Reviewed by John Hawks
College students slogging through a literature course have a tried and true method for keeping up with the reading: Chuck the book and read a synopsis instead.
Nowadays this can be as easy as a book's Wikipedia entry. A look at the page for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice reveals character lists, maps of relationships, major themes, plot devices and even conversions of Georgian-era property values to 2010 dollars. A more specialized breed of online study site goes further, giving chapter-by-chapter synopses, study questions and sample topics for book reports.
In the olden days before Internet time, students didn't get summaries through social media. They bought commercial book notes. These are still around, and CliffsNotes, SparkNotes and other series have moved into the digital age with online offerings in addition to the traditional study pamphlets. Even in the Internet age, there's a rich market for pre-digested literature.
Why not the same for new books?
Using professional writers, editors, designers, and programmers—in partnership with major publishers such as Penguin, Perseus, and O’Reilly—we reorganize and condense existing works of serious nonfiction. We are making books easier to sample, navigate, and share. And when you discover one you love, we hope you’ll buy the original (just flip a card to purchase our titles, in any format).
Indeed, every card in the Citia deck can be flipped over to yield information about Citia, a traditional back-of-dust-jacket author description, and links to purchase the original book from the publisher and several retailers.
But this talk of cards and decks gets ahead of the description of what a "condensed work of serious nonfiction" is. It comes from Apple's App Store, where $9.99 will buy the 40 MB digital download for the iPad. It's not an ebook available through the iBookstore: it loads and displays as a separate app.
When launched, Kelly's app shows a map of seven square "topics". These don't correspond to the book's fourteen chapters in an obvious way. They instead represent "big ideas" in the text: "The Importance of Cities," "Technology Is an Organism," and "Costs of the Technium," for example.
Each of the topic areas has between three and five "stacks" of "cards" sitting atop it. For example, in the "Technology Is an Organism" area, the stacks include "The Technium," "The Big Bang," "Human Evolution," and "The 7th Kingdom of Life".
Forgive me if this is starting to sound like a devotional app...those really are the names of the stacks here.
Touching a stack throws it to the foreground, where the card metaphor becomes clear. Touching the front card in the stack causes it to fall away, back to its place on the map. Each card is self-contained, a summary of some part of Kelly's text. When the reader has made it through a card, a touch causes it to fall away, revealing the next one.
Each card has two or three paragraphs of text and some pictures. The pictures themselves are typically nonessential -- stock illustrations that do not appear in the original book, but may lend some atmosphere to the app. Most of the stacks have between five and seven cards, some of which are pure graphics with a pull quote from the text. The map metaphor enables the reader to progress nonlinearly through the card stacks, and with around 120 cards, the amount of text is manageable in an hour or so.
The text on the cards is mostly paraphrase, with some short direct quotes from What Technology Wants. The editors' emphasis appears to have been to telegraph the essentials of Kelly's argument, providing just enough of his words to give the flavor of his writing.
I read the original version of What Technology Wants when it came out in 2010, and so I was very interested to compare the new app with the text as I remember it. The book has a provocative thesis: Technology has advanced to become a "seventh kingdom of life," and has begun to shape human destiny by providing us new desires and means of attaining them. The best strategy is to accept the inevitability of this transition and evolve to become higher, more communal beings.
Kelly's technology evangelism has all of evangelism's usual grating elements: Newly-concocted words ("technium", "ecumenopolis", "anticivilizationist"), breathless religious comparisons ("The technium is not God...but it contains more goodness than anything else we know"), and minimization of risks ("In its efforts to be 'safe rather than sorry,' precaution becomes myopic"). Kelly envisions a future in which a billion cameras are watching us at every moment, and yet we feel more free by means of our closer connections to other people. It's a paradox at the center of his notion of the "technium."
Nevertheless, I quite liked the original book. Kelly has a genuinely unique voice that serves to ground his more flighty speculations. He begins his book with an account of his youthful travels, roaming the world with few possessions and coming to appreciate the value of cities. Kelly has a unique relationship to technology, as one of the most prominent members of the hacker generation and long interdependence with the Silicon Valley zeitgeist.
The app's central weakness is that by focusing on the book's main ideas, it loses Kelly in the process. Its desgin is better for clearly communicating the ideas, but ironically it made the ideas harder for me to swallow.
Sure, humans are coevolving with technology. We've done so now for more than two million years. Does that make technology-enabled humans into a "new kingdom of life"? That fundamentally misrepresents what a "kingdom" means in biology. Kelly argues for a much more deterministic view of evolution than biologists accept, and worries about an impending population crash. His beliefs in these cases are not without basis, but stripped down to mere theses they utterly fail to convince. Meanwhile, the section on the Amish -- so characteristic of Kelly's approach to understanding the social role of technology -- seems out of place here in the app. Its deeper overall context has been lost.
So the app left me with a mental mismatch. As a reader who experienced both versions, I appreciated the synoptic view. It clarified my resistance to some of Kelly's ideas. Hopefully, many readers approaching the app for the first time will be motivated to investigate more deeply in the original book.
It may seem puzzling that anyone would buy a condensed version for $9.99 when the full ebook can be had on Kindle or Nook for the same price. A new paperback copy can be had for only $6.80. But the market for such a product is entirely straightforward. The condensed version of Pride and Prejudice may not be worth more than the original in an existential sense, but it undoubtedly has greater immediate utility for a college student more interested in grades than Mr. Darcy. Likewise, Citia may find a rich trove of junior executives looking to keep up with buzz-worthy books their bosses may have been reading.
In pursuit of sharing, the app includes easy social media links. You can put a card on Facebook or tweet it. You can send one by e-mail to a friend. In my case, it's much more likely I would send the card by e-mail to myself as a means of notetaking, as there's no easy way to mark cards for later re-reading.
Maybe this isn't the highest possible aim for the app concept, but it works. For someone who is interested in Kelly's ideas but attention-limited, the app may be the perfect thing. Personally, I can think of several books I might consider reading in this form. I can't bear the thought of getting through Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat.
Paleoanthropologist John Hawks is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin and the author of a blog about human evolution.