Ereaders and Content: The New “It” Bag

Make them dumber! Yes, we want stuff that’s even dumber and more durable and more flexible. We want stuff we can plug into other stuff forever….I’d love a directory of these steadfast components. I feel like my Samsung TV (very dumb) might be a candidate. The 24″ Dell LCD I’ve had at home for five years would definitely go in that directory—I think these Dell monitors are widely recognized as the, like, basic black t-shirts of computer components at this point.

Robin Sloan takes up an excellent idea: that sustainability should be a key factor in the design and purchase of material goods. I particularly like the analogy of the “basic black t-shirt” as being a solid, unchanging, durable component in a wardrobe. He also links to L.L. Bean’s Signature Collection as an example of a place to find such classic sartorial components. While the black t-shirt is very much like a Dell LCD, the L.L. Bean Signature Collection is a different beast that ends at the same timeless result. You can buy a classic black t-shirt anywhere (although some might hold up better than others for the value), and they are designed, made and sold by many different sources. The L.L. Bean S.C. is the result of pulling “classics” out of their archives and remaking them with new fits and styles. The creative director at L.L. Bean S.C., Alex Carlton, describes the process this way:

The archives are like a time capsule of New England style, and that’s really what provides the flavor of L.L.Bean Signature. Exploring the archives is incredible – this is history made tangible. We’re inspired by all of it, not just clothes: there are photos from L.L.’s fishing trips, his journals, old catalog art. It illustrates the building of L.L.Bean, and it allows us to work in a very authentic way. We’re not designing in a vacuum.

When we started thinking about L.L.Bean Signature pieces we looked for archive items that seemed especially relevant today. Our initial approach was to reinterpret those items – putting new twists on vintage ideas. From there it grew into creating brand-new products, but we’re always using the archives for inspiration, even when we’re making things that are new.

Not even the classics are that simple. In this case, they are the product of one man’s interpretation of a second man’s brand, which basically is the commodification of New England style, generally of the rougher, outdoorsy sort. Black t-shirts are a solid component of very select wardrobes, but the constitution of a fashion basic is not just the utility, flexibility or durability of an item. It is also tied to the general acceptance that these items meet those criteria in the community that uses them. Chanel is legendarily the creator of the little black dress, but in reality, she can be credited with its refinement and popularization at most, likewise the L.L. Bean Signature Collection is a refinement of the popularization of a rough-hewn New England style. It works for many wardrobes, but not all.  “The basics” are part of a brand, designed to be part of a carefully controlled system of signs and signifiers. Chanel understood this in her black dress, Dell understands that in making cheap, durable monitors, and L.L. Bean understood this in making rugged outwear. They use the concept of “basic” as part of a brand that reaches to their community: the product is “dumb” but the designer is “smart” by keeping the cycle of production and demand in their favor.

Those products that are “smart” automate this process, keeping the consumer locked into a tighter cycle. At The New Inquiry, Rob Horning sees this play out in the potential world of ebooks and ereaders:

But perhaps more important, publishers will be able to draw from trends in this rich data for its editorial decision making, exploiting connections this information reveals among various demographics in the reading public, calibrating their lists to actual reader behavior with more precision that dumb sales data once allowed. Such rapid responsiveness can trigger a feedback loop that precludes the possibility of spontaneous, unexpected desires, fashioning a smoothly functioning market sealed off from vital disruptions. Readers will be sealed in the tombs of their revealed preferences. To capture the feeling of discovery and possibility again, they will have to look somewhere other than books.

The idea of the “it bag,” a closed and conspicuous market that drives its own demand is very much like device-specific content. Ponder the “it bag”:

Thus, cheap coated-canvas bags were converted into objects of consumer fetish with eye-grabbing adornments: denim and diamonds, graffiti, crystal beads, and, almost always, a prominent logo. “There was a stage when, however unappealing something was, if it had enough logos written all over it, somebody seemed to buy it,” Suzy Menkes, the fashion critic of the International Herald Tribune, says. Menkes calls the period “a worldwide aberration,” as if she were talking about the concomitant era of credit-default swaps and subprime-mortgage lending. -John Colapinto, “Just Have Less,” The New Yorker, January 3rd, 2001.

Stylistically, the it bag refers to itself: it is based on a bag from a brand, popularized by a celebrity, and then recycled in various forms with different adornments. There is no new creative injection, just the appearance of such. The phenomena moves from one company to another, each getting a turn at being “it,” a different look but the same function: it’s a purse, but more importantly, it turns everything into its own promotion. Anything that goes against that promotion is cut. Amazon’s pricing and enclosed media ecosystem works the same way: if you are not explicitly for it, you are against it. It bags and Amazon to say it as Horning does, entomb you in your preferences. They do this by being “smart,” and not allowing you to divorce the medium from the content.

It’s up to libraries to deal with these concerns in an environment where these kinds of intellectual closed circuits is what fuels the market. Aaron Schmidt quoted Katheryn Greenhill’s elegant blog post:

Or we could save our energy and find untapped sources of content created by our local users and work together to create a single publishing platform and rights-management tool to allow easy creation and access to local content.

That’s the excellent ending of Kathryn Greenhill’s answer to her own question: How do we force publishers to give us ebook content that includes works that our users want and that they find easy to download to their chosen device?

ANSWER: They will not.

We need to design it ourselves, but will its scarcity be it’s allure or its downfall? I’m going to go out on a limb and quote Agenda Inc.’s articles of faith about luxury brands: “We believe luxury is rarity. We believe that innovation – the pursuit of rarity – needs to be redoubled as a goal for all luxury brands.” In a world where the desired goal is to create enclosed information ecosystems, the creation of open-standards and local content is more rare than anything. Beyond that, however, is the idea of serendipity. Can we create a system that allows for the unexpected to infuse the normal? It goes back to the basic black t-shirt, a dumb component that works no matter what the content put into it. Local content makes it unique, but it does not widen its appeal, and it threatens to also create a closed off group where local things don’t have much interest to those outside of that locality. Libraries can’t force publishers to do anything, but our patrons (their customers) can.

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