Amazon incidents remind that big brother still looms

Posted: Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Last week, in a stunning display of public irony, remotely deleted digital copies of the George Orwell novels "1984" and "Animal Farm" from customers' Kindle devices after learning that the electronic publisher of these works, MobileReference, did not have the rights to them. For a couple days, observers in print and on the Web outdid themselves, noting that in "1984," government censors rewrite history by consigning offending news items to an incinerator chute known as the memory hole.

Orwell's technological vision may have been primitive, but he seems to have predicted something fundamental about the dangers of information systems. In the wake of the uproar, Amazon announced that it would no longer use its wireless capabilities to erase readers' e-books, and Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos apologized.

Lesson learned, right? Maybe, but then again, maybe not. This is, after all, the second major issue involving Amazon's control of content in the past three months; in April, "a glitch" in the company's sales-ranking feature led to the inadvertent de-ranking of hundreds of gay and lesbian books.

I don't mean to suggest that these incidents are related or that they are anything other than what Amazon claims they are: mistakes made by a company staking out the brave new world of electronic bookselling.

What is this brave new world, however, and are we sure it's the one we want?

For advocates, it's a buzzing hive of interactivity in which the solitary seeker at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore is upgraded to the collective mentality of an online "community." And yet this community can't help but operate according to its own hierarchy - a fact we confront any time a book is de-ranked or electronically deleted.

Such issues have been largely overlooked in the Amazon discussion, which takes for granted that "glitches" are inevitable and self-correcting, that the market will police itself. (We've seen how well that worked on Wall Street.)

Of course, much is overlooked when it comes to Amazon, which takes our preconceptions about bookselling and publishing and turns them upside down. For those who have warned for 20 years about the homogenizing dangers of chain bookstores, Amazon is a conundrum: an independent bookstore whose ubiquity makes such distinctions obsolete.

Meanwhile, we embrace Amazon and the Kindle with little real consideration for what it all means, as we move increasingly toward an electronic model for intellectual and literary life. Much of the talk about the digital future has to do with its inevitability, but though that may be true, it overlooks more subtle questions of engagement and control.

For Amazon, books are a business, and the more hegemony it exerts over the market, the better off it is. For the culture, though, books and information serve as a collective soul, a memory bank, something bigger than simple commerce that shouldn't be merely bought and sold.

Because of that, it's not the incidents themselves but their ramifications that are disturbing - the idea that Amazon can effectively alter the collective memory at will. The issue, in other words, isn't that Amazon has erased material from people's Kindles, or de-ranked gay and lesbian writers, but that it can.

This is the problem with the digitized canon and the electronic frontier: It's mutable to the point of being vulnerable. We are asked to trust each other's goodwill, to believe in the commons, even though we know people and institutions try to rewrite history all the time.

There's always a justification - whether it be a rights issue (as it was with the Orwell books) or a programming error - but the result is the same. The collective memory, our shared informational heritage, is compromised, and we are the poorer for it, not to mention at the mercy of the very sorts of outside forces writers like Orwell have warned against.

Does Amazon, as its detractors claim, want to control, or even censor, certain types of literature? As long as there's money to be made, I can't see why it would. But economics is a slippery territory, defined by self-interest rather than the public good. And that, as Amazon continues to remind us, makes for its own kind of memory hole.

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