Readings: Kindle debacle, eBooks, ‘peep culture’

I don’t own an Amazon Kindle or any other electronic reader, because I prefer to read books and other long-form news and magazine articles offline. So I was really struck by the Big Brother issues raised over disappearing offerings from the Kindle due to a long-anticipated battle over copyright complaints. Now a full torrent of Orwellian scenarios has been unleashed, decrying the apparent onset of virtual book banning, a loss of privacy and other concerns.

I don’t know what to make of these arguments given my generally upbeat take on the possibilities — and inevitability — of more widespread digital reading options. (By the way, Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was among the books deleted.)

What may be a copyright dispute today could be an attempt at government overreach tomorrow. The implications of cloud computing — especially pertaining to banking, medical records and business documents — also need to be considered. So does the burgeoning debate over copyright and Google’s ambitious book digitizing project. These are very sobering prospects that can’t be easily dismissed by digital enthusiasts, even though I consider myself one of them.

A few weekend reading links on a topic that’s sure to accelerate:

Is digital book-banning in our future? Slate’s Jack Shafer thinks so, and he fears Amazon’s technical powers to delete books for any reason has been given the go-ahead. But it’s governmental as much as corporate authoritarianism that looms even larger:

“The difference between today’s Kindle deletions and yesteryear’s banning is that the earlier prohibitions weren’t perfectly enforceable. . . . Amazon deleted books that were already available in print, but in our paperless future—when all books exist as files on servers—courts would have the power to make works vanish completely.”

Is Jeff Bezos’ apology enough? Peter Kafka at AllThingsD is suspicious of the Amazon chief’s many mea culpa responses because there’s not much that can stop the Kindle masters from doing it again:

“Now all we need is for Amazon to promise that it won’t go into your Kindle and take away something you bought, ever again. But the e-commerce giant won’t say that. Instead, it’s left open a big, worrisome loophole that it refuses to close. Amazon says it won’t forcibly remove your content from your Kindle ‘in these circumstances.’ But it won’t say what circumstances would prompt it to take back product it’s sold. That’s dumb. And doubly so coming from Amazon, a company that succeeds in large part because of its well-deserved reputation for kick-ass customer service.”

Can Barnes & Noble top the Kindle? The book retailer on Monday unveiled an “ebookstore” of 700,000 available titles that can be read on multiple devices, including the iPhone. But it has its own limitations:

“The least attractive aspect of the Barnes and Noble e-book effort is its use of ‘digital rights management’ restrictions on most paid e-books. Although its DRM controls lack the strictness of the Kindle’s — you can theoretically loan or resell e-books, if you’re willing to give your credit card number to recipients — they still limit your reading to the software and devices that Barnes and Noble permits, not the ones you might like. . . .

“In its insistence on DRM — not to mention its spotty selection, questionable pricing and glitchy software — Barnes and Noble’s e-book venture resembles nothing so much as the early, awkward attempts of record labels and the current, awkward attempts of movie studios to set up digital storefronts. . . .

“Those parallels don’t bode well for the future of the electronic book. If we’re going to have to watch publishers and stores repeat all the mistakes of the music and movie industries, it’s going to be a long few years in the e-book business.”

Why we can’t stop watching: Salon’s Amanda Fortini interviews author Hal Niedzviecki, who while doing research for his book “Peep Culture” tried a novel social media experiment that failed abysmally. Of the hundreds of his Facebook “friends” invited to a party at his home, only one bothered to show up. (Note to Hal: This sort of thing happens with “real” friends too.)

But Niedzviecki’s particularly galled by what he sees as a fiercely amoral and fleeting strain of voyeurism, the byproduct of an Internet age with its roots in television culture:

“You feel the right to watch this: ‘Look at this terrible thing.’ This is a deep question of our society now. We just saw an example of it with the whole situation in Iran, where for a couple of days everyone was watching this video of this poor young woman being shot, and there was this horrible close-up of her eyes rolling in the back of her head, blood everywhere, and then she passes. We have to ask ourselves, what is the value of this footage? Just as we ask ourselves, what is the value of surveillance camera footage that captures a horrific accident or a terrible crime? To what extent are we watching this from a place of moral indignation and to what extent are we watching this from a place of ‘Did you see that sick stuff?!’ prurient excitement. And you can do both at the same time, but at the end of the day I think we’re seeing much more pseudo-morality than we are seeing real concern. As soon as Michael Jackson died everyone seemed to forget about the poor Iranian girl.”

Are we united in our digital isolation? The headline, inverted a bit here, is meant to provoke, but Emily Popek of Pop Matters is adamant that the on-demand nature of the Web is creating a hyper-niche life that’s not entirely healthy. Not a new argument, of course, but an interesting twist on it:

“We can only hope that we can learn to balance this push and pull on our attention span, and somehow remain open to the occasional happy accident, should it occur. If we do not — if we continue to carve out increasingly smaller and more-specialized and predictable cultural niches for ourselves — we may find that we lose more than we gain.”

Like Niedzviecki, Popek’s got some worthwhile things to say. But as with the digital evangelists, there’s too much of a tendency to paint these issues in a good/bad framework. The positive, beneficial uses of the Web that I’ve enjoyed for the last 15 years have become even more plentiful as the Internet has matured. The Web is whatever you want to make of it; it requires you to do a little bit of work, unlike passive television, which I grew up with.

It also implies that you use your own discretion and decide when enough time on and obsession with the Web is enough. Like now, for instance. I’ve got to unplug for a little while on the weekend.

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