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Books are better

July 2010


The law of unintended consequences is one the least predictable and most powerful laws of nature.  It states that however well meaning the inventor of something may be, someone else who will find a way of taking advantage of the invention in a sinister or unwelcome way.

An example is lurking about at the moment, and you may not like it; I certainly don’t.  It involves gadgets that are permanently connected to the internet, like your broadband router (that’s the well meaning idea) and the control their creators maintain over them, long after you buy them.  This gives them the ability to reach into your machine and remove anything they don’t like (that’s the sinister variation).

Take, for example, the Amazon Kindle.  This is a device about the size and shape of a large book; it can store electronic versions of thousands of books that you have bought from Amazon.  The books are displayed, page by page, on the screen of the Kindle. 

So far, so good; they still have some work to do to make it as easy to read as a real book, but the principle is a good one ; you can take your whole library on the train with you, for example, or all your text books, if that’s what you need.

However, as with so many online gadgets these days, the umbilical cord to the supplier is never really cut.  As long as there is an internet connection around, they are still quietly talking to each other; what’s more, it will obey its creator before it obeys you.

Last year, Amazon was happily selling electronic versions of George Orwell’s 1984, believing it to be in the public domain.  So it is, here and there, but not everywhere – as the current copyright holders were quick to point out.  So, Amazon stretched out a virtual tentacle into every Kindle that had downloaded 1984, and deleted it.  Just like that. 

Leave aside the delicious irony of that it was 1984, of all books, that came in for this Big Brother treatment; don’t criticise Amazon, who were only obeying the law (and they refunded the money).  No, what makes my blood run cold is how close this is to book burning.  Once governments realise that they have only to lean on the likes of Amazon to see what you are reading, and delete the ones that they don’t like, don’t tell me they won’t do it.  

It’s not just books – any gadget that connects to the internet is potentially subject to this treatment.  For example, in America last year, a company called TiVo claimed in court that a TV Programme Recorder made by a rival (EchoStar) infringed their patents.  The court agreed, told EchoStar to stop it, and made them pay damages.  Fair enough.

However, they went a huge step further, and ordered that EchoStar should send a signal to the thousands of existing machines that are connected to the internet and disable them.  Yes, switch them off, permanently.  Equipment that people had bought from respectable suppliers in good faith, would be rendered useless.

That case is rumbling on, but the implications are appalling;  If you own a tin-opener, for example, which (it turns out) infringes some patent or other, you may expect not to be able to buy another, but you would not expect the copyright storm troopers to be banging on your door and demanding to confiscate the tin-opener.  Not in a civilised country, anyway.

This is, incidentally, all part of the stealthy shift we are seeing from Ownership to Licensing, and I am not a fan.  Amazon does not sell you an electronic book, it licences you to use it; Microsoft does not sell you the software on your computer, it simply lets you use it, for the time being, in return for a fee.

This applies to much of the software on anything else which includes a computer (like your car).  Whether we like it or not, we are renting more and more of what we use to get through life, and we don’t even know it.

I want to own things, not lease them.  So, as ever, the best advice is to keep it simple.  Buy your books on paper; forget the Kindle.