Column: The Orwell/Kindle Fiasco

“Not even the ash remains” on screens: Kindle reveals its darker side

By Les Chappell

The Lesser of Two Equals

kindle2In the dystopian classic “1984,” the main character Winston Smith works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to aid in the alteration and destruction of documents so that history can never show the government as anything but infallible. Cubicles are set with small openings called “memory holes,” where the original documents are sucked out of sight into a furnace where “not even the ash remains.” The overall effect Orwell hit readers with was one of total control, where he who controls the records of history controls history itself.

As such, there were some darkly ironic overtones that came about last week with the annoucement that Amazon had remotely deleted electronic copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm” off of users’ Kindle reading devices. Bloggers of course dove onto the metaphor, with titles such as “Some E-books are More Equal Than Others” and speculation on whether or not “Fahrenheit 451” would wind up being the next casualty (most likely because they want to use the headline “The Temperature at Which the Kindle Burns” – though they can’t as I’m reserving the copyright).

Amazon was of course quick to realize the PR nightmare this generated, and a spokesperson quickly issued a statement that the deletion came about as a result of the copies being illegally added by “a third-party who did not have the rights to the books.” They also refunded the money to anyone who had purchased one of the titles, and made sure to emphasize that they will not do this in the future (sort of).

Now, I don’t own a Kindle myself (chiefly because Amazon always ignores my requests to be comped one for purposes of reviewing its technology) so I can’t comment too heavily on what inconvenience this causes users. I’m also tempted to give Amazon a bit of benefit of the doubt here, as copyright lawsuits tend to be problematic and they did at least have the good sense to refund their customers. What this little flap has done however, is bring a little noticed factor about e-books into the public eye.

As I said many moons ago in my column on e-books, the biggest issue I have with them is the lack of physical connection they provide the reader. I take a rather totemic perspective on my books, and have no small amount of pride that for every title on the shelf I can name the history of where I got the book and (typically) the circumstances of my first read-through. A book is supposed to be valued, both for the content and the memories.

But what this ruckus has done is bring an even scarier another issue into focus: the elimination of permanency it implies. When a book is a physical item it has to be destroyed physically, burned or shredded or blasted into pieces with a revolver (if you take the route Dr. Thompson did when autographing the books of his visitors). An e-book on the Kindle, on the other hand, could disappear with one push of a button, leaving the sense that your collection isn’t really yours – some sort of electronic library that doesn’t bother to tell you when it may be overdue.

And what happens if the Kindle takes over completely? I have a horrible imagery of the next generation’s book burnings being even more brutally efficient than the Nazis, adopting the form of a particularly clever program that fries the titles off your Kindle, removing the ability to reacquire it with a HAL-like voice entering in to say “This title can serve no purpose any longer. Goodbye.” Or perhaps some devious hacker, evoking “V for Vendetta” and releasing a virus with the tagline: “Your pretty little book took so long to write, and now, with a snap of a Trojan’s fingers, down it goes.”

But perhaps I’m going a bit overboard here, and the issue doesn’t really forebode planting a memory hole into every last Kindle. Printed books aren’t going anywhere despite what the naysayers say, a lot of people read e-books on non-Kindle formats and the backlash should be enough to chastise Amazon into doing this again. Perhaps this discovery will even allow society to ward off my fatalistic visions, and help secure the titles already into the virtual marketplace.

All I know is, the saga hasn’t made me any more eager to start saving up for a Kindle – at least until I brush up on my Newspeak.

Les Chappell is not exaggerating when he says he can come up with the history for every one of his books. He suggests you not encourage him on this, but if you feel so inclined to hear him ramble he can be contacted at lmchappell@gmail.com.

2 Responses to Column: The Orwell/Kindle Fiasco

  1. […] one of total control, where he who controls the records of history controls history itself….(more….) You might be interested in: RMT STRTRS W/FF ALRM Uniden OCEANUS 25 Watt VHF Marine Radio, White […]

  2. Mike Licht says:

    Six months ago bloggers (notably Stephanie at UrbZen) warned about this kind of thing.

    See:

    http://notionscapital.wordpress.com/2009/07/25/kindle-see-we-told-you-so/

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