Kindle 3, Books, eReaders Vs Sensory Overload

As the Kindle 3 continues to sell well and Sony and B&N bring new, impressive eReaders to market the focus is on the eReader wars.

There is, however, another war that is far more interesting – The War between sources of entertainment that overwhelm users with sensory overload and sources of entertainment like books that help users focus.

The Inspiration – Two Examples of Sensory Overload

Let’s quickly look at what we mean by sensory overload –

  1. Hakiri lists a cartoon asking whether Huxley was right (with Brave New World) and Orwell was wrong (with 1984). Some of the things listed in favor of Huxley being right are scary in their accuracy –

    What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who would want to read one.

    Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. 

  2. Gizmodo talks about carpets in Vegas casinos being hideous and loud. One of the commenters points out that creating sensory overload and triggering dopamine release are probably the motivations for having such hideous carpets –

    Casinos are ALL about sensory overload. As soon as you walk in your senses are literally assaulted by the bright flashing lights, the loud carpets, the architecture, the garish decorations, and most of all the slot machines!

    I’m pretty sure all this sensation puts one in the mood to gamble. If I remember correctly, it has to do with releasing dopamine in the brain.

When Steve Jobs says that users don’t read any more that really is what he is hoping for. It’s what pretty much every company wants.

Users that just watch TV and surf the Internet mindlessly and buy what ever is suggested and behave the way companies would like them to behave. A company would much rather have ‘consumers’ than intelligent customers. It’s about profit.

The iPad epitomizes that – iPad is a device optimized for quick sensory hits and quick dopamine releases. It’s completely unsuited to creating. It’s a consumer device tailored to make consumption easy and overpowering.

Every eReader sold fights the Sensory Overload Disease

It doesn’t matter whether it’s Kindle 3 or Nook 2 or Sony 650 or even the Skiff LostAtSea.

Here’s what happens when a user buys an eReader –

  1. She’s likely to watch less TV. She’s likely to spend less time on the Internet surfing randomly.  
  2. She’s likely to read more (a lot more) than she used to. 
  3. At the minimum she’ll be using her imagination and in the best case she’ll be reading books that make her smart.

There’s little doubt that reading books in a particular subject area makes you better informed and smarter in that area. There’s still a lot of argument about whether reading makes people smarter – anecdotal evidence suggests it does.

There’s a lot of evidence that the quality and range of a person’s vocabulary impacts the way they view the world and their experience of it.  

Angry Birds vs The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Let’s assume two people start with a blank slate –

  1. Person 1 downloads the #1 App for the iPhone and gets the following added to his worldview – pigs bad, birds good, eggs precious, pigs steal eggs, birds vengeful, throw birds at pigs, win back eggs.
  2. Person 2 downloads The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and gets the following added to her world view – Haven’t read the book so let’s assume it’s the way a person in another country views the world. Basically, something that has a lot more depth and realism and meaning than Birds turning into a combination of Chuck Norris, Rambo, and the Expendables and saving the world (or in this case eggs).

Which person is better off – The person who spent 10-20 hours reading the Millenium Trilogy or someone who spent 20 hours throwing birds at pigs?


Let’s extrapolate and ask ourselves which kid is better off –

  1. One who goes to school and studies from books for 4-5 hours a day.  
  2. One who goes to a special App School and plays iPhone games and watches MTV for 4-5 hours a day.

Well, most kids are already in category two – there’s way more TV time and video game time than there is study time and reading time. We’re already drowning in an information overload nightmare that’s beginning to resemble exactly what Huxley was afraid of.

TV, Games, Most Internet Sites are making people dumber

There really isn’t any way to argue that they are making people smarter. If we can agree that TV and games aren’t making people smarter we’ve already established something significant.

You could win the argument that TV and Games are making people dumber  just through opportunity cost – People could be doing something else, something that makes them smarter, and since they’re not they’re relatively dumber.

However, it goes a lot further than that.

The person making the TV show or coding a game or building an interesting new site is fighting starvation and failure. He has to get our attention and our money any way he can and the easiest way to do that is to trigger dopamine release and use psychological tricks and get us addicted.

The more we get enticed into all this subterfuge the dumber we become. If someone quits his job so he can play World of Warcraft for a year how do you categorize that? If a 14-year-old kid is playing 5 hours of Farmville a day instead of playing softball and going out to play with friends what’s that doing to her social intelligence and people skills?

There is a tangible cost – all those hours spent on TV and Video Games can’t be rationalized away as harmless entertainment.

eReaders and Books are a counter to that

The Kindle 3 manages to stick to its focus on reading and continues to ‘disappear in the background’.

It’s letting the reader construct her/his own world and create a self-driven journey. The money’s up-front so there are no hidden costs and it’s a 1 on 1 with some of the smartest people in the world. People who are trying to share their knowledge and their wisdom and leave behind a legacy.

