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:
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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.