“Captive electric souls. Who designed these terrible things?”
William Gibson, The Peripheral
The Kindle’s physical components are nothing more than “an electrophoretic display, flex circuit connectors, light plastic casing made by way of injection mold, wireless cards/WiFi chips, controller boards, and lithium polymer batteries,” but its black pleather flap reminds me of that old snake in the garden. A technology that imitates authentic ink on paper—paper that glows—via a galaxy of microcapsules the diameter of a human hair, each containing positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles that float, suspended in a gelatinous space, bristling up to the surface after a corresponding charge – like goosebumps. Unlike most electronic devices, it refuses to hold my reflection as it slumbers. The Macroprosopus stares blankly into a flat void until he glides across the face of the waters and separates night from day. An old, Chinese conception of the universe seems to be at work just below this touchscreen interface, or maybe a late Cambrian ocean where startled cephalopods shoot jets of ink at my passing. Regardless, the contraption harbors something primordial. Its scaly veneer emulates a time when books were still bound in the skin of calves or criminals condemned to hang.
The name ‘Fiona’ was invented by the poet James Macpherson in his quasihistorical epic Ossian. It is a Latinized version of the Gaelic word ‘fionn’, which means ‘white’ or ‘fair’. First published in 1760, Ossian was highly popular at the time, sparking the Gaelic revival and reaching international success, with a readership that included Voltaire, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Thomas Jefferson. ‘Fiona’ was later adopted by Scottish author William Sharp under the pseudonym Fiona Macleod in the 19th century, inheriting a contrived historicity, popularity, and femininity along with it. 150 years later in Sunnyvale, California, on the tenth floor of Lab 126, an Amazon thinktank christened the research and developmental phase of their effort to produce the world’s finest e-reader with a moniker especially apt at embodying the romantic soul of their quest: Fiona. Fiona the White. Fiona the Fair. An elusive quarry pursued in the king’s forest by corporate idea men and women all charged with the same sacred task: “to put everyone selling physical books out of a job”—and through a strange alchemy, brought about by the thrill of the chase and the pressure to succeed, their white hart of the hunt burst into arcane fire, and in her dazzling ruin the Kindle was born, smoldering in their midst like a Kaaba stone.
Our planet buoys along lackadaisically at 67,000 miles per hour like some cerulean barge weighed down with approximately 50 million tons of electronic waste a year. E-mails (2.4 million every second), cellphone conversations (all 4.7 billion of them), Facebook photo uploads (300 million a day), Instagram posts (95 million per day), and innumerable other manifestations of unseen communique circumambulate its staticky hulk like screeching gulls. Kindle e-book downloads are estimated at about 1,064,000 a day, generating a revenue for the colossus, Amazon, that lies somewhere between $265 million and $530 million annually. Our terrestrial tugboat lugs ‘nature’ on its back like the corpse of a felled kaiju. An online shopping giant dons the skin of one of the world’s largest ecosystems, and has fooled us into thinking that somewhere in its heart lies the recipe for a cure for cancer…
When I extract the works of my favorite, most obscure author from this flashing squall of data that churns all around me, am I merely performing some animistic rite, scraping together the refuse of buzzards to scry?
Communication technology took a considerable leap forward in the seventh millennium BCE, when the Jiahu script was etched onto turtle shells in the Henan province of northern China, and was possibly used as a means for divination—the art of siphoning data from those anthropomorphized stars above to the throngs of skulls grinning up at us from beneath our feet, along with all the other plant and animal matter we can capture, carve, and construe to fit our purpose.
Our species is predisposed to mythologize the world, drafting a cartography of meaning with which to navigate its progress. To read the earth and air we breathe like sacred text is, by definition, a cybernetic process: a system of communication we are so accustomed to that we forget its prehistoric origins. The piezoelectric phenomena behind crystal oscillators, which is the frequency-determining element found in everything from radio transmitters to wristwatches to nearly every other personal or handheld electronic device, was first observed by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who believed quartz formations were ultracool icicles frozen in time. In Australia, Aboriginal men of high degree have transformed themselves into shamans by replacing their organs with quartz crystals and spirit snakes (the mythologized awareness of a fourth dimensional body?), to become living channels between their community and the Dreamtime. Nevertheless, every single pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican rock crystal skull subjected to scientific scrutiny has been proven a forgery of German import—and yet they still contain some secret known only to dead civilizations.
