|Photo by Mayer Tawfik on Unsplash
We have lulled ourselves into a false security that digital content is permanent and have therefore entrusted our society's most important records to servers, often owned by commercial corporations. But as file formats change every few years and new technologies make old ones obsolete, everything has to be converted and updated and some content may be lost on the way. Files can be corrupted or hacked. Our own stores of family photos and videos will probably not last as long as the old negatives and tapes unless we keep updating them. I have several disks and CD-ROMs that have become unreadable. Digital vulnerability is an issue.
A new threat has been added now that we depend so much on cloud storage and streaming. The company that owns the service can at any time decide to withdraw certain services or even delete content. This digital vulnerability is highlighted in an article on Slate, Why 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four. Users of Amazon's Kindle platform for e-books who had bought George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm discovered recently that the books had been suddenly deleted from their devices. Amazon claimed that there were legal irregularities with the copies and therefore they had to delete them. The users were refunded and the explanation seemed plausible. This has happened with other publications as well but the irony of the two most famous works of a dystopian authoritarian future being suddenly deleted from all devices is alarming. Even if this may have been an honest mistake it shows that these companies have enormous power of the content we can access.
The worst thing about this story isn’t Amazon’s conduct; it’s the company’s technical capabilities. Now we know that Amazon can delete anything it wants from your electronic reader. That’s an awesome power, and Amazon’s justification in this instance is beside the point.We still have millions of printed copies of these books as well as digital versions on other e-book platforms but if we continue to move towards a completely digital future the risks are clear. Our digital content can be deleted, our accounts can be blocked and our access limited. It's not hard to imagine how this power can be misused. In a rational, civilised society governed by laws that work in the interests of the public good this would be regulated but we don't live in that sort of world today. We have put enormous power in the hands of a few extremely powerful global corporations.
Most of the e-books, videos, video games, and mobile apps that we buy these days day aren’t really ours. They come to us with digital strings that stretch back to a single decider—Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or whomever else. Steve Jobs has confirmed that every iPhone routinely checks back with Apple to make sure the apps you’ve purchased are still kosher; Apple reserves the right to kill any app at any time for any reason. But why stop there? If Apple or Amazon can decide to delete stuff you’ve bought, then surely a court—or, to channel Orwell, perhaps even a totalitarian regime—could force them to do the same. Like a lot of others, I’ve predicted the Kindle is the future of publishing. Now we know what the future of book banning looks like, too.
One of many disturbing echoes of the 1930s is the growth in banning and even burning books that challenge the narrow-minded values of a government or militant political or religious movement. This is not restricted to authoritarian regimes like Russia, Iran or China but also now in many European countries, both western and eastern. Authorities can try to stop libraries from lending certain books or schools from letting pupils read them or even stop shops from selling them, but copies will always be out there and people will hide them and circulate them even when banned. That's how many important works have survived through years of repression and tyranny. Once printed books are out there it is impossible to be sure that you have eliminated them all.
Digital is different however. In the world of e-books you never really own your e-book, it is dependent on the device or app you use to read it with and that can be upgraded, replaced or disappear completely. When a digital service dies all your content goes with it unless you get advance warning and find a way to download it. My music collection on Spotify exists only as long as I pay the subscription and the company still offers the service. Quite a few songs on my Spotify playlists are shaded in light grey with the explanation that they are no longer available. They haven't been censored or anything like that but we have to accept that content can be withdrawn. If Google pulled the plug on this platform, Blogger, all my blog content goes with it. Digital is never forever.Digital content is transient and unreliable. It can be deleted without your consent and I'm sure with the growth of AI, all content can be manipulated and changed to better reflect a dominant ideology. We need to preserve knowledge safely for the future and not be reliant on just one medium.Print still matters.