Thursday, April 22, 2010

Come the Volcano

In the past week, two things happened at about the same time, but very far apart in geography and scale. First, an Icelandic volcano with an unpronounceable name began spewing ash into the atmosphere. Nearly at the same time, my wife’s Kindle died.

Two disparate events. Yet I am tempted to connect some dots.

The volcano you know about as well as I. Downwind in Iceland, the landscape looked like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Farther downwind, air traffic in much of Europe ground to a halt, many billions of dollars worth of infrastructure rendered useless.

My wife’s Kindle is an original model, and she does most of her book reading on it. A month ago, it completely stopped functioning and she had to buy a new battery from Amazon. (The new model requires sending the entire device back for service if the battery fails, but the original has a removal battery.) The replacement battery doesn’t seem to be working so well. It died again earlier this week, requiring rebooting and recharging just a day after it received its initial charge.

I’m no Luddite, but both of these events speak to a certain vulnerability that technology introduces. The library in Alexandria once famously burned but even that great loss in an ancient time didn’t destroy all books. When every book is an e-book, what happens to us if the Amazon (or Apple) servers go completely dark?

It’s not the same for the friends that line my non-virtual shelves. Barring fire or intentional destruction, old-fashioned books persist for a very long time. I know they degrade eventually if the paper isn’t acid-free and all that, but to gradual degradation we can adjust.

What happens when the apocalypse comes? I won’t be able to fly in an airplane or even to feed myself well, but if I have a paper book on the shelf I can nourish my mind, entertain myself and others, find solace in my waning days.

Try that with an iPad or Kindle when the lights go out for good.