Enter the Printernet
Or, how to turn the internet into an ebook
You always remember the first time you read about the Memex. I was taking a college course on the internet and philosophy when I was assigned Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay "As We May Think.” If you've read it, you know: back when computers used vacuum tubes and filled entire rooms, Bush predicted that advances in physics, chemistry, and engineering would soon give us instant cameras that could fit in your pocket, machines that record text to speech or vice versa, encyclopedias stored in memory banks the size of a matchbox, and most of all the Memory Extender, or Memex.
The machine is entirely theoretical, the name a simple convenience for a whole class of devices Bush was sure were coming down the pipeline. The Memex is a kind of desk with projector screens, a command console, and a cabinet of indexed microfilms containing thousands of books, articles, images, and records, no bigger than a shoebox and instantly accessible. It sounds uncannily like a desktop computer. And when Bush suggested that a thoughtful Memex user might add her own trail of notes, annotations, and connections between disparate microfilms, he gave us the idea of the hyperlink pretty much ex nihilo. He doesn’t mention anything about networks or interoperability, but he implies that Memex databases could be easily copied and shared between different machines, taking us only a few short steps from outright predicting the internet. It is perhaps one of the most influential articles in the history of information.
But apart from all its prophecy, I've always been charmed by the specifics of Bush's Memex machine, which are very of their time. It is a bespoke desk, presumably made with a rich and stury wood like mahogany or teak. I picture it polished and filigreed, with room for folders, files, pens, and knick-knacks. Its screens are described as simple slide projectors, all of its content photographed onto tiny microfilms--unlike an electronic file, it is something you can really see. Bush's little desk-computer also doesn't seem to use a regular keyboard. To hyperlink to files, you have to open them both up, one to each screen, and press a corresponding key. For notes and annotations, he suggests drawing on the screens themselves, where through some kind of electrochemical process, the marks made with a stylus are etched onto the microfilm itself, as permanent as ink on paper. Colleagues might share their libraries by making copies, including these hyperlinks and notes. Authors, artists, and scholars might sell copies of their Memex archives, and great thinkers might bestow them to libraries and museums for posterity.
Instead, we got computers with LCD screens and databanks stored on microprocessors. This has made all the difference: networked machines running binary code on electronic displays are instant, simultaneous, permissive. For all their surface similarities, these turned out to be very different machines than the Memex. Digital computers can play audio and video files, they can livestream, they can adapt and change and expand in ways that the Memex never could. The computer-facilitated internet that we really got is both better and worse: more information but more junk, more commerce but more ads, more communities but more bullies, more revolution but more disruption. You have to go very far out of your way to make your internet-browsing experience look more like the retro-futurist cabinet of curiosities that Vannevar Bush envisioned.
I'm glad, on the whole, that we have the internet that we do. But sometimes I wish it could be more like it was in the early days, when the web was a box and a screen plugged into the wall and kept at your desk, good for reading and writing but not especially useful for music, movies, socializing, or shopping. (Those activities had their places, far away from the desk.) I want an internet that is slower, dumber, gentler. I want an internet that doesn’t want to vaporize my attention or swipe my credit card, but only wants to help me read and write. In short, I want a Memex internet.
We have more than enough technology at hand to do it: actually, we have too much technology. What we need to do is winnow our options down, choosing whatever instruments and materials would best suit the slower-paced, genteel nature of a Memex browser. It calls for taste, discrimination, and a bit of wisdom. It calls for getting rid of microfilm, which has all kinds of drawbacks as an archival material, and wouldn’t really be interoperable with the internet.
More than anything else, a Memex internet calls for lots of e-paper.
If you’ve ever used an e-reader, you’re familiar with the stuff, which usually goes by its trade name E Ink. E-reader screens are digital, like LCD monitors, rendering an image pixel-by-pixel, and are capable of displaying pretty much anything that a regular monitor can do. The difference is that they don’t have to re-draw the image dozens of times per second, and they don’t need a strong backlight to make the image visible. E Ink works more like an etch-a-sketch at light speed, using electrical currents to physically pull black or white pixels to the screen in order to draw an image. Once drawn, the image stays there, drawing virtually no power at all. This means e-reader displays have high contrast, can use background light instead of a backlight shining straight into your face, and generally cause a lot less eyestrain.
The technology is incredible. Two things have held it back from wider adoption in computers. For one thing, the display quality just isn’t very good when it comes to color and motion. Color E Ink is on the way, but is still complicated and expensive to create. Motion is even trickier, with even the highest quality E Ink screens turning into a blurry, glitchy mess with video. The screen quality by itself is already enough to turn most people off of using e-paper in 2022, when the most popular use cases for the internet—streaming video, online games, picture-based social media—just don’t work with it at all. Still, for weirdos like me who want an e-book internet, the technology is perfect. Why isn’t e-paper computing more prevalent?
