The Kindley “Big Brother”

Probably for the first time since starting this blog, I received an email from a publicity person touting a blog post that I actually thought worth reading. Others of you may have received this entry from the Oxford University Press blog: Amazon Fail 2.0: Bookseller’s Big Brother removes Orwell’s Big Brother from Kindles everywhere, by Dennis Baron. In full disclosure, I don’t really know Professor Baron, but I did take a seminar from him my first semester of graduate school – introduction to the teaching of rhetoric. I recall writing an essay arguing that the concept of plagiarism arose during 18th century intellectual property disputes and was inherently capitalist, and thus all the Marxist rhetoric instructors out there shouldn’t be bothered by the practice of plagiarism. But all this is irrelevant prelude.

Baron argues that we should beware giants such as Amazon and Google because even though they do much to promote literacy, they do so at the price of privacy and control of our information. I completely agree. The essay was inspired by the recent Kindle mini-scandal, where some Kindle users found bootleg copies of 1984 removed from their Kindles and their $.99 refunded. Probably no literate person has missed at least one headline in the past week or so linking Amazon to Big Brother. It seemed at least an irony too good to pass up.

As I’ve written before, I’m no fan of the digital rights management or intellectual property restrictions on the Kindle. Ebooks are great in many ways, and I read them regularly on various devices, but for library purposes Kindles are too controlled by the company to be reliable, and for personal use I still refuse to buy (perhaps "buy" would be better) a book that I can nether lend nor give nor sell to another person. Kindles have their uses, but they go against the grain of readership since the beginning of writing – if I may make so bold a statement – in that they deliberately and effectively deter the possibility of multiple readers of the same item. Besides which, it’s obvious that DRM is a finger in the dike preventing the free flow of digital information and will always be thwarted somehow.

However, despite my reservations about the Kindle and DRM in general, I can’t jump on the Big Brother bandwagon (nor am I accusing Professor Baron of doing so). The actions of the federal government seem to have more and more Big Brother characteristics these days, but it’s inappropriate to apply this description to something like Amazon.

First of all, we all have to be citizens of our state unless we opt out somehow and immigrate. However, we do not have to use Amazon or the Kindle. I am unaware of any situation in which someone was coerced into using the Kindle or giving up the history of their reading habits to Amazon. Amazon knows so much about us because we let it know so much about us. We willingly let Amazon see what we buy so that it can recommend yet more entertainment for us. This is much closer to the hedonistic and shallow Brave New World than it is to the dark dystopia 1984. Regardless of the contracts saying they’ll own a digital copy, Kindle users know how much control over the Kindle content Amazon has, and if they didn’t before they do now.

Contrast this with the music digital downloads from Amazon, freed by the music companies from the extremely restrictive DRM of the ebooks. I’m sure there’s some information embedded in the digital files saying I purchased specific songs from Amazon and that could be used against me if suddenly everything I purchased ended up on some file sharing site. Below that point, though, the files are mine, and Amazon can’t take them away from me. I can copy and back them up as many times as I like. I can give them to other people if I wanted, and they could play them without unlocking. Theoretically, I could even charge other people for these files, if I could find someone stupid enough to buy them from me. (Note to the Amazonian Big Brother: I would never do anything like this. Really.)

Despite the apparent irony of 1984 disappearing, there’s nothing Big Brothery about any of this. When it comes to Amazon, we are the victims of our own desire for easy shopping and entertainment. There are undoubtedly times when corporate malfeasance completely out of control damages our lives. Actually, that pretty much happens everyday somewhere. But this is not one of those cases. We willingly comply with Amazon, as we do with Google itself, handing over our privacy for the opportunity fondling their shiny baubles. Situations like this might erode our trust in Amazon, and thus we might be less willing to shop there, but that would still be our choice.

People who do anything on the Internet should know there is no guaranteed privacy anymore. The Internet is filled not with Big Brother, but with millions of little brothers gathering random details of our online life and using them for their own advantage. When this practice is ubiquitous, to pretend as some people have been doing that Amazon is in any way specially or specially evil is just duplicitous or naive. Or maybe it just makes a good headline.

10 thoughts on “The Kindley “Big Brother”

  1. I working at Amazon.com when the purchase circles controversy broke (Google it if you’re unfamiliar with this; you’ll also see an apparently permanent page indicating that they’re revamping it). There’s this sort of tacit understanding a lot of people have that they’re putting their information out there, and that’s fine…as long as it doesn’t get used in a way they don’t like. (See also: Facebook.)
    (I agree with your Brave New World comparison, by the way. Much more apt.)

