Friday, July 17, 2009


Amazon has taken to rewriting the present by retroactively censoring books. Specifically, the company erased copies of George Orwell's “1984” and “Animal Farm” from its customers' Kindle ebook readers.

1984 was, of course, the totalitarian distopia that introduced the term “memory hole” to the wold. In Orwell's book the hero worked for the “Ministry of Truth” censoring books and rewriting history, or the present, to cover it up. The memory hole was the incinerator chute where superseded documents went to make sure the record conformed to the Party's view of history today.

What happened was that someone offered unauthorized copies of Orwell's novels “1984” and “Animal Farm” for sale through Amazon's Kindle book store. When the copyright owner found out, they demanded Amazon remove the books from their store, which Amazon promptly – and correctly – did. But then Amazon veered off into 1984 territory.

According to the New York Times Amazon not only took down the offending books, they reached out and deleted already sold copies of the book from customers' Kindles, while crediting their accounts for the selling price.

This has infuriated nearly everyone, except for a few of the morally tone deaf who have been drinking too much of the “intellectual property” Kool Aid™

Amazon didn't help itself by the surreptitious way it handled the business. No notice to the Kindle readers, just down the memory hole. And apparently no thought to the firestorm of criticism this was going to arouse. At least they didn't bother to publish an explanation, although they did respond to the Times' questions in an email.

Amazonian ineptness aside, this incident points to a serious flaw in the world of the new media. A few months ago in this blog Eisenstein's Changes: Printing and the Web, I compared the changes brought about by the introduction of printing and web publishing. In general the web extended and enhanced the trends that were exemplified by the printing press.

The exception was permanence. As I pointed out then, and as this example underlines, material posted to the web – and apparently downloaded electronically – is much less permanent that printed copy. It is not only easy to create, it is tragically easy to destroy.

We are rapidly moving into an era when not only the past, but the present as well are mutable at the whim of publishers. If you don't secure a copy on your own disk – or even if you do in the case of Kindle – the material can disappear in an eyeblink.

This is flat scary. Americans as a group already have a loose enough grasp on history (“All the historical sense of a colony of cherrystone clams” to paraphrase “Bored of the Rings”), but now we're in danger of losing even that.

As in Orwell's 1984, the first place this has shown up is in politics, going back to the Clinton era. But when it can show up in literature as well, the problem is becoming much, much worse.