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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 01:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Different thoughts.
Hello ( I follow you on Twitter). Thanks for the reply, yes actually you have made me think again with your last comment.

I like the arguments about finding old rare books in a dusty old store but there is another point of interest in relation to paper versions which is not a personal trust issue but a more significant heritage question.

There are many historic notes about books that were found and traced because of the dispersion of the hard copy. Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Sānguó Yǎnyì (Possibly one of the most famous Chinese books from the 14c) had some early translations made that ended up in several different libraries around Europe. The early collectors did not understand the Chinese and therefore the many volumes which made up the single work were dispersed because buyers thought they were all different books rather than one collection. This separating of the book helped to protect it as different volumes were stored in famous University libraries around Europe.

I am going off at a tangent now. However with my apocalypse hat on I propose that paper copies instil a greater trust in the heritage of the human race because the millions of copies made of books that get hidden away in houses, libraries and dusty old book stores are a better storage mechanism than digital. They don't need power and are not based on a central storage mechanism (however well built).

I am sure this argument will not hold weight and in years to come our computers will simply be a storage and processing extension of the mind, allowing us easy recall to the entire history of mankind. Then again a revolutionary fall of civilisation or apocalyptic catastrophe could result in only the paper volumes being available in there dispersed hidy-holes being available for prosperity.

So perhaps this is not a simple case of personal trust of ones own e-book collection but instead a fear that civilisation may loose if only digital copies of all future electronic only volumes can be obtained in a post-digital world?
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Different thoughts.
I agree. I'm a historian, and one of the things that troubles me about digital books and archives is this precise one about the ease with which they can be destroyed or made unusable. Plus there's the issue of variant texts: if only the 'approved' or 'most important' or whatever version is digitized, we lose the variations and they matter.

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