Would Wittgenstein Buy a Color Kindle?

A blog about business, finance, and economics.
Sept. 12 2010 10:40 AM

Would Wittgenstein Buy a Color Kindle?

For decades, television commercials hawking colortelevisions have attempted to accomplish a task that is logically impossible.They purport to show you the vibrant, fantastic, super-sharp colors you'remissing by not owning the state-of-the-art Babbitron 3000. The problem being,of course, that there's no way to display these fabulous colors to you throughthe limitations of your crappy old set; if you could see them, there would beno need for the Babbitron 3000. (The same is true for more recent ads abouthigh-definition TVs.) Inadvertently, these ads support an argument made byLudwig Wittgenstein in a challenging, fragmentary essay called Remarkson Color --namely, that despite centuries of science and philosopherstreating color as a fixed, empirical quality, we can't fully understand color withoutreference to a series of linguistic relationships.

This came to mind reading an article in today's New York Times Sunday business section,about the imminentarrival of color e-reader devices . On a Kindle or similar device, writesAnne Eisenberg, "color is still supplied the old-fashioned way--not by filteredpixels, but by readers' imaginations." That will change soon, as Sharper Imageand Pandigital introduce color e-readers over the next few weeks. Illustratingthe article are two color e-reader displays, one from E Ink and one fromQualcomm.

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If you read the Times article online, these pictures show up in color. But if you read them in theprint edition of the Times --whichstill, perhaps anachronistically, feels like the "original" version of any Times story--they are in black and white.The degree to which they represent any change is purely in the reader's mind!Somewhere Wittgenstein is laughing.

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