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On e-books and capitalism

It occurred to me this morning, in light of something someone said yesterday on twitter, to wonder about the anxiety some readers have about ownership of the e-books they buy. It's an anxiety that seems to cross all the boundaries of readers, from those who just buy happily from the big outlets to those who campaign against DRM and those who happily pirate. They are all concerned that they should actually, definitely, irrevocably own those pieces of data and they are anxious that someone -- especially the big companies -- might take it away from them.
Capitalist thinking pervades everything. This anxiety is all about property (even, in some cases, where it's expressed as an anxiety over freedom.) I find this interesting, even more so when you consider that many of these same readers are suspicious of the control exercised by big business, which is a valid concern in socialist terms.
Now, from the perspective of writers, a book or story is the product of their labour and their concerns are around the ways in which this is alienated from them, either by official middlemen or by unofficial ones. This makes perfect sense to me: workers need to eat, and in capitalist societies, they are dependent of the product for this, either directly or indirectly.
But the reader anxiety -- 'I paid for this, so I must own it forever' -- strikes me as both symptomatic of the pervasiveness of capitalist thinking and as slightly illogical, especially when it's on the part of those campaigning against big business. There's a disconnect in the thinking, there, somehow, because the radical ideas are underpinned by a deep-rooted attachment to, and anxiety over ownership. Indeed, on some level, the desire for freedom from DRM -- which I share, btw -- is closely entangled with the same desire for control over a perceived piece of property as fuels the supporters and inventors of DRM, though on an individual rather than a company level.

Capitalist thinking infects everything.
For the record, I discover I don't have a deep attachment to owning e-books. Most of those I buy I read once. In my head they're rather like library books. I don't know why this is. I need to think about that more, clearly.


Jul. 8th, 2013 10:49 am (UTC)
No real clue
I think part of it is that we still haven't mentally made the transition, not fully. When you bought a physical book, you had a thing you held in your hands, it was tangible and real. (Also fragile, subject to fading, etc...) It was something you could give to others or keep on your shelf, or sell on. Nobody could take it from you easily. And having this physical thing represents the use of money, tat you bought something of value. Which, yes, is totally capitalist. We pursue money so vigorously because society tells us that having money, having things, is worthwhile. We like to be able to show others and convince ourselves we got value for our hard-earned money. And even if we don't like the story... hey, we have a book.

With ebooks... you can't hold it, touch it, it's not tangible. There's no proof of your purchase. If something happens to your e-reader or to the account or server, your book is GONE in a way that a book never could be without a minor catastrophe. And the companies (Amazon, at least?) that not only can they take back the book, they will do if they feel it necessary. In short, you have no real evidence of your purchase. Nothing tangible, anyways.

So we either need to adjust to the idea that there is still worth there, that the worth was in the story all along... or we need to detach our perceptions from the value of the physical.

I can't remember who, but I saw... on Twitter, I think... the comment to the effect that a half-finished ebook doesn't tug at you the way a physical book does, it doesn't sit there, bookmarked or propped open, reproachfully waiting for you to come back. It doesn't impinge on your consciousness the same way. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose. I know I've found it to be true.

On the other hand, I am considering switching more and more to ebooks as I am running out of surfaces to store physical books on...

And no, I don't know what it's mostly men replying. Maybe the women are being more sensible about their net time?
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:07 pm (UTC)
Re: No real clue
Yes! I think you've managed to say what I meant. Thank you.
(And yes on the men thing :-) )

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