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Amazon, Kindle, and Orwell: Horse, Meet the Barn Door

David Pogue, tech enthusiast for the New York Times, is shocked, shocked that Amazon yanked Orwell’s books from the Kindle. But as Tim Spalding pointed out over on Web4Lib, it’s naïve to focus on Amazon and the Kindle.

“People need to get over the idea that ebooks are ‘just’ books,” Tim wrote. “Just because you can read it, doesn’t mean it’s the same thing. Books are socially and legally situated. You can’t change the delivery and legal structure, and expect everything else to remain the same.”

E-books are disruptive in ways we can barely comprehend, and all the self-congratulatory nattering at conferences about trends and digital humanities and big-ass repositories doesn’t change that a bit. It’s easy to laugh off early efforts at e-books, but is there anyone who really thinks the future of publishing—if not five years, then ten or fifteen—is not primarily digital?

And none of the current big players —Amazon, Google, not even Pogue’s beloved Apple—are in it for the passion of connecting books and readers. No matter how much they posture otherwise, the bottom line for them is profit, pure and simple.

As an author and librarian, I am greatly ambivalent. The writer in me sees opportunities I don’t have in the paper world. I am considering publishing a chapbook of essays via the Kindle and seeing if Kindle-readers—a community who by definition read heavily—will buy what is essentially unpublishable in the paper-based publishing economy.

But the librarian in me is worried, both on behalf of libraries—the bulwark of free speech in an open society—and on behalf of readers everywhere. And the writer with her eye on the future of writing — not for the next year or two, but the next century or two — is bothered as well. I worry that post-paper reading will become an event as closely and expensively metered as parking in downtown San Francisco. It’s doubtful that writers, journalists, and the rest of us in the writing trenches will benefit.

And if you agree that publishing is moving to a digital mode, you are also tacitly agreeing that the traditional role of libraries will soon be made obsolete. The delivery of reading to the next generation will be managed by digital mammoths who will control what and how we read to a fare-thee-well.

Since Pogue’s article was published, the Times added an “Editor’s Note” that comforts me not a whit:

EDITOR’S NOTE | 8:41 p.m. The Times published an article explaining that the Orwell books were unauthorized editions that Amazon removed from its Kindle store. However, Amazon said it would not automatically remove purchased copies of Kindle books if a similar situation arose in the future.

But these books weren’t removed “automatically.” They were removed by humans, who were following orders — just as some human, somewhere, chose to alter Amazon’s search results to hide GLBT titles. Each time, a well-publicized kerfuffle reversed Amazon’s decision, but the point is that the decision was made at all.

What we are learning is that the same technology that makes a book conveniently available on your Kindle in a manner of minutes can easily change that content or entirely remove it. Barbara Fister commented on my Facebook page, “I’m waiting for a little libel tourism to lead to books edited before your very eyes. How efficient!” Sadly, I don’t think we have to wait very long. Like the e-gov-documents that magically morphed and vanished during the Bush administration, the unseen silent workforce at Amazon will obediently carry out the mandate of the company.

Perhaps—to shift from Orwell to Bradbury—the ending of Fahrenheit 451 is prescient in other ways. Once the digital world has taken over — perhaps with legislative support, the way that track-building and trains yielded to automobiles and highways through the influence of energy lobbies — there will be outliers hiding in forests who are the voices of freedom and reading, while the rest of the world follows the dictates of the blinking screen.

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