Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A glimpse of the future?

At the end of the film 2010, Dr. Heywood Floyd looks up at the new sun that had been created in our solar system and observes, "You can tell your children of the day when everyone looked up and realized that they were only tenants of this world. We have been given a new lease and a warning from the landlord."

Amazon's recent Orwell (and Orwellian) debacle served as a similar wake up call for me as a Kindle user.

People are still debating over whether Amazon handled the situation properly.  Some, including our own Joe Wikert, have offered suggestions on how Amazon could have handled it better.

But what bothers me is not whether Amazon was right or wrong in removing books from our Kindles -- it's the fact that they had (and still have) the technology to do it at all.

In a recent Slate column titled "Why 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four," Farhad Manjoo warns that we've just glimpsed the future of book banning.  Sure it sounds alarmist now, but consider the possibilities.  As Manjoo observes, Amazon's mass deletion "sets up a terrible precedent.  Amazon deleted books that were already available in print, but in our paperless future—when all books exist as files on servers—courts would have the power to make works vanish completely."

Unthinkable?  Perhaps.  But now we've been shown that it is technically possible.

Manjoo's suggestion? 

Don't buy a Kindle until Amazon updates its terms of service to prohibit remote deletions. Even better, the company ought to remove the technical capability to do so, making such a mass evisceration impossible in the event that a government compels it.

I'm not quite ready to go that far, but I do think we need to keep the pressure on Amazon.  And the incident has made me think twice about purchasing Kindle editions of books.

I'm sure Amazon didn't intend to send a message when they deleted those files from our Kindles, but a message was sent nonetheless.

It was a reminder that we do not really own the e-books we purchase from Amazon. 

It was a reminder that when we abandon physical media for digital we give up a lot of rights.

And it was a reminder that the media giants who sell us that digital content wield an ever-increasing amount of power.

We Kindle users just got a warning from the landlord.    For the future's sake we better pay attention.

Has the incident made you think differently about the Kindle or the future of ebooks?


Follow me on Twitter @phigginbotham
What I'm reading now on my Kindle:  Nothing.  I'm reading a dead-tree edition of American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury by Kevin Phillips.


SquidgeyFlint said...

This isn't just about ebooks. It's about all electronic media from music to movies to books to videogames depending on the platform.

As we move away from the physical media, we are losing our ability to control the media we've paid for.

gren99 said...

the origins of all this really go back to:

a. our litigious society. without the ever-present threat of a lawsuit, my guess is that amazon would react a little bit more moderately.


b. a profoundly sloppy job on behalf of the mobi people in locking down just what rights they do or don't have.

frankly, in many ways, both of those issue are of far more pressing concerns then these chicken-little arguments about how utterly nefariousness amazon and other ebook vendors are gonna be in 15 years time. they all seem to presuppose that the worst possible outcome will always and in every instance be the actual one and frankly, there just isn't much support for such things happening in reality.

if you wanna drag in audio files/music in as a comparison, i'd have to say that things have gotten considerably better since the deepest, darkest days of the RIAA and pals clubbing napster to death. people might disagree, but hey...look at all the DRM-free stores you can buy music from now. you can also steal that same music almost as readily, but i haven't heard amazon or apple cry about declines in music sales recently.

(oh, and the RIAA made itself out to look like irrelevant idiots.)

this sort of trajectory is a possibility for ebooks as well. eventually a certain amount of critical mass in the marketplace could occur and then the entire metaphor for marketing ebooks could gradually begin to morph into something more solid.

i'm being somewhat deliberately vague about how this all could play itself out simply because (imo) the book market space is *VASTLY* different from that for audio files or movies.

rights in the book market are far more complex (and rather balkanized), which makes the sort of broad marketing apple (and even amazon) has done almost impossible. in terms of publishers, there are probably thousands upon thousands of them in the US alone and each and every one of them presents it's own set of challenges.

there is no one standard preset for creating an ebook and thus some ebooks look different and others are poorly formated. this sort of stuff has to be sorted out on some level as well. the format also has to be leveraged via better technology into being able to deliver a broader amount of content (i suppose the holy grail atm would be being able to deliver high-res coffee-table type books onto a color e-reader.)

how rights are managed are an issue in all this -- when you have thousands upon thousands of publishers, there's a good chance that you have an equal amount of ideas on how said publishers would like their rights protected and maintained. eventually, one has to find a way to stuff all those notions into one awfully big tent.

