I spent some time earlier today writing about aspects of our rapidly approaching future that I feel are not, precisely, a step in the right direction. This was all indirect, of course -- the writing was more of a stream of consciousness where this theme happened to manifest. Despite this, I found that some elements of the topics I touched on are important enough to revisit, albeit in a less haphazard manner.
The element that initially drew my attention in my work was a small claim I made: "real books don't need batteries." Perhaps I thought it up on my own, perhaps I read it somewhere -- regardless, the idea resonated. Real books, as in the physical "dead tree" object, do not need batteries to be functional. The end user does not need computers, special proprietary software, or other hardware to use the book. Furthermore, any notes a user takes in the work are theirs. There is no DRM or TOS, no kill switch that can take the book away at a moment's notice.
My deepest worry, perhaps, stems from the eBook hardware itself: as a piece of electronic hardware, it suffers from the same environmental concerns as many other consumer electronics. Gold, heavy metals, and the other elements that go into creating your Kindle or Sony Reader pile up, and this doesn't even take into account the possibility of producer malpractice. Planned obsolescence, whether through shoddy workmanship or a simple case of being unable to replace a spent batter yourself, seems to be a constant element of modern electronic design, and I maintain doubts about the likelihood of this being phased out simply due to the change to a subscription model. Indeed, the change to cloud-based architecture virtually guarantees that the current manufacturing modus operandi remains unchanged.
With cloud-based computing, for those who don't know, the electronic device itself is merely a gateway to display your data; the data itself is stored in a separate location entirely, independent of the machine displaying it. This provides a unique freedom from the fear of product loss due to a system failure, and when combined with proprietary, Digital Rights Management (DRM)- and Terms of Service (TOS)-protected eBook file types, gives a vendor a nearly foolproof way of gaining guaranteed income. Consider: with a piece of eBook reading hardware having an artificially short lifespan thanks to planned obsolescence, a consumer would be forced to purchase a new piece of hardware to have continued access to their collection of purchased eBooks -- eBooks rendered useless without the hardware and inoperable on an opponent's eReader system via the embedded DRM and corporate TOS. While I haven't heard of this being put into play by any of the major forces in the eBook industry, the prospect of it is undeniably terrifying.
My concern for the content delivery systems for eBooks goes beyond the aspects that lead up to the potential for abuse that I outlined before. The human capacity for concentration is a feeble entity when faced with the prospects of the electronic frontier. Certain expectations have appeared when working with digital media: hyperlinks in the footnotes and tables of contents, embedded search tools, digital annotations. This interwoven, interactive experience directly attacks our ability and capacity for deep reading. Our attention is constantly divided, called away from the main body of the text on innumerable hyperlinked tangents. As the New York Times pointed out several months ago, our understanding of a given text suffers.
A final atrocity against the spirit of the book is committed in the margins. Seeing the empty space as a form of untapped natural resources or real estate, eBook providers began to sell the space for advertising. While the idea of a book as a medium for advertising predates the invention of the eBook, historical examples were almost exclusively seen in documents whose publication was vital, but whose audience was small enough that a publisher would need to subsidize the work with ad-based revenue to avoid printing at a loss. This differs from the purely value-added advertising revenue we see in the modern context. Indeed, when examined closely, the nature of the beast is striking.
Services such as Amazon's Whispernet, an element of the Kindle reader which offers users the capability to access free wireless Internet in an ever-expanding number of countries around the world, take on a different light when viewed through the lens of corporate profit. This service not only increases the number of opportunities for potential eBook sales (not necessarily a bad thing), it also offers advertisers a chance to deliver fresh, targeted material to the margins of an eBook regardless of the reader's geographic location. More ads displayed means more revenue earned.
The fact that some eReaders have this always-on connection to their parent corporation means a further opportunity to expand their database of usage statistics and consumer habits, giving a fresh way to specifically target any given user with improved sales and advertising systems. While this may not seem like a large concern to begin with, one need only turn to the Facebook privacy fiasco to understand the potential for abuse. Efficiently gathered, this data could quickly and easily be anonymized and sold to interested third parties -- or, with the right spin to the TOS, it could even be sold with its identifying material left intact, part of a privacy-destroying opt-out few would ever notice in the multi-page wall of legalese.
So yes, this headlong rush down a primrose path concerns me. The potential for wholesale exploitation is above reasonable levels, the possible loss of privacy too steep, and the technological and ecological challenges too severe for me to be entirely comfortable with this fresh new direction. As I said: I believe a real book will never need batteries.
This document was adapted from a diary entry written on May 11th, 2010, and was written on a Olivetti Underwood Studio 45 typewriter for preservation purposes before being digitized with optical character recognition software.