A burning Fire shut up in my bones

Apparently the new Kindle Fire ads quote the lines from Voltaire that gave the original Kindle its name:

The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others and it becomes the property of all.

Finding Amazon citing this makes me so angry I could start throwing things around the room. How dare they appropriate a quotation about the benefits to humanity of the free interchange and sharing of books and information, and apply it to a device whose DRM and licensing restrictions mean that Voltaire would now have to say:

The instruction we find in books is a commodity. Our neighbours recommend we buy it, we download it at home, recommend it to others for them to buy too, and it remains at all times the exclusive property of the Content Provider who grants us a non-exclusive right to view such Digital Content solely for our personal, non-commercial use.

The same point was also forcefully made in Monday’s XKCD (especially the mouseover text):

Add to that the destruction that the Kindle, especially in its new expanded range, will cause to book shops, especially independent book shops. Not to mention the loss of the intergenerational transfers of knowledge and enjoyment, often purely serendipitous, that can come just from children reading the books on their parents’ shelves.

The Kindle is clearly a lovely bit of kit. Part of me would, no doubt, get great enjoyment from owning and using one. But in terms of its social consequences (and Ellul’s 76 questions to ask a new technology are worth reading here), a better quotation than Voltaire would have been this:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. […] All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.


7 thoughts on “A burning Fire shut up in my bones”

  1. Hi John. I think you may be overlooking one key benefit of the Kindle. It gives you free access to any available title that is out of copyright, and that’s lots. This seems to me to be in the spirit of Voltaire’s statement. You can have a vast library of classics that nearly fits into your back pocket. You can also “borrow” e-books using the Kindle, although that seems a bit odd to me.

    1. Matt: I don’t doubt that that is a benefit of the Kindle, but I don’t see how it negates the points I was making in my post. Most people want to read in-copyright as well as out-of-copyright books, which means they will be buying digitally-padlocked content subject to restrictive licensing terms. Downloading public domain material off Project Gutenberg isn’t going to save local bookshops or encourage sharing of present-day material between friends, family and neighbours.

    1. Physical books have been a pretty good way of accomplishing that, though, haven’t they?

      My chief objection to the Kindle is the DRM and restrictive licensing terms that make sharing books difficult and/or illegal. I think the social consequences of that are profound. To sweep them aside saying “Well, yeah, and blacksmiths were pretty quaint too” doesn’t exactly address those concerns.

    2. Oh, and I should add that I suspect the market will deal with the DRM issue in the end, as happened with DRMed music. I’m just saying that, until it happens, I’m out – as I was with digital music downloads until DRM-free became widely available.

  2. When discussing eBooks with others I always refer to it as renting instead of buying. Which of course gets me quizzical looks then I’ll try to explain, unfortunately most of the time they proceed to merrily go on ‘buying’ their very nice and shiny books.

    I know that licensing would be a closer to correct description but renting gets their attention.

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