E-Books: No Friends of Free Expression

I’ve just published a short essay called “E-books — No Friends of Free Expression” in the National Communication Association’s online magazine, Communication Currents. It was commissioned in anticipation of National Freedom of Speech Week, which will be recognized in the United States from October 18th to 24th, 2010. Here’s a short excerpt from the piece, in case you’re interested:

It may seem odd to suggest that reading has something to do with freedom of expression. It’s one thing to read a book, after all, but a different matter to write one. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that reading is an expressive activity in its own right, resulting in notes, dog-eared pages, highlights, and other forms of communicative fallout. Even more to the point, as Georgetown Law Professor Julie E. Cohen observes, “Freedom of speech is an empty guarantee unless one has something—anything—to say…[T]he content of one’s speech is shaped by one’s response to all prior speech, both oral and written, to which one has been exposed.” Reading is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression, because it forms a basis upon which our future communications are built. Anything that impinges upon our ability to read freely is liable to short-circuit this connection.

I then go on to explore the surveillance activities that are quite common among commercially available e-readers; I also question how the erosion of private reading may affect not only what we choose to read but also what we may then choose to say.

The Comm Currents piece is actually a precis of a much longer essay of mine just out in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7(3) (September 2010), pp. 297 – 317, as part of a special issue on rights. The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.” Here’s the abstract:

This paper focuses on the Amazon Kindle e-reader’s two-way communications capabilities on the one hand and on its parent company’s recent forays into data services on the other. I argue that however convenient a means Kindle may be for acquiring e-books and other types of digital content, the device nevertheless disposes reading to serve a host of inconvenient—indeed, illiberal—ends. Consequently, the technology underscores the growing importance of a new and fundamental right to counterbalance the illiberal tendencies that it embodies—a “right to read,” which would complement the existing right to free expression.

Keywords: Kindle; Amazon.com; Digital Rights; Reading; Privacy

Feel free to email me if you’d like a copy of “The Abuses of Literacy.” I’d be happy to share one with you.

The title of the journal article, incidentally, pays homage to Richard Hoggart’s famous book The Uses of Literacy, which is widely recognized as one of the founding texts of the field of cultural studies. It’s less well known that he also published a follow-up piece many years later called “The Abuses of Literacy,” which, as it turns out, he’d intended to be the title of Uses before the publisher insisted on a change.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the work. Feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

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8 comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by john maxwell, Ted Striphas and Meghan MacDonald, Kevin M Flanagan. Kevin M Flanagan said: RT @striphas: E-books: No Friends of Free Expression > The Late Age of Print >> http://t.co/QT3q9sC […]

  2. Mike Cane says:

    Amazon can only delete books that are purchased from their system. Had the kid had a pirated edition of 1984, for example, he would not have been affected by the wipe Amazon did.

    And you are ignoring the fact that print books can be surpressed far easier than eBooks ever can.

    See:
    The Urgency Of eBooks
    http://mikecane2008.wordpress.com/2008/01/02/the-urgency-of-ebooks/

    • Ted Striphas says:

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comment. Can you tell me how you know Amazon could not wipe a pirated edition of a book from a customer’s Kindle? I don’t see any reason why, in principle, than must be the case. To the best of my knowledge, Amazon knows what’s stored on everyone’s Kindles, regardless of the source of the e-book. (The edition of 1984 that was wiped was, for instance, an upload by a third-party e-book supplier, whose name I believe is MobileRead.). [See comments by Nate and Ted, below.]

      I’m going to have to disagree with your point about the ease of suppression of printed books. Sure, particular editions can be suppressed, but is there any single, cenrtalized authority that has the power to delete thousands, perhaps millions, of copies of a printed book at the blink of an eye? I don’t doubt your argument about the ease of reproducibility of “e,” but I think you take it too far in divorcing the technology from the entities who control it.

  3. […] E-Books: No Friends of Free Expression [Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print] “I argue that however convenient a means Kindle may be for acquiring e-books and other types of digital content, the device nevertheless disposes reading to serve a host of inconvenient—indeed, illiberal—ends. Consequently, the technology underscores the growing importance of a new and fundamental right to counterbalance the illiberal tendencies that it embodies—a 'right to read,' which would complement the existing right to free expression." […]

  4. Nate says:

    Ted,

    It wasn’t MobileRead who uploaded the ebook (I think we do have a _legal_ copy, though). The 1984 ebook was uploaded by an Australian company (it’s public domain there). They sold it through Mobipocket.com, not the Kindle Store. That company marked the ebook as restricted to only countries where it was public domain.

    The problem happened becuase Amazon grabs everything uploaded to Mobipocket.com, ignores the geo restrictions, and sells it in the Kindle Store.

    All the copies deleted by Amazon were sold through the Kindle Store.

    P.S. Could you remove the line about MR, please? We had nothing to do with the 1984 fiasco.

    • Ted Striphas says:

      Thanks very much for your comment, Nate, as well as for the additional backstory about the Kindle/1984 incident. Just to clarify, in the essay appearing in Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies, I don’t claim the e-book was uploaded by MobileRead but instead by a company called MobileReference. I may have gotten the name wrong in the essay (I’ll have to double-check), but in any case my apologies for the incorrect reference in the comments appearing above. I’ve done a strike through of the line mentioning MobileRead and have referred readers to our respective comments. Sorry for the undeserved bad press!

  5. […] 20th, 2010 | Electronic Reading, Related Work A couple of weeks ago I blogged here about a short essay I’d written, “E-books: No Friends of Free Expression,” and […]

  6. […] just reviewed my recent piece appearing in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  Check out the broadcast here — and thanks to the show’s great hosts, Benjamin […]

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