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Life in the Walled Garden

Life in the Walled Garden

April 1st, 2009  |  Published in Reporting commentary, Uncategorized

Librarian Emily Walshe’s Kindle e-reader: A Trojan horse for free thought
in the Christian Science Monitor, argues that the Kindle’s access without ownership is dangerous.

Why is this important? Because Kindle is the kind of technology that challenges media freedom and restricts media pluralism. It exacerbates what historian William Leach calls “the landscape of the temporary”: a hyper mobile and rootless society that prefers access to ownership. Such a society is vulnerable to the dangers of selective censorship and control.

Digital rights management (DRM), which Kindle uses to lock in its library, raises critical questions about the nature of property and identity in digital culture. Culture plays a large role – in some ways, larger than government – in shaping who we are as individuals in a society. The First Amendment protects our right to participate in the production of that culture. The widespread commodification of access is shaping nearly every aspect of modern citizenship. There are benefits, to be sure, but this transformation also poses a big-time threat to free expression and assembly.

This view seems too narrow to me. I think the Kindle is best understood as an attempt to resist a broad structural change brought about by the ability to cheaply digitize print.  It is an example of what is called a  walled garden. That is, the attempt to surround digitized content with artificial barriers such as DRM and/or limiting it to tightly controlled devices such as the Kindle (or particular set top boxes, cell phones etc)  so as to create a monopoly market. Technologically, the Kindle is  a very creditable attempt to deliver a book like reading experience while attempting to preserve the effective near monopoly over distribution inherent in a printed book. (Sharing printed books personally or by the mechanism  of a library does not reduce total sales of a book sufficiently to make book publishing unprofitable.) However, if the experience of the music industry is any guide, the inbuilt ease of copying digital files – be they songs or books – militates strongly against attempts to construct walled gardens of any permanence.

Personally I am ambivalent about the Kindle. I might buy one if I lived in the US but I would be resistant because I wouldn’t want access to my library dependent on a single expensive device. If I accumulate 50 books at $10 each and then drop my Kindle I have to pony nearly $400 to regain access to my books. I think Walshe nails that disadvantage of the Kindle correctly, but I don’t think consumers will overlook that problem for long.  Like most consumers I want  to do with e-books  exactly what I do with music – buy the CD and freely create as many digital files as I need to play them on various devices over time. I want to own the original and be able to go back and re copy the file if the one in my car gets ruined or rip it to a file format suitable for a particular device. Similarly, I want books in a digital form that I can keep and back up and reformat to suit whatever reader currently has the best feature set for me. In short I don’t like the walled garden that Walshie is unhappy with any more than she does. That is why I am not very concerned that readers will accept Amazon’s proprietary paradise  for long.  Someone will make more open hardware and open file formats will coalesce around that hardware. One possibility might not even be an e-ink reader at all – but a tablet netbook.  Because a netbook is a real computer it is a very open system limited only by the operating system it is running – including Linux or Android. I use the first netbook – the 7 inch Asus eeePC – as a reader. (Asus and other vendors now seem to have settled on 9 to 10 inch screen as standard.)  My eeePC  is not very good as a reader at that size, but is usable. I’ve been experimenting recently with Pokat PDF reader for Windows which creates an e-book like experience on a computer screen with big forward and back buttons and an animated page flip complete with sound effects. I’m having my sister test it on her 10 inch HP Mini 1000 netbook – more when I know more.

That said, I’d like an e-ink based e-book reader  that didn’t lock me into a particular vendor and made it easy for me to build an e-book library that I really owned from a variety of sources. So far the Kindle’s competition seems too limited or too expensive. In short, I don’t think the e-book market has matured. While the Kindle is perhaps the best single e-ink device on the market today, its limitations – US only, DRM, walled garden marketing – and even its initial success create a market for a device with a more open combination of hardware and software.

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