So it’s the exact opposite of TV and games and most Internet sites –

  1. Books get their money up-front so they don’t have to sell user information or play psychological tricks. 
  2. Authors are focused on legacy and passing on knowledge and ideas. They aren’t focused on the quick money aspect (well, most aren’t).  
  3. Most TV shows and Internet sites have morphed – since companies that advertise and companies that buy user information provide the profits they’ve tailored themselves to serve these companies well. Their real customers aren’t you and me – we are the product being sold.

It’s also important to note that Authors have a vested interest in keeping readers smart- If readers become dumb they’ll stop buying and reading books.

Why Sensory Overload is a brilliant strategy to fleece people

The Vegas Casino strategy (garish carpets, no clocks, glittery things everywhere) is very effective. The more you unsettle a person, the more emotional they become, the higher the rush they feel – the greater the chance they’ll indulge in risky, irresponsible behavior.

It’s the same with MTV and Facebook – The more quick dopamine hits they provide users with the more addicted users become. That’s basically what the news feed on Facebook is – it’s a bit of an addiction as you never know when a good item will pop up (OMG! They broke up!). It’s almost exactly like a slot machine since it provides erratic, unpredictable rewards of varying magnitude.

You start with a person with a blank slate –

  1. You start showing him MTV and warp his world of reality. He notices things in the real world are never as exciting as things in The Real World and begins to watch MTV more.
  2. You get him on to Facebook and Farmville and instead of a job that is tough and real life friends he has to be a good friend to he gets guaranteed satisfaction (virtual crops that can be harvested every 4 hours – so much more satisfying than a yearly bonus) and loads and loads of pretend friends.
  3. Throw in a few more things like porn and video games and you’ve turned a normal human being into Pavlov’s dog.

You start off with a human being and you end up with Pavlov’s dog who’ll spend even money he doesn’t yet have the minute he’s given the right signal.

People involved in each of these dopamine rush generating businesses will claim that what they do is perfectly legitimate – that it’s about free choice and about letting people destroy themselves if they want to. They even go as far as to claim they do tons of good – MTV is educational, Facebook is a social utility, and video games are a mix of art and entertainment.

We have to look at the end-result. If it’s really hurting users in the long run how is it educational or art?

The beauty is that we can keep arguing and pretending there are no negative consequences until 20-30 years in the future when there’s irrefutable proof. By then we’ll probably be living in a world where 90% of people are dumb and have food fed into them via pipes while they simply watch Jersey Shore 2040 and play Angry Birds: The Return of King Pig.

The Real War isn’t amongst eReaders

The Real War is between –

  • Companies that want to domesticate us all and turn us into sheep they can shear at regular intervals. And …
  • All of us and a handful of companies that are still resisting the consumer culture.

In The Time Machine H. G. Wells’s Time Traveler finds a world populated by childlike Eloi who are simply cattle – provided food by the Morlocks and then eaten by them.

Well, 2010 is not very different. The Eloi are now us – fed on a diet of TV and games and unreality and trapped with sensory overload. The Morlocks are the companies that are unethical enough or can delude themselves enough to justify a world where humans are nothing more than consumers.

Every book we read weakens the spell of sensory overload.

Every Kindle 3, every Nook 2, every Sony Reader is a triumph because people read more and they free themselves from TV and mindless sites and video games and all the other psychological traps set up for us.

We will look back upon the eReader Wars as not wars that were won by a particular eReader but wars that were won either by the Morlocks or by the Time Traveler and the Eloi.

17 thoughts on “Kindle 3, Books, eReaders Vs Sensory Overload”

  1. You are on to something. I am in the midst of a powerful struggle as to read on my kindle before going to bed OR watch reruns of “Everybody loves Raymond.” .. which one is more beneficial?

  2. I agree that too much television and video games take a lot away from real life. I know a couple of people who have given up must interaction with real people and family to live their life in an online video game. its a shame that the new creed is get “high on unreality” instead of get “high on life”.

  3. Not only should you read girl with the dragon tattoo, but you should also read Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson who argues the complete opposite of this post.

  4. Very insightful, I appreciate your passion and devotion to this blog and read it daily.

    When I was a kid, I did play video games and watch TV, but my parents insisted that I maintained a 1:1 ratio of reading and watching TV or gaming. So in essence, I had to read one hour to bank an hour of playing Nintendo.

    I used to think it was lame, but now truly appreciate the seeds planted in my mind at that early age… now I love reading more than anything else and can see TV, video games and movies (the ones that suck anyway) for what they are.

    It actually warms my heart when I see a kid reading, though it’s something that I think is becoming increasingly rare.

  5. I agree with you have to say until the very end about the evil companies wanting to keep us a sheep and those resisting the consumer culture. Sony, Nook, Kindle are all created because there is a market for these devices, consumers who want them. They are not doing it out of any other motivation than being able to make money by giving us consumers what we want. It is the same with MTV and the rest. They are merely giving a product for those who wants to consume them.

