The iLife? No, thanks.

With perhaps perfect timing, I emerged back onto the internet after a week or so away just in time to see this piece in the Evening Standard: Living the iLife. The lede sums up the tone:

Techno-savvy Londoners are abandoning their worldy (sic) possessions and instead living their lives out of a laptop. The digital minimalist is able instantly to access their music, photos and film collection from any computer in the world – and to move house (and country) at the drop of a hat.

The obvious question is, of course, “How many Londoners?”, but regardless: the article is built around two interviews – one with Hermione Way, who runs some online video websites from a members’ club in Covent Garden and from a range of Apple gadgets, and one with Paul Carr (of The Friday Thing, which I used to like very much). Carr has been living in hotels for some time, while Way “is in the final stages of transferring her life online and selling her possessions”.

Which is fine, as is the fact that I’m sure neither gives a fuck about my thoughts on their choice of living arrangement. Nor should they. The reasons why I wouldn’t want to try it myself, though – despite, I’m pretty sure, qualifying as one of those “Techno-savvy Londoners” – are several.

How do you eat?

Some are pretty obvious. For example, how the fuck do you cook – or, for that matter, eat? You could probably fry an egg on a Macbook if you thrash the processor with Handbrake and slice just about anything with a Palm Pre, but other than that – no fixed abode, no posessions and being ready to move at a drop of a hat means no kitchen, and that means no cooking. And no plates or cutlery.

Or maybe you’re supposed to use disposable ones? Are you allowed to carry a small set of kitchen implements and ingredients? And more importantly still, does the iLife make provision for cats? Even if a cat doesn’t count as a “physical possession”, I bet his or her litter tray does. No way I’m abandoning that. Urgh.

But even if the “iLife” thing is really more narrowly defined – not owning what can be digitised – though, there’s one big, fat problem. I noted it – perhaps not terribly well (seriously seriously?) – here:

to which Mark Prigg, the author of the piece, responded:

To which the answer is yes, they do count, but there just aren’t enough of them. This is not because I don’t like the concept of storing media in a digital form: I had all my music, in MP3, on a custom-built streaming server, the moment the first UPnP players came out, I’ve since re-ripped the whole collection many times to increase quality as storage became cheaper and I now own a lot that was purchased in high-bitrate MP3.

My iPod is full of ripped DVDs for time spent on planes, I have more photos stored on my Flickr account than I will ever be bothered to look through and all my documents and work files are mirrored in a cloud storage service and on my own server. Put simply, I’m no Luddite. My problem is the abundance of books and lack of ebooks.


I own a lot of books, as does my wife, to the point where it causes problems. We’re out of storage space, and have been for some time. The bookshelves are crowded and bowing under the weight. I’d love to have the whole lot stored away in some secure, backed-up, format that I could access from an iPad or Kindle, and put the originals in storage or pass them on. The problem is that many – maybe even “most” of our books just cannot be purchased in a digital format.

Even the most cursory survey reveals that the range of ebook stores is staggeringly narrow. Of my favourite novels I could pick up a copy of The Great Gatsby, sure, but no Strong Motion, no White Noise, no Girlfriend in a Coma (or even Generation X). These are not obscure or ancient books. From a quick survey of Helen’s books that I can remember off the top of my head there’s no The File by Timothy Garton Ash (this is a must-read, btw), and you can forget about a Kindle copy of the hulking great Mitrokhin Archive.

Of course the range of digital music available to buy has expanded remarkably over the past decade, and the same is likely to happen to ebooks, but with music and video we’ve been supported by a great safety net: if your obscure record or film isn’t available, you can simply rip it to digital in minutes. With books that’s not an option – hence my “awesome scanner” comment. I can’t ever envisage an easy, hands-free way to “rip” a book: the problem is mechanical more than one of computing. Someone has to turn hundreds of pages. I’m not doing it.

Hence my comment, and why I can’t see myself – or anyone who reads – ever living “the iLife”. The CDs, DVDs and physical format games might go, but we’ll keep lugging the books behind us. Oh, and the cats too, of course.

And a response..

Paul Carr saw this post and dropped me a line, pointing out that the problem with the whole iLife thing and books isn’t so much reading them as hanging on to them afterwards:

“I like print. In fact I used to be a publisher. The problem is not buying [books] , or reading them; it’s owning them. My solution then is to buy them (sometimes new, often second hand) and then to release them into the wild after I’ve read them a la book-crossing. I’ve left books in airports, in hotel rooms, in parks and subway stations and even in the back of cabs – always with a note in the front, to the finder, saying that I hope they enjoy the book and inviting them to email me if they do. Which sometimes they do. If it’s a book I don’t want to leave behind then that’s when I look at either investing in a digital edition, or simply long-term loaning itto a friend until I’m next in town. Works like a dream.”

Which is a good point, and one I hadn’t even considered – I suppose I’m more of  hoarder than I might have imagined. There are quite a few books in our collection that would be very hard or impossible to replace, and many have notes, etc, in them, but then the majority could be picked up again if needed. So, should we all dump all the paperbacks and hit the road with a laptop? Well, maybe not – apparently cooking is, indeed, a problem: “Fortunately, I’m not a big fan of cooking and there are no shortage of affordable restaurants in the world. For others that wouldn’t be such fun”.

All © 2020 Tom Royal