I was a year into college when flipping through the latest CACM in the library I came across Richard Stallman’s dystopian view of the future:
…if he lent her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong—something that only pirates would do.
It sounded like a ridiculous, unbelievable dystopia. It was even written like sci-fi. Of course that would never happen! Nobody would stand for this, ever, right?
But exactly what Stallman described has come to pass, with very little protest.
For example, here are the terms under which you can lend your Kindle books: books where lending is enabled by the seller, “can be loaned once for a period of 14 days.” Most other ebook stores and audio book stores have similarly restrictive policies.
Steven Berlin Johnson calls this the textual glass box. On the iPad book reader:
…what happens when you try to copy a paragraph of text. You get the familiar iPhone-style clipping handles, and you get two options “Highlight” and “Bookmark.” But you can’t actually copy the text, to paste it into your own private commonplace book, or email it to a friend, or blog about it. And of course there’s no way to link to it. What’s worse: the book in question is Penguin’s edition of Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is in the public domain. Those are our words on that screen. We have a right to them…
When your digital news feed doesn’t contain links, when it cannot be linked to, when it can’t be indexed, when you can’t copy a paragraph and paste it into another application: when this happens your news feed is not flawed or backwards looking or frustrating. It is broken.