Everyoneâ€™s abuzz about the Kindle, Amazonâ€™s handheld reading device that lets users read â€œwhat you want, when you want itâ€ by getting books, magazines and newspapers delivered wirelessly in less than 60 seconds. The second incarnation of the Kindle, released today, weights 10.2 ounces and can hold more than 1,500 books. â€œNo longer pick and choose which books fit in your carry-on,â€ the Amazon site exclaims. â€œNow you have your entire library with you.â€
Not so fast. Leaving aside for a moment that the Kindleâ€™s very name is weirdly evocative of book burning, consider that for everything we gain with a Kindleâ€”convenience, selection, immediacyâ€”weâ€™re losing something too. The printed wordâ€”physically printed, on paper, in a bookâ€”might be heavy, clumsy or out of date, but it also provides a level of permanence and privacy that no digital device will ever be able to match.
In the past, restrictive governments had to ban whole books whose content was deemed too controversial, inflammatory or seditious for the masses. But then at least you knew which books were being banned, and, if you could get your hands on them, see why. Censorship in the age of the Kindle will be more subtle, and much more dangerous.
Consider what might happen if a scholar releases a book on radical Islam exclusively in a digital format. The US government, after reviewing the work, determines that certain passages amount to national security threat, and sends Amazon and the publisher national security letters demanding the offending passages be removed. Now not only will anyone who purchases the book get the new, censored copy, but anyone who had bought the book previously and then syncs their Kindle with Amazonâ€”to buy another book, pay a bill, whateverâ€”will, probably unknowingly, have the old version replaced by the new, â€œcleaned upâ€ version on their device. The original version was never printed, and now itâ€™s like it didnâ€™t even exist. Whatâ€™s more, the government now has a list of everyone who downloaded both the old and new versions of the book.
Of course, just because a book is printed doesnâ€™t mean itâ€™s safe from government scrutiny. But I know for certain that the copy of Lolita I have on my bookshelf contains exactly the same text now as it did when I bought it from a used book store five years ago, and Iâ€™m the only one who knows I have it. Well, and now the entire internet. But you see my point.
I hope this comes off as a crazy conspiracy theory spun by a troubled mind with an overactive imagination. But in an age of no-knock warrants, warrantless wiretaps and national security letters, itâ€™s not too much of a leap to believe that the sanctity of the written word doesnâ€™t matter as much to our leaders as weâ€™d like, and that to move toward exclusively digital distribution of ideas puts the core of that freedom at unnecessary and unacceptable risk.