Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Blues: The Devil You Know Knows You Better

    likes to think it knows me better than I know myself. I came to this realization the other day, when I logged on to buy a book authored by my friend, Jason Korolenko. I hit “Buy Now With 1-Click” and – ZOOM! – Jason’s book was on my Kindle, ready for me to read.
            Meanwhile, was busily offering me other things to buy based on past purchases and my “wish list.” Books by authors I like, books with similar themes and sub-genres, sequels to books, musical instruments (I bought my wife a banjo for our third wedding anniversary), and audio-recording gear: Amazon want me to have access to it all. It knows me. It loves me.

But does it know too much?
          I’m reminded of the scene from “Minority Report” where Tom Cruise walks into future-Gap. The store scans his new eyes, asks him how he liked the pants he bought, and suggests that might look good with Product A, B, or C.
In April, I attended the Arisia convention in Boston, and a book vendor there was handing out a copy of an essay, entitled “The Danger of E-Books,” by Richard Stallman. I picked one up because it was free and short, and promptly dropped it into my “To Sort” file. Stallman is very into the whole privacy thing and made the following comparisons between shopping for traditional books and their electronic descendants:

With printed books,
• You can buy one with cash, anonymously.
• Then you own it.
• You are not required to sign a license that restricts your use of it.
• The format is known, and no proprietary technology is needed to read the book.
• You can give, lend or sell the book to another.
• You can, physically, scan and copy the book, and it’s sometimes lawful under copyright.
• Nobody has the power to destroy your book.

Contrast that with Amazon ebooks (fairly typical):
• Amazon requires users to identify themselves to get an ebook.
• In some countries, Amazon says the user does not own the ebook.
• Amazon requires the user to accept a restrictive license on use of the ebook.
• The format is secret, and only proprietary user-restricting software can read it at all.
• An ersatz “lending” is allowed for some books, for a limited time, but only by specifying by name another user of the same system.  No giving or selling.
• To copy the ebook is impossible due to Digital Restrictions Management in the player, and prohibited by the license, which is more restrictive than copyright law.
• Amazon can remotely delete the ebook using a back door. It used this back door in 2009 to delete thousands of copies of George Orwell’s 1984.
n  Copyright 2011, 2012 Richard Stallman, Released under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

     I also buy much of the music I listen to electronically, via I prefer it to iTunes because the downloads come as MP3s that I can easily use on all my gear. I still buy a fair amount of CDs because I like the liner notes. And, similar to my books, I like how they look stacked on a shelf. It’s a visual representation of my tastes.
     Still, it occurs to me that seventy percent of my music consumption and, maybe ten percent of my book buying, in recent years exists as a corporate record somewhere, one password glitch or subpoena away from becoming public knowledge.  I’ve given up a lot of privacy in exchange for the convenience of the download and sitting-on-my-ass shopping. Is it a fair exchange? I’m not sure yet. I don’t expect to change my buying behavior anytime soon, but I’m much more aware of the devil looking over my shoulder.


  1. How else am I to piece together a Cylon version of my consciousness?

    It's a fair concern, but I'm comforted by the fact that when companies get overly pushy, nosey or flat out greedy, a lot of competitors step to the plate. eMusic offering DRM free EVERYTHING, liberating your music the prison of one device, is a perfect example. B&N did the same thing for eBooks, offering everything in the open source EPUB format. And in terms of media technology, I would say that piracy is a decent check on such companies, as well. What if Napster hadn't happened? We might have been paying $18.99 for CDs –money which most artists only saw a minute fraction of– for many more years. In a weird way, mass music piracy was the best thing that happened to music artists.

    Regardless, when the shopping experience gets weird, people will go elsewhere.

    1. And when there is nowhere else to shop ...

  2. I never really thought about the anonymity part, but that's a pretty good selling point on physical books. The sharing has always been a big thing for me. I can't play librarian with a kindle.

    1. The first thing I do when I go to a new friend's house is check their bookshelves and CDs. That's hard to do when everything is electronic.