design and dasein: heidegger against the birkerts argument

Here and elsewhere in the blogosphere, much ink has been spilled — or rather, many pixels generated — regarding Sven Birkerts’s “Resisting the Kindle,” which contends that the e-reader’s rise augurs ill for our ability to contextualize information. The argument hinges on a conditional premise, the soundness of which I doubt: “If … we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are called onto the screen by the touch of a button … [then] we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another.” At his most dystopian, Birkerts foresees “an info-culture … composed entirely of free-floating items of information and expression, all awaiting their access call.”
Birkerts’s skepticism seems more an indictment of human nature than of the Kindle itself, and I think his assumptions about our capacity to “replace” are misguided. In defending or repudiating his stance, bloggers have invoked everyone from McLuhan to Pascal to Derrida. Bearing this continental mélange in mind, I’d like to call to the stand Herr Martin Heidegger, existentialist and phenomenologist par excellence.
Don’t worry — I’ll try to keep this painless.
In his seminal Being and Time, Heidegger considers equipment and utility: how we relate to our tools, how the tools relate to one another, and how a network of tools mitigates our surroundings. “Equipment,” he avers, “can genuinely show itself only in dealings cut to its own measure” (98).* Well-designed tools possess something he dubs “readiness-to-hand.” Roughly defined, the more something is suited to the use it is made for, the more ready-to-hand it becomes. Readiness-to-hand entails a kind of integration with the environment, an invisibility; the tool belongs so much in the world that we seldom realize we’re using it as we work. So that we may gape at his obscurity, here’s how Heidegger puts it:

The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically. That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell is not the tools themselves. On the contrary, that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work — that which is to be produced at the time; and this is accordingly ready-to-hand too. The work bears with it that referential totality within which the equipment is encountered. (99)

Consider, for example, a computer keyboard. When I type on mine, I’m ordinarily unaware of it. Since it’s well-designed and fully functioning, I have no phenomenological reason to take notice of its existence — instead, I concentrate on what I’m typing. The keyboard is incorporated in my location, existing in tandem with my monitor, my lamp and, yes, the intimidating paperback edition of Being and Time resting on my desk.
Of course, if the keyboard broke, or if it were inherently flawed, this wouldn’t be the case, and it’s for this reason that Heidegger introduces “obtrusiveness,” one way of distinguishing between well-wrought equipment and defective tools. The latter make us increasingly aware of their presence and less at ease in our environs; they simply don’t seem to fit into the world as we’ve constructed it. This is the last time I’ll quote our man:

When we notice what is un-ready-to-hand, that which is ready-to-hand enters the mode of obtrusiveness. The more urgently we need what is missing, and the more authentically it is encountered in its un-readiness-to-hand, all the more obtrusive does that which is ready-to-hand become — so much so, indeed, that it seems to lose its character of readiness-to-hand. It reveals itself as something just present-at-hand and no more, which cannot be budged without the thing that is missing. The helpless way in which we stand before it is a deficient mode of concern, and as such it uncovers the Being-just-present-at-hand-and-no-more of something ready-to-hand. (103)

