How Far Do You Trust Tech Companies With Arabic Literature?

Jason Merkoski, a man who helped build Amazon’s first Kindle, has a book about (e)books coming out: Burning the Page:
The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading:

imagesIn anticipation of its launch, Merkoski did an interview with the NYTimes about the future of electronic books. He describes ebook-bearing tech companies as extremely secretive, and, when asked about the downside of trusting our literary future to these companies, he said:

Frankly, I don’t trust the executives at any e-book retailer when it comes to censorship. I know many of them. If push came to shove, I think most of these execs would rather pull e-books from the store, effectively censoring them, if that would avoid bad press. These are major retailers, not your quirky corner bookstores. They’re manned by former management consultants in clean shirts and pressed Dockers, not eccentric book-lovers with beards and cats.

I think he’s underestimating the consolidation that has already taken place among print books and giant retailers (where you will often find management consultants vs. beardy cats), but never mind. And forget worrying solely about “bad press”: at least that’s out in the open. There’s the danger of consolidation into “global” markets. But beyond that: What if the Chinese or Saudi government doesn’t like a book? Or a very wealthy businessman? When and to what extent will we be able to criticize the tech companies themselves within “their” e-walls?

Moreover, with software like “CourseSmart,” now being tested at Texas A&M, the admen, professors, religious leaders, governments, or others could know a great deal more about what you read and when you read it.

Merkowski is one of many who declares that, in a very short while, paper books will up and disappear. (From the whole planet? Just from the English-language scene? He doesn’t elaborate, at least not in this interview.) He says:

In 20 years, the space of one generation, print books will be as rare as vinyl LPs. You’ll still be able to find them in artsy hipster stores, but that’s about it.

How this would change our experience of life and literature is still a matter for spec-fic. But censorship surely will tag along and change with the times. In Merkowski’s estimation, “Big Brother won’t be a politician but an ad man and…he’ll have the face of Google.”

These early years of the Internet have meant, for many of us, greater access to literature. Presumably, some of these forms of access will be blocked or reduced as the new nature of “books” firms up. If books are no longer in print, then it will be harder to sneak a few hundred copies out here and there, perhaps much harder for the local-artist or outsider-artist.

But one can only assume that, as we have found ways to fight censorships, surveillances, and overbearing corporations in the past and the present, so we will in the future.


  1. I’m not sure about the issue of trust – I guess partly I’d want to know who’s running the company and what their incentives for tweaking content might be – but I have to say this Arabic e-book company – – has been extraordinarily useful to me, insofar as the founders seem to have gone on a bit of a mission to track down at least one ‘lost’ Palestinian novel – from 1919 – which happens to be extremely pertinent to my current research! So in terms of trustworthiness – again, I don’t know – but I think there’s also scope for e-books to be important in making old or very obscure titles available.

    1. And even to non-scholars, definitely.

      Perhaps there will be smaller e-book companies (just like smaller bookstores) that offer better and more wide-ranging services, and the giants will control the lion’s share of the market and put on it god-knows-what controls (likely whatever’s in service of their growing capital, I suppose).

  2. I think he’s missing something of the advantages of electronic distribution, including the ability to (almost) instantly copy and distribute works that might have been “unavailable.” Indeed, I imagine if something is published, then rescinded it’ll spread even more rapidly via the Streisand effect. He also misses the fact that the same forces that shape what literature does arrive in our hands is true of print books, but the costs of self-publishing a book rejected by the publishers is prohibitive in physical form, whereas it costs nearly nothing in electronic form, so in some ways the gatekeepers have less power now, as is true in music. Combine this with effective anonymation techniques like Tor, and I would say that it’s a bit early to start lamenting the power of centralized authorities to effectively censor electronic books, and certainly to imagine that they will be better at censoring them than print books.

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