Leaving a Digital Trail with Your Kindle

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As you can tell, I have been expanding my consciousness of the ereader world beyond the Kindle. I have a Sony Pocket Edition, an Aztak Pocket Pro, a Cybook Gen-3, and am sorely tempted to purchase a Nook, should one ever become available. But I was Kindle born and raised as an ebook reader, and I still think (along with others) that the Kindle 2 still represents the best value out there.

One of my reasons for thinking so has to do with the Kindle’s almost seamless connection with the mother ship at Amazon. When the Kindle came out I was struck by Amazon’s brilliant step forward with the ereader by making it a part of a business system. The unexpected addition of the wireless lifeline to the world’s biggest bookstore brought the value proposition of ereaders and ebooks into crystal clarity for me in a heartbeat.

But that very same tethering of the device to Amazon’s cloud of convenience poses what some see as a “darker” side of the device. In several lucidly argued posts, Ted Striphas raises the concern:

I’m rather taken with the idea of a right to read given the ways in which new e-book systems, such as the Amazon Kindle, tether reading to corporate custodians who in turn mine the machines for intimate details about how people read.

Striphas’s concern is one that resonates even more powerfully in the age of the Patriot Act:

The [Kindle] automatically archives detailed, even intimate, information about what and more importantly how people read on the Amazon server cloud.  This kind of information […] can instead be subpoenaed by prosecutors who are anxious to dig up dirt on suspects.  The question I raise in the speech, and the question that also seems to emerge in the case of Google Books and the coming Editions service, is, what happens to a society when privacy is no longer the default setting for reading?

That’s a little bit scary, and gives me pause. (Not that I am reading anything I shouldn’t be. Really.)

It’s just that we have so many examples of how centralized control of media historically reverts to commercial or political exploitation. A hegemonistic book authority could easily limit or control people’s reading for its own purposes. Look, for example, at the situation in medieval Europe before Gutenberg hit the scene, or at what happened last summer when, for all the best corporate reasons in the world, Amazon remotely deleted a book from its customers’ Kindles without asking or even warning them.

If it is reasonable, and I think it is, to see Amazon as the “custodian” of our books and our reading history and our notes and our marks and our highlights, then we may have a problem, since we depend on the idea that the interests and intentions of our custodians are benign, at least, and certainly not pitted against our own. And yet the relationship with this corporate custodian is that of a vendor and a customer, two roles that overlap in certain areas but certainly not in all. Trusting that free market forces will reign in abuse–well, that premise is somewhat out of favor these days.

Striphas summarizes his concern:

As these devices become more prevalent, I worry about the effects they might have on how people practice and conceive of reading.  Until now it was relatively difficult to monitor closely how and what people read.  What will become of reading, and people’s relationship to it, once that freedom is definitively diminished?  Indeed, a right to read seems to me of paramount importance in a context where someone is looking over your shoulder every time that you open an electronic book or periodical.

Yes, I guess we do have a problem.