Saturday, July 18, 2009

The scary future of Amazon.

I used to like Amazon, not love them, but at least like them. As my regular readers know, I now loathe them. I won’t go into all the reasons that I do, just accept it, I do.

Amazon is intent on controlling the book market. I still trust markets; I don’t trust Amazon. And one way they are hoping to do this is by pushing their Kindle book reader. This is sold to readers as an easy way to carry around multiple books. You download the volumes you want and pay a fee for them. You get an electronic version, but no hard copies. Sounds wonderful, unless you really do love books.

I love the power of books. They are like landmines that explode, one mind at a time. They may lie dormant for decades and suddenly it changes a life. Thinking is inherently subversive to authority and books encourage thinking. Throughout the old communist block nations people smuggled books, books helped bring down the tyranny of Marxism.

When the brave students of the White Rose penned their tracts against the evils of Nazism they disseminated printed copies of their works. The Nazis could arrest these young people, and they did. They could even kill them, and they did. What they couldn’t do was prevent the printed word from spreading. And it did.

Imagine how thrilled the Nazis would have been if they could destroy “subversive” literature with the push of a few buttons. This is the reality that we will have if Amazon’s vision of book reading in the future comes to be.

The New York Times blog mentions how this is precisely what happened. Readers had paid for, and downloaded a book. But one morning they awoke to find that all copies of the book had vanished from their Kindles. Amazon, in its typically high-handed fashion, merely said there was a problem and refunded customers their money for the book. What I understand is that there was a copyright issue with the book in question. Laudable perhaps, but still illustrative of the dangers of electronic readers.

Amazon has the power to remove books from Kindle machines remotely. You may buy the machine, you may buy the books but Amazon controls it—not you. Amazon can remove the books you think you own.

What if a book, at some time in the future, is deemed dangerous by the government? Would Amazon cave and remove that book by pushing their buttons? You bet your sweet ass they would. This is the censors dream. With just a few seconds of time, a few buttons in hand, the censors would be able to delete all the electronic versions of the book that exist. In a world of paperless books the censors could wipe out millions of books in seconds.

One thing I love about all those subversive pro-freedom books out there is that they are in physical format, that they are sitting in hundreds of thousands of homes. No one knows where they all are. No one knows who are the owners. A book might be banned but it would still circulate. Copies would be made; they would be smuggled. Regimes would still cringe in fear of the printing press. But, if Amazon wins, and the world is filled with Kindles, where all books are electronic, and where Amazon controls the Kindle, not the individual customers, then those wonderful, dangerous, magnificent, frighten books could all disappear in seconds. That ought to worry everyone.

Oh, and the book that was deleted by Amazon, George Orwell’s 1984. I kid you not.

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