Onto Birkerts, then. The Kindle may feel, at present, isolated and bereft of context, but this is because its readiness-to-hand is concealed by a lack. Something is missing, or, to use Heidegger’s jargon, “obtruding.” Birkerts maintains that the issue is one of context, but this is perhaps irrelevant. What matters is not the nature of what’s missing but that something is missing at all. In Heidegger’s philosophy, people will resist imperfect equipment, especially when its faults obtrude upon their interactions with the world.
If designers solve the Kindle’s problems — whatever they may be — satisfactorily, e-readers could supplant traditional, printed books. We might, that is, come to use the Kindle for identical tasks, in otherwise identical environments, and so enable a radical shift in information access without surrendering anything. But if designers can’t remedy this sense of Heideggerian obtrusiveness, then the risk of wholesale displacement is practically nil. Unless its successor is fully accommodating, the “delivery system” will not be replaced. What obtains for e-readers instead will be tenuous coexistence at best and outright failure at worst.
Thus, the most tendentious part of Birkerts’s argument has little to do with the Kindle or context. It’s that he believes humanity would wittingly adopt deficient tools at the expense of effective ones. This fundamental cynicism is, to a point, understandable; much of marketing and advertising, after all, devotes itself to convincing us that what’s new is necessarily superior, and in the marketplace we’re suckers for such baseless claims. (At this point, any sticker that reads “New and Improved!” seems almost redundant.) But Birkerts underestimates, I think, the functional and aesthetic requisites of an average reader. If Heidegger is right, then the catastrophic, decontextualized info-culture of Birkerts’s imagination is patently absurd — readers won’t, in the short- or long-term, shutter our libraries just because some novel, convenient alternative has asserted itself.
“We misjudge it,” writes Birkerts of the Kindle, “if we construe it as just another useful new tool.” But this is exclusively what it is, at the moment. In order to advance as equipment, the Kindle must demonstrate the readiness-to-hand of that which it endeavors to replace. It hasn’t. Until it does, any talk of supersession strikes me as alarmist.

*These citations come from the John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson translation. Heidegger’s style, especially in English, is notoriously labyrinthine and often straight-up unreadable. If, someday, someone can endure the entirety of Being and Time on a Kindle, I think we can safely say the e-readers have won.

9 thoughts on “design and dasein: heidegger against the birkerts argument

  1. Todd

    Birkets is not talking about industrial design.
    But, perhaps the anxiety he is expressing at information losing context is being unfairly aimed at the Kindle.
    Kindle, iPhone, netbook, whatever, his concern is still valid. Looking at your argument, you can’t read and really understand Heidegger if your conception of the book is not that of something that has a start and finish and is connected historically and conceptually to other works, but of something that is merely a collection of bits of information, that can be accessed at any time, in any order.

  2. Michael W. Perry

    Maybe it’s because I wear so many hats. I write, edit and publish books for little Inkling Books. But much of what bothers me about any of the ebook readers, including the Kindle, the Sony devices, and the iPhone, is that they allow so little scope for artistic choice in how a book looks. Every book ends up not just being bland, but being bland in exactly the same way. That’s the worst of all possible worlds.
    There’s no cover, just a front page image for marketing purposes. There’s no choice of size or ratio of width to height, something that can often make a good book into a great one. No, those factors are determined by the gadget itself and are the same for every book we read. The same can be said for fonts. They must be among the handful a device supports. That’s the difference between a handwritten love note and one that comes as email looking no different from spam.
    Even the little that changes is not for the better. I often remember passages by where they are on a page. In the fluid work of ebooks, that constantly changes, leaving a reader feeling adrift in a sea of words. You complain about ebooks not having a context on shelves with like books. But the words themselves have no fixed context. They constantly shift.
    Several years ago, I edited new editions of the tales by William Morris that influenced J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The University of Washington near me happens to have rare copies of special editions of those works done by Morris’ marvelous Klemscot Press. Since I was going to proof the texts anyway, I decided to proof from those rare copies, something the library graciously permitted me to do. I was taken back by just how beautiful those rare copies were. Morris, a genius in almost every art form, had transformed a book into a work of art.
    Nor is that effect confined to rare books. I recently bought the paperback of Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. Although it cost less than $10, I was struck by how attractive and beautifully laid out it was, something that makes it a pleasure to read. No ebook done today can duplicate that aesthetic sense.
    As Marshall Mcluhan often pointed out, the medium shapes the message. A printed book is certainly a limited medium, shaping the message it presents in certain ways. But it allows far more scope for shaping that message than any ebook device today. That’s the real point of contention between the two and why for many an ebook just doesn’t ‘feel’ right.
    As an art form, today’s printed book resembles oil on canvas. It does limit what an artist can do, but in ways that don’t prevent visually great books from being created. In contrast, an ebook is like art using a box of color crayons or, in the case of black-and-white-only devices like the Kindle, like ‘painting’ with a single crayon. So much is determined by the device itself, that little is left for creativity to be expressed through the medium.
    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

  3. bowerbird

    dan said:
    > Don’t worry — I’ll try to keep this painless.
    too late, dan. way too late.
    this was painful even when bob brought it up,
    20 days back. and 23 comments on his entry
    in the interim have only intensified that pain…
    i made the first of those 23 comments, repeated here:
    > why does cyberspace pay any attention to this guy?
    > seriously.
    > make him eat his own dogfood, for crying out loud.
    > don’t link to him. let him see — precisely — exactly
    > how far his shit gets when it exists _only_ in print…
    > unless you’re a masochist, and you like being whipped.
    not even the masochists are having fun with it any more…
    and dragging heidegger into the conversation doesn’t help.

  4. sep332

    Heidegger makes some good points about “obtrusiveness,” but I don’t remember that he ever claimed that people would use this criterion to choose one tool over another. I would argue that what he calls “distance” seems to be a better indication of the way people make that sort of decision. Heideggerian “distance” describes the human tendency to try to “fit in,” or to reduce the differences between oneself and others. If people see the Kindle as something that other people are using, they might choose the Kindle (et al.) over books just to fit in, even if it is more obtrusive.
    Would you argue that obtrusiveness is a stronger disincentive than distance in this case?

  5. Mr Punch

    “Birkerts …. believes humanity would wittingly adopt deficient tools at the expense of effective ones.” They would and have, depending upon one’s definition of “deficient” and “efficiency.” Many of us who had to switch from XyWrite to Word for word processing found the new software deficient in several respects compared to the old, for example.

  6. Tim

    It’s a little weird to invoke Heidegger on e-books without looking at any of the texts where Heidegger talks about reading and writing technologies, or technology as such.
    For example, in his lectures on Parmenides, Heidegger argues:
    Writing, from its originating essence, is hand-writing. … In handwriting the relation of Being to man, namely the word, in inscribed in beings themselves. … Therefore when writing was withdrawn from the origin of its essence, i.e., from the hand, and was transferred to the machine, a transformation occurred in the relation of Being to man. … In the typewriter we find the irruption of the mechanism in the realm of the word. … The typewriter veils the essence of writing and of the script. It withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand …
    I don’t think Heidegger would like the Kindle, no matter how handy or natural it seemed to be.

  7. Dan Piepenbring

    You all raise some compelling points. By no means am I a Heidegger expert — in fact, I don’t even qualify as a Heidegger novice. Like many others, my sole exposure to him was the result of an undergraduate existentialism course. There are, I’m sure, plenty of passages that devastatingly undermine the argument I advanced here. From what I know of, say, his concept of the “They-self” and his musings on technology, I can easily see how he’d've despised the Kindle and its ilk. And indeed, anyone who adopts a Kindle based purely on the hype would be the paragon of inauthenticity, that most damning of existentialist insults.
    Since discussing Heidegger at all is essentially an interpretive exercise, I was foolish to believe that he would elucidate these questions rather than further sullying them. Nevertheless, I’ve always found his writing on equipment to be intuitive and widely applicable; though I was reductive in using it here, I think it provides an intriguing framework for the central dilemmas of digital publishers.

  8. caleb tr

    I’m way behind on reading if:book (and I’ve been reading backwards), but it struck me that your argument took a different turn than the one I expected.
    If the tool isn’t as important as the work being done (“I concentrate on what I’m typing”, you say), then certainly work will be done slightly differently with slightly different tools.
    In this case, it’s clear that the idea of book-work being replaced by ebook-work, and the uncertainties of what happens to book-workers, and the role of book-workers in our cultural and power elite, is what is threatening to Birkerts and many others.

  9. Bill Bales

    You write as if there is a subject/object world. There is no subject/object world.
    I invite you to read my recently posted blog “The ‘Leap’” at It might clear a few things up for you, add to any confusion you may have, or you may not have any time to read it. Read it anyway, I think you will enjoy it.


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