July 18, 2009
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:
- Some new service springs to life in a blaze of publicity.
- People rush to join.
- They enjoy it for several years.
- The media starts to seem lo-rez, or it’s not compatible with the newest devices, or some contract runs out.
- 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?