Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Functioning data, obsolete media

A dispute with a company that charges an exorbitant fee to replace data on floppy disks that will no longer be accessible by the latest version of its software program leads me to wonder if the same thing could happen with the Kindle, iPad, Sony Reader, or other electronic reading devices. As far as I can tell, no one has given any thought to what happens in the sequel when electronic reading hardware becomes obsolete.

After all, those of us who paid full purchase price for data on floppy disks did so under the assumption that, as with the purchase of a print-and-binding book, we were obtaining the contents for all time. What would prevent Amazon, however, from dropping Linux in favor of a different operating system, and then charging customers an additional fee to “translate” the books they had already purchased into the new system?

What happens when Amazon ceases to support the version of the Kindle that you own? Unlike the codex, an ebook requires a piece of hardware—a machine—to be accessible. Isn’t it entirely possible that the machines will be replaced and the electronic data will have to be bought all over again, and again? And that some texts will no longer be available in the new format?

Needless to say, this is not a problem with print and binding. Nearly two years ago, I divided books into two categories: “those which are needed for practical activities and those which are collected, treasured, preserved from destruction.” The Kindle, I speculated, would never replace the latter. And perhaps the reason is that the hardware for accessing such texts—the human mind—is in no danger of becoming obsolete, despite the hostility to it in some quarters.


Mark Athitakis said...

I've beaten this drum a fair bit since the Kindle arrived; most people nod politely when I bring it up but don't really care much to discuss it. My riff on the problem in my best-books-of-2009 piece for Washington City Paper last year: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/38254/e-books-demanded-to-be-taken-seriously-you-can-still

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

The chief thing that prevents it from the Amazon side, is that for all public domain e-books, you can perform your own conversions to make the right file types. I've converted libraries several times--palm to kindle to iPad (three forms). Your point holds for purchases--I haven't tried those yet and DRM may prevent conversion--but this really isn't an issue for most of us who have been doing electronic reading. It might, however argue for iBook using an open source epub format. These tend to remain backwards compatible.

Been there, done that, and it hasn't been a problem for the vast majority of what I read.



Shelley said...

I never thought of that!

Makes the book in my hand feel even better.

With a real book, what you have, you have.

Anonymous said...

If I read the Amazon Kindle agreement correctly, Amazon essentially retains property rights to the book you purchase--in essence you only have the book as long as Amazon allows you to have it. This is analogous to Barnes and Noble reserving the right, after you've bought a book from them, to come to your house and take your books if they want to.

Tim Chambers said...

Anti-intellectualism is largely a creature of the political Right, with which you seem to align yourself quite squarely, though your politics aren't always evident in your critique of our cultural artifacts, for which you are to be admired.

D. G. Myers said...

Anti-intellectualism is largely a creature of the political Right. . . .

This is far too whole-hogging to carry any nuance of truth.

Are Commentary, the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the City Journal anti-intellectual organs? Is the Hoover Institution anti-intellectual? The James Madison Program at Princeton? The American Enterprise Institute?

Is T. S. Eliot anti-intellectual? Michael Oakeshott? George Santayana? Norman Podhoretz? Edward Shils? J. V. Cunningham? Robert Nisbet? Irving Kristol? Joseph Conrad? Joseph Epstein?

Is neoconservatism an anti-intellectual movement? Was Southern Agrarianism? The New Criticism? Law and economics?

Calling names—tarring an entire history and an bunch of similar-looking traditions with an undiscriminating tag—now, that’s anti-intellectual.