The future of information

Fifty years ago, the science-fiction community was full of literature about the not-so-distant future, a future of space-travel, instant wireless communication and technological supremacy. That future is now. In an interview with the Washington Post, Microsoft’s chief executive Steve Ballmer remarked that, “there will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network.

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By Zachary Porcu

(Amazon.com)

By Zachary Porcu

Fifty years ago, the science-fiction community was full of literature about the not-so-distant future, a future of space-travel, instant wireless communication and technological supremacy. That future is now.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Microsoft’s chief executive Steve Ballmer remarked that, “there will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form.”

While the instantaneous information exchange of cellular phones, smart phones and the Internet have brought inter-personal communication to a level of convenience hitherto unheard-of, such technology now threatens to encompass all information.

Enter the Kindle.

The Kindle, recently replaced by the Kindle 2, is a little gadget put out by Amazon.com which serves as a digital e-book reader. It sports a $359 price tag, but comes with no books.

The Kindle is not Wi-Fi powered, but rather is always connected to Amazon, wirelessly, in much the same way as a phone. E-books can be purchased at a whim, anywhere, anytime, the cost of which is substantially lower than their paper counterparts.

The Kindle is USB chargeable, a typical charge lasting several days, has a non-back-lit screen, for easy-on-the-eyes reading, is about one-third of an inch thin and weighs about 10 ounces.

Amazon boasts a slue of reviews from teachers, small business owners, laymen, retired librarians and a myriad of individuals positively drooling over this new gadget.

However, upon closer inspection, this is revealed as propaganda.

The introductory video on the Kindle 2 homepage lavishes the viewer with sophisticated-looking individuals talking about the convenience of the new Kindle.

Except these people seem to be living in another universe where books are actually carved into stone, with pages that require minutes of sweated straining to turn, and with writing that is cryptic and requires hours of studying to decipher.

Consequently, they praise the Kindle as the herald of a new age of reading. Many reviewers say they have “rediscovered reading,” and a disturbing amount claim that the Kindle easily replaces books.

In all seriousness, the captivating power of the Kindle really has nothing to do with convenience, but with the way in which the information is being transmitted: by a screen at instant speed.

When people report that the Kindle has allowed them to “rediscover reading,” this is a psychological gimmick.

With the age of television followed up by the age of the Internet, attention spans have continued to dwindle and it becomes increasingly more apparent that many people simply lack the mental discipline to sit down and read a book.

The Kindle turns this obvious problem into a marketing advantage, boasting that, should one become bored with whatever is being read, one can easily browse for something else.

Thus it is only by the encouragement of this A.D.D. style of reading that individuals claim to be reading more literature, and of a greater variety. One cannot help but question how many books they actually finish.

A final argument for the Kindle is that, while physical books are highly expensive, Kindle books are far from it.

Most New York Times Best-Sellers are only $9.99, and many books are far cheaper than that.

Well, it is little wonder that the books are so cheap: you don’t actually own them.

This brings us to the far more disturbing and insidious problem with the Kindle 2, and with e-books at large.

Physical books enjoy certain conveniences unique to physical matter: You can lend, borrow or give them away. This is due to the fact that when you buy a book, you own it.

It is yours to lend to friends, give to your children, donate to a library, take anywhere and read as often as you like.

This is not true of Kindle books, which you do not actually own in any form, physical or digital.

David W. Boles, a blogger at Urbansemiotic.com and Kindle 2 owner, noted that in the original model of the Kindle, there was an SD card slot, but this produced problems with Amazon’s ability to control content:

“The control issue I discovered,” Boles writes, “was if you moved a book to your SD card, Amazon could not remove the book from your Kindle.

They could remove the book from your online storage and from the Kindle’s active memory, but if your content was on the SD card, Amazon could see it on your Kindle, but they could not remove or edit the content.”

This “problem” has since been corrected on the newer model of the Kindle, giving Amazon complete control over the books which were supposedly owned by the consumer.

“Make no mistake about it,” Boles writes. “You do not own the content on your Kindle. Amazon does.”

Meanwhile, on the Kindle homepage, Amazon states, “This is just the beginning. Our vision is to have every book ever printed, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds on Kindle. We won’t stop until we get there.” And when that happens, there won’t be any more books.

If Ballmer is right in predicting the death of print, there will easily come a time, very soon, when all books, all newspapers, and all information rests, not in individual or even in public libraries, but in the hands of one or two companies.

Imagine a world where everyone owns a Kindle, or equivalent, and there are no books at all. None. No newspapers. No magazines. Fascinated by their new portable library, consumers will give away their old books and magazines. No one will save newspapers anymore. Print will die, and all information will be in the hands of Amazon and its competitors.

And so we return to the ownership issue. With a company owning basically all printed information, and with no way to disconnect your Kindle from the Amazon network, the information can be changed and edited at will.

If the company decides a book should not be available, out it goes. If some minority group decides that a particular author is racist, the text can be changed, updating it with more politically correct jargon. And most disturbing, the information in newspapers can be tweaked or altered at will. And all of this is untraceable, since the consumer does not own the material, but is rather paying a company permission to lease the information.

But don’t think this will happen just yet. For now they’ll keep bragging that they want every book ever printed and the utmost convenience for the consumer. But don’t expect that to last. No, one day when there are no more hard copies, odd things will start happening. Changes will take place. And when that happens, there will be nothing anyone can do about it.

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