  2. I still refuse to buy (perhaps “buy” would be better) a book that I can nether lend nor give nor sell to another person. Kindles have their uses, but they go against the grain of readership since the beginning of writing – if I may make so bold a statement – in that they deliberately and effectively deter the possibility of multiple readers of the same item.
    What’s preventing you from lending/giving/selling your Kindle to someone else? (I think analogies between books and Kindles mostly cause more confusion than clarification…) And isn’t Huxley’s point that coercion/coaxing are not so very different? (I know that last bit is a can of worms…)
    Perhaps I’m playing the devil’s advocate – I certainly agree that the Orwell/Huxley distinction is useful, e.g. when discussing the evils of DRM and the seriousness of the crime.

  3. Good point, petter, I could lend my Kindle, but in the ebook world this would be the equivalent of lending my entire personal library rather than just one book, if my library consisted of Kindle books. As far as I know, Kindle books can be read only on a Kindle or the iPhone Kindle app, and not on another computer; thus, the library would be gone. Not to mention that I’d be lending a very expensive device rather than just a book. I probably wouldn’t lend anyone a $300 book of mine.

  4. Yes, that is my point. Entire personal library and $300 book of mine are both better analogies, and in neither case would “not lendable” deter you from buying. I hope I’m not splitting hairs, but the digital rights debate is so often obfuscated by inappropriate analogies. For example, pirates often speak with indignation about being forbidden to lend or share their purchased and rightfully owned property – “who can stop me from lending a book to my friend?” – but this completely ignores the distinction between a rivalrous and non-rivalrous good. Another example is “filesharing” – wouldn’t “file duplicating” be more precise? (but still not precise enough)

  5. We’re probably arguing just to argue, but that’s fine, too! I’m not sure we disagree so much, but the analogy is important, and not just splitting hairs. There’s a distinction between things purchased. A Kindle is purchased, but so are individual books. The Kindle is the digital equivalent (if Amazon had their way) of my entire library, shelves included. Technically, that is lendable, but highly impractical if someone just wants to borrow one book. I’ve got about 2,000 books at home, and I wouldn’t lend anyone one book if I then had to make an agreement that I couldn’t read any of my other books, either.
    One also purchases individual books for the Kindle, and those are the ones that can’t be loaned or transferred. It wouldn’t even have to be “file duplicating.” As far as I know, there’s no way to buy the book, then when you’re finished with it arrange for the single, non-duplicated file (perhaps we should say the “right” to the file because of how the Kindle operates anyway) to be transferred to someone else’s Kindle. Until the digital revolution, which should have made information easier to share, one could do this with all books. I can give a book to someone, who could then sell it to a used bookstore, who might then sell it to someone else, who might donate it to a library. One copy of a book can be read and transferred until it falls apart.
    Of course publishers have hated this like some dislike libraries because they assume that every new reader would have been a new purchaser, at least ideally. Of course this isn’t true.
    My main objection is still that supposedly I’m purchasing something, but really what I’m doing is leasing access to a title that I then have no further control over. Lots of people seem happy with that, but I’m not willing to do it for very many books. And Kindle books aren’t cheap, either. The bestsellers go for $9.99, but if you look at academic books, the ones they have start around $30 and go up from there. I saw one last night for $120. If everything was dirt cheap, there might be some incentive to pay for this lease, but it’s not.

  6. I certainly agree that the format makes the thing non-ownable in a traditional sense, and the transition from owning to leasing is a tough adjustment…perhaps an unacceptable one. I’ve actually never downloaded a music file, so ingrained is my need for the physical CD…and I buy too many of them! But perhaps coming generations will be happy to have their books as files, or dispense with ownership altogether and just have the literature streamed when they want to read. The current success of Spotify might portend such a trend. In a way, I envy people who have such a utilitarian approach to music and literature, free of the commodity fetishism that drives my own completely irrational consumption of more books/cds than I have time to read/listen to!

  7. I don’t mind downloads of things that I can then backup and use on any device. Amazon’s own purchased music and video downloads are a case in point, which is why the Kindle situation is so irritating. One problem with a world of leased information out in the cloud is that such information will be affordable for only a few. Most scholars, for example, wouldn’t be able to afford to purchase all the ebooks they would need for a scholarly project (at least in the humanities). That’s why we have research libraries. In the imagined Kindle world, there aren’t any research libraries or shared scholarly efforts. There are just individual consumers buying whatever they can afford to buy. Without the ability to back up or lend or transfer copies (which is certainly technically possible and may eventually win the day), the reading future for books is more constricted than at present when it should be getting less constricted.

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