The E-Book and the Surveillance Society

ebook society final

When I embarked on a reading of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, in the spring of 2013, a commercial e-book version was not yet available. I located a bootleg PDF copy online somewhere. It was an interesting artifact, not well formatted but possibly useful for copying passages to paste into another document. I could have read the entire PDF on my iPad, making annotations with an app I often use to mark up PDFs. I also checked out W. Terrence Gordon’s fat-tome critical edition (Gingko Press, 2003) from my university library. In the end, however, I opted for a humble little used-bookstore paperback edition. I enjoyed carrying around the tattered but serviceable paperback and I was delighted to encounter McLuhan’s description of paperbacks as “the book in ‘cool’ version” in his chapter on television.

Then a curious announcement came my way. The self-identified official Marshall McLuhan Twitter feed announced that Understanding Media was “at long last” available as an e-book.  I followed the link to the Kindle version and began poking around in it via Amazon’s “Look Inside the Book” feature. Two things jumped out at me. First, this e-book version appeared to be based on the very same “critical edition” fat-hot tome I had checked out from the library but had eschewed in favor of my sleek little tattered paperback. That first impression turned out to be wrong. It was due to a misleading practice of Amazon to connect a description for one edition (in this case the hardcover critical edition) with the record for a different edition (here, the new Kindle e-book edition). All the same, a series of questions arose. How might the intellectual/sensory experience of a robust critical edition or other formidable volume be altered by reading it on the modest pocket-sized Kindle e-reader? How might the experience be different if read on a computer or on a cell-phone? What of the “e-ink” of the Kindle proper versus reading on the backlit screen of a tablet like the iPad or Kindle Fire? What about the effect of jumping from device to device throughout the course of reading, alternating between dedicated e-reader to smartphone to tablet to computer?

The second thing that hit me as I was “looking inside” the new Kindle edition of Understanding Media was that there was a typo in the title of the very first chapter of the book. In both my paperback copy and the library’s critical edition, the title of this chapter appears as, “The Medium is the Message” with an e. In the brand spanking new Kindle e-book version, that same chapter title appeared as “The Medium is the Massage” with an a. This was extraordinary because it repeated the historic typesetter’s error that resulted in the title of McLuhan’s subsequent 1967 book being formulated as The Medium is the Massage (rather than The Medium is the Message as originally intended). In 1967, the typesetter’s error struck McLuhan’s fancy and he retained the title. Now the same error appeared but in the wrong book, either as a lark or as