Ebooks vs Democracy? Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 1 2012 @ 2:17pm

A reader writes:

I don’t know that I buy Jonanthan Franzen’s argument that the future of democracy depends on the survival of the physical book and I understand the great utility of ebooks. However, there is a great deal to be said for keeping the printed page alive.  If its language is English, I can pick up a 400-year-old book and read it. A floppy disc from ten years ago is useless to me.  Your assumption that the cloud will somehow always be there to provide continuity of knowledge strikes me as naïve.  Technological failures on a grand scale do not seem all that improbable, given the history of the world and of mankind. Too, if we are left to rely on others to keep the knowledge intact for us, then they have control over what is kept and what is erased and to what we have access.  I say, long live the book.

Another writes:

Franzen can be a permanent Poseur Alert candidate for sure, but his larger point is valid.  E-books and other such media are much more malleable, instantly alterable in a way that printed books are not. I’m kind of surprised at your reaction to this: remember Winston Smith?

What was his job in 1984 at Minitrue?  When politics changed, he had to go into the office to revise history, by changing what books said, what photos were said to represent, and so on.  Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia; Eurasia had always been Oceania’s ally.  When Orwell wrote that, doing so would’ve required an army of men like Smith to physically alter material objects.  Now, not so much.

True, e-books might be accessible to more readers (assuming everyone has equal access to the ‘net, which is a pipe dream so far), but the fact remains that e-books can be edited and altered in a way that print books, once in print, cannot. Want to revise history?  If books are no longer printed, but only out there in the cloud, it wouldn’t be so hard.  Might even be easy.  Kind of tempting, even.  (Example: if Ron Paul’s newsletters existed only online, he could go back and remove all the racist comments.)


Many eBook formats, and e-reader platforms, are designed to permit publishers and vendors to exercise post-transaction control over content.  Buy a Kindle and purchase ebooks from Amazon, and guess what?  At a later date, Amazon (or the publisher of the material) might withdraw the book – and poof, it disappears from your device.  Many of these devices also permit publishers to automatically update previously-sold works.  And quite a few of these devices are designed to prevent you, the reader, from ever having effective possession of the underlying file. You can read it on the device, or even on many devices via cloud storage, but you are prevented from getting your hands on a copy of the file that you may archive and secure from subsequent revision or retraction.  (And this goes beyond book publishing; Apple, for instance, is well-known for both refusing to publish apps for the iPhone/iPad/iPod ecosystem that offend its editorial sensibilities or are contrary to its own business goals, and revoking previously-published apps, effectively deleting them from customers’ devices).


Digital formats have very many restrictions and conditions that must be met to be readable (and therefore, able to preserve data). In the best circumstances, that means a DRM-free, standardized format. “DRM-free” and “standardized”, however, are not two adjectives one can use with the modern e-Book market. Apple just recently announced their own proprietary format that isn’t and likely never will be readable on any other platform (Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes&Noble’s Nook, etc.). And none of the major platforms sells e-books without DRM. Meaning, I can’t read a book I buy from Amazon on my Nook. If, for whatever reason, Amazon went out of business and stopped making Kindles, all those books I bought go defunct as soon as my Kindle dies.

Update from a reader:

One of your readers claims that “none of the major platforms sells e-books without DRM.” As a publisher, I can tell you that this isn’t true. The Kindle offers many books without DRM, as well as many books with it. It’s up to the publisher to decide whether their book has DRM, so if you download, say, The Origin of Sorrow (Robert Mayer’s look at life in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt in the 18th century) or Loxfinger (the first book in the classic 1960s Oy-Oy-7 series of spy parodies), you can back it up, or transfer it to any other device that reads .mobi files.