About the reMarkable “paper” tablet and the end of civilization as I know it

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes


It’s very attractive. Right up my gadget alley, and just barely, at 600 bucks, within the scope of my nearly impulsive acquisitiveness. In other words, I’m surprised I haven’t sprung, having only learned of this device as long as an hour ago, because of an ad, God help me, on Facebook. The only rueful feelings I have are connected with wondering why I wasn’t contacted by any means with some notice as to the usual crowd-source spiel and pre-order ritual. This would apparently have saved about 40%.

I like paper and ink. The attestation simply enough is that I keep collecting writing instruments, including fountain pens and artisanal pencils (often in dozens at a time). I now own them in quantities that likely—with consultation of actuarial tables and an analysis of my actual usage needed to confirm—will never be depleted. I have myriad paper tablets mainly in a size I will readily, and do, carry around with me, usually in the left rear pocket of my trousers. I have smaller ones, for occasional notes and for when I am, for some reason, not carrying my current usual go-to notebook in that pocket. I have larger ones, of the octavo size that most people think of when they think of personal notebooks (approximately the template for the iPad mini).

Frankly the latter are preferable, even if I write in the same size characters, usually in pen and ink, which I do in the smaller index card sized notebooks that fit in my jeans unobtrusively. I can fit that much more in a line of writing, and that much more on a page. It’s easier to make the larger notebook lie flat, and easier to draw on the page for that rare occasion that I’m inspired to sketch something rather than try to capture the thought in words.

I have just spent about 20 minutes taking in the promotional copy from the vendor that developed and produced this new product, and I’ve read some of the review literature in the gadget press. It all sounds quite propitious, except for the usual and expected delays in manufacture and fulfillment that I have experienced first-hand with all the crowd-sourced products that I have bought, a long list of which I am still waiting for; products that were a lot simpler technologically than this tablet.

I gather that had I been alerted somehow when they began their campaign for funding and had elected to be an early adopter (and it’s quite likely, given my history and the price discount, that I would have), I would be very very frustrated by now. I infer that their first orders from supporters were collected in November 2016. Which means they are now a full year into the first release product cycle. According to the vendor’s online blog, they still haven’t shipped to all of their early adopters.

This makes me wary, more than anything else, about ordering the device now, this early in the product life. It seems to do what is promised. There are no words of disparagement or about shortcomings in performance in the reviews of the product’s actual performance. It seems to hit all the right marks in terms of design in all senses, from their graphic design of marketing materials, to the industrial design of the product, to the technology (insofar as I am versed in it well enough to understand it) under the hood.

However, there may be real world performance failure, and it will be another gadget cluttering up my office and studio that simply stopped being useful through literal lack of support from the vendor (a small startup in this case, which means if they stop supporting the product it would probably have been because of a failure in the marketplace altogether for the company). I have a small helter-skelter museum of such ultimate product failures – at least one of them, the Apple Newton, having gone through billions in development and marketing, through several iterations. A number of them have quite viable companies’ brands on them, like Apple, or Amazon, or Logitech, and some of companies now defunct or absorbed into some larger entity only to disappear like a single microbe in a biome in some conglomerate corporate gut, like Palm. Many of these obsolete devices still work, at least a few with only the least encouragement, like a new battery or a recharge. Some are dead in the water. All equally useless, and each of them out-of-fate, their functionality displaced by more reliable, better designed, functioning up-to-date replacements.

There is also the resistance I feel, knowing myself as a consumer, both with my idiosyncratic quirks and my behaviors as a typical consumer with a routine honed through years, if not decades, of employing technological tools (caveat: I consider a graphite pencil on paper a technology) to get done what I have to get done. Some products I’ve acquired with a great sense of potentiality and promise at the start, only to be disappointed after a fair game try at introducing this new “tool” into the mix of things I use in the course of a day. And I am a gadget freak so there are a good number of them. Some products have become an integral part of some routine. I have now gone through four generations of the Apple iPad, and two generations of the Apple iPad Mini. I have owned six successive generations of the Apple iPhone, starting with the first one ten years ago this past summer. And I don’t regret (not very much) the thousands I’ve spent on simply these associated “mobile” gadegts. For one, almost none of these devices, when replaced with the latest spiffy version, brimming with technological advances, has gone into disuse, or even into my involuntary museum of such devices. They have been passed along to eager and grateful users not so particular about deploying only the latest, lowest latency gizmos.

Even with lesser, or at least less glamorous, products, like the variety of cell phones I owned before adopting the iPhone as my standard, I passed along the obsolescent products so they could be used productively by needier consumers with some want for the technology. Several phones were donated to organizations, including the local police, who gave such phones in working condition to, for example, women at risk. The graduation from flip- to iPhone was made a great deal easier by the generosity of a friend who bought my first iPhone for me as a gift, allegedly to signify his appreciation of my “coolness” with what was then the coolest gadget out there. He had done the same with the iPod, the first one, six years earlier, which I used for a couple of years, and retired for a more sleek, smaller, higher capacity model, though it still worked perfectly; as it did when I traded it in at the Apple Store several years after that to defray the cost of what ultimately proved to be the last version of this product with a mechanical hard drive before Apple concluded that the technology had to be declared extinct.

It has only been in rare instances that I have taken a product out of use that was still working as required. I am loathe to dispose into the waste stream any product with hard technology (plastics, rare elements, electronic circuitry, toxic chemicals) whether it is working or not. If it does still work, I try to find a new home. But there are few. Using services like Craig’s List and eBay, which I’ve tried, is only asking for more trouble and aggravation – or at least a much higher chance of it, and the monetary return would be negligible and not worth the effort. And most of the devices, gadgets, and gizmos that I have hung onto do work, or did when taken out of service. This phenomenon, of functional obsolescence, is one of the huge deficits of life in a first world country, especially the United States.

The fact is, however, that the entire planet is awash in the detritus of last year’s tech. Spanking new and shiny and enviable only months ago, a product that has been superceded in the marketplace, either with a competitive brand’s product, or a newer model from the same parent company, or an altogether new technology, quickly loses its luster and seeming usefulness. It hasn’t, of course, but we are many of us hostage to having bought into the mythology of the ways in which progress manifests itself. Or the reflexive, and I think self-protective, systems of establishing a sense of credible self-worth.

I don’t bother myself with the vagaries of philosophical inquiry about the ways in which so many of us are equally prey to having our values skewed, or possibly even utterly subverted, so that we end up in the habit of spending more time fulfilling the need created within us by innumerable cultural forces – being materialistic, being acquisitive, being in terrible need of signifying our sense of worth to ourselves with a constant stream of gifts, and those largely items that have been rooted in the apparent esteem, deservedly or not being no matter, of our peers. And we concomitantly spend that much less time being mindful of what comes with existence in this life in this world on this planet largely for free. Until that turning away becomes not just quotidian habit, but a disposition of mind.

I don’t bother myself overmuch about these things, not because I think I have vanquished that grasping, acquisitive, covetous urge within me characteristic of this stage of the Anthropocene – that is, not to make something grandiose out of this. Rather, I am sufficiently mindful (and if I have to, I force myself to be, consciously; silently it’s true, but this is not the kind of thing to make any noise about—if I did with any regularity, and poked you in the ribs before I did so, it would be a giveaway that in fact my objectives were somewhere other than in the sphere of ethics; I am humbled by my own sense of humility and, uh, self-abnegation) that I can keep myself in check, and not run away with any facet of my personality that derives from genes that determine one’s role as a Master of the Universe. This means I will, among other things, and I am trying hard not to trivialize this, but these are real signifiers that real people actually do, never own a brand-new (or even a “pre-owned” – god, I love that phrase) Patek Philippe watch. Their clever ad people assure us, anyway, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” I will never own a fleet of cars, or even a two-stall stable of a Tesla (for town) and a hybrid Range Rover (for those forays to the north country). I could arguably do so, without putting a significant dent in my ability to ensure a diet of healthful, good-tasting foods for myself and my little family, or necessitating a move from our spacious and airy, but hardly grandiose, home to a more efficient condo downtown, along with an annual travel pass on public transportation vehicles. And I wouldn’t do the latter, not because I feel I live a fretful encumbered existence as the epicenter of an object-cluttered way of life. Much of the detritus with which the house is burdened (in its less accessible storage areas), especially as I described the abandoned technological flotsam in the foregoing narrative of my life with tech-y gadgets, is there because the world does not care to make it easy to dispose of such artifacts of our quest to escape the insuperable inevitability of our mortality. Climate change, after all—if we are to believe the thrust of belief of a third of the U.S. electorate—is definitely not in large part the result of human behavior.

Yes, it can all be left in barrels for the Lower Merion Township Refuse and Recycling trucks to carry away, as they do, virtually without fail, every week of the year. But then it becomes the burden – and no less poisonous or detrimental to succeeding generations – of a much wider expanse of my fellow citizenry, silently and with only their tacit permission, given that I am bound only by my conscience. Curiously, I have no confidence that my neighbors, equally, that is, no better or worse, are bound equally by theirs.

So, in the end, I’ll take a pass on this latest toy, reMarkable™ as it alleges to be. It may be like paper, but it isn’t paper. eInk® is a brilliant achievement, but it’s not ink. Life-like is not a choice I care to make yet.

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8 thoughts on “About the reMarkable “paper” tablet and the end of civilization as I know it

  1. Thanks for the great, very apropos, comment. I note, though, that you still haven’t installed the iPhone app that, using the latest AI tech, finishes your sentences for you. And I… And I… What for God’s sake!? What about me??!

    • IIIOTTMCO what you are…to use a common (and much feared by me) MIT teaching phrase…

    • Well, Steve, first, as a public service, let me translate this pitiably hoary acronym from your salad days at MIT.

      IIIOTTMCO – “It Is Intuitively Obvious to The Most Casual Observer”

      Second, let me point out that you’re right on schedule, as you drag out this sad fucking expression every two years, and the last two times were also on Facebook, and the last time you managed, with my assistance, to implicate your old classmate, the physician from northern New England.

      Time to retire at least that acronym, especially as it instils such untoward feelings in you for so long, and because it’s gotten quite threadbare as your tactic for wheedling out of answering a direct question.

    • Let that iPhone app finish it for you!

      Or….just saying that you use, often, everything but the stock Mac apps, but aren’t as phone-centric as so many others. No big deal…

    • Actually I use a far greater number of applications on the iPad. Which, I guess, amounts to the same thing. I don’t use the phone in the way so many people do, and that is to distract themselves, wholly without regard to etiquette or courtesy, from whatever matter is at hand in the presence of others. I never drag out the phone unless, usually, I’m by myself, or I have to look something up that arose in conversation and with the proviso that there’s a good connection. I also use the phone singularly as a tool for which this app or that makes it ideally suited: as a level (I recently put up some spice shelves in the kitchen using it this way), as a way of measuring dimensions indirectly (I just ordered a new crowd-gizmo that links to the phone and will allow measuring angles and hypotenuses and, thereby, heights with one or two beams of a laser). I use it as a flashlight. And so forth. I’m surprised to infer you prefer Music to Spotify or something else. I’d use the phone for a lot more listening to tunes if I had better earphones that connected wirelessly, but I’m waiting for at least two different new “state-of-the-art” bluetooth gizmos from, you guessed it, crowd-sourced vendors.

      So the theme of the essay, or one of them, that I am a sucker usually for hardware still holds. How, uh, did the matter of iPhone apps come up anyway? Oh, now I remember… IIIOTTMCO

    • I use Slacker – because it came with my car, and I was able to configure custom stations on my Mac and link to the car…and I use MeasureKit, a new AR measurement app on the phone. I use about 30 apps regularly, 20 of them every day…a bunch of reading, but also stuff like controlling my hearing aids and car, plus playing Scrabble with a number of friends, and doing a daily NYT crossword, etc. Not “games” per se, though…

    • Well, exactly. The iPhone to me, as one would expect of a device that has become, in fact, a super powerful microcomputer, is a tool kit. It probably deserves a long discussion, or a book. It’s a social phenomenon of broad consequence of course, because in the hands of so many people it has become a tool of a particular order, mainly used for a mode of communication that in some respects never existed before, and certainly not in this form. That is, it’s a communication device, of course, but it’s not, per se, a phone – its original stated formal functional taxon. Not surprising that so many of the various strata and segments of users, mainly segregating themselves by age, do not use it, in fact eschew its use, as a telephone. It has nothing to do with sound, as the microphone and speakers (now in stereo on a six-inch slab called iPhone X) are an integral part of its function set for all users, though in a variety of ways.

      I tend to think that, in this context in which I am looking at it, the phone, like the iPad, and like prospective additions to my digital arsenal, like the reMarkable tablet (the ostensible subject of this actual screed against toxic artifacts of conspicuous consumption), I tend to use these “tools” in a passive way. I mean, I don’t deploy them unless I have a task whose objective is other than actual real time use of the phone to control some behavior or maintain contact with a mate or buddy, or some random correspondent. In other words, when I use it to lower the volume on my Airplay speaker that is playing the music I selected on Spotify, I am using it as an active tool. Same with using it as a level, or a measuring device. It’s passive when I use it (in the case of the phone, this is rare, because I find the screen too small to qualify, again for me, as a monitor) to produce some part or all of a work product, like a note for later reference, or to edit a PDF document. I still prefer a full-fledge computer with an electomechanical keyboard to accomplish such tasks. If this makes me a Luddite, so be it.

      I’m still holding out on using the iPhone to lower the volume by telling Siri to do it for me.

      And things like Amazon Echo and Google Home are non-starters.

  2. I do find it somewhat – well, “funny” is the only word that I can think of, mostly because it has a number of meanings, all relevant – that you and I both are somewhat outliers on the technology adoption curve…we each are leading (and in some cases, bleeding) edge, and (relative) luddite in other cases, usually mirror image to each other…I still use only stock Mac software apps, but do every other thing on my phone that can be done on it…and you…

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