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July 18, 2009

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The Post-Orwellian Future of Connected Books and Everything Else

This is the post where I tell you I don’t really mind that Amazon yanked “1984” from all those Kindles.

The backstory: Unauthorized editions of “Animal Farm” and “1984” were available, briefly, for sale in the Kindle store. At some point Amazon discovered this and removed them from the store, and also—this is the important part—from people’s Kindles. The NYT quotes an Amazon rep: “When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers.”

The poetry of the fact that this happened with “1984” is irresistible. And, to be clear, I agree with Jason Kottke when he says: This stinks like old cheese! It’s obviously creepy in a lot of ways—and Amazon, for its part, has conceded that it was a bad decision.

But, here’s the thought experiment that occurred to me: Imagine that this story didn’t seem creepy. Or at least, didn’t seem particularly noteworthy.

For that to be true, what kind of world would we have to be living in?

I think it looks something like this:

Nothing is sold as a static, flash-frozen object anymore. Instead, you buy things with the assumption they’ll get better and better over time. In fact, one of the ways you weigh competing brands is by asking: Who has a better track record of upgrades?

  • Each iPhone OS upgrade is basically like getting a new phone.
  • Every month, your Prius downloads new fuel-management software, and its mileage steadily improves. (And there’s an ongoing, Netflix-style competition to improve that software.)
  • One day, your Oster blender beeps, because it now has a new blend mode. Puree 2.0!

Now, if that’s true for objects, you know it’s true for media. You don’t buy tracks or albums, shows or movies anymore. It’s all included in subscriptions to big libraries that are always growing.

There are many big, competing subscription services, and like the phone carriers, each is notorious for a different level of coverage and service. Apple has the widest coverage, but it also faces the sharpest legal challenges. One week, all the Bollywood movies will be blacked out on iTunes; the next week, after the dispute is settled, they’ll be back. It’s annoying in the same way that only getting one bar of reception in your neighborhood is annoying, and we’ve come to live with it.

There are lots of smaller sub services, too, most with some specific selling point: a deep jazz library, say, or the complete collection of 80s cartoons. Most people subscribe to many.

Generally, the pattern goes:

  1. Some new service springs to life in a blaze of publicity.
  2. People rush to join.
  3. They enjoy it for several years.
  4. The media starts to seem lo-rez, or it’s not compatible with the newest devices, or some contract runs out.
  5. It shuts down.

But by the time 5 happens, there’s a new 1 somewhere else. The migration from sub service to sub service is a hassle, but at least it’s easier than switching insurance companies.

You’d better believe that repressive regimes are paying attention to who’s watching what on the sub services in their jurisdictions. The media that doesn’t live comfortably in this world is, therefore, the controversial and the political; too often, the tether feels like a trip-wire. So there are times and places when you want to truly download something—want to save a local, static, disconnected copy—and it tends to feel a bit cloak-and-dagger when you do.

(Several movie studios have been called out for trying to distribute their movies on these nonsub networks in order to create buzz—“playing at moral seriousness,” one critic said.)

In this world, Googlezon’s sub service for books is completely awesome.

For $4.99 a month (how can it be that low??) you get full access to all books ever printed, period. And even better: Because readers are always connected, whether it’s a browser, a special app, or a device, each one of these books is surrounded with metadata about how people read them. There’s a graph on every Googlezon book page showing how far people got before losing interest; it’s a much more revealing review than the star rating.

Because books are all downloaded (or re-downloaded) at the time of reading, you’re always looking at the very latest version. This capability creates a new expectation, and writing non-fiction is suddenly a lot more like blogging, or shepherding a Wikipedia page: your book always needs attention. It’s a lot more work, actually, and you still don’t make very much money.

You’d think fiction wouldn’t be as deeply affected. You’d be wrong. The hot new literary form is the “living novel,” constantly being re-written in real-time. This is exciting in a lot of ways; it’s also frustrating. You read a section that moves you, and you want to share it with a friend—but by the time she gets to it, it’s gone, replaced by some weird passage about the history of beekeeping.

And when you open your reader, you see the same thing. The section you liked has vanished. Beekeeping. Damn it.

Actually, yeah, it’s really frustrating.

But it’s hard to stop. Writers, especially young writers who grew up with the web, love the ability to revisit and re-edit text. It feels natural. The argument goes: “Why wouldn’t I make it better? What’s with this fetishization of the ‘final draft’? If you want a static version so badly—print one out. But don’t tell me to stop editing.”

Remember that graph on every Googlezon book page that shows how far people got? In this world, every writer is addicted to that graph. “Okay, it dips at chapter three… I can tighten that up. I can keep them going.” There are cautionary tales, here—writers who get “lost in the loop” and never publish a new novel because they’re too busy optimizing the old ones—but there are also new books more widely-read than any in the last 50 years. The tether is a powerful tool not just for commerce, but for creativity.

