Reading in a Whole New Way

As digital screens proliferate and people move from print to pixel, how will the act of reading change?

Kevin Kelly worries devices like Apple's iPad, shown here with Smithsonian's first cover, nurtures action over contemplation. (Brendan McCabe, SI)
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As portable screens become more powerful, lighter and larger, they will be used to view more of this inner world. Hold an electronic tablet up as you walk along a street, and it will show an annotated overlay of the real street ahead—where the clean restrooms are, which stores sell your favorite items, where your friends are hanging out. Computer chips are becoming so small, and screens so thin and cheap, that in the next 40 years semi­transparent eyeglasses will apply an informational layer to reality. If you pick up an object while peering through these spectacles, the object’s (or place’s) essential information will appear in overlay text. In this way screens will enable us to “read” everything, not just text. Last year alone, five quintillion (10 to the power of 18) transistors were embedded into objects other than computers. Very soon most manufactured items, from shoes to cans of soup, will contain a small sliver of dim intelligence, and screens will be the tool we use to interact with this transistorized information.

More important, our screens will also watch us. They will be our mirrors, the wells into which we look to find out about ourselves. Not to see our face, but our status. Already millions of people use pocketable screens to input their location, what they eat, how much they weigh, their mood, their sleep patterns and what they see. A few pioneers have begun lifelogging: recording every single detail, conversation, picture and activity. A screen both records and displays this database of activities. The result of this constant self-tracking is an impeccable “memory” of their lives and an unexpectedly objective and quantifiable view of themselves, one that no book can provide. The screen becomes part of our identity.

We live on screens of all sizes—from the IMAX to the iPhone. In the near future we will never be far from one. Screens will be the first place we’ll look for answers, for friends, for news, for meaning, for our sense of who we are and who we can be.

Kevin Kelly’s book What Technology Wants will be published in October.


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