  6. Absolutely agree with every word of your post. I’m a teacher in the front line, facing students who expect immediate feedback and gratification like they get from their video games. They also want to be overstimulated in class…I cannot count how often we teachers hear ‘This is boring’, even when doing labs and blowing things up.

    This overstimulation is just like an addition. Some people will fall into the cycle of addition, while others occasionally taste the drug but then continue on with their productive lives. Unfortunately, because the drug is so readily available, so cheap, and so widely appealing to a huge variety of users, it is becoming an epidemic in our society. I like to spend a few hours every once in a while doing something completely unproductive. Watch a TV show, play a video game, go to a casino. I understand the value of down time and relaxation. But I fight an uphill battle trying to instill in my own children, and those that I teach, that entertainment is something to either reward yourself with or to partake in on occasion. It is not a lifestyle to be lived.

  7. Some good insight with this post, thank you. Going out on a limb here, I would add that it’s important to see the device (e reader) for what it is…it is after all a machine…a machine that is designed for reading books, but a machine nonetheless. If you are interested in seeing your new kindle in an entirely different non emotional way, allow me to suggest seeing the following. It is very clever.

    EEV blog #109 – Amazon Kindle 3 3G/GSM/WiFi 6″

    Dave shows you how to take apart the new Amazon Kindle 3 3rd Generation 3G/GSM/WiFI Ebook reader, and examines and discusses the circuitry, assembly, and build quality.

  8. Well, there are quite a few.

    Different countries and culture use different means.
    In Asia it’s the lack of basic sustenance and politics and sports.
    In the US it’s more of what Aldous Huxley talks about.

    If you take the two lowest levels of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy –
    1) Physiological needs like food, water, and sex.
    2) Safety needs like security, money, health.

    Different cultures use different parts of those two levels to keep people free of free thoughts and free of any ability to reach the higher levels and wonder about government and financial structures and the rules.

  9. One of Jonathan Franzen’s essays in the collection “How to Be Alone”
    addresses this post issue square on, even though the essay first appeared in Harpers years ago;

    the shining jewel in this collection, the apparently infamous “Harper’s essay” on the death of the novel, “Why Bother?” written in 1996. What a slow, horrible death the novel must be suffering! Again, it is Franzen’s personal input that gives the essay the extra level of understanding, he talks about his depression, his writing “process”, his own position as a reader; like many of us, Franzen feels he was saved by literature. For readers who constantly face accusatory remarks from people who don’t have time to read, “Why Bother?” is the ideal antidote, an affirmation. Franzen examines the cultural context and consumer economy that he sees as oppositional to the longevity of the book, the incompatibility between “the slow work of reading and the hyperkinesis of modern life.” He does suggest the problematic divide between “serious” and popular fiction, though doesn’t define his terms. I like to think of this as a technique to allow us to define the terms for ourselves: what does serious fiction mean to me? Despite reading “teaching us to be alone” as he states in a latter essay, it also ties us in with a disjointed communal group of increasing rarity: readers. This review can be seen at

  10. P.S. At a reading from /i/Freedom/i/ Friday evening in Atlanta, Franzen said, in response to a question, said close to this: “I don’t need 400 friends [on Facebook] and I jealously guard my one hour a day of reading. I want to be controlled for that hour by my book, without interruption.”

  11. When I got to the part about a woman buying an ereader and watching less television and reading more than she has in a very long time, I put my Palm Pixi down and looked around. Have you been watching me? Did you know that I told the cable company to take a hike and haven’t watched tv in over a month? Did you know that I have read more since buying my Kindle in early May than I have read in the last 12 years?

    I placed my order for a Kindle 3 earlier this evening. My Kindle 2 will be sold to a very dear friend who just happens to love the written word as much as I do. I hope that she becomes an Ereader Woman, just as I have.

    Thank you, Switch, for yet another well thought out and wonderfully written post.

  12. Dang, switch11, not only have I been touched by your article, and in particular by the teacher’s comment, but I’ve also been moved into action.

    I printed out your article and comments for my adult daughter to read, not only because I fear the video game/TV influence on her children (my grandkids), but also because she’s active in the PTA and library at the neighborhood elementary school my grandkids attend.

    Get this: the head of the school PTA, who also is in charge of the school library, informed PTA members that students stop checking out school library books when they reach fourth and fifth grade (the highest grades at the school). This is in an upscale community. Last week she proposed to PTA members that PTA stop wasting money on fourth/fifth grade reading materials and use those dollars for more books for the younger kids!

    Now that got me to thinking: rather than allow our educators to surrender to the influences that are keeping our fourth/fifth graders from reading, is there some way we can enable fourth/fifth graders to check out more books and read more?

    First of all, I need your (switch11’s) permission to print your article for the purpose of having my daughter distribute it to PTA. Secondly, you state in your article that the buyer of an eReader is “likely to read more (a lot more) than she used to.” I’ll research those studies and testimonials which support that, and may use that to help propose a donor-based pilot project at our elementary school to put an eReader (a loaner?) in every fifth grader’s hands. Track results and see if we’re on to something.

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