Tag Archive for Kindle

The Right to Read

My blogging has fallen off seriously in the last few weeks.  This is due mainly to my finishing up an essay I’ve been working on called “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  Well, it’s done now (at least a solid draft of it), and so I’m back to posting on The Late Age of Print. And in the spirit of the essay, I thought I’d say a few words about the “right to read.”

It’s an idea that, as far as I can tell, was introduced back in 1994 by law professor Jessica Litman, who published an essay in the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal called “The Exclusive Right to Read.”  Her piece was followed three years later by another one, a story by free software pioneer Richard Stallman, called “The Right to Read.”  Law professor Julie Cohen gave the concept its fullest treatment in “The Right to Read Anonymously,” a marvelous work that she published in 1996 in the Connecticut Law Review.

The crux of the argument, articulated most clearly by Cohen, is this: “the 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 thus is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression; the one simply cannot exist without the other.

I’m rather taken with the idea of a right to read given the ways in which new e-book systems, such as the Amazon Kindle, tether reading to corporate custodians who in turn mine the machines for intimate details about how people read.  As these devices become more prevalent, I worry about the effects they might have on how people practice and conceive of reading.  Until now it was relatively difficult to monitor closely how and what people read.  What will become of reading, and people’s relationship to it, once that freedom is definitively diminished?  Indeed, a right to read seems to me of paramount importance in a context where someone is looking over your shoulder every time that you open an electronic book or periodical.

This of course begs the more difficult question, how should a right to read be implemented?  Cohen’s work is brilliant in that it locates a right to read quite convincingly in the penumbra of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, deriving it from existing case law.  The trouble with this approach, though, comes from the current mood of the U.S. court system.  Jeffrey Toobin’s recent piece in the New Yorker, on the legal backlash against “judicial activism,” suggests that the courts as a whole — and the Supreme Court in particular — are for the most part unwilling to expand rights in precisely the way that Cohen is calling for.

So perhaps a right to read could be established legislatively — maybe even as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  I like this approach in theory, but cannot imagine how it would ever happen in practice.  After all, we’re talking about a Congress that passed the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act unanimously.  This is also a Congress that listens closely to cultural producers such as Disney and lobbying groups like the MPAA, who in all likelihood would oppose a right to read on the grounds that it would force them to give up some measure of control over their intellectual properties (to which I would respond, “exactly!”).

Is there a third way?  I sure hope so, and I suspect if there were it would have to begin at the grassroots.  I’m thinking here of something like a counterpart to the Creative Commons, a nonprofit that gives cultural producers licensing options beyond the more traditional — and traditionally restrictive — terms of copyright.  Would it be possible to begin architecting legal and digital rights similarly — that is, to allow people to read anonymously or at least under their own terms?

This is the question I’m left with having completed my piece on the Kindle, and indeed I believe it’s urgent that we respond to it.  It’s a question that, if I’m right, the future of liberal societies may well hinge on.


Books: "An Outdated Technology?"

From the annals of VERY BAD IDEAS comes this story in today’s Boston Globe. Cushing Academy, a prep school located in western Massachusetts, has decided to dispense with its library of printed books — more than 20,000 volumes in all — and switch over entirely to digital media resources. The change was prompted in no small part by Headmaster James Tracy, who is quoted in the article as saying, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.”

To fill the void, Cushing is spending about a half-million dollars on large, flat-screen data displays, laptop hookups, Amazon Kindles, Sony Readers — oh, and a $12,000 cappuccino machine. (I went to public school. The cappuccino machine seems a little — how should I put it? — indulgent to me.)

If you’ve read Late Age of Print, then you’ll know that I’m not one of those knee-jerk bibliophiles who believes the printed page is a sacred thing. I do plenty of e-reading and e-research myself (I wouldn’t blog if I didn’t find value in the “e”), plus I’m not so short-sighted as to believe that print is the only, or even the best, conveyor of information and ideas. But with that said, Cushing’s abandonment of its traditional library resources seems like an ill-considered move to me.