The codex became the most efficient medium by which the western world has stored and catalogued the spectral plane, whose denizens were perceived as the dignitaries of Hell. Frog-footed monarchs and chicken-faced dukes, each at the command of their own regiment of demons, could be summoned at the behest of a sorcerer and forced to perform any number of menial tasks.
The Pseudomonarchia Daemonum lists a full 69 spirits who can teach all manner of wonders, reveal hidden treasure, or cause one to fall in love—a perfect example of writing technology manipulated and employed to manifest desire at one’s convenience. Owls, toads, and black cats were believed to accompany the warlock or witch as they scrolled through tomes, concocting strange salves to surf the night air. Similarly, our Bluetooth-ed companions come bloated with a glut of apps that materialize Tinder dates the moment a finger comes into contact with glass; activate flashlights to discover lost objects; promise us fame and friendship through social media URL’s; provide food, shelter, goods and their location on the Global Positioning System; and allow one to browse every conceivable bit of knowledge as projected through a familiar’s dazzling complexion.
17th century France was introduced to mass media through the wide publication and distribution of livres bleues, or ‘blue books.’ These cheap, compact, and easily accessible ephemera charmed every tier of French society, frightening church and state authorities due to their immense popularity and questionable content. It was rumored that there were around 400,000 pamphlets circulating through the city and countryside like an ague, which provided detailed instructions on evoking Satan’s prime minister and treasurer of the world, Lucifuge Rofocale, as well as methods on how to fashion candles from baby fat.
The paranoia of police, priests, and princes arose from the Affair of the Poisons, which found 36 members of the aristocracy guilty of murder and dealings with the devil between the years 1666-1682. Further investigations unveiled the disturbing fact that a secret underworld of pimps, prostitutes, and the poor, possessed the means to obtain considerable amounts of wealth by the simple act of reading. A highly popular magical brochure at the time known as the Petit Albert, taught anyone with enough ambition how to obtain the Hand of Glory. To acquire this device, one merely had to cut the hand off a gibbeted man, drain out all the blood, place it in a jar filled with spices for half a month, and afterwards dry it in the sun. The mummified hand would then be made to hold a taper rendered from virgin wax and the fat of a hanged man, whose flame protected thieves as they stole unnoticed into homes. As a result of this disturbingly common practice, livres bleues were deemed too dangerous by government officials, and subsequently confiscated and burned along with their owners—perpetrating, with grotesque irony, what they had initially set out to condemn: illuminating the evening with candles procured from books and human remains.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST
Foxconn Technology Group (also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd.) is a multinational contract manufacturer responsible for 40% of all consumer electronic products on Earth. Located in New Taipei, China, Foxconn was founded in 1974 on a budget of only $7,500. It now generates a yearly revenue of nearly $100 billion, manufacturing objects like the iPod, iPad, Wii U, XBOX, PlayStation, Nintendo, and Kindle. The company hires 1.3 million people worldwide, including Buddhist monks, psychologists, and social workers, who work to help combat the high number of suicides that have plagued the firm’s workforce since 2010. Dozens of personnel fresh out of vocational or high school, ages 18 to 25, have leapt to their deaths because of poor working conditions, long hours, insufficient wages, and physical abuse. It is an activity so common that Foxconn has installed nets around the perimeter of their facilities and insists that newly hired workers sign contracts ensuring that family members won’t press charges if employees decide to extinguish their own lives.
Each reading of my Kindle ends with a quick, satisfying thwap from its mock flesh casing—and is an unsettling reminder of some faceless hazmat suit’s journey from roof to factory floor every time.