The below essay appeared in The Guardian on January 26, 2010, in advance of Apple’s public announcement of the iPad.
On Wednesday, Apple is expected to unveil a product that will be, among other things, a competitor to Amazon’s Kindle. That will be a crucial test for Apple, and for society. If the company lives up to its reputation for revolutionizing media, this new product and its successors will one day replace physical books. The test for Apple is in whether they try to control what we read. The test for society is whether we let them.
We all know that this device will be strikingly beautiful, will feel good in our hands, and will have some special touch that, like the iPod’s white earbuds, endows its users with an aura of cool. It will do so much more than display books (reading will be sexy again!) that this simple feature may be lost among the device’s more advanced trappings.
But after fawning over it, we should ask how much freedom the device gives us, and what it means for the future of reading: will the iSlate (as it’s rumored to be named) let us put our own ebooks onto it, or will it only show documents in Apple’s own proprietary format? Will we have to buy everything through Apple, allowing them an eye into our reading preferences? And when we buy those books, will Apple have the technical ability to remotely revoke our access to them? A restrictive iSlate would allow Apple–or someone else–to abscond with your entire library in the middle of the night, all without ever knocking on your door. If the act of reading isn’t safe, who cares if it’s cool?
This ability to take away our books is a current reality, not a future prospect. Kindle users discovered this last year when Amazon remotely deleted their copies of Animal Farm and 1984. Even though customers were storing the books on their own devices, those devices automatically deleted the books when Amazon removed the titles from the Kindle store, like an army of drones taking orders from their master. From day one, Apple has used similar technology to make sure that a song or movie bought on iTunes can only be played on authorized devices. They do this to protect the rights of artists and production companies.
But that was music. This is books. The stakes are higher. And the Kindle goes further. Unlike the iPod, which allows you to play your own, non-revokable songs and movies on your iPod in addition to the ones you bought through iTunes, the Kindle is designed to only display books that Amazon can control. The same technology that is ostensibly protecting books also jeopardizes our right to read them. If the iSlate is similarly restrictive but as successful as its music predecessor, we’ll have surrendered final say over our bookshelves to companies and governments.
Would Apple and Amazon really intentionally censor our books? This all seems very far-fetched. Sure, Amazon did it already, but it actually had good reason to: the publisher who originally provided those titles to Amazon did so illicitly. The irony of the affected titles made the affair sound more scandalous than it was. Amazon acknowledged that it was “stupid” of them and later changed its system to keep such automatic deletions from happening again. So it was all just a mistake. Book censorship happens in fictional dystopias, or in real-life dictatorships. But here?
Don’t discount it. For one, the Amazon fix only applies to cases similar to the Orwell books; it simply prevents Amazon’s system from acting on its own in such cases. Amazon still has the power to seize books you’ve supposedly purchased.
Second, you’re right to feel that our society wouldn’t tolerate a government seizure of books. But that’s precisely because books are physical objects: to seize them, someone must kick in our doors, and to destroy them, they must be burned. Seizing books would be a lot easier for governments were it not accompanied by such graphic displays of tyranny.
But what happens when technology allows books to be disposed of quietly, cleanly, and without force? As a parallel, consider how outraged we’d be by having our home phones removed, and being forced to place phone calls only from approved “monitoring centers.” We would violently resist such demands. But the same government’s use of warrantless wiretaps just years ago was met with public ambivalence. Burning books? No way. But deleting books, or “filtering” them? That’s much more palatable.
What are the odds that we will reject a no-doubt beautiful iSlate just because it won’t read our own PDFs or Word documents? Our past record isn’t good. We seldom reject convenience in return for freedom: we tell FreshDirect what we like to eat so we don’t have to go shopping, let credit cards report our spending habits so we don’t have to carry cash, and use trackable subway cards instead of fumbling with tokens.
Why do we give up so much for more convenience? Maybe it’s because technology’s affordances are much more tangible than its pitfalls. We enjoy the convenience of email and credit cards many times a day, and even though we assume the IT staff is reading our messages and a consumer data firm is tracking our purchases, we never actually see it happen.
The fiasco hasn’t fazed Kindle users, who are proving that the convenience of carrying hundreds of books is what really matters to them. Christmas Day marked a turning point for the Kindle: for the first time ever, Amazon sold more ebooks than actual books. Clearly, we aren’t going to be the ones who stand up for the security of books.
So it’s up to Apple, which could be a better steward of information freedom than we have been. The company stopped selling restricted music files last January; customers now have complete control over every song in their music library, even those bought through iTunes. And again, they’ve never barred us from putting our own files on the iPod, making those songs completely safe from any intrusion. Will Apple do the same when it comes to books? Or will it follow Amazon’s lead? Apple’s decision matters a lot more than Microsoft’s, Sony’s or Lenovo’s, all of whom revealed similar new products earlier this month. When Apple makes a decision about digital media, entire industries–and the public at large–follow their lead. As the iSlate goes, so will thought. Let’s keep this in mind during the hysteria of Wednesday’s unveiling.