Scary things

[this is a somewhat long post that’s not really about cats]

In the spirit of Halloween (if somewhat late)… a few weeks ago I listened to an interview with Neil Gaiman where he was asked what’s the thing or event that had scared him the most, ever. His answer had to do with reading one of his stories in public; if I were asked that, until very recently what follows is the story I would tell.

My wife and I have a cat. It is a somewhat large cat. Not fat; large, as in a large breed. We got him from a shelter as a kitten, so as far as we know he’s not a pure breed anything, but he has many of the features of a breed called Norwegian Forest Cat – like long tufts of hair in his ears and extending down between his toes, which are both adaptations to snowy climates (sadly, our cat has never seen snow). And the size, of course; Norwegian Forest Cats are some of the largest domestic cats around. You may be wondering, well, how large can this cat be? And I’ll tell you: when I’m sitting on a chair, if the cat stands up on his hind legs and stretches one of his front legs up, he can almost reach my shoulders.

Which brings me to the story I was going to tell. You see, cats can move around very, very quietly. Let me tell you, when you’re home alone, in a very silent house, concentrating on something on your computer, and all of a sudden someone taps you on the shoulder from behind… yeah, quite scary.

These days, though, what scares me a bit is Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. But this is not entirely Amazon’s fault; it is a bit because of Netflix, a bit because of Taylor Swift, and a lot because of Benjamin Crowell.

You may not have heard of Benjamin Crowell. He is a physics teacher in California, but also a sci-fi writer. One of his short stories, “A Hole in the Ether”, appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine in 2013. That story is set in a not-too-distant future – 60 years ahead or so – where copyright is very, very important. All devices verify and enforce that any content being seen or heard has been properly licensed; any unlicensed content is reported to the authorities, and penalties are kind of harsh. There’s no such thing as “public domain” or “fair use”; there’s no such thing as “buying” content, either: all content is streamed, even books. And you can’t even turn back the pages without paying for a repeat “performance” – can’t let people stream the same content twice, now can you? Of course, you can only stream content that is available for streaming, and since books are seen as “long-form entertainment” with limited replayability (reading a book takes several hours, few people reread books) media companies are not that interested in that market; most books that are not tied in to recent movies or that are not otherwise famous are not often available (the story revolves around an old phone – from the 2020s – that is left as inheritance when someone dies and that contains an archive of thousands of public-domain books, obviously not licensed and therefore illegal to read; the story doesn’t really end well).

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? So, that’s what Kindle Unlimited reminded me of. Not much – just a bit. Kindle Unlimited lets you read books without buying them, in a subscription model that looks very much like what we’ve had for music for a while now – Spotify, Pandora, Google Music, all do this kind of thing. And they all have this inherent flaw that, well, you can only stream what you’re allowed to. What’s there today may not be there tomorrow, as Taylor Swift so aptly reminded all of us last week. But what got me thinking a bit about this even before that was Netflix, where I had “Battlestar Galactica” (the new version) in my queue for a while, and it was suddenly gone as if it had never existed – the contract expired on Oct 1st so the show is gone. Sure, it’s not like I don’t have enough stuff in my queue, but still, what’s next? Do I have to rush and finish all seasons of “The West Wing” quickly? I learned recently that Ken Burns’ documentaries were almost dropped last July as well, and I haven’t even started with “The Civil War” yet; do I need to find a quiet corner and some 12 spare hours as soon as possible? There is a constant “flow” of content that goes away from Netflix at seemingly arbitrary times.

(I later found out that there are sites where you can see what content will expire soon; as of today, I have 5 days to finally watch “Donnie Darko” before it expires, but “The West Wing” seems safe)

Of course, you can still buy music any time. And DVDs, as long they’re not from Disney. And books, on paper and on bits, DRM notwithstanding. But, you see, I can very easily see a path from the world of today to the world of “A Hole in the Ether”, and widespread DRM, widespread streaming and Kindle Unlimited are all steps along that path. I think Kindle Unlimited scares me more than the others because I have more of an emotional attachment to books than to music or film (and, still, I have embraced ebooks entirely very quickly; that may have been foolish).

A counterpoint one could easily make is that we have always had public libraries, and Kindle Unlimited looks quite a bit like a paid library for ebooks (and most public libraries loan out ebooks these days, even). But the thing is, public libraries buy books, and once they have them no publisher is going to pull a book from circulation; and, really, public libraries are not in it for the money, they don’t care that some of their books are not all that popular (that said, I think ebook loans from public libraries probably suffer from the same contractual problems that Kindle Unlimited does). I also happen to think that if public libraries did not exist yet, establishing them nowadays would be nearly impossible, but that’s another story.

Just to make it clear: I don’t think Kindle Unlimited is a bad thing or evil, and I love music subscription services. I think widespread DRM is much worse, and definitely evil; I think content that you buy but that can be taken away from you afterwards is an even worse evil and another step in that bad path; I think abuses of the copyright system are evil; I think geographical restrictions on content are evil. And I would love to live in a world in which all kinds of content were available at all times – a world in which Netflix (or whoever, I’m not picky) were allowed to stream anything ever made would be fantastic. But I’m scared of a world in which the only way to access content is to get it on demand from a limited repertoire and in which “owning” books, music or films is not something one can do – and I see us as a society taking more and more steps in that direction.

And that is scary.

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