Curious thing about most dystopian novels in which books are burned or banned, novelists usually have a plan in mind when worldbuilding a place with a history that includes deliberate efforts by The Powers That Be to destroy knowledge, promote propaganda, or curtail rights. Some shift in the future required that books be burnt because of the information they contain, or the revolution they foment.
Most countries bent on repressing free speech usually ban certain books because of what those books teach, be it equality of religion, democratic thought, or criticism of governmental actions. It’s usually done after government officials make a conscious decision to erase the offending text, and the subsequent reader commentary. Most countries decide to ban certain books for a particular reason.
Fortunately, our current governmental leaders seem to be lacking in the kind of long term planning and forethought that this kind of repression would demand. Trump blurts out that he wants to buy Greenland then complains when the Danes object? Then cancels a planned diplomatic visit like a toddler denied a toy? No plan past the next tweet.
In contrast, writers, whose plots must be plausible and airtight, must plan when constructing the plot arc of a novel that holds together. If they add in too many random elements, their novels would be rejected by any good editor. I’m talking about random elements such as those that our President throws at the outside world daily while, unfairly, getting paid a lot more than most writers.
You would think that the geniuses at Microsoft would at least plan better than the President, if not better than a good novelist, but do they? In July they deleted their e-library offerings after two years. As Josh Axelrod of NPR explained:
If Microsoft’s purpose was to see how the populace reacts to the deletion of knowledge and denial of ownership of digital media, then they are probably feeling rewarded because this story is, for the most part, flying under the radar. I don’t see a mountain of angry Tweets or blog posts objecting. Microsoft and the Real Powers Behind the Curtain will be encouraged by the resignation of users. The world seems hardly upset by this, as if it is to be expected.
Wait, you say, I bought that novel! I want to be able to reread it whenever I want. Not so fast. Turns out you didn’t purchase a novel, just the rights to view it for a while. The copyright holder owns the rights. As Axelrod explains,
Something much like this happened to me in the early days of digital music. The songs I’d purchased on MusicMatch disappeared after the company was purchased by Yahoo in 2004. Yahoo swiftly ruined it and closed it in 2008. In the days before it ended, I had to play my music through a device that allowed me to rip copies of my own purchases onto CDs, or lose them. Back then, music players usually had integrated CD or MP3 recorder/players.
No question the stacks of books in my basement are not going to be erased by Yahoo, Amazon or Microsoft, or even by ransomware hackers. A repressive government’s only option would be sending in firemen á la Fahrenheit 451 to burn up my library. That’s not very subtle. But do I really have to kill trees to ensure I’ll be able to read my books forever? And loan them to my son for his English Lit classes? I like being on vacation somewhere remote like Laos and logging into my library account to borrow a book in English because I finished one and didn’t want the weight of a half dozen paperbacks in my carry on-sized backpack.
Library apps come and go, too. Books I borrowed a couple of years ago on primitive library applications have vanished when the company failed, or was bought, or superceded. Those highlights are gone, too, but at least my library keeps records for me of what I’ve borrowed. They even let me review and rate books I’ve read so I can remember in my dotage a) if I read it at all, b) what it was about, and c) if I liked it much. Microsoft?
I like reading books electronically because I depend upon electronic keyword searches when I’m writing book reviews and need to locate quotations. I’m dependent upon the electronic highlights and margin notes I make, and I’m sure others of you are, too.
So what if that book you bought (temporary) rights to is important to ongoing research and you want to refer back to it often? What if you’ve made extensive margin notes and highlights? Well, Microsoft acknowledges that notes in books are worth a bit more than the basic refund, according to Microsoft, they’re worth exactly $25:
Is this actually the first quiet, tentative opening maneuver of a Larger Plan for World Repression of Knowledge? I think not. I think the move by Microsoft is the opposite – it’s a failure to plan for anything but their shareholders’ interests, which has left their subscribers in the lurch. Didn’t 200 of the world’s most important corporations agree that they need to consider more than just their shareholders’ interests? In fact, their very first pledge was:
Oh, but Microsoft deleted the books in JULY. This pledge was made in AUGUST.
Do corporations decide to eliminate books or songs for a reason? It’s not certain books, it’s all the books and all the notes their subscribers have taken within those books. They are far more careless than even most heavy-handed government officials in real life or dystopias.
What’s the difference between Microsoft and the government of Fahrenheit 451? Intentionality. It’s hard to admit that a company I’ve owned stock in for more than 20 years (profitably) is guilty of such poor planning. Their book service lasted less than three years. Who approved the idea? As a shareholder and customer, I want them fired. Even Montag, a drone much like software engineers at Microsoft, feels bad about his job burning books:
Control by corporations of our devices extends far beyond copies of books and is not always only about profit or a lack of users. Far more insidious than Amazon reaching into our Kindles and deleting our copies of 1984 are determined corporate efforts to control other devices you think you own, like your car or tractor. Farmers expect to be able to modify their own tractors to meet their needs but the complex lockout software running them now prevents that, and forces them to have their tractors fixed only by authorized dealers: read, expensively. They are turning to hackers to get around this and control their own equipment.
Citizens won’t rise up politically over books being randomly deleted; at most they’ll just rant like me, and accept change. Of course this isn’t a test case to see how we react in advance of a larger elimination of books and knowledge. The scary thing is we are such sheep that really the only rant against this that I find when I Google (admittedly a suspect platform) is NPR which brought the problem to my attention in the first place. Where is the outrage? Not within the Google Top 10 results, nor even Top 30 results. The whole thing is just a mirror of the cynicism, lack of intentionality, and citizen resignation endemic to our political era.