First, it upsets the balance of the whole “media ecology.” There’s a famous media historian and theorist by the name of Harold Innis, who differentiated between what he called “time binding” and “space binding” technologies. The former help to facilitate the endurance of words and ideas, while the latter help to facilitate the extension of messages quickly, across vast geographic distances. For this reason Innis suggested that printed books lend themselves well to the building and maintaining of tradition, a tradition grounded in an engagement with objects that are the material bearers of the past. Electronic media, on the other hand, he saw as more instrumental technologies of transmission. They are less about the creation and preservation of a community across time than they are about its expansion into and across new territories.

Whether or not you agree with Innis, it’s clear that different media do different things; each medium has different strengths. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to foster as robust a media ecosystem as you can, rather than drive certain “species” toward extinction?

My other concern (as readers of this blog well know) is the compulsion schools and other institutions are beginning to feel to switch over to proprietary e-reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle. What concerns me more than anything is the fact that, at least in the case of Kindle, you’re dealing with what Jonathan Zittrain calls a “tethered appliance.” Amazon keeps a record of your bookmarks, highlights, notes, and more on its server cloud. How is the imaginative life of reading affected when you can no longer be sure that another isn’t reading over your shoulder?

Cushing Academy just gave away 20,000 printed books. They’re not getting them back. This is an object lesson in what not to do in the digital age.


Is the ISBN Still Necessary?

My inner distribution nerd was thrilled to discover (via José Afonso Furtado) Michael Carins’ recent reflections on the death of the international standard book number, or ISBN, over on his blog PersonaNondata.  The argument goes something like this.  Over the last several years there has been a noticeable movement away from the ISBN, particularly in the case of e-books.  Leading the way has been Amazon.com, which refuses to assign ISBNs to any of the Kindle books it sells.  With book digitization there has also tended to follow dis-aggregation, or the chopping up of books into smaller, component parts that can be sold separately.  How do you assign a single ISBN to what’s fast becoming an exploding whole?

Cairns clearly knows his stuff.  As a former President of Bowker, he was chin-deep in the trenches of the recent effort to rework the ISBN for the 21st century.  The result was the shift from a 10-digit to a 13-digit standard, which went into effect on January 1, 2007.  My question is this: is the ISBN still necessary?

Anyone who’s read The Late Age of Print will know that I do not ask this question lightly. I devote the better part of Chapter 3 to the ISBN’s history, and to tell you the truth, in the process of doing the research I developed something of a crush on this smart little product code.  Personally I’d be sad to see it go.  But as an historian of technology it seems clear that the ISBN has just about exhausted its usefulness.

It’s important to bear in mind what computing and online communications looked like when the ISBN was first conceived, back in the late 1960s.  Processing power was paltry by today’s standards.  Broadband was barely an inkling of an idea.  The ISBN was developed within the context of these technological constraints, as a concise and thus highly efficient way in which to convey extremely detailed information about the language, publisher, title, and edition of any given book.

Today computers are capable of processing much more complex data strings, which need not be limited to numerals or the occasional letter X.  Furthermore, broadband has resulted in much faster electronic communications and consequently obviates the need to “keep it simple” and to the point (Twitter notwithstanding).  In other words, the constraints under which the ISBN was created hardly apply today.

The ISBN was designed not only to facilitate “back-office” communications about books.  It was also designed to facilitate their distribution.  And in this respect Amazon’s move away from the ISBN with its Kindle editions is telling.  Time and again the company has shown that it, and only it, wants to control the distribution of Kindle books.  Indeed they are digitally rights managed so as to forestall their circulation beyond anyone besides the reader/customer/end-user/licensee (I’m not entirely sure what to call this person anymore).  Amazon is moving us away from an era of more or less unfettered book circulation, and its slow abandonment of the ISBN is a manifestation of this.

It’s also worth remembering that the ISBN grew up at a time when the book industry showed perhaps its sharpest division of labor.  There were authors, agents publishers, typesetters, printers, binders, distributors, booksellers, and certainly a whole host others all working in concert in disparate places on a single product.  Now consider Amazon. With Kindle the company effectively becomes an extension of the publisher, typesetter, printer, and binder, all while acting as book distributor and seller.  If Amazon has its way then we are likely to see a further breakdown in the book industry’s division of labor.  What’s the point of an industry Esperanto when centralization is fast becoming the order of the day?

Incidentally, this is precisely why the answer to my question, “Is the ISBN still necessary?” is still a “yes,” despite all that I have had to say about historical contexts and the like.  The ISBN was more than just a product code.  It was an accomplishment — a testament to an industry’s ability to achieve unity despite the pressures of competition, corporatization, and globalization.  Disturbingly, the waning of the ISBN signals the opposite trend: the growing hegemony of a single player who holds disproportionate sway over the industry as a whole.

with thanks to p.


Bezos Apologizes

Just a quick follow-up on the whole Amazon/1984 incident, about which you can read more by checking out my post, below.  Yesterday Amazon.com Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos apologized for the series of unfortunate events on the Kindle Community Forum, which is hosted on the company website. The statement reads:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO

Thanks and kudos for the stand-up move.  And here’s hoping that Amazon never, ever repeats the mistake.


Amazon Goes All 1984 on Kindle Owners

News broke over the weekend that Amazon.com decided to remove legally purchased but unlawfully licensed editions of books by George Orwell from the Kindles of some customers.  The company did so without asking, although at least it had the good sense of sending an email explaining the action and of issuing refunds for the transactions.

Ever since, Kindle customers and technology watchers alike have been aghast at how Amazon essentially reached into the Kindles of unsuspecting Orwell fans and deleted what they had mistakenly believed to be their private property.  Take Hugh D’Andre of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, who wrote: “Can you imagine a brick-and-mortar bookstore chasing you home, entering your house, and pulling a book from your shelf after you paid good money for it?”

Others such as Jonathan Zittrain have rightly pointed out that you don’t actually own Kindle content.  Instead you basically lease it from Amazon.com, who as the custodian of your Kindle controls most of the rights to that material in the end.

Amazon, for its part, has promised never, EVER to take such drastic action again — sort of.  “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices,” notes a company spokesperson, adding, “in these circumstances.”  The devil, it seems, is in the details.  Thus I am inclined to agree with Cory Doctorow over at BoingBoing who states, “Amazon claims that they won’t do this again. But as every good novelist knows, ‘A gun on the mantlepiece in act one must go off by act three.'”

By now most everyone in the literary and tech worlds has chimed in on the scandal, and the consensus seems to be that Amazon overstepped its bounds.  Clearly.  But my question is this: why is anyone surprised at all by the company’s actions?  Did anyone actually believe that Amazon would act in good faith toward its Kindle customers and their Kindles, when it has a direct portal into the inner lives of each and every one of their e-readers?

The problem stems from a fundamental misrecognition of what Amazon is.  It started out as a bookseller, and with its recent foray into Kindle it’s continued to cultivate an air of bookishness.  But indeed this is little more than an air.  Despite what CEO Jeff Bezos and others might say, Amazon.com is totally and completely dispassionate about books.  What it is passionate about is making money, and it will sell anything — from books to toilet paper to excess server capacity or warehouse space — to earn a buck.

What that means, then, is that Amazon does not subscribe to the liberal sensibilities with which book culture has long been associated.  In other words, it holds little regard for the sanctity of property (other than its own), privacy, or free expression.  For Amazon these are values only insofar as they can contribute to the company’s value stream.  When they don’t, or when they prove too costly, those values are dispensed with algorithmically.

The other issue concerns the apparent irony that many of my fellow bloggers have already pointed out.  Amazon didn’t just delete any old books from people’s Kindles.  Among others it deleted George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984, which dramatizes life in a futuristic totalitarian state.  The problem here, though, is that however “deliciously Orwellian” Amazon’s actions may seem, Amazon.com is not a state. It is a corporation, which is accountable not to “the people” but to its shareholders.

I understand the reasons for wanting to draw the comparison to 1984, but ultimately it’s an inappropriate one.  As Daniel J. Solove points out in his wonderful book on privacy The Digital Person, the more apt literary reference in circumstances such as this may be to Kafka’s Trial, in which people are prosecuted without ever fully knowing what if anything they’ve done wrong.


Update — Kindle & the Future of Journalism

Just a quick follow-up to my post from earlier in the week, “Kindle and the Future of Print Journalism.”  There I proposed that Amazon.com should sell its Kindle e-reader at a loss, with the understanding that the loss could be recouped through a revenue-sharing agreement with those newspapers publishers who choose to distribute their content electronically through Amazon.  Well, it turns out that something like this arrangement already exists — only the revenue sharing isn’t designed to drive down Kindle’s hefty price tag.

The video embedded below contains Congressional testimony by James Moroney, Publisher and CEO of the Dallas Morning News.

Moroney states:

The Kindle, which I think is a marvelous device, the best deal Amazon will give the Dallas Morning News-and we’ve negotiated this up to the last two weeks-they want 70 percent of the subscriptions revenue. I get 30 percent, they get 70 percent. On top of that they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device. Now is that a business model that is going to work for newspapers?

Evidently this information has been circulating for some time now, although I only learned of it recently, in Malcolm Gladwell’s insightful review and critique of Chris Anderson’s new book, Free! The Future of a Radical Price.

Anyway, so much for the idea of making Kindle more accessible by bringing the cost down.  Until that happens, the device will remain an elite source for daily news — which I take to be contrary to the democratic impulse driving journalism in the United States.


Kindle & the Future of Print Journalism

As someone who writes about the future of printed books, I’m often asked to weigh in on the future of another popular printed medium — newspapers. Up until now I’ve only broached the matter offhandedly, but this month’s Mother Jones prompted me to consider the matter more seriously.

It happened after a friend of mine alerted me to MJ’s “Exhibit” spread called, “Black and White and Dead All Over.” According to the piece, about 20% of newspaper journalists have lost their jobs in just the last eight years. And from January to May 2009, “100 newspapers shut down and 9,000 newspaper jobs were lost.”

Usually I’m skeptical whenever I hear about a medium’s impending death. It’s pretty clear from the spread, however, that newspapers are suffering terribly right now. This is due in no small part to proliferating digital communications technologies, combined with news agencies’ growing reliance on untrained grassroots “iJournalism.”

The irony is that newspaper publishers also see digital technologies as a savior. New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., for one, believes that Amazon.com’s new Kindle DX e-reader will “enhance our ability to reach millions of readers” — especially those for whom the printed version of the paper is unavailable. No surprise, Amazon is marketing the device heavily for its news reading capabilities, having partnered with the Times and other major U.S. papers.

Before I get to the crux of the issue, some disclosures are in order. I come from something of a newspaper family. My late sister Anne was an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times, FL, and before that she was a reporter and editorial writer for the Time Herald-Record in Middletown, NY. Way back when she was editor-in-chief of her college newspaper at Binghamton University, Pipe Dream. I freelanced with the Record as a photojournalist in 1993 and interned with the paper in 1994. I also worked on my college newspaper, The New Hampshire, throughout my undergraduate studies. I even seriously contemplated becoming a professional photojournalist before deciding to pursue a career as a university professor.

In other words, I’m a friend of newspapers — and by that I mean, of printed newspapers. But I’m also part of the problem in that I now I do most of my news reading online. I cannot remember the last time that I actually paid for daily news.

The prospect of the newspaper’s replacement with costly digital e-reading devices, such as Kindle, seems a poor future for me indeed. I say this not because I fetishize ink and paper. As I make clear throughout The Late Age of Print, I positively do not. Instead, I worry about the economic and political effects of a business model in which stand-alone e-readers become a — or maybe even the — primary delivery vehicle for daily news.

The Kindle DX costs $489. It’s smaller, less feature-laden sibling costs $359. Either price seems to me to pose a huge barrier to entry when it comes to acquiring one’s daily news. Add to that the cost of one or more digital newspaper subscriptions — you cannot buy an individual day’s paper via Amazon — and you’ve dropped the better part of a grand inside of a year.

Beyond the reporting, what made printed newspapers great was their price. Most cost under a dollar a day when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, and many even hovered around 50 cents. In my grandparents’ day you could pick most papers up for around a nickel. Daily news was cheap — indeed, democratically so. Nearly everyone could afford to partake of the affairs of the day, and many did so regularly.

But if Kindle becomes a primary platform for daily news, then the newspaper industry will have all but abandoned this longstanding democratic ethos. What’s the point of a fourth estate if only the economically advantaged are the ones reading the news?

So here’s a radical proposal for Amazon and the newspaper companies to consider. If your survival plan involves a switch-over to digital e-readers like Kindle, then lower your prices! Significantly reduce the economic barriers to entry and create an economy of scale. Perhaps the e-reader even could be sold at a loss, with the understanding that a portion of all newspaper subscription revenue would be paid back to the hardware manufacturer.

The point is, you don’t save journalism by making it more exclusive.


Remains of the Day

If you’ve read The Late Age of Print, then you’ll know that I’m not a technological reactionary.  In my arsenal of gadgets you’ll find a much-loved iPod Touch, a less-loved Kindle 1.0, a mobile phone that I regularly use, and more.  A friend of mine claims that I’m a gadget-head.  Usually I beg to differ, but having just inventoried my electronic wares, I’m beginning to think that he may be on to something.

Here’s the thing, though: I also love  books — and my that I mean, printed books.  While I’d hardly consider myself to be a book fetishist (i.e., I’m not a devotee of Nicholas A. Basbanes), I’m a bibliophile in about the same way that I’m a gadget-head, that is, by default.  Over the years I’ve accumulated a sizable library, mostly in my capacity as an academic; I love to read; and I annotate my books prodigiously, creating personalized indexes so that I can return easily to the passages I’ve underlined.  Maybe one day I’ll scan and post one of these indexes here, so that you can see just how intensely I read.

New Yorker June 8 & 15, 2009

Because I seem to be pulled in two different directions technologically speaking, I was immediately drawn to this week’s (June 8 & 15) cover of the New Yorker, pictured above.  Its setting is a post-apocalyptic New York City.  An alien has touched down and sits amid the ruins, surrounded by what appears to be e-waste.  Discarded CDs, mobile phones, and computer keyboards abound.  Also strewn amid the litter are devices that look suspiciously like Amazon Kindles.  Our genial-looking alien relaxes with a tattered but still mostly intact printed book.

The New Yorker cover is a brilliant commentary on the particular bibliographic moment in which we are currently living.  It seems as though electronic reading was the conversation at last week’s BookExpo America.  The prevalence of that conversation tells us just how short-sighted — and indeed profit-obsessed — the book industry is becoming.  The central problem with e-reading, beyond the temptation to overly-secure digital content, is that of endurance.  Too many e-reading devices and too many digital formats result in too much of one thing: technological obsolescence.

If you don’t believe me, check out Chapter 1 of The Late Age of Print, where I discuss an early e-book experiment called Agrippa (A Book of the Dead).  You can find the text of the Agrippa story online, but unless you’re a collector of legacy technologies you pretty much cannot read it in its original form.  It was encoded on a 3 1/2-inch floppy diskette (remember those?) that is incompatible with today’s hardware and operating systems.

The partisans of e-reading may well retort that printed books, like their electronic kin, also deteriorate.  Paper can become brittle and, well, there’s a reason why the word “bookworm” exists in the English language.  All true.  But here I’m persuaded both by my own experience and by Nicholson Baker’s wonderful book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001).  Baker shows us how even just a modicum of care can help print-on-paper books to endure for centuries.  The “slow fires” that the proponents of micro-media first advanced and that the denizens of e-books now expound are pretty much smoke and mirrors.

For e-reading to succeed, there will need to be something even more fundamental than built-in dictionaries, wireless content delivery, and other such bells and whistles.  What will be needed above all — and what the printed book so well embodies — is a stable platform.  Indeed, when was the last time one of your printed books was “upgraded” out of existence?


Good Morning, Amazon…

First it was the cola wars.  Now, it’s the e-book wars.

At this past weekend’s book industry trade show, BookExpo America, Google announced that it will begin selling digital book content in the near future.  According to this article in today’s New York Times, the search engine giant has the backing of major players in the publishing field.

The move should come as a wake-up call for Amazon.com, which, since the introduction of Kindle in late 2007, has dominated the retail e-book market. Many questions remain, however, about whether Google’s latest foray into the book world ultimately will pan out.

Why it Will Work
First, there’s Google, whose power, prevalence, and brand recognition shouldn’t be underestimated.  But the success of its latest e-book initiative will stem from more than just the company’s shear Google-ness.  It will result from its growing recognition of itself as not merely a search engine company but indeed as a platform for online businesses.  This is, incidentally, exactly what Amazon.com has been doing of late — refashioning itself, a la Google, from a retailer to a business incubator; and in this respect it’s playing catch-up to Google.

Second, there’s the Kindle factor.  Google’s plan is to release digital editions of books which, though secure (read: DRM), will not be native to any particular e-reading device.  This is good news for those of us who’ve been less impressed with Kindle than we we ought to be; this is especially so where images are concerned.  Plus, it’s great news for readers who, in a time of economic downturn, are discomfited by the prospect of shelling out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of accessing and reading digital content via Kindle.

Third, did I mention Google?  Besides the technology, one of the major problems that has beset e-books thus far has been distribution.  Amazon has successfully addressed the issue by providing readers with a reliable, centralized hub from which to download e-titles.  There aren’t many companies out there who could compete with Amazon along these lines, but Google is surely one of them.  It’s already become a nodal point for people to access e-book content via Book Search and Google Library.  Becoming a nodal point for distribution of e-content shouldn’t take a great deal more than a hop, skip, and a jump.

Why it Won’t Work
Book publishers are greedy and do not understand how to sell their products in and to a digital world.  As the New York Times today reported, Google intends to allow its partner publishers to set their own e-book prices.  If recent history tells us anything, it tells us that the publishers likely will charge something close to print-on-paper prices for content whose material support has already in essence been outsourced to consumers (e.g., in the form of computers, netbooks, and other mobile e-readers). This is unacceptable and will only hinder e-book adoption.

Relatedly, there’s the Amazon factor.  The company has insisted that, where possible, Kindle e-book titles should be kept low.  Most bestsellers cost around $9.99, and although there are many Kindle books that cost more, Amazon should be commended for pressuring publishers to keep their e-book prices down.  If Amazon can continue to do so, purchasing a Kindle with the prospect of having access to cheaper e-book content won’t seem as off-putting as having to buy e-titles from Google at or near ridiculous print-on-paper prices.

Finally, there’s the question of form.  Will Google’s e-book content largely reproduce what would otherwise be available on paper?  If so, then Google e-books won’t have as much uptake as they otherwise could — that is, if they broke with what Gary Hall calls a “papercentric” model of electronic content.  Indeed, if the publishers want to charge near-paper prices for the e-books they sell/distribute via Google, then readers will expect additional types of features to make up for what is, essentially, lost value.

Bottom Line
Only time will tell what will become of Google’s latest venuture into e-books.  I see a great many downsides that would really spell disaster for an anxious contingent of publishers who have convinced themselves, as they do about every eight years or so, that e-books will “save” their industry.  More optimistically, it is my hope that Google will spur Amazon.com to move more quickly on developing cheaper, better Kindles and related e-reading systems that are even more user-friendly.


Library 2.0

Just a quick note to say how excited I am to be heading out today to the Library 2.0 Symposium, hosted by Yale Law School.  The organizers have graciously invited me to present a version of my work-in-progress on the Amazon Kindle e-reader, which is an outgrowth of The Late Age of Print. The piece is called “Kindle: The Labor of Reading in an Age of Ubiquitous Bookselling,” and the latest draft is hosted here on my wiki site: http://striphas.wikidot.com/kindle-the-labor-of-reading-worksite-v2-0.  Comments are of course welcome and encouraged.

I plan on posting some sort  of report about the Symposium early next week, so be sure to check back then.