Friday, March 6, 2009

Fahrenheit -451: The Temperature At Which Paper Freezes

It's a fact of life that technology advances. Tools and methods which are bleeding-edge in one decade will be ubiquitous and unsung the next, and obsolete shortly thereafter. In a civilization like ours, with greater and greater threats presenting themselves with each passing year, technological progress may be the only thing that keeps us from being rammed back into the mud, waiting for a lucky asteroid to do unto us what its cousin did unto Chicxulub.

That's not to mean, however, that all technological progress is inherently good. Far from it, in fact. "Science Is Bad" is a trope that's come to dominate much of modern popular culture, though in my evaluation it's confined to a handful of key issues - genetic engineering and nanotechnology are two major ones. The problem comes when the potential downsides of progress aren't even remarked upon in the stampede to take advantage of it.

To wit, the Amazon Kindle. This machine has been stirring up a lot of controversy lately in the Author's Guild's halls of power over whether its text-to-speech synthesis is trampling over audiobook rights. Authors more experienced than me have already weighed in on that, so I'm not about to. What fired my recent concern over what the Kindle represents was an opinion piece in the March 5 edition of the Globe and Mail, "Come on, Kindle, light my fire" by Margaret Wente.

Wente's piece sings the praises of the Kindle, how users "will find it irresistible to carry several tons of books around with them," and that it is "the future." Granted, ebook readers have been a fixture of sf predictions for decades now, though from my understanding those predictions tended to be background details; I don't know of any stories that focused specifically on the rise of ebooks and the social results.

The article is, to my mind, flighty and ungrounded, focusing on nothing but how awesome it is that Kindles provide "instant gratification. Want to read Outliers right now? You can download it in 45 seconds." Buried deep within it is the core of the issue, one sentence that made me colder when I read it.

"It will make hard copies largely obsolete." Emphasis mine.

I'm not disputing Wente's assertion that the market for physical books will contract once reliable ereaders become ubiquitous. What I am concerned with is the total lack of concern about the negative results of a culture in which the majority shifts their reading habits from physical to digital media. In the stampede toward convenience and instant gratification - which, really, is rarely a good thing - the majority won't realize what's been left behind until it's too late to do anything about it.

The security of stored data is just one of many issues. Should the worst happen, should our civilization fall in some disastrous calamity, and should archaeologists from some new society return to exhume our ruins, we're building a foundation for them to find a Dark Age. Hard drives are fragile things, vulnerable to data corruption, magnetic scrambling, and old age. In light of the risks we face today, we should be striving to make our foundations less vulnerable to disruption, not more so. Still, that angle has been covered already - it's one of the most obvious, in my mind.

What wasn't so obvious is the current trajectory of digital restrictions management in the Western world. The ubiquity of future ereaders which are to Kindles as the Tesla Roadster is to the Model T would only strengthen the cries of the content controllers, and further the push to lock information down tight and monetize every facet of the process. I have three full shelves filled with books, magazines, and sundry, enough that one of the shelves is actually spillover into the living room. Having trekked down to the store and paid for a book or two, I can set it down on one for however long I want, pick it up and read it when I feel the need, and then let it rest again all without one extra cent leaving my account.

What devices like the Kindle make possible is a society where books aren't truly owned by anyone other than the entity that's publishing it. What they enable is a market where you only view licensed works, works that could theoretically be yanked back by the rights holder at any time, works where if you wanted to read it twice, you would have to pay for it twice. I'm sure Harlan Ellison would love a world like that, but as for me, I find the concept disturbing.

With our Kindles and our blinders, we may end up stumbling into a world where less and less is really our own.


  1. Wow, I'd never thought of this aspect. A frightening possibility. It would also be the end of the days when books could be traded between friends and colleagues.