Freely We Shall Give Digital Content, Because Freely We Might Take Away

A friend of mine just got a Kindle. He loved it enough to announce his love on Facebook, going on to admit that, in his new love:

I have realised I am basically one of those born-agains who think they are the first people to ever use an ebook.

This prompted a re-run of the well-worn debate on e-readers: those who love the smell of old books, those who want the convenience of portability, those who apparently still read paperbacks after they’ve been dropped down the loo because they’d survive and there’s no way a Kindle would! May be, but… gross.

My interest was piqued though when conversation turned to the problem of digital ownership. I read a lot, mostly in hard copy but also on e-readers, but here’s my problem with the world of Kindle: Amazon just completely pwned your library. You handed over the keys to your intellectual and literary storehouse to a technology company that has other interests at heart. Other interests like its bottom line. Erm, and that’s it.

What the recent stink over The Interview goes to show is this: we shouldn’t take freedom of speech as a given. Big companies will very quickly buckle when under sustained digital attack from hackers. Sony’s Playstation Network was taken down. Damaging emails were circulated. In short, it thought it was about to lose a lot of money. Decision: pull the film.

To be honest, there’s little chance I’d have paid to go see what looked like a weak and poor-taste comedy about assassinating a living person. But I’d want to defend the rights of film-makers to make that kind of crap. What worried me about this—and impinged on my thoughts about digital content more generally—was how spineless not only Sony were to begin with, but the whole of Hollywood was.

Getting back to Amazon, what happens when some hacking group—perhaps linked to a corrupt state—takes umbrage at a title that Amazon is selling, perhaps on Kindle via its self-publishing service? Amazon’s servers start to be attacked… damaging emails about its relationship with publishers start to be leaked… And one morning we all wake up to find that the offending book has been deleted from all our devices.

Don’t think that it can’t happen. Not long ago, Amazon took a dislike to a version of 1984 and promptly wiped it. Yes, you read that right. Big Brother wiped the text of Big Brother from everyone’s librarys.

See the problem now?

I’m not much of a U2 fan. I’ll be honest: I didn’t even notice that their new album had arrived unannounced in my iTunes until the furore hit. What was fascinating about that episode was the strength of feeling that this generated. If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll know that I’ve long been interested in the theory of ‘gift.’ Here was a global example of gift-giving gone terribly wrong. Apple had effectively broken into my house and added something to my record collection without telling me or asking me.

It’s like a Tinder date gone very wrong. Hey! I broke into your house! And left you a present! Nothing weird about that is there! Fancy a coffee?!

Giving a gift is a very nuanced affair, as I’m sure people have appreciated this Christmas. We teach children to hide their desires, insisting that they send lists up the chimney to Santa rather than asking us directly for stuff. We then hide the gifts for a short while: wrapping them in paper so that when they are given they are invisible. This is important. The kid who demands x for Christmas and is given it unwrapped… there’s something not quite in the Christmas spirit there.

But there are deeper questions about ownership too. If I took your present and returned it to the shop, or posted it immediately on eBay why should you be offended? It’s mine now. You gave it to me. I said thank you. Why should you care?

The issue is that gifts generate a relational bond, and it is precisely this bond that is the gift. The material item is a symbol of something deeper, and when we trespass on that, we tread all over the relationship. For Apple to give us the gift of U2 was trespassing on the relationship we felt we had with the company — and with the band. This was music. It was meant to be part of the arts. And now it was just this…fungus.

This highlights a major problem in the digital economy. If Apple can give us gifts, will they also not feel it well within their rights to take them away?

The question of ownership in this new digital world thus becomes a massive one, encompassing issues of gift-exchange and relational ethics, and also the knotty question of freedom of speech. Picture this scenario:

Amazon want to promote a new book by a major author, so they send the first chapter out for free. In a parcel. Through the letterbox of everyone in the country. How lovely of them. But there’s a problem. The chapter is found to have gravely offended a certain group, and Amazon come under attack. They start to bleed money. They apologise, but it’s not enough, the group want every copy destroyed.

Here’s the question: do Amazon have the right to come round and demand their gift back? Of course not. They gave it to us. It’s ours now. We wouldn’t expect them to break in and steal it. But not only is this exactly what they are able to do with Kindle, it’s also what they could do even if I had paid for the book.

Many of the gift cycles in traditional societies focus around gifts given at the time of death. There is a passing-on of important objects—objects that symbolise the passing on of a much deeper relational, mythical bond. Some of my most treasured books and records are from my parents’ shelves. The handing over of a library—whether that be books or films or music or clothes or jewelery—is a hugely important way of sustaining family bonds through generations.

A couple of years ago, Bruce Willis began to probe Apple about whether he would be able to leave his digital music collection to his daughter. There wasn’t any case-law that could deal with this, but it seems currently that he is not able to do so. In a smart paper looking at the issues, one lawyer had concluded:

So far there is no dispute that the devices, and the works fixed to them, can be passed on. [But] for the time being the survivors can only enjoy the digital content on the devices onto which the copies were originally place.

In other words: you own the Kindle, but you don’t actually have any rights to the books you’ve bought to put on it, independent of that device that holds them. Kindle breaks, daddy’s library is all gone.

In a recent piece for BBC Radio 4 I spoke with philosopher Simon Critchley about death and grief. He raised this idea of the ‘after life’ as about ‘the lives of those who come after.’ Our task, I noted then, was to fund this after-life, to live in such a way that people who we leave behind are able to ‘go on’ once we have ‘gone on.’

It seems to me that our increasing abdication of all our music, literature, art, film and sound to digital devices very seriously puts this work of funding an after-life at risk. Once we are gone, the grand libraries we have built could be automatically emptied in the click of a mouse, leaving our children with nothing… The iCloud photos gone, the books gone, the albums we listened to together unavailable until re-purchased.

The lawyer warns us to do some practical work:

It behooves every individual to create a digital estate plan. By forming a digital estate plan, the individual both articulates what he or she wants to have happen with his or her accounts at death, and also designates a digital executor who can carry out those desires.

But that is not going to be enough unless the law changes. Currently, we are turning ourselves into Monsanto seeds: able to grow and flourish… but engineered to be neutered, unable to be replanted and pass on anything into a new generation, not without significant payment.

It’s an odd new world we are inhabiting. A wonderful one — let us not forget that — but one that brings serious challenges and changes to our relationships and gift cycles, such as they still exist. In a world of flaming trolls, it’s also one that brings us far closer to Fahrenheit 451 than at any point in our history.

Interesting times, for sure. I, for one, will stick to hard copies that digital hands can’t easily reach, though what risks having such an occult library will bring, who knows?

Teaching and writing, in uncertain ratios. London.

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