Kindle E-Reader: A Trojan Horse for Free Thought
By Emily Walshe
The Christian Science Monitor
from the March 18, 2009 edition
Brookville, N.Y. – All you really need to know about
the dangers of digital commodification you learned in
Think back. Remember swapping your baloney sandwich for
Jell-o pudding? Now, imagine handing over your sandwich
and getting just a spoon.
That’s one trade you’d never make again.
Yet that’s just what millions of Americans are doing
every day when they read “books” on Kindle, ‘s e-
reading device. In our rush to adopt new technologies,
we have too readily surrendered ownership in favor of
its twisted sister, access.
Web 2.0 and its culture of collaboration supposedly
unleashed a sharing society. But we can share only what
we own. And as more and more content gets digitized,
commercialized, and monopolized, our cultural integrity
is threatened. The free and balanced flow of
information that gives shape to democratic society is
For now, though, Kindle is on fire in the marketplace.
Who could resist reading “what you want, when you want
it?” Access to more than 240,000 books is just seconds
away. And its “revolutionary electronic-paper display
… looks and reads like real paper.”
But it comes with restrictions: You can’t resell or
share your books – because you don’t own them. You can
download only from Amazon’s store, making it difficult
to read anything that is not routed through Amazon
first. You’re not buying a book; you’re buying access
to a book. No, it’s not like borrowing a book from a
library, because there is no public investment. It’s
like taking an interest-only mortgage out on
If our flailing economy is to teach us anything, it
might be that an on-demand world of universal access
(with words like lease, licensure, and liquidity) gets
us into trouble. Amazon and other e-media aggregators
know that digital text is the irrational exuberance of
the day, and so are seizing the opportunity to codify,
commodify, and control access for tomorrow. But access
doesn’t “look and read” like printed paper at all –
just ask any forlorn investor. Access is useless
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.
(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.
When Facebook, for example, proposed revisions to its
terms of service last month – claiming ownership of
user profiles and personal data – the successful
backlash it spawned caused complex (even existential)
ideas about property, identity, and capitulation to
bubble up: Is my Facebook profile the essence of who I
am? If so, who owns me?
The hallmark of a constitutionally governed society,
after all, is the acknowledgment that we are the
authors of our own experience. In an Internet age, this
is manifest not only in published works, but also an
ever-evolving host of user-generated content (Twitter,
Blogger, Facebook, YouTube, etc.). If service providers
lay claim to digital content now, how will it all end?
Print may be dying, but the idea of print would be the
more critical demise: the idea that there needs to be a
record – an artifact of permanence, residence, and
posterity – that is independent of some well-appointed
thingamajig in order to be seen, touched, understood,
or wholly possessed.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,”
once said. “Just get people to stop
Access equals control. In this case, it is control over
what is read and what is not; what is referenced and
what is overlooked; what is retained and what is
deleted; what is and what seems to be.
To kindle, we must remember, is to set fire to. The
combustible power of this device (and others like it)
lies in their quiet but constant claim to intangible,
algorithmic capital. What the Kindle should be igniting
is serious debate on the fundamental, inalienable right
to property in a digital age – and clarifying what’s
yours, mine, and ours.
It should strike a match against the winner-take-all
casino economies that this kind of technology
engenders; revitalize American libraries and other
social institutions in their quest to preserve the
doctrines of fair use and first sale (which allow for
free and lawful sharing); and finally, spark Americans
to consider the extent to which they are handing over
their baloney sandwich for a plastic spoon.
Like a lot of people, I’m a sucker for a good book. But
not at the expense of freedom, or foreclosure of
Emily Walshe is a librarian and professor at Long
Island University in New York.