Tag Archive for Kindle

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 antabuse tablets online. 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.


Kindle Smackdown

First, a few of updates.  I just finished a draft of a new preface for The Late Age of Print, which will be appearing in the (drum roll please!) NEW PAPERBACK EDITION due out in January, 2011.  The piece develops and extends some of the ideas from one of my favorite blog entries, “Books: An ‘Outdated Technology?’” which I posted to this site last September.  More good news about the paperback edition: Columbia University Press has decided to price it at just $18.50.  That’s a bargain as far as I’m concerned — at least, by academic book standards.

Now onto the business at hand: the Kindle smackdown.  A colleague of mine is considering buying an Amazon Kindle e-reader and posted a query to her Facebook site inviting friends to weigh in.  One of her respondents linked to a series of YouTube videos called “The Book vs. The Kindle,” which was produced by the good folks at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books — one of my favorite bookstores in the world.  From the moment I watched one of the videos (which happened to be installment five), I knew I’d have to share it here with you:

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Cute theme, eh? Paper books, it seems, are good for picking up your fellow literati in bookstores. E-books?  Not so much.  Who would have thought print and paper were so hot?

The video actually reminded me quite a bit of an article appearing in the March 31, 2010 edition of The New York Times, which had this to say about the conundrums of owing an e-reader: “Among other changes heralded by the e-book era, digital editions are bumping book covers off the subway, the coffee table and the beach.  That is a loss for publishers and authors, who enjoy some free advertising for their books in printed form.”

It’s intriguing, indeed, to hear just how “all-in” some publishers have become for e-books, now that there are some seemingly viable platforms floating around out there.  I just wonder if they’ve paused long enough to consider how the technology they’re so investing in may be thwarting one of the most prosaic ways in which the book industry goes about hocking its wares.

Update: one possible exception to the “no more covers” rule for e-readers may be something like the dual-display Toshiba Libretto W100, although with this particular device neither of the screens faces outward.  Maybe a triple- or quad-screen e-reader will one day do the trick.


Cory Doctorow on the E-book Price Wars

I’ve been within Cory Doctorow’s “orbit” for awhile now, mostly as a follower of his personal blog, Craphound, and his collective endeavor, BoingBoing.  Only recently have I begun reading his novels and published non-fiction works.  (Little Brother was my go-to for the first few weeks of my infant son’s life, when I couldn’t fall back to sleep after late-night feedings and diaper changes.)

Well, anyway, this video came to my attention as something that Late Age of Print readers might be interested in.  It’s a recording of a talk Doctorow recently gave at Bloomsbury, the UK publisher of the Harry Potter novels, in which he discusses the vexed matter of e-book pricing.

What I admire about Doctorow is the fact that he’s a successful print author as well as someone who’s unafraid to experiment with publishing’s longstanding economic and technological paradigms. It’s hardly a stretch to say that his success in print owes a great deal to his willingness to push the bounds online.  I should acknowledge, moreover, that the free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of Late Age wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for him and others who are similarly committed to the belief that book publishing is at its best when it refuses to rest on its laurels.

Anyway, enjoy the video.  I’d be curious to hear how you would weigh in on his proposals.


Bound for Philly

This one’s for all of my readers in the Northeast, especially those in and around the Philadelphia area.  I’ll be delivering a public lecture at Swarthmore College on Thursday, March 25th at 4:00 p.m.  The location is the Scheuer Room in Kohlberg Hall.  The event, which is part of the College’s Cooper Lecture Series, is free and open to the public.  Please come if you can.

The title of my presentation is “Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read: Privacy and Property in the Late Age of Print.”  Here’s an abstract for the talk, which is more up-to-date than the version you’ll find on the Swarthmore website:

This presentation 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 of free expression.

The presentation is an opening gambit of sorts for a new book project I’m working on, called The Right to Read.

Anyway,  I’d be delighted to see you at Swarthmore on Thursday.  Please introduce yourself to me if you come.  And if you bring your copy of The Late Age of Print, I’d be happy to autograph it for you.


Going Mobile

Great news!  A good Samaritan, whose handle is “creiercret,” recently uploaded the free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of The Late Age of Print onto the document sharing site, Scribd.  Here’s the link to the PDF if you’re interested in checking it out.  The book has already had more than 100 views on the site, I’m pleased to report.

Late Age has been accessible for free online for almost a year, so why am I so excited to see it appear now on Scribd?  Mainly because the site just added new sharing features, making it easy to send content to iPhones, Nooks, Kindles, and just about every other major e-reader you can imagine.  In other words, The Late Age of Print’s mobility-quotient just increased significantly.

