Neuron Culture

iPad, therefore iKludge



Don DeLillo’s Players, as marked up by David Foster Wallace.
Courtesy Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

I just sat down to air a complaint about reading on the iPad when I discovered that Sue Halpern had done much of my work for me:

For all its supposed interactivity, the iPad is a surprisingly static machine, especially for reading. … One of the guilty pleasures of an actual, ink-on-paper book is the possibility of marking it up—underlining salient passages, making notes in the margins, dog-earing a page. While it’s true that some electronic book platforms for the iPad allow highlighting (it even looks like you’ve used a fat neon yellow or blue or orange marker), and a few—most notably Kindle and Barnes and Noble but not iBooks—allow you to type notes, they barely take advantage of being digital. It is not possible to “capture” your notes and highlights, to organize, compile, arrange, or to print them out. Until there is a seamless way to do this, marginalia will remain sequestered in the margins, and the promise of electronic books will be unrealized.

This plaint struck me a few weeks ago when — eating pasta in Palo Alto, as it happens — I was reading The Selfish Gene. I was enjoying both meal and book immensely, and, thinking fondly of my faithful readers here, wanted to share some of it with you, and to harvest salient passages for my own research as well. So I was pleased, exploring this new device, to find that the iPad’s Kindle program offers a highlighting feature.

Later, however, when I wanted to share these passages, I found what Halpern complains about: My highlighted passages appeared to be as locked up in the book as they would be if I’d highlighted a print copy.

Halpern describes a workaround, and I discovered one myself,* so this is hardly an intractable problem. Yet  these “solutions” require far more hassle than, say, pulling an excerpt from an online article to quote in a blog post, despite that all of this is digital. The book-reading (and book-based research) experience on the iPad thus fails to offers some huge advantages it could hold over print. The data is weightless — yet it takes all this heavy lifting to move it from one part of my desk to another. It’s absurd. (The new IBooks program coming out soon will also highlight and annotate, but it’s not clear how easy those highlights and notes will be to export.)


…beginning with the time before evolution itself began. Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name.

Highlighted by 32 Kindle users

…and in those days large organic molecules could drift unmolested through the thickening broth. At some point a particularly remarkable molecule was formed by accident. We will call it the Replicator. It may not necessarily have been the biggest or the most complex molecule around, but it had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself. This may seem a very unlikely sort of accident to happen. So it was. It was exceedingly improbable. In the lifetime of a man…

Highlighted by 19 Kindle users
Two passages from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene that I highlighted in my iPad. Took quite some trouble to get them from there to here.
Hardly disastrous. But disappointing, and needlessly so, that a device offering so many advantages for reading fails to exploit even established ways to integrate digital content into one’s own workflow. Books in particular remain sealed off. I can understand concerns about piracy and copying and so on. Yet I imagine those can be answered easily enough with limitations on how many consecutive characters you can highlight or copy, or other measures. Instead, quoting from or simply taking notes from them, as Halpern puts it,

… it’s a complicated choreography that requires a fair amount of concentration to avoid getting tripped up. Someday there may be an iPad app to get you there directly. Someday there may be a stylus and a way to physically write in the margins. Someday there may be optical character recognition software that turns those scribbles into manipulable text. Someday.

Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

*The easiest I found is to make the highlights and then — either on iPad or PC/Mac — browse to, sign in, burrow your way to the book in question, and then copy the highlights you want into whatever program you want them in. Hardly a fluid workflow.



  1. #1 epubman
    June 10, 2010

    I can tell you right now that the limitations on copy and paste and are almost entirely set by the publishers. Nobody wold sign an agreement with an ebook distributor unless heavy DRM (digital rights management) was in place which would prevent any form of duplication – even c’n’p – without having to come up with awkward workarounds.

  2. #2 Sweetwater Tom
    June 10, 2010

    I *THINK* that, on a Kindle, you can send your notes to another Kindle, maybe just when you send the book to another person. It still is no substitute for what *could* be done. Epubman above has a good point about publisher rights, but the publisher has no claim to reader notes! A lot of people want to use books beyond just reading that was the conception of the marketing team. (It could be a marketing ploy to lock the reader to that particular ereader platform.) We need an open protocol for the transfer of notes, highlighting, and comments between ereaders, computers, etc.

  3. #3 IanW
    June 10, 2010

    What they’re afraid of is not that someone will highlight a few sentences and copy it, but that someone will copy the entire book and suddenly it’s available as a (royalty-)free download. Clearly they could have devised a better system (or even a system since none exists in some of these apps).

  4. #4 David S
    June 10, 2010

    And if you allow a copy ‘n paste with limit on the number of characters, someone will write an app that will systemically do this for an entire book and then assemble them.

    I’ve see an app that does this for google’s scanned books.

  5. #5 Arlanthe
    June 10, 2010

    That is why I am holding out for an Android tablet and Google Books.

  6. #6 Miguel Marcos
    June 11, 2010

    Fortunately, though they are few, there are some smart publishers out there who ignore DRM and remain successful. The two are O’Reilly Media and Pragmatic Programmers. In the case of O’Reilly they often even offer the PDF version of the book.

    The DRM scheme also creates the nightmare situation where purchased DRM books are stuck in the app they were bought in. If it’s Kindle you can’t read it in any other app, likewise iBooks, etc. What a nightmare.

  7. #7 Dave King
    June 11, 2010

    Don’t think that by making certain feature not accessible (highlighting and side notes) someone is going to prevent illegal distribution of pirate versions. We have seen many other types of security for DVDs and they did not help. The lack of such a feature can only influence those who really need it and use it, in a negative way unfortunately.

  8. #8 Sarah
    June 11, 2010

    Wonder if they could just provide an export that provides a short quote of the highlighted spot with appropriate citation details along with your note. That way you get your notes with the relevant text but without the potential for copying the entire book via the notes feature.

    DRM and copyright issues need to be dealt with. The technology can do what we want, but media legal issues need to catch up with the technology first :/

  9. #9 Ian Leslie
    June 14, 2010

    Steven Johnson has written an essay on this very question:

  10. #10 Joseph
    June 14, 2010

    Yes. The iPad and such things are a *consumption* device.

    I, for one, am just waiting for the implanted RFI markers to be required so that I can obtain my Right to Read ( should be required reading IMHO).

    There’s also the question of the permanence of your notes, as was found in the Kindle _nineteen_eighty_four_ Debacle ( and how the Debacle shows the future of book banning and censorship:

    Not to mention that the vendor can remotely remove features from a device *after* it’ sold to you (Kindle text-to-speech ( technically not remote feature removal but rather activating a “do-not-convert” switch which was previously extant but unknown since all books had conversion set on), Playstation 3’s OtherOs ( this one is really removing a feature remotely after sale)).

    Until we get a Digital Customers’ Bill of Rights, you gotta get educated and be very very careful when selecting digital devices and software.

  11. #11 aykut
    October 4, 2010

    si thank admin

  12. #12 Daisy Chang
    February 14, 2011

    I know this isn’t exactly the topic in question, but whenever I hear the word iPad, I always like to throw out my opinion. Now don’t get me wrong, the iPad is a great machine, but I have found devices that are based on the android platform to be vastly superior. And, as far as ebooks go, nothing beats an e-ink display, imo. Cheers.

  13. #13 altın çilek
    April 2, 2011

    The DRM scheme also creates the nightmare situation where purchased DRM books are stuck in the app they were bought in. If it’s Kindle you can’t read it in any other app, likewise iBooks, etc. What a nightmare

  14. #14 izmir
    April 18, 2011

    Alison – Thank you SO MUCH for making me aware izmir of this need in putting a DVD together. You are absolutely right; we need to make sure that we make the program accessible to everyone izmir . I truly appreciate your feedback. – Katie

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