Ebooks, Reading and Privacy

by Patrick on July 21, 2009

As the market for ebooks expands rapidly (Barnes & Noble jumped into the fray yesterday with its long-rumored ebook store), so do the issues the change in format presents.  A few articles delve into these issues better than I could, so I’ve linked to them here:

  • Farhad Manjoo looks at how Amazon can reach into its customers’ Kindle devices and delete books. ” The power to delete your books, movies, and music remotely is a power no one should have. Here’s one way around this: Don’t buy a Kindle until Amazon updates its terms of service to prohibit remote deletions. Even better, the company ought to remove the technical capability to do so, making such a mass evisceration impossible in the event that a government compels it.”  I think you all know where I stand on  this:  Amazon has shown, again and again, that it doesn’t care much about its customers’ rights.  None of this should be terribly surprising.
  • At The Word Hoarder, Rich builds off my post on ads in ebooks, saying “Does the desire to place paid ads in book reflect a strategy to squeeze more dollars out of readers by making a substandard product the new norm (book with ads) and thus making a traditional book (no ads) the premium product?”  I think he’s right on here.  The hope is to create a “freemium” model (the buzz term of the moment in online circles, thanks in no small part to Chris Anderson’s book Free, which I mentioned last week) of books, where the casual fan can grab a book for little or no cost and have the cost of the book subsidized by advertising, while the hardcore book buyer will buy the ad-free “premium” version of the book for roughly what it costs now.  Lots of people I know, smart people, even, have said that this model is the future.  I remain a skeptic.
  • Much has been made of this James Wolcott article on “cultural snobbery.” “Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices.”  I think this same point has been made here and here, by the way.

All three of these stories point to something fundamental about ebooks and reading:  ebooks and online/electronic reading experiences are fundamentally changing how we view the act of reading.  Reading has always been among the most private activities.  Other than when we are very young or very old, we read our own books, alone, in isolation.  And then we take that solitary experience and carry it out into the world.  It occurs to me that having read a book and never discussed it is like having only half experiencing it.  It’s not real until I’ve hashed over it with others (usually my wife, the best reader I know).  I doubt I’m alone in this (ironically!).  This is sort of the reader’s equivalent to the realization at the end of Into the Wild:  “Happiness is only real when it’s shared.”

As I’ve said in the past, I think there are ways that ebooks and online reading can enhance our enjoyment of books, but as Manjoo, Rennicks and Wolcott show, there are also ways in which they threaten it.  The next ten years should be fascinating to watch if for no other reason than to see the way this issue plays out.  What do you think?  What excites you most about ebooks?  Is it the instant access and portability?  The ability to share and discuss titles in new ways?  What worries you most?  The control you’re giving up by going digital?  The expense of reading devices creating even more of a literacy gap between rich and poor?  Tell me in the comments.