“Hey, Honey, what happened to my 1984?”

If you were one of the thousands of people around the world who were in the process of reading (or researching) George Orwell’s famous novel 1984 and woke up Friday, 17 July 2009, to find that it had somehow disappeared from your Kindle, take heart: this is not a bug; it is a feature — though a feature that Amazon, we are told, is in the process of reviewing and revising.

That the book that introduced much of the world to the concept of centralized “mind control” was instantly erased on tens of thousands of “connected” devices is just too delicious to let pass — if there is a liberal God, George Orwell must be dancing a jig somewhere.

In what was an absolutely predictable corporate blunder, Amazon quietly removed copies of George Orwell’s novel 1984, from a number of its clients’ Kindle devices at the request of the US publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH to its friends). I say absolutely predictable because Jonathan Zittrain did, in fact, predict just such an eventuality in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. In that wonderful book, Zittrain talks about the ability of “tethered devices” (i.e., devices that are physically separate but logically connected nearly all the time, such as cell phones, PCs, and book readers) to be controlled and manipulated centrally.

In an “always on” world where some corporate or governmental “mother ship” can instantly change/delete not only the “content” on the Internet itself but can also change/delete that same content on all tethered devices, things can just “disappear.” This is just what Amazon did and Zittrain predicted (though if you go to Zittrain’s blog, he’ll admit that he didn’t have any juicy cases such as the one about 1984 when he wrote the book).

Clearly, this will not be a high-water mark for Amazon, eBook readers, or those marketing Internet-based software (e.g., Google Apps) and cloud computing. If Amazon can decide what is yours and what isn’t after the fact, what’s to keep some other enterprising corporations or governments from doing the same?

When Orwell published 1984 in 1949, the world was just coming to understand the devastating possibilities of totalitarian mind control through what the public could see and hear. History could revise retroactively to fit the current administration or some politically popular zealot. Those outside the Iron Curtain were able to take notice, for example, of formerly high-ranking officials (suddenly classified as “nonpeople”) disappearing from official Soviet photographs. But while published media could be altered in the 1930s and 1940s, physical records were tougher to change. Books and newspapers could be burned, but some records always escaped. But if everything is electronic and everything is connected and controlled through a common network, who knows the possibilities?

It is probably a good thing for this particular blunder to have occurred at just this particular time. It should give everyone pause to review what could happen if nobody is thinking about worst-case scenarios. Clearly, the world of electronic media has not missed the irony of the fact that it was 1984 that was cause célèbre of Amazon’s well-deserved misery. That the book that introduced much of the world to the concept of centralized “mind control” was instantly erased on tens of thousands of “connected” devices is just too delicious to let pass — if there is a liberal God, George Orwell must be dancing a jig somewhere.

In a final, interesting, twist to this story of corporate and technological foul-up, there is, naturally, the international legal issue. As it turns out, while HMH does indeed have the copyright for 1984 through 2044, the copyright has already expired in Canada, Australia, and Russia, where you can if you like download the book for free, just not on Kindle.

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Ken Orr

Ken Orr is a Fellow of the Cutter Business Technology Council and Government & Public Sector practice and a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Data Insight & Social BI, Business Technology Strategies, and Business & Enterprise Architecture Practices.

Discussion

  One Response to “One Small “Oops” for Amazon, One Giant “Holy #$@%” for Mankind”

  1. avatar

    Huh.

    Is there another side to this coin, namely intellectual property ? And perhaps another, namely governance ? To some extent, we’re seeing technical progress ahead of the management processes needed for at least some degree of orderliness.

    Bob

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