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The Amazon Kindle and anti-freedom technology

November 26, 2007, 9:44 pm

After writing my two recent posts about the Amazon Kindle, I began to notice that I was not only unimpressed but bothered, even angered, at certain elements of the Amazon Kindle. I don’t usually get ticked off at an electronic gadget I don’t own, so I had to think about what my problem was. After a while, I pinpointed the cause: It’s the way Kindle handle blog subscriptions. You can get blog content sent straight to the Kindle, but only the blogs that Amazon chooses to offer you, and only after paying a fee.  Most blog “subscriptions” on the kindle are $0.99/month. Cheap, negligible even, but still not free. And this strikes me as being simply wrong.

The power of technology consists in its capacity to be a liberating force in our lives. This goes all the way back to foundational technologies such as electricity, indoor plumbing, the automobile, and so on. The reason we include technology in our lives — the reason we keep buying new technologies — is not so that we can own a device. We own the device because in some kind of sum-total way the technology makes us more free.

Take the iPod for instance. It does cost you something to own an iPod, apart from the cost of the device, namely that if you get your music from iTunes you had better be ready to own only iPods for the rest of your music-loving days, thanks to Apple’s DRM. But that opportunity cost is offset in numerous ways. The iPod and iTunes make me free to buy only the songs I want rather than the whole album, to try new music at low cost, to arrange music and play back music the way I want, to carry literally 20 years’ worth of collected music with me in a small, sleek, and incredibly well-designed package.

Or closer to home, consider computer algebra systems like Maple or Matlab. Of course it’s cool that these programs can do symbolic integration or calculate π  to the 100,000th decimal place. But what makes them powerful and not just cool is the way that they free mathematics students and researchers to concentrate on learning concepts and big ideas, or making observations and reasoned conjectures, rather than having to worry about whether our calculations are right all the time.

And so here comes the Kindle, and from the get-go it starts locking me down in all these  different ways without giving me any truly freeing technological advantage in return. You can buy books straight from the device; but all the books you already own have to be re-bought and sent to the device. You can send your own text or Word documents for viewing on the Kindle, but only through email and only after paying a fee to do so. That’s your own content being put on your own device, and you’re being charged for it. And don’t get me started again on the lack of PDF support.

In this situation, the overwhelming message being sent is that Amazon is not interested in making a product that will revolutionize the way I conceive and consume books, but rather a product that will make them lots of money, to be made in turn on expenses both big and small and not all of them necessary or even warranted. This just isn’t the kind of technology that the world needs today.

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