In a word, Amazon. In much of North America and Europe, Amazon’s Kindle e-readers are pretty much the only game in town. As reading devices, they’re alright: the build quality is decent, the prices are low, and they integrate directly with the world’s largest ebook market. Amazon’s market share is so dominant that for most people, Kindle just are e-readers. Whatever Amazon decides the Kindle should be sets the horizon of possibility for E Ink, and Amazon has decided, with good reason, that they really just want people to buy Kindle ebooks with their Kindles. This year, as Amazon launched the stylus-equipped Kindle Scribe, they tried to present this as an ebook revolution. The thing is, Amazon had been beaten to the punch on this years ago. You just have to go to China to see it.
This is what e-readers look like in Asia:
In Asia, e-paper is the future. You see digital paper and electronic ink displays everywhere, from shop signs to billboards to mobile phones to scads of quirky, Chinese-made tablets like the BigMe InkNote or Onyx Boox Nova Air C. Yes, those are deeply stupid names, but they’re fascinating devices. Because they use the Android operating system, they’re technically tablets, capable of running any app that a smartphone can run. They can rotate, working in landscape or portrait orientations. Most importantly, they have color—not nearly as vivid as an LCD display, but they have a lot more than the black and white you’re stuck with in traditional e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook. (They can even run Amazon's Kindle app, meaning you get a fully-functioning Kindle reader on top of everything else they can do.)
They are full-fledged computers that just happen to use E Ink. And while they aren’t really meant to be used for anything outside the manufacturer’s walled garden of approved apps, unlike the Kindle you at least have the option of trying.
Judging by user reports, trying to use the internet like an ebook isn’t the most satisfying experience. Scrolling is slow and jittery. Pages often fail to render properly, or crash outright. It requires a lot of patience, care, and forethought.
But maybe calling this “bad” web-browsing is just a failure of the imagination. Instead of calling your e-reader a "dumb" device that's too stupid to browse the internet, why not turn the proposition on its head, and make a version of the internet that's dumb enough to work on an e-reader? An internet fit for E Ink would be slow, built mostly on text and image. It wouldn’t do at all for doom-scrolling, mindless shopping, or niche pornography. It would look more like the internet used to. It would, in short, be more like a Memex, an internet fit to print: call it the printernet.
And I am happy to report, after some searching, that there really is a small, deeply dorky corner of the internet that wants to make a version of the web that fits on an e-reader screen. Against the internet's increasing turn to TikTok, Zoom, and metaverses, here is a quixotic project to make the internet slower and dumber, so that it might work on these humble, less-powerful devices that hurt our eyes and bodies less. I love it.
That's not to say that there's anything like an organized movement. But if you look, over scattered Reddits and e-reader enthusiast blogs (yes, they exist), you'll find enthusiasts colliding into each other, sharing tips, tricks, ideas. Can you use an e-reader as a second display for your regular computer? What happens when you try to play video games on an e-reader? What's the deal with those E Ink typewriters? There's even EInk Bro, a web browser built for e-readers and their limitations in color, speed, and resolution. And if that's not enough, you can also start hacking it together yourself, looking through GitHub projects and CSS hacks to remove videos or animations, and add pagination or grayscale modes. Essentially, they are turning the internet into a book.
From there, you’re only a few steps away from getting a proper Memex. You can even get an E Ink monitor for it, if you have two thousand dollars to burn. Plug in your regular computer or phone, open your printernet apps, and browse on your giant Etch-a-Sketch screen straight out of the 1940s tech fantasies of Vannevar Bush. I cannot emphasize enough that I'm not being sarcastic in my enthusiasm about this.
Not that I have any illusions about how popular the printernet would be. Looking around at how most people use the internet (sample size: my wife and my students), video in all its forms—streaming, gaming, filming, and so on—are just too necessary to how the internet is now used and enjoyed. People who primarily want and enjoy a text-based internet are a tiny minority. Hell, I'm in that minority, and I wouldn't even want a printernet most of the time. But I'd sure like to have it in my office, ready for serious work, and I know I'm not alone.
The COVID-19 pandemic did much to thicken the layer of internet that lies over everything, and Web3, whenever it comes and whatever form it finally takes, will pour even more digital sludge over everything. Wouldn't it be nice to have a slower, reader-friendly version of the web, working at a pace and a scale more agreeable to serious thought and careful work? We have all the tools we need. The printernet is ready. Can we build it?
From the Archives
Confession: I may have faked a few of the illustrations in this week’s essay. If you’re no immediately disgusted and revolted by this betrayal, you might also like my review last year of Fernando Pessoa: A Life, which also dwells on deception and false fronts.
And that’s all for this week. Happy reading!