Nook march on, people's reading choices will increasingly be hidden from view. We'll go into people's houses or squeeze next to them on the subway, and we'll no longer be able to know them, or judge them, or love them, or reject them, based on the books they carry.