And yes: The tether also means Googlezon can yank books from the shelves, and therefore from your life, at any time. There are, of course, sneaky ways to copy and save them, but there’s not a huge market for the copies, simply because it’s so easy to get them the legit way.

So last week, in this world, rogue editions of “Animal Farm” and “1984” were remotely deleted from a variety of reading apps and devices. It was annoying—especially for the people in the middle of reading them—but really, no more annoying than a dropped call or a momentary power outage. People routed around the damage; they found other editions and resumed reading.

And the record of that reading—page turn by page turn—flowed up through the air and into the network. It curled through a monitoring hub in Beijing, and one in Fort Meade. It glimmered across a dashboard on the desk of an assistant book editor in New York. And it found its way, finally, to Googlezon’s library—a library no longer made up only, or even mostly, of books, but now, somehow, of reading itself.

How do you feel about this world?

Posted July 18, 2009 at 5:04 | Comments (15) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Technosnark


Drafts disappearing without leaving a trace what went before...It's a historian's nightmare.

Seriously. I may wake up screaming tonight.

Couldn't Googlezon allow readers to track changes? To step back through each revision? I'd pay an extra buck a month for that.

Posted by: Dan on July 18, 2009 at 06:58 PM

Whoah Dan! I like the way you think.

Scary central flaw = $$$ BUSINESS MODEL $$$

See, Dan, you're wrong - only with a constantly changing public record will we NEED historians again, trained professionals who will comb through the cachedumps and changelogs held on the server archives...

More seriously, one of the lessons I'm drawing from this is that the world of free-floating, always-already-changing digital quasi-objects is bumping and scraping against the vagaries of overlapping regimes of law and commerce in a big way.

From what I can tell, the unauthorized Orwell books were sold by MobileReference, which specializes in selling digital editions of public-domain books. Orwell's books are out of copyright in the UK, Canada, and elsewhere, but in copyright in the US. So Amazon, who is probably used to doing legit business with MobileReference, and MobileReference, who may or may not have been paying attention to the fact that they were peddling a copyright-violating ebook, greenlit something for sale they had no business selling. Then Houghton Mifflin came a-calling and Amazon yanked the book.

Now let's imagine that I buy a public-domain version of 1984 for my Kindle in the UK. If I take a trip to the US, does the book vanish? Would it appear or reappear depending on the regime I was in?

Also - we probably haven't seen many cases like this before because the market for electronic books has just been teeny. But I bet we'll start to see lots of it now, including a lot of books less well-known than Orwell's, where it will be a lot harder to establish legitimate rights.

In unrelated news, I'll be selling samizdat copies of New Liberal Arts at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, on Sunday through Thursday between 1 and 3 pm. Go to Delilah's. Ask for "catfish."

Oh wow:

If I take a trip to the US, does the book vanish? Would it appear or reappear depending on the regime I was in?

The idea of a book flickering in and out of existence -- or of different passages getting blacked out, or replaced w/ "approved" versions -- as you cross borders... just wow!

Snarkmarket, you fucking rock. *This* is what I mean about 'writing about the present from the perspective of the future'. It's this sort of thing that beckons the future, that instantiates it, that speaks it into being. It's the performative blog post! Good stuff.

I kind of knew you'd rise to this challenge.

I have some contrary thoughts; not sure yet what I actually think (I find your construction appealing) but here's what I was wrestling with.'

Perhaps I’ll start calling you "Sunny" Sloan; that’s about as upbeat a reading of the evaporating Kindle manuscripts as I can imagine.

There is, naturally, a far more dystopian alternative, one in which the decision to remove material is made not on some quaint concern for IP rights (honestly) but on the basis of commercial, popular or political demands. It would be a world in which the reader’s decisions are ultimately beyond her control; it will be far tougher to “route around” restrictions in that environment than in our multiplatform world today.

Why posit a benign or even neutral governing force? When things are centralized and controllable, my suspicion ise that there will always be Dick Cheneys lurking around the corner to control and manipulate them.

Beyond these concerns are the questions you raise about “art.” Can it exist in constant fluidity? Would it be satisfying if it did? Will the David continue to inspire? Who’ll read the works of dead men who can no longer revise?

I don’t know any of these answers. I do know I will need to keep wrestling with them, since I’m not willing to send back my Kindle in protest or give my iTunes to protect my newspaper’s distribution disruption.

Onward, wittingly or not.


(whoops, Howard beat me to the dystopian punch!)
Kudos for challenging the conventional wisdom in your futurism, but I'll stick with convention, thanks. The whole point of DRM is to retrofit digital content with (at least) the restrictions of meatspace - I can't even suspend my disbelief, really. Meet the post-Orwellian, same as the old Orwellian. You throw in a few loopholes, but do you really think the DRM you're describing could permit them and still be successful? And heck, I don't want just loopholes, to be "fixed" with the next mandatory firmware update. And there are all the usual criticisms about lock-in and anti-competitive practices.
@Dan, of course - DRM is already a nightmare for archivists.
@Tim, why not? But you can pay for a Limited International Mobile Content License ($14.95 for 48 hours access subject to revocation without notice may be flagged for Additional Security Screening...). Oh, you could file a complaint with the BBB/FTC/FCC/LOC... good luck, see you in a few months.

I reckon I'd wind up seeking asylum in a place where the mechanisms to enable your future hadn't yet been enacted. And anyway, we seem to be approaching a Celestial Library future without such restrictions (slowly, perhaps, but it's worth the wait). I have a hunch that the Kindle & iPhone will look like AOL and Minitel a decade from now, handhelds having recapitulated the cheap broadband-connected PC. That's the only future I want to pay for.

Posted by: Jake on July 18, 2009 at 08:28 PM

Yes, there are very real, legitimate concerns about IP, the centralisation of authority through the overlap of structures of power and control of distribution networks, but... ugh! We've all read it all a million times. We *know* this. Why does no-one take into account the cultural, discursive effect - and, perhaps more importantly, cause - of this relentless push to say what, at root, amounts to "the future is to be feared"?

Okay - so following Nav's lead, what are the primal anxieties at work in this story?

1) Automation. We love automation, autodelivery, set-it-and-forget-it, especially with our digital devices. But it creeps us out a little bit too.

2) Objects. We're weirded out (sometimes) by quasi-objects - things that behave like stable, fungible, permanent objects one minute and services the next. There's a simulacrum at work here - the more successful a device is at mimicing the experience of an object or object type, the more uncanny it's going to be when the simulacrum is revealed.

3) Data loss is the primal trauma of the 21st century. We're NOT actually going into a more ephemeral mode, but a more rigorously permanent one. We're backed up, in solid state, with RAID arrays and cloud storage and USBs on our keychains with double redundancies in every conceivable version. Accidentally deleting a file is like getting your pocket picked; losing a full-sized external drive is like having a fire in your house; getting a book yanked off your Kindle is like finding out you bought a time-share in Florida swampland.

Excellent points Tim! I have a feeling I'll quote you on #3. That's got story potential, even. 21st century horror. Maybe it's already been written?

You mentioned process-lovers in the Chimera post, and my issues with tethered services are really process-oriented. I place a higher value on control in certain situations (ie, at the OS level), and I keep aware of the loopholes. If I exchange control for content, I want the terms to be clear and limited. So the 4th and overarching primal anxiety is involuntary loss of control, deeply embedded in my American psyche. But I don't fear the future, because I think this technology is following a familiar historical trajectory.

Posted by: Jake on July 18, 2009 at 09:41 PM

I really like your questions about art, Howard:

Beyond these concerns are the questions you raise about "art." Can it exist in constant fluidity? Would it be satisfying if it did? Will the David continue to inspire? Who'll read the works of dead men who can no longer revise?

I think this line of thinking is bracing, fresh, & important. These are questions I find myself preoccupied with.

Jake, when you say --

The whole point of DRM is to retrofit digital content with (at least) the restrictions of meatspace - I can't even suspend my disbelief, really.

-- it makes me think:

1. It's not only (or mainly) DRM we're talking about; it's this live tether, which can be used to reflect/express rights, yes, but also for lots of other good/evil/weird things.

2. And when you think about it that way, it can also do the opposite of what you suggest: augment meatspace with some of the properties of digital content.

Anyway, I actually didn't mean to be entirely sunny -- I left in the bits about annoyance & repression on purpose!

P.S. Tim, I love our comments at the end of that 2004 thread. I'm glad to see that we've progressed to far ;-)

Ooh nice, Nav:

We end in San Francisco, 30 years from now, to imagine what the world will look like when, like the personalities that create them, books flicker in and out of existence, like time-lapse photography when the film and projector are on fire.

The book that effaces its history, the text that looks like it is made of ink, but then, shimmering, hovering before our eyes, disintegrates, and fades into a faint, diaphanous mist.


Robin, when you said:

The idea of a book flickering in and out of existence -- or of different passages getting blacked out, or replaced w/ "approved" versions -- as you cross borders... just wow!

My reaction was not "wow". Orwell's memory holes and incinerators in the Ministry of Truth seem tame in comparison to such potential power.

Posted by: Aaron M on July 19, 2009 at 01:26 AM

"if that’s true for objects, you know it’s true for media."
As soon as I read this some neo-mcluhan quote formed in my head:
"The Medium and the Message are Mutable."

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