Here’s a story of mine in The Chronicle of Higher Education
about the shift in ownership and privacy risks associated with the e-book aesthetic. I paste it in below.
PRIVACY AND THE E-BOOK AESTHETIC
When the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger
spoke at Northwestern University in Qatar last November, he made
observations about Doha's urban scene: how, for example, it is
unsympathetic to pedestrian traffic and a lively community vibe. But
then Goldberger did something that all guest speakers should try to do,
namely, offer a durable point that applies to just about anywhere.
Architecture, he said, has both form and symbolism, and it is the
role of the critic to look at buildings—small or massive—as they
unavoidably connect to culture, politics, social mores, and, of course,
money. This symbolism approach works nicely with the skyline or housing
projects of any city. But it also applies to most, if not all, popular
products of human inventiveness—including devices that are becoming the
standard hardware of our professional and intellectual lives: e-readers.
Last year, Amazon.com said that its sales of e-books outstripped its
sales of bound books (hardcover and paperback). Since that watershed
moment, news-media stories about the book industry—in outlets from The Atlantic
to Al Jazeera English—have reported similar news: sharp drops in
bound-book sales and sharper increases in the e-book trade. If my
friends in the publishing business are correct, and if what Jeffery
Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future, recently told me
proves to be the case, bound books will eventually shrink to boutique
status, as the mood and means to digitize human scholarship, creativity,
and fluff accelerate—supported by readers prepared to accept the shift
and by business models that are becoming more efficient.
Since it's plausible, if not likely, that e-books will
become dominant, it's a good idea to consider issues that seem to be
getting lost in the transition. What exactly do we "own" when we buy an
e-book, and what privacy are we willing to sacrifice in the names of
speed and convenience?
A bound book is easy to figure out—we buy it; we own it. It takes up
space and has mass. We can sell it to a used bookstore or offer it as a
gift without complication. And no one owns the proprietary rights to the
ink-on-page formula. But the e-book is a different case altogether.
What we purchase is not a book, but a license to read its graphic image
on a screen, supported by proprietary technology. While in most cases
the license to read a given book in electronic form will extend into
perpetuity—and most people do not question that—it's useful to know that
this is not a guarantee.
"A lot of things that we used to own, we now lease or rent, according
to the terms of whoever is renting them to us," Cindy Cohn, the legal
director of Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me in an interview via
Skype. "That's a huge shift. You can use [a bound book] as a doorstop,
you can give it to someone, you can read out loud from it, and you could
do all sorts of things. But when you rent an e-book—when you license an
e-book—you don't own that copy. And it is subject to whatever terms are
in the terms of service, and if the terms say that they can take it
back any time, then they can take it back any time." (If documentation
is at all a measure of complication, then compare a receipt from a
bookstore to a license agreement of, say, Amazon.)
If this sounds a bit Orwellian, then consider a metaphor handed to us
in July 2009, when Amazon, with no notice, yanked from thousands of
Kindle e-readers George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four,
satire about Big Brother's invasions of privacy and sanctimonious power
to make unfavorable news stories vanish. Apparently the book was made
available on Amazon without proper licensing rights. Amazon apologized
and promised never to make books vanish like that again. But just last
month, it removed nearly 5,000 e-books from its site in a contract
dispute with one of the country's largest book distributors. Whether or
not there were good reasons behind those moves, one reality remains
unchanged: The capacity to remove books from consumers' devices will
most likely never be disabled.
Obviously it would be terrible business practice for e-book vendors
to get into the habit of recalling books. It would damage the whole idea
of e-books and give new life to print publishing. But good business
strategy doesn't necessarily make for good legal protections. Nor does
it assuage concerns about the shift in what it means now to "own" a book
and the consequential enabling of, for example, censorship. E-readers
become "a much easier [censorship] tool to use, and I think the
temptation to use it goes up," Cohn said.
As for privacy, information about what we download into our
e-readers—which is, to a good degree, a pattern of our reading and
intellectual interests—becomes held in corporate care, used internally
for a given vendor's product recommendations to its customers. The
passages of a given book that we highlight are knowable, and even the
data of the pages we turn and when we turn them can be stored and
potentially subject to warrants and subpoenas.
That may not be of great concern to people who take comfort in the
fact that they are doing nothing illicit in their reading habits. But
the principle of privacy, as a core human value, is not tethered to what
is licit or illicit. There's a longstanding bond between intellectual
expansion and privacy—between freedom of thought and the ability to read
what no one knows you're reading.
It's possible that these privacy issues will be resolved to
everyone's satisfaction, but the history of privacy in the last decade
is not reassuring. Large retailers, for example, are becoming more
sophisticated at gathering details about the life habits of consumers,
as Charles Duhigg reminds us in his recent New York Times Magazine
piece "How Companies Learn Your Secrets."
Technology is and has been an enabler of all sorts, much of it
beneficial and even life-saving. But as far as policy is concerned, it
is essentially neutral (if we ignore theories about "technological
determinism"). As Cindy Cohn reminded me, there's nothing about digital
technology itself that compels a company to keep records of what you
read. The decision to keep and use data is human-driven, and that may or
may not excite in many of us a privacy threshold, a term borrowed from
Mark Andrejevic's book iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era
(University Press of Kansas, 2007).
Either way, it should inspire in us a much more active awareness of the
blessings and pitfalls of immersing ourselves in the digital sea.
Every generation seems compelled to pass judgments on the new
generation and its devices. Often it is fear that inspires the
judgment-making—a generation nervous about being irrelevant and unable
to do what younger people apparently do so effortlessly. But the
transition we're dealing with now is not typical. Within the span of a
generation, we have experienced stunning, radical changes in how we
communicate and make a living, compelling most of us to become adept at
using new technologies because, in part, our livelihood depends on it.
And of course it's hard to imagine living without the comfort and
convenience of things like e-reading, watching movies on our iPads, and
These compelling forces, coupled with long exposure to security
arguments that associate an erosion of rights and the loss of privacy
with safety, have lowered our privacy threshold. We are now much more
willing than we used to be—before 9/11, before Facebook, before online
shopping, before e-readers—to make concessions and sacrifice our
privacy. But it would be foolish not to "think carefully about the
relationship between the interactive revolution and the power of
commercial and state institutions over our daily lives," as Andrejevic
writes in his book.
A few will continue to sound alarms, but many others will scoff at
the complaint that e-reading is yet another of modernity's predations on
time-honored traditions. If the complaint is true, then I'm caught up
in the movement. I have an e-reader with dozens of books. It's a godsend
for those with sight issues. And when you first handle an e-reader, the
convenience argument comes into greater focus—that is, having many
books in one device as opposed to lugging a stack around. But there
really are other more serious considerations that should encourage us to
move beyond the coronation of devices and the personality cult
surrounding their inventors.