The automatically updatable book

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One of the things that happens when books and other writings start to be distributed digitally through web-connected devices like the Kindle is that their text becomes provisional. Automatic updates can be sent through the network to edit the words stored in your machine – similar to the way that, say, software on your PC can be updated automatically today. This can, obviously, be a very useful service. If you buy a tourist guide to a city and one of the restaurants it recommends goes out of business, the recommendation can easily be removed from all the electronic versions of the guide. So you won’t end up heading off to a restaurant that doesn’t exist – something that happens fairly regularly with printed guides, particularly ones that are a few years old. If the city guide is published only in electronic form through connected devices, the old recommendation in effect disappears forever – it’s erased from the record. It’s as though the recommendation was never made.

Which is okay for quidebooks, but what about for other books? If you look ahead, speculatively, to a time when more and more books start being published only in electronic versions and distributed through Kindles, smartphones, PCs, and other connected devices, does history begin to become as provisional as the text in the books? Stephanie at UrbZen sketches out the dark scenario:

Consider that for everything we gain with a Kindle—convenience, selection, immediacy—we’re losing something too. The printed word—physically printed, on paper, in a book—might be heavy, clumsy or out of date, but it also provides a level of permanence and privacy that no digital device will ever be able to match. In the past, restrictive governments had to ban whole books whose content was deemed too controversial, inflammatory or seditious for the masses. But then at least you knew which books were being banned, and, if you could get your hands on them, see why. Censorship in the age of the Kindle will be more subtle, and much more dangerous.

Consider what might happen if a scholar releases a book on radical Islam exclusively in a digital format. The US government, after reviewing the work, determines that certain passages amount to national security threat, and sends Amazon and the publisher national security letters demanding the offending passages be removed. Now not only will anyone who purchases the book get the new, censored copy, but anyone who had bought the book previously and then syncs their Kindle with Amazon—to buy another book, pay a bill, whatever—will, probably unknowingly, have the old version replaced by the new, “cleaned up” version on their device. The original version was never printed, and now it’s like it didn’t even exist. What’s more, the government now has a list of everyone who downloaded both the old and new versions of the book.

Stephanie acknowledges that this scenario may come off as “a crazy conspiracy theory spun by a troubled mind with an overactive imagination.” And maybe that’s what it is. Still, she’s right to raise the issue. The unanticipated side effects of new technologies often turn out to be their most important effects. Printed words are permanent. Electronic words are provisional. The difference is vast and the implications worth pondering.

9 thoughts on “The automatically updatable book

  1. David Evans

    Book burnings won’t be as much fun…or as meaningful…and the smoke might be a bit more toxic. It will also make the search for a first edition hardback more difficult. In the modern democracy it is not the overt desire to oppress that is so dangerous (weighted for likelihood vs. impact) as the well-meaning but aimless steamroller of either a government or corporation. As you imply, this generates a new avenue down which the steamroller can trundle, splatting people here and there. Perhaps the simple answer is a few national libraries that archive each iteration in one feed from Amazon – a la On that note, we used to compare the size of the Internet with the US Library of Congress as I recall. Now, we’ll be able to do the same on a single e-book, so we can store the sum of human knowledge pre-eternal-September on one device. Talk about local caching!

  2. alan

    “A very sane theory spun by a clear mind.”

    The theory is certainly worthy of careful, thoughtful consideration. The “Bunnyfoot eye tracking tool,” Google Eye-Tracking, combined with iTV’s emerging technologies offer’s all sorts of scenarios for angst and paranoid thoughts.

    Think all electronic interfaces, not just kindle.

    Ultimately it will come to pass. Will we be conditioned enough by then to accept that national security trumps personal privacy? After all, who better than government to make sure we are not sitting around reading or watching TV with terrorists?

    Regards, Alan

  3. Prokofy Neva

    Well, of course that’s how it will work! Remember the job that Winston had in 1984?!

    We’ll just have to hope there will be Wayback Machines or that some people will save and share printouts.

  4. Tom Lord

    This is something I submitted to Farber’s IP list (it may or may not be posted there) but it’s relevant here, too.


    You should read Stallman’s “Right to Read” essay.

    Let’s at least understand the play being made

    by several different major players here:

    The full circuit being sold as Kindle but also represented

    by many other examples is:

    1) A limited-purpose device designed to be a substitute

    for (many uses of) a general purpose computer. Users

    are not free technically or legally to fully reprogram

    this device.

    2) Restrictions (technological and legal) that prevent

    users from inspecting, modifying or replacing the software

    on this device. Users can not remove annoying limitations

    imposed by the software and they can not discover if they

    are being surveilled.

    3) Network connectivity not sold as but intended to

    substitute for (many uses of) a general purpose network

    connection. The network neutrality debate, whichever

    side you are on, is mooted if people access the net

    mainly through contracts like Kindle’s.

    4) Tying, by technical and legal means, of the user’s

    network access to a particular ISP and to higher level

    network services. All traffic will go through

    deep packet inspection for any purpose the vendor chooses –

    or at least the vendor and his partners are taking pains

    to ensure that option.

    5) Application of this degree of control over users

    to restrict a user’s freedoms to access content, share

    content, copy content, etc. Restrictions upon users

    in the form of surveillance.

    6) Legal tying of certain cultural content to this

    resulting “network” so that the propagation of works

    can be surveilled and controlled. The only legal way

    to distribute some works will be over one of these

    private overlay networks, to authorized devices.

    7) Increasing redefining of cultural works (music recordings,

    “books”, etc.) to (allegedly) “add value” by tying

    consumption to concurrent network access to specialized

    services (e.g., downloading and displaying song lyrics as

    a song plays). The purpose being to force user’s to

    consume by subscription, rather than purchase, and to

    increase the opportunities to surveille users.

    Add a few additional features to a Kindle and, as far as

    most users are concerned, it will have all the practical

    benefits of a tablet computer or notebook computer. It isn’t

    hard to imagine a product in just a few more years with all

    of the restrictions of user freedom that the Kindle has – but

    that is offered up to people as a complete substitute for a

    personal computer.

    It’s a perfect storm of an attack on user freedom: telecom,

    media companies, device manufacturers, anti-software-freedom

    types, and the more shadowy types of anti-privacy folks all

    aligned in their interest in this circuit of control that devices

    and contracts like this represent. And these shackles

    practically sell themselves to people eager to try them on

    because of the “gee-whiz” factor of a fancy display and

    technically competent interface.

    In his somewhat famous essay, Richard Stallman predicted this

    around 1997. The essay was amended in 2007:

    “The Right to Read” – Richard M. Stallman

    He’s a smart guy.


  5. Gary Frost

    A crucial pair of print and screen attributes is the self-authenticating nature of the print book contrasted with the self-indexing nature of the screen book. The print book carries with it layers of physical evidence, overt content and bibliographic codes that persistently reveal the source and intent of its production. Such features of self-authentication, confirmed with ease of re-readings across time and cultures, give the material book its special role in transmission.

    The effervescent screen books resist authentication. Screen books, like touch screen voting, 3rd party financial derivatives or Facebook ID thefts, remain vulnerable and un-trusted with ease of unmonitored deletions or revisions and uncertain provenance.

  6. Geoffrey Bilder

    This is an issue that has big implications for scholarly citation. An author citing something today has a reasonable expectation that somebody following the citation 10 years from now will see the *same thing*- not some updated or bowldlerised version of the same and certainly not a 404. Otherwise the reader could conclude the author had mischaracterized or misunderstood what they cited. Kinda undermines one of the points of citation…

    Of course my concern is that it doesn’t take a government conspiracy to mess up the citation record. All it takes is well-meaning publishers removing “old versions” of their online content and redirecting user to their spangly new versions. This is a bad enough scenario when something is updated on an edition timescale (e.g. once every few years), but it will become truly problematic when updates are done on a wiki timescale (once every few minutes). I should make it clear that I don’t think the solution to this is to eschew rapid updates. Rather, I think we have to start seriously thinking about about robust versioning and citation infrastructures for content that we expect to remain in the scholarly record.

  7. Karan Bhangui

    I think this is a very interesting thought, and worth consideration by those in the ebooks industry.

    One of the solutions we have found for inkblotter (http://inkblotter) is to use a sourcecode revision control system, and adapt it for use in books. The result is best of both worlds: ebooks can get updated but readers will always have access to their histories.

  8. Adam G

    That’s all I want: my books changing on me. Sounds like a great way to maintain sanity. “I could have SWORN I read in here that …”

    It’s one thing if the change is a correction of the word “teh” in a little commodity work of fiction. It’s another thing if the change is in information that, you know, actually matters.

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