Kindling the Bonfire of History?

Kindling the Bonfire of History?

Stephanie at UrbZen points out the downside of the web-based Kindle digital book reader:

… the Kindle’s very name is weirdly evocative of book burning …

The printed word — physically printed, on paper, in a book — might be heavy, clumsy or out of date, but it also provides a level of permanence and privacy that no digital device will ever be able to match.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 ….  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 … exclusively in a digital format. The US government … 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.

Nicholas Carr at Britannica thinks the issue has some merit:

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.

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.

Andrew Sullivan sees it a bit differently:

My last book, whose first print run was bollixed by HarperCollins, would have been salvageable.


Image by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht,

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.


Tags: , ,

5 Responses to “Kindling the Bonfire of History?”

  1. Lori Says:

    Interesting, yet scary to think about. I wouldn’t consider a Kindle because I just like the feel of holding a book in my hands.

    Censorship aside, it has a lot of benefits, for the right person. If you aren’t talking about sensitive information, it would be great for students. Thinking of outdated textbooks that are reprinted, and then re-bought, each year just to update tiny facts…

    They should make a way to refuse automatic updates though…

  2. Mike Licht Says:

    Lori: Updating Zagat’s automatically is one thing; auto-updating politically-motivated revisions of history and reference books is quite another. “Opt-in” or “user-approval-only” updating is quite hard for consumers to keep track of in actual practice.

    And do you really think that financially-strapped publishers are less likely to cave in to government pressure than the big telecoms that allowed illegal warrantless wiretaps and data-mining during the last administration?

  3. Joe Says:

    I’m impressed with Kindle’s screen in particular; it’s as easy on the eyes as regular paper

  4. Will Apple’s App Store Censor the Upcoming Dexter Game? « Gold Label Goods Says:

    […] Yes, writers can chose to publish their works in other arenas. As far as eBooks – it’s another area where Google offers it all with their Kindle (though there are already puns of Kindle’s name having connotations to “book burning” and fears that in a syncing, all-electronic format we may see in the future government censorship of reading matter more easy, subtle, and potentially dangerous). […]

  5. Kindle: See, We Told You So « NotionsCapital Says:

    […] We told you. Six months ago Stephanie at UrbZen pointed out the downside of the web-based Kindle digital book reader, the ability of the content to provider to alter the text without warning or reader agreement.  Her concerns were echoed by Nicholas Carr. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: