Are you buying steam?

In the July 2013 edition of Wired magazine, Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard Law Professor and author of The Future of the Internet) warns of the danger of censorship now we are moving to the cloud. Zittrain is worried about the possibilities of 'censoring, erasing, altering or restricting access to books', and argues that digital texts are 'increasingly coming under the control of distributors and other gatekeepers rather than readers or libraries.' He has a point. The provisionality of digital media - that is, the capability to change or edit an entire text instantly - and the cloud based storage that makes one version available for all to access but not to own in the physical sense, make it likely that the system could be abused. Purchasing and downloading a book for your e-reader, he warns, won't necessarily protect it from disappearing from the web, because unlike physical copies of books (or music), users only purchase a licence to read (or listen), not the entire work itself. Digital media is volatile, and is a likely to be withdrawn over copyright issues as it is prone to censorship.

So what is the future for digital text? Will there be a danger to our use e-books? Will we be put off by lack of protection of our purchases? Isn't purchasing an e-book a little like buying steam? Or is the next generation of readers already sold on the idea of digital only versions of books? They certainly save on physical storage space, but just how secure are they? How many will still subscribe to e-book purchasing if some of their texts disappear without warning, perhaps because an author has decided his work is flawed? What happens when a publisher discovers some books in their catalogue have been published erroneously, but are not yet in the public domain, and have to then withdraw them for legal reasons? The copy you have purchased will disappear from your Kindle. You bought the licence, not the book, remember? This actually happened in 2009, says Zittrain, when online retailer Amazon withdrew George Orwell's novel 1984 for that very reason.

Zittrain reserves most of his concerns about preserving the integrity of literature. What is to stop someone changing, adjusting or completely revising a text, when it is centralised and in digital format? he asks. He recommends that libraries could act as the arbiters of truth in this instance, monitoring and continually comparing their physical book stock against their digital counterparts to ensure no changes have illicitly taken place. That's a long shot though, and I wonder just how many libraries actually have the resources and staffing to be able to perform such a fastidious and time-intensive service?

I think the future of e-books is secure. Unlike some digital content, the e-reader isn't going to go away, and many millions worldwide have already subscribed to the concept. Opinion is still divided over which is preferable, reading from text or reading from a screen. Yet the biggest debate is probably yet to come - how to address the many legal, ethical and technical questions that remain about who owns the content you have purchased.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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Are you buying steam? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Sweedie-The-Cat said…
Big Brother is watching.... Two feet good, 4 hooves better. Or is it the other way around?

The ancient Chinese kept close and strict watch on writing, reading, recording. "Books" did not travel far. And so the authorities re-wrote their history several times, to suit the government of the day.

But then, why burn the books, Montag? We merely need delete them. Not so much "F-451", as "Err-404". "The book page you are trying to access does not exist."

But the young do not know or care. Nor will they. They will have their ADD drugs, their smart phones, and LA LA Land. So long as they have bread and circuses and electronic opium..... What matters?

Sure, we may lose Steinbeck. Or Verne. Or Roddenberry. Or Clarke. Or Orwell. Or Gatsby.... But it is not like we ever needed any of them.
Anonymous said…
I agree with your post, but wonder why we (the content producers) are content to play the game? If we write the stuff, why don't we retain control and ownership, with free distribution? I know that there are many who yearn to be one of the few superstar textbook authors, but I know a couple, and even they don't make that much money on their book.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments hethoughts. At present the publishers still have a strangle hold on the industry, but that is loosening, as more people self publish. I don't think there has ever been much money in writing a book, unless it becomes a worldwide best seller. I tend to write books or articles because I feel I have something to say and want an audience to hear it. I have resorted to this blog as a means of broadcasting my work because a) it is instantaneous and has immediacy and b) it gains me a larger audience than any publisher could.

A word on quality control: I'm not convinced that formal peer reviewing is all that useful. I have peer reviewed and I have edited for journals and I know that not everyone maintains high standards in these roles. My blog is peer reviewed (by readers like you) so blogging does not negate the quality of the content.
Oliver said…
Interesting perspective. In some sense I am not sure it matters that we are only purchasing the right to read rather than the physical book. Ideas are transitory anyway, and their influence lives on even if the physical book is lost. However, I think you make a good point about maintaining transparency with amended editions, and worry that these are likely to be marketed as 'updated issues with bonus content', potentially masking more subtle amendments. Publications are of their time, and need to sit in the historical record as they were, with new editions emerging alongside. Perhaps the technology will evolve to include some kind of version control as is well used for documents.

My knowledge of copyright for books is not complete, but I am pretty sure for music CDs you were legally only purchasing the licence to access the content anyway and the disc itself was only a delivery method. This is how I always conceptualized it but happy to be corrected by anyone who is better informed.
Steve Wheeler said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for the comments Oliver. I suppose my main concern is similar to Zittrain's - imagine if the Koran or the Bible, or some other sacred text were in digital format and someone altered the 'master' copy. What would be the backlash of such an act? Probably incomprehensible. I think the same applies (perhaps less emotively) to classic literature - Zittrain's argument is that cloud based systems/digital formats are much more amenable to surreptitious change than physical copies, so do we need new legislation to conserve these texts?
Simon Ensor said…
Weren't the 'sacred texts' altered over a long period? Having a single master copy doesn't guarantee a single master reading..unless we are talking about an official dogma. Texts are written as they are read.

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