the whole point of this, though, is that ebooks and e-readers, as a content delivery platform, are at the moment just barely into their infancy. and while it most certainly does benefit from the experiences of the platforms that have danced this dance before, the unique nature of book publishing all but insures that the solutions achieved can not be something as elementary as copying what apple did with iTunes to the letter. after all, lightning doesn't strike twice that often.

thus, the ebook scene will have to go through its teething period and gradually begin to sort it's unique issues out. sometimes this will result in failure. hopefully not every time, though. the real question is whether not people will learn from these failures. amazon finds itself at a crossroad in this regard atm.


gren99 said...

having already said that they won't delete peoples booksever again, it seems to me that their lesson learned was the prudent one. but they shouldn't stop there. what also should occur here at some point in time is reflection on how this all could have been handled better. had there been a more open dialog from the word go, chances are a lot of the vitrihol spewed on the 'net could have been diffused. one simple thing amazon could do is designate a few people to act as community liasions. i fully understand that this is a horribly thankless job (propably second only to being a CM in world of warcraft), but by simply putting some names and faces up in front of the community of users who can help with insights and communication on such issues, a whole lot of BS could be avoided down the line. their exchanges could also be something as simple as posting a sort of '20 questions with...' type article to all kindle users once a month in which questions and suggestions are directly addressed. it might not be everything, but it would at least be a start.

the kindle community atm is mostly an early adopter crowd and being as this is a nascent communication medium, i would think that amazon would try to garner the feedback of their consumers by any means possible in order to continue to nurture and grow their product *AND* in order to make decisions that represent best case scernarios or at the very least, best case compromises.

if that occurs, e-readers and ebooks should have a fairly bright future. if not -- well, as i noted above, the way this whole issue played out has a certain chicken little feel to it. i, personally, am not willing to write the whole scene off simply because amazon didn't handle this one issue to the best of everyones satisfaction. i'd be far more interested in their take on what they've learned from this and what concrete steps they are gonna take to see that this sort of thing is handled better in the future.

the closing lines of the above blog entry to me sound rather overly ominous. all that was missing was some form of statement that there is an iron curtain descending on our book-reading selves. but one argument -- that going to ebooks means we give up a lot of rights -- needs a little bit of extra attention. imo, this isn't necessarily true. what we give up might be rights we previously associated with another format, but might not be the same for the new format. in its stead we might attain brand new rights that are wholly different from what has come before (just as rights changed as print segued into radio from there into TV, etc.) when we transition from one media format to another, we're simply not exchanging one cog for another -- we're effectively re-building the whole machine and re-writing the manual to boot. digital rights as a whole is still a very, very fluid situation atm rather than whine over how rights for century-old publication formats can be retro-fitted en toto to the digital medium, i think a better solution would be to more clearly define digital rights for digital media with ideas and notions that are more in tune with the present day.

so, has this 'incident made you think differently about the Kindle or the future of ebooks?'

no, it has not. it has kinda made me pause and wonder about humanity in general, though. seems we're a bit too caught up screaming about problems to want to actually do something about them.

Paul Higginbotham said...

@Squidgey: You're absolutely right. But fortunately Microsoft can't remotely delete songs from my Zune. Yet.

@gren99: I'd add c)Congress continually willing to bow to powerful media corporations such as Disney and extending copyright indefinitely. From what I understand, the US was about the only place that those Orwell works were still under copyright. And you're right: the e-publishing business is at an important crossroads right now.

Thanks for the comments!

Michelle Tackabery said...

Has this incident made me think differently about the Kindle? Most definitely. When I buy an e-book, I consider I am buying a COPY OF A WORK just as if I physically bought a HARD COPY and by-God I wouldn't let someone come into my house and tear up a hardcover book I bought.

I hate DRM in all forms. If I paid for it, it's mine and you have no right to tell me what I can do with it now. I realize the risk I am taking with electronic storage but that's the risk I signed up for, not the risk of having what I paid for essentially stolen by the enterprise I bought it from. This may sound like black and white thinking but to me it's a black and white issue. They can figure out how to deal with copyrights, they just aren't thinking hard enough.

Anonymous said...

And Amazon destroyed any notes that people had made as a result of reading the banned book... not doubt also a technological accident but also an interesting precedent.

SteveChicago said...

Just read the headline here and there something really interesting comes to my mind. A book review I read a while ago:
I then bought the book 8W8 - Global Space Tribes on and have to say it is a fine read in deed. may give you some more insight. Just thought I share this with you folks.