or Why I Don’t Own an E-Reader (yet)
In the future there will be no need for Ray Bradbury’s book-burning firemen of Fahrenheit 451. The books will simply disappear before our eyes, or – perhaps worse – they will be edited to comply with the approved messages of the masters without our noticing.
Bradbury resisted allowing copies of his works to be published as e-books until shortly before his death, when his publisher would not renew his contract without e-book rights.
It might be tempting to write off Bradbury, who called the internet “a big distraction,” as a luddite who just needed to get with the new thing. But did you hear the one about Amazon deleting unauthorized copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindle readers in 2009? Did you hear the one about Barnes & Noble’s Nook replacing every instance of the word “kindled” in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace with the word “nookd?” It’s instances like these that keep me from buying an e-reader.
As a follower of the consumer tech sector, I’m usually one of the first to know about new consumer technology, but I’m almost never the first one to have it. I got both my iPod and my iPhone at about the 4th or 5th generations (Apple fanboy since ’92). Being behind the early-adoption curve has saved me some headache as the software kinks and clunky ergonomics of new technologies were ironed out. Now I find myself at the looming crossroads of the iPad and other E-readers coming into relative maturity. But something feels different this time.
I realize the idea of privacy may seem like the old-fashioned pining of someone born before the internet and cell phones became ubiquitous, but I just… can’t… get all the way over it. If iTunes or Amazon want to know that I like Tom Petty or Nine Inch Nails, I guess I don’t really care. My internet service provider obviously knows when I download and watch porn or read a Noam Chomsky editorial (usually not at the same time). And on the level of downloading an individual book, I don’t care if they know I downloaded and read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
But when it comes to a reading list spanning a lifetime, they will know too much. I’ve kept a reading log for the past 5 years, and it’s not hard for me to imagine someone going through it and coming up with a pretty accurate profile of me, and my state of mind, based on the books listed.
The Patriot Act’s Section 215 requires bookstores and libraries to surrender lists of books or materials that customers or patrons have accessed. The American Library Association opposes this policy. However, most librarians have been forced to comply or face legal action and gag orders. At least they tried. I have no doubt that Amazon would give the FBI everything it had on me at the drop of a hat.
“If you can’t fight it at the library, why not just cave in and get an E-reader,” the devil on my shoulder is saying. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what are you worried about.” That’s exactly the line they’ve put into my head. It sounds rational – that’s why it works – but I have no problem imagining it coming from the mouth of Nazi Col. Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds right before he searches my home and threatens my family. I’m not fine with the authoritarians telling me to “trust us, we know what’s best” and you shouldn’t be either. Our right to decide for ourselves what is best is the basis of the American Idea.
Ironically, Facebook probably could tell the “authorities” more about me than my reading list. I’m uneasy about privacy issues with social media, but I still use it. So why do I bristle so much at the idea of sharing my reading list?
Maybe it’s because I tend to glorify literature and reading as the means by which man lifted himself out of the Dark Ages. I get visions of banned books hidden under floorboards. Maybe it’s because I understand a little bit about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that propaganda and distraction work to keep us from realizing the steady creep of totalitarianism. Yes, even in the United States, where corporate powers and money have undermined the possibility of self rule by buying influence while distracting us with news that isn’t news, corrupt and inconsequential sports, worthless tv programming, and a flood of advertisements from birth to the grave.
“Fahrenheit’s not about censorship,” Bradbury said. “It’s about the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news, the proliferation of giant screens and the bombardment of factoids.”
Recently, a friend told me he bought Chris Hayes’ new book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy from Amazon. It seemed ironic to me that someone would purchase a book with that title from an anti-competitive online retail behemoth known for treating its warehouse workers poorly. I told him if he’d bought it from somewhere like Truth-Out.org the proceeds would’ve gone to support independent journalism. He would have done that, he said, but he wanted to be able to read it on his Kindle.
My friend exemplifies the problem we all face in the era of digital media. With each step further down the path of convenience, we are trading our freedom and privacy. Smart phone apps pinpoint our locations to geotag our social activities or find us a coffee shop. Internet service providers keep logs of the websites we visit. Banks and utility providers directly withdraw money from our checking accounts to pay our bills each month. All well and good until somebody steals your identity or hacks your router to start running a kiddie porn site through.
In the end, I didn’t have the willpower to fight social media and the internet as convenient communications channels, despite their being potential instruments of Big Brother. I’ve caved in to the convenience of carrying around 9642 songs in my pocket on an iPod. My reluctance to buy an e-reader boils down to books being the only sacred, semi-private thing I have left. If Big Brother knows what I read and can edit it to suit his purposes, he will have found a way inside my head at last.
Sadly, I have a feeling that like 1984’s Winston Smith I will ultimately cave in. I will buy an E-reader. And I will come to love Big Brother out of sheer convenience.