Friday, July 24th, 2009
I love the idea of the Kindle as a device that can instantly connect me to any and every book out there. At least 60% of my reading takes place on a computer of some sort, either through pdf ebooks or fanfic. All my news comes from the screen, and the idea of having a device built for comfortable reading that fits in my purse and links me wirelessly to all that is an extremely appealing thought.
Tethered devices are not necessarily all good, though, as Kindle owners are discovering. Tethered devices don’t only mean you can reach in and grab what you want from the cloud, it also means the cloud can reach down to your Kindle and grab it back.
Recently, Amazon remotely removed digital copies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm because of a rights issue, refunding all the users their $0.99 back. The symbolism was not lost on anyone, particularly the news media and the affected Kindle customers. The uproar has been significant enough that Amazon released a statement promising they will stop deleting the already-downloaded books on user’s Kindles when they delete rights-violating content from their archives.
This is not the first time Amazon has removed books from user’s Kindles, but it got the most press for the obvious ironic reasons. Some people don’t get why this is an issue, but consider how this affects ownership. When you buy a physical book and take it home, even if it’s pulled off the shelves the minute you walk out the store, no one comes round demanding the return of the already purchased ones. Once you’ve bought it, you own that copy. Book burning is a serious yet mostly symbolic affair, largely because copies always survive. Someone finds a copy in their attic or hides one under their bed.
A world where books are tethered to devices is problematic because it allows someone to take back those books — all of them — quickly and efficiently, without warning. You may not even realize it’s missing. The ebooks you buy don’t really belong to you, not the same way real paper books do. This is how book burning will look in the future, when everything is published via data instead of as ink. Remember how much AmazonFail sucked? Think how much worse it would have been if someone had ticked the wrong box in their content admin tool and deleted all those books from thousands of people’s personal libraries. Some day (and probably some day soon) someone will write a letter or make a phone call complaining about some book or other, and an underpaid and overworked manager will log on and click the delete button without really considering the ramifications, and next time there might not be a way to take it back.
This problem doesn’t just affect books. It affects applications (Apple, a company I love dearly, has some serious issues in this regard when it comes to iPhone apps and it makes me furious), music, and gaming every day. This is the way companies will seek to control their copyright in the future, with tethered devices and back doors.
Please do not hand wave this issue off. Pay attention to it, because it affects everyone. Understand that an age of cloud-computing is descending where everything is computer-based and everything is connected and everything is stored somewhere else. Google docs are wonderful tools, but Google can easily remove the content you’ve built or the service entire. Livejournal can delete years of personal journaling, writing and art, and no matter what you say or how loudly you complain they don’t have to give it back to you. That “right” is build into the user agreements no one reads but everyone accepts when they sign up for a service.
Be aware of how the world is changing, not just how it benefits but also how it restricts. We’re not just talking about books and music, we’re talking about the fundamentals of ownership.