Recently, my Kindle bit the dust. I’d been getting quite into the Kindle thing – reading it in the bath… downloading books on an ad-hoc basis… using it to browse the web. There is a remorseless logic to the digitisation idea: if the spread of knowledge is correlated to the cheapness of reproduction, then the Kindle and its ilk are at the apogee of what should be a new enlightenment.
And then the screen got cracked. It can’t so far as I can tell, be replaced.
£120 of technology was lost in an instant thanks to a stray stiletto heel/bra clasp in a suitcase (not one of mine, I hasten to add: I only wear flats and prefer to go braless on holiday). And not only that, my access to the many books I had bought went with in a flash. Sure, I can read them on my iPhone’s Kindle App, but scrolling through a dense, 300 page novel on a 2 inch screen with your thumb is not an optimal reading experience.
I picked up my battered, nigh-on 15 year old copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William H. Shirer (which I can’t recommend enough). I paid £8 for this book before boarding a flight to Seattle back in the days when knowing HTML was enough to make one a web expert. It is battered, well-thumbed and has a couple of loose pages which correlate to my favourite passages of the book – those few months in which Europe finally tipped into war.
This isn’t a tedious books-are-better-than tech rant, however. But it is about the colossal change in our vision of what ‘ownership’ has come to mean. My £8 bought me ownership of an actual thing that depends on nothing more than shelf space and will be mine until I destroy it or pass it on in some way. By contrast, the works on my Kindle were digital bits to which I had merely bought the “rights” to. I had the right to read a work on my Kindle – nothing more. It may seem unlikely, but one day Amazon will be no more and then what of this ‘right’? It cannot to be transferred to a bookshop or other provider.
What we have steadily been engaged on for many years is the substitution of nothing for something.
The same is true of music. Once you paid for the physical artefact – a vinyl disk or a CD. Now you you often merely pay for the rights, tied a specific device. The license I have to play Bobby Gentry’s Ode To Billy Joe does not extend beyond Apple devices and so, when the inevitable day comes that I move onto something else I will have to buy the “right” to listen to it on another device. It’s about the smartest move the digital industry ever made.
For Apple and Amazon, one can see the logic. Producing a trillion digital copies of an MP3 or digitised book is probably cheaper than producing mere hundreds of physical copies. They take almost no storage space, and can be distributed instantly around the world with no need for physical intermediaries such as shops and personnel.
But there is a more corrosive effect beyond trifles such as music.
Just as music has become a digital commodity, so has the ‘news’ become an endless procession of noisy nonsense. Facts once had to be winkled out, fought over and verified. Today, one can simply make a ‘fact’ from spurious digital data and win the fight for the world’s attention in the space of a few minutes. Extrapolate outwards from a survey of less than a hundred people are merrily claim that “86% of people would choose super miracle formula Fombulin A”.
The “hockeystick” in the field of climate science is a cherishable example of the genre. Shown many years ago now to be based on flawed, partial data and riddled through with unfounded assumptions and mistakes alike it still squats in the public imagination as the default visualisation of what’s happening to the Earth’s temperature.
Enraptured by the power of this shit, corporations and governments alike choose partial slices of ‘data’ every day and release it through media outlets that are world leaders in gullibility and anti-think. This is bad for you. That is good for you. “Science shows x”. “Economists believe y”. Buy this. Sell that. An endless wall of 24 hour bollocks that stretches as far as the mind can picture.
I don’t know about you, but this shit bothers me.