I may have some more exciting, mobility-related news about the book, which hopefully I’ll be able to share with you in the next week or so.  I’ll keep you posted.  Until then, be sure to check out The Late Age of Print on Scribd, and why don’t you go ahead shoot a copy off to your favorite e-reader while you’re at it!?


Failure to Launch

On Wednesday of last week, Apple made the long-anticipated announcement about its new tablet computer, the iPad. Ever since then the media sphere has been abuzz with debate about the virtues and vices of the device.

As an avid iPod Touch user, I’ll admit to being rather intrigued by the iPad, despite the concerns many already have expressed about the latter’s lack of tinker-ability. I don’t want to dwell on that here, however. Instead, I want to focus on what Apple’s full-blown foray into the world of ebooks, via the iPad’s integration with the company’s new iBooks store, might portend for the future of books and reading.

Back in 2003 I published a piece in a fabulous online cultural studies journal called Culture Machine. (It’s edited by Professor Gary Hall of Coventry University, about whose Digitize This Book! [University of MN Press, 2008] I cannot say enough positive things.) The essay was called “Book 2.0,” and it was a revised excerpt from the first chapter of my doctoral dissertation. In my book The Late Age of Print, I explore how ebooks have emerged in response to concerns about the ease with which printed books can circulate. “Book 2.0” complements the narrative from Late Age. It explores how a persistent frustration with the material weightiness of printed books helped lead to the development of a variety of alternative book — eventually ebook — technologies over the course of several centuries.

When I was composing “Book 2.0,” there was, much like today, extraordinary optimism about the immediate prospects for ebooks. It was the heady days of the late 1990s/early 2000s, right before the dotcom bubble burst.  At the time many people were claiming that we were in the midst of an ebook revolution. They pointed to a host of new devices — Rocket eBooks, SoftBooks, Everybooks, and more — as evidence of the upheaval. This was it: the moment when ebooks — finally, really — would stick.

Where are all of those “revolutionary” e-readers today? They’re nowhere to be found, except maybe in the odd collector’s corner over on eBay. Surely there are many reasons for their failure to launch, among them the economic downturn of the early 2000s.  They were also pretty rudimentary, technologically speaking.  But another reason for the lack of uptake, I’d contend, was the rampant proliferation of devices that happened to occur within a short period of time. Why would consumers want to trust making the leap into e-reading when they could not be sure of which reader or proprietary format would win out?

What the ebook mania of the early 2000s teaches us is that consumers get skittish when companies refuse to cooperate on interoperability and to engineer their devices accordingly.  Rather than buying an e-reader and possibly getting burned down the road, book lovers want to see which one will win out in the end. Only the end never comes. Too many e-readers results a situation in which, rather than one or two rising to the top, they all just end up cannibalizing one another.

Life was relatively simple back in late 2007/early 2008, when the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader were pretty much the only kids on the ebook block. But today, again, we see a bunch of new ebook devices emerging on the scene — from the Barnes & Noble Nook to the Apple iPad, Alauratek Libre, Plastic Logic Que, Cybook Opus, and more.  Now, I’m all for healthy competition in the ebook market.  (Apple’s venture, for example, has pushed Amazon to improve its Kindle royalty structure.)  Then again, if recent history teaches us anything, then it teaches us that these and other ebook developers need to figure out how to work together if indeed they really want e-reading to make it in the long term.


How the Books Saved Christmas

By the looks of things, 2009 is shaping up to be the year for giving the gift of books…e-books, that is.

Take the Amazon Kindle, for instance.  Amazon.com is touting the device on its homepage as its “#1 bestselling, #1 most wished for, and #1 most gifted [is that really a verb?] product.”  Sales surely have been helped along by the catchy little advertisement for Kindle embedded above, which has been appearing regularly on TV stations throughout the United States since November.  You may not know this, but the commercial is the result of a contest that Amazon sponsored last summer, asking customers to produce their own 30-second spots showcasing the e-reader.

Over at the other end of the post-Gutenberg galaxy, meanwhile, Barnes & Noble has already exhausted its supply of Nooks.  Don’t despair, though.  In lieu of an actual Nook, the bookseller is more than happy to ship a holiday-themed certificate to you and yours explaining that the “hottest gift of the season may be sold out, but with our elegant Nook holiday certificate you can still let loved ones know it’s coming.”  Uh, yeah — on or about February 1st.  Happy holidays from the Grinch.

Clearly, retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble are pinning their hopes for robust holiday sales significantly on digital devices, hoping that their customers will purchase not only the hardware but also an ample electronic library with which to fill it.  The question, of course, is where are printed books in all this?  Is all this holiday focus on digital reading yet another sign of the impending death of print — by which I mean not only of the technology itself, but also of the broader culture that surrounds it?

Hardly.  What we’re bearing witness to, in fact, is the very culture that printed books long ago helped to introduce.

One of my favorite books is Stephen Nissenbaum’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated history, The Battle for Chritsmas (Vintage, 1997), which traces the origins of the modern commercial holiday.  It used to be that Christmas was a raucous affair in which members of the lower castes of society were given temporary license to make unusual demands on social and economic elites.  Often their requests were for food, drink, or money, and typically these “gifts” were given as a result of the implicit threat of violence.  All that started to change in the 19th century, Nissenbaum shows, with the growth of industrial production and the gradual enfranchisement of the working class.  Slowly but surely the social- and class-warfare that had defined the Christmas holiday was displaced onto parents and their children.  And although the holiday mutated in significant ways and tensions defused, one thing remained pretty much the same: the promise of gifts was held out as compensation for the recipients’ continuing good behavior.

These gifts, however, typically weren’t perishables or cash tips.  More likely there were items that had been purchased at stores.  And among the first and most popular commercial goods to be given as Christmas presents were, according to Nissenbaum, printed books.  Books played a starring role in helping to make Christmas over into the commercial holiday that people know and practice today.

Books may be going high-tech this holiday season, but that doesn’t mean, as some fear, that we’ve abandoned the cultural and economic habits they’ve helped to foster.  Our Kindles and Nooks may appear to be pointing toward the digital future, yet if anything they channel the deep structures of our analog past.


Getting Some Nook-ie

I’ve been meaning to weigh in here on Barnes & Noble’s recent announcement about its new e-reader, Nook.  It seems to be getting talked about everywhere, including this NPR story that I heard a few days ago.  My bottom line is that, while I have not yet tried the device (it won’t be released until the end of November, just in time for the holidays), I am more optimistic about it and its capabilities compared to the Amazon Kindle.

It would be easy enough to point to Nook’s feature-ladenness as the reason behind my optimism.  If nothing else it’s got a color screen, which sets it apart from that of Kindle.  I’ve described the latter’s inexplicably well-touted e-ink display as reminiscent of an Etch-a-Sketch, although I’m also taken with Nicholson Baker’s description of it in the New Yorker: “[T]he screen was gray. And it wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray.”  Nook also has touch screen capabilities; Kindle does not.  While I’m not a proponent of touch simply for its own sake, I recognize tactility as a key experiential dimension of the handling of printed books.  The touch screen thus makes for some nice experiential “carry-over” from the one (analog) reading platform to the other (digital).

But it’s not all about the interface.  More important to me are Nook’s sharing functions and its — bear with me on this one — lack of a backup feature.  The sharing function is straightforward enough: the device lets your friends borrow your e-titles for up to two weeks.  Here’s what the Barnes & Noble website says:

You can share Nook to Nook, but it doesn’t stop there. Using the new Barnes & Noble LendMe™ technology… you will be able to lend to and from any iPhone™, iPod touch, BlackBerry, PC, or Mac, with the free Barnes and Noble eReader software downloaded on it.

Now, what the site neglects to mention is that publishers can opt-out of making their Nook books circulable.  Nevertheless, I appreciate that even a limited type of sharing is the default position for the device and its content.  Too much DRM does not a happy customer base make.

My delight at the lack of a backup feature clearly requires some explaining.  One of the chief selling points of the Amazon Kindle is its so-called “backup” feature.  I say “so called” because its not only about user-friendly content protection.  The backup occurs on the Amazon server cloud, where intimate details about what, where, how, and for how long you read get archived, presumably forever.  That’s great if your Kindle gets stolen or crashes, but it does open up all sorts of privacy concerns that I’ve been addressing lately in lectures at the University of Illinois, the University of Iowa, and tomorrow at Georgetown University.

All that to say, it pleases me that Barnes & Noble isn’t following Amazon into the cloud.  Indeed its decision not to go there, it seems to me, is indicative of the company’s sense of its own identity.  However much Barnes & Noble may venture into other areas, such as printed book publishing and e-book readers, at the end of the day it still recognizes itself for what it’s always been: a bookseller.  Amazon, on the other hand, presents itself as though it were a retailer, but in reality it is, in the words of CEO Jeff Bezos, “a technology company at its core.” (Advertising Age, June 1, 2005).  The two company’s respective — indeed, quite divergent — approaches to client e-reader data reflect these differences in their core missions.

I may yet pre-order a Nook to go along with my Kindle.  I’m still on the fence, but I’m leaning towards giving it a try.  I’ll keep you posted, but until them I’d be interested in hearing how others are weighing in.


A Big Week for Books (Week in Review)

I’ve been racking my brain for the last several days trying to figure out what to post next here on The Late Age of Print. The problem isn’t there there’s a lack of material to write about.  If anything, there’s almost too much of it.  And the fact that there is so much reveals one simple truth about books today: however much they may be changing, they’re hardly a moribund medium.

Consider, for example, Wednesday’s debate in the New York Times, Does the Brain Like E-books?”  The forum brought together writers and academics from a variety of disciplines (English, Child Development, Religious Studies, Neuroscience), asking them to weigh in on the question.  Most intriguing to me is Professor Alan Liu’s contribution, in which he distinguishes between “focal” and “peripheral” attention.  E-books, it seems, dispose readers toward the latter type of engagement.

In some ways the distinction Liu draws harkens back to the difference between “intensive” and “extensive” reading.  The intensive mode refers to the deep reading of a small amount of texts, often multiple times, while the extensive mode designates a more cursory type of engagement with a significantly larger amount of texts.  The claim among book historians is that the coming of print ushered in a new age of extensive reading, which in turn  set in motion a mindful, but ultimately thinner, relationship to books and other types of printed artifacts.  Could it be that in emphasizing “peripheral” attention,  e-books are not breaking with but rather carrying on the legacy ushered in by print?

Next, Fast Company reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair on Google’s latest big announcement.  The search engine giant (it seems silly to even call the company that anymore) will be launching an online e-book store called Google Editions, beginning in early 2010.  What’s great about the service is that the e-titles won’t be device-specific, as in those created for the Amazon Kindle.  The initial launch will include a half-million e-books, and presumably more will be added as the months and years go by.

I’m still trying to determine whether the the texts that Google will make available via Editions will include those that the company has scanned for its Google Books project.  If that’s the case, then talk about the privatization of a public resource — practically all of the volumes having been housed originally in public libraries!  And even if that’s not the case, isn’t it strange that the company will essentially be subsidizing its book scanning efforts by hocking electronic texts published by the very same outfits who are suing them for scanning?

Finally, we have an intriguing post from Nigel Beale over at Nota Bene Books: Authors Claim Google’s Ability to Track Readers Puts Privacy at Risk.”  Evidently the Electronic Frontier Foundation is contesting the proposed Google Book settlement, on the grounds that the search engine giant cannot protect the privacy of individuals who choose to read e-books through its burgeoning service.

I’ve been raising similar concerns recently in my speech about the Amazon Kindle. The device automatically archives detailed, even intimate, information about what and more importantly how people read on the Amazon server cloud.  This kind of information is subject not 4th Amendment/search warrant protections but can instead be subpoenaed by prosecutors who are anxious to dig up dirt on suspects.  The question I raise in the speech, and the question that also seems to emerge in the case of Google Books and the coming Editions service, is, what happens to a society when privacy is no longer the default setting for reading?

Whew.  What a week for books indeed!


Honors Convocation at University of Illinois

Unlike bestselling writers, academic authors rarely get sent out on book tours.  From time to time, however, we do have the good fortune of getting invited to speak to audiences in various parts of the country about our work.  Case in point: I just returned from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I delivered the convocation address for the Campus Honors Program (CHP).  This was the first in a series of speaking engagements that, so far, will take me to Iowa, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.  A few more and I may print up a t-shirt.

The event at U of I was a blast.  It began in the office of Professor Bruce Michelson, the director of the CHP.  We chatted one-on-one for about an hour about literary history, the future of the book, religious publishing in the United States, and a host of other engaging topics.  From there we adjourned to the Illini Union.  I delivered my speech entitled “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read” — which focuses on electronic reading, liberal political culture, and privacy rights — to a lively group of about 60 undergraduate honor students.  They peppered me with incisive questions about my stance on copyright, the future of public libraries in an age of ubiquitous bookselling, the implementation of a “right to read,” digital dossiers, and more.  The group kept me on my toes, to be sure.

The title slide from my presentation, "The Abuses of Literacy"

The title slide from my presentation, "The Abuses of Literacy"

The evening concluded with a lovely “meet the author” reception at Professor Michelson’s house.  The CHP students had been given copies of The Late Age of Print over the summer, and so they came prepared ready to discuss Harry Potter, Oprah, the future of printed books, and even some material well beyond the scope of the book, including what I thought about online learning.  What an edifying discussion it was — for me!  The most memorable question?  “What would I say to Oprah if I ever had the chance to meet her?”  My favorite moment?  When multiple students told me that they had found Late Age to be accessible and intellectually engaging — my use of the word “incunabula” notwithstanding.

Before the CHPers headed home for the night, they lined up for an impromptu book signing.  Though I’ve inscribed a few books here and there, this was my first (and maybe my only) official book signing.  It really made me feel special.  Indeed, I was overwhelmed to see so many copies of Late Age — more than I’d ever seen gathered in any one place.  And what made me feel even more special was the knowledge that the books had been placed in the hands of incredibly bright people who’d closely read and carefully considered what I had to say.  What more could an author hope for?