Bob Brown a fascist? Probably not a fair accusation, and not only because I know nothing of his political opinions. Of course, the idea of modernity at the time was shaped by the idea of progress, machinery and perhaps a “new” man. Many intellectuals gravitated towards communism or fascism (and away from Western liberalism) as they offered compelling visions of the future of mankind, especially in regard to production, art, and mass society in general. Brown’s work shares many similarities with the Futurists, of which the Italian branch were initially enthusiastic supporters of Mussolini’s brand of fascism.

The Futurists were intrigued by the idea of motion & automation, and I think that is apparent in the work of Brown. The parallels of the Readies with the Amazon Kindle are largely superficial, because what is truly distinct about Brown’s reading machine is the idea of automated moving text. Whatever our choice of medium these days, the text we stare at is largely static. If we’re not turning a physical page, we are turning it virtually – interfacing, sliding or pressing a button to move things along, but the text itself doesn’t really move. The act of reading doesn’t feel all that different.  While Brown’s machine allows the user to set his own pace, a degree of control is turned over to the machine. The Readies become less of an individual act, despite the ability to change fonts or speeds.

Don’t take this as a condemnation of Brown, who comes across as quite whimsical and probably not a totalitarian in any sense – but as they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget might agree. Lanier strongly argues against the de-emphasis of the individual or “cybernetic totalism” in contemporary digital culture. He says: “when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors.” (p. 19) Where Bob Brown sees the Readies as a boon for literature, Lanier might see its devaluation. Would a “book of day” subscription have value if one could absorb the entire Western canon in a few hours? Wouldn’t the quality of new material be devalued if the production of new texts can’t match the speed at which we can absorb them? Brown is unclear on how we might process texts, but would this machine lead to a more “hive-like” or collective interpretation of information?  While the Readies might liberate the text itself, they do not necessarily liberate the reader.  Is that what we really want? Are the Readies just a pre-computer version of “the Singularity” or what Lanier calls the “race to be most meta?”

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