The Orwellian KindleFriday, July 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis
I love my Kindle. I love being able to go to China for a week and not having to judge which books to bring by their weight. I love that I can make the type the size I want, not the size the publisher decided to use to keep the page count down. ¬†I love being able to buy on impulse (at least where there is Whispernet coverage, which is most definitely not everywhere). I love that I can dump 50 student papers on the damn thing and not have to carry a ream of paper around with me. I love that I can read immaterial bits, rather than heavy atoms.
I’ve never loved the fact that I can’t lend a book to my wife after I’ve gotten through reading it, though. And while I know that I’m kind of renting the books rather than buying them, so far that’s been OK. In fact it’s been great — when I accidentally deleted a book from my Kindle, I could get it back for free. Can’t do that with my copy of The Greening of America that is lost somewhere in my basement. Owning it does me no good.
Comes now an amazing ironic demonstration that the bits on my Kindle really aren’t mine. They are just on loan to me, with a big tether attached. Amazon accidentally sold some books to Kindle users that it didn’t actually have rights to. When if figured out its boo-boo, it took the books back, without asking. The buyers had their accounts credited, and whoosh, the books were gone. So much for the appearance of buying and owning.
The irony is that¬†the books were Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. If Orwell had thought of it, I am confident he would have done something with that image of tethered books always in jeopardy of being yanked from your hands without your knowledge or consent, and its reminder that if all your reading material is on your Kindle, then the complete profile of what you read is in the hands of Big Brother Amazon.
Randal Picker blogs this item as well (which is also featured in the NY Times). Picker concentrates on the fact that ultimately Amazon was simply withdrawing an illegally provided document, and his moral is about how copyright should be enforced.¬†Fair ’nuff. He notes the irony, and I note the illegality, so we’re not disagreeing, except perhaps about what the most important take-away lesson is. For me it’s not about copyright; it’s about making the public aware of the control possibilities when creative works are transformed from physical to digital objects. ¬†A born-again Jeff Bezos unhappy about the portrayal of Jesus in some novel, or a federal executive backed up by a judicial decision that some book is obscene, could, technically, easily take it away from everyone who thought they had bought it. A PATRIOT-Act inspired investigator wondering who is reading terrorist literature could get the answer from Amazon; in the digital world there is no walking into Revolution Books and paying cash. Which of these technical possibilities would actually be legal is another question, of course — and which, legal or not, might happen without anyone checking first is another question still.