Kindle concerns

The Kindle hasn’t been launched in the UK yet, but I’m already ambivalent-to-negative about it. On the one hand, it’s clearly a very nifty bit of kit. On the other, I share many of the misgivings expressed in this article on the Adbusters site, particularly regarding the effect of the Kindle (and its DRM system) on “the community of readers which books engender”:

The Kindle has been devised by a society that wants to make profit each time a text is read rather than each time a book is purchased. In the old system, once I bought a book I owned it as an object. I could read it as many times as I liked and give it to friends who may give it to their friends. […] This creates a community of readers who circulate books amongst themselves for the benefit of all. The Kindle is the end of that, no more sharing books, no more public libraries, no more sitting in a bookstore and reading a book without buying it. The Kindle is a prison for words.

Yesterday, I came across a fascinating list of 76 reasonable questions to ask about any technology, by our old friend, Jacques Ellul. It is an illuminating (though depressing) process to go through those questions in relation to the bright, shiny future of DRM-encumbered e-books which we are now entering; a world of books that cannot be shared or passed on to others.

I don’t propose to answer these questions in detail, but (after the fold) these are the questions from Ellul’s list which are the most troubling when applied to the Kindle:

Social

Pretty much all of the questions under this heading would be relevant, but here are the most pertinent:

  • Does it serve community?
  • Does it empower community members?
  • Is it consistent with the creation of a communal, human economy?
  • Does it undermine conviviality?
  • Does it undermine traditional forms of community?
  • How does it affect our way of seeing and experiencing the world?
  • Does it serve to commodify knowledge or relationships?

Practical

  • Where must it go when it’s broken or obsolete? [Why do we assume Amazon will be in business forever? How will you access your DRMed books if Amazon disappears?]
  • How expensive is it?

Moral

  • What are its effects beyond its utility to the individual?
  • What is lost in using it?
  • What are its effects on the least advantaged in society?

Vocational

  • Does it reduce, deaden, or enhance human creativity? [Could go both ways this, but the inability to lend or borrow books will not enhance creativity.]
  • Is it the least imposing technology available for the task?

Political

  • Does it concentrate or equalize power?
  • Does it require, or institute a knowledge elite?
  • What legal empowerments does it require? [Think of legal protection for DRM]
  • Is it consistent with the creation of a global economy?
  • Does it empower transnational corporations? [Not least Amazon]

To be fair, there are some positives. Arguably it could “build on, or contribute to, the renewal of traditional forms of knowledge” and “foster a diversity of forms of knowledge”, through making out-of-print or older books more widely available. Some argue that reading e-books is more environmentally friendly than reading printed books, though this is disputed by others.

But overall, I’m pessimistic about the wider social effects of the Kindle, especially if its DRM system is a “success”. In my more optimistic moods, I believe that DRM for books will go the same way as DRM for music. But, as with music, it’ll take a number of years for publishers to come round to DRM-free books, and the negative cultural effects – particularly the stigmatising of reading books without paying for them, you pirate – will be considerable.

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8 Responses to Kindle concerns

  1. Mack Ramer says:

    I’m ambivalent about the Kindle, too, but not for quite the same reasons. I’ll keep my thoughts brief, though if you’re interested in the lengthy reflections of a Kindle owner and bibliophile, check them out on my blog. A few points I feel compelled to make:

    -The Kindle doesn’t necessarily mean no more public libraries; a lot of public libraries are now starting to buy e-Books that can be loaded onto devices like the Kindle.

    -Strong DRM seems to be unsustainable in competitive markets; witness the recent un-DRMing of iTunes mp3s thanks to Amazon’s DRM-free competition. I think the same will hold true for eBooks in the long run; give it 5 years.

    -I think e-Books in general actually don’t do so bad on the “Ellul test”, and if/when they go DRM-free they’ll pass it well. e-Books lower the capital cost of book publishing, thereby empowering community members by making it easier to get started as a published author and de-concentrating the power that publishers have accumulated in a world of paper books.

    -e-Book ownership also enables access to a ton of free books via Project Gutenberg etc. No longer do you have to pay money for a portable (but bulky) copy of a work by Shakespeare, or of the Bible, or something by Dickens or Dostoevsky or a thousand other classic authors, not to mention the free dictionary in the Kindle. Again, empowering community members.

  2. Phil Walker says:

    Ditch the DRM, and I can’t see many reasonable arguments against Kindle. Certainly, I can see no insurmountable, reasonable objections. In fact, making more books more accessible is a worthwhile goal. (I know some people will fuss about losing paper books, but to be honest, that just isn’t going to happen. Look at what happened to the “paperless office”, after all.)

    On Ellul’s questions in themselves, am I the only person who sees an odd contradiction between some of them? For example, I am assuming that “the creation of a global economy” is a Good Thing, but “empowering transnational corporations” is normally thought of as a Bad Thing. For me, they come hand-in-hand, given that I need transnational corporations to help me access goods from the other side of the world. Or was Ellul an early anti-globalisation activist?

  3. John H says:

    Phil: think it’s safe to say that for Ellul, “a global economy” = “bad”.

    I agree that DRM is the only really major issue – the aesthetic loss is a great shame, but is perhaps more sentimental than concerns over the social impact – and I also agree that the market will probably sort this one out within five years or so. That said, if the only publisher I’ve had chance to engaged with on this directly was representative (Mack will know who I mean!), then there is a big, steep learning curve for publishers to go up before this happens. Publishers are still at the “You mean we can stop people reading our books without paying us? Sign us up!” stage of the DRM curve.

    And in the meantime, great damage can be done. Witness the shift in social attitudes regarding music, where you don’t have to go far to find people suggesting it is wrong/immoral to buy a secondhand CD, because that means you’re getting music without the artist being paid, and that’s BAD. The whole business of sharing music has become fraught with legal/moral issues, resulting in a polarisation between those who blithely bittorrent music left, right and centre, versus those of us who find ourselves recommending music rather than sharing it.

  4. Phil Walker says:

    Coulda guessed. He was French. (Teehee.) One wonders whether Ellul would seriously think that a global economy is a bad thing, if it lets people interact with people from all over the world, to meet them and learn about them and from them, and all that kind of thing.

    Anyway. Perhaps I’m sheltered on this point, but I’ve not come across anyone who thinks that selling second-hand CDs is a bad thing to do. Are such people allowed to vote?

    There probably will be a learning curve for publishers, as there is with any new technology which radically affects an industry, but the fact that the digital media are moving out of that phase should make it easier for publishers not to move quite so hard into it.

  5. John H says:

    On reflection, I conceded the point re non-DRM e-books too quickly. Even if e-books aren’t DRMed, it will still infringe copyright to share them with others. In other words, sharing won’t be impossible; it’ll just be illegal. W00. t.

    We’ll still have moved from ownership of a physical book, to a mere contractual right to use, under licence terms of varying degrees of restrictiveness.

  6. Mark Nikirk says:

    My children are reading the books that I have saved from my childhood. I can’t say how satisfying it is to see them curled up with the same book I read from at their age. There is a contiunuity and community engendered by the sharing of paper books that can’t be duplicated by DRM protected files. I hope that Those same books will find their way into my grandchildren’s hands someday.

  7. Pingback: Jacques Ellul vs. the Kindle « A Thinking Reed

  8. And to top it off, the US government has banned the sale or trade of children’s books published before 1985…so, good luck finding the treasures of the past to hoard before Captain Beatty’s firemen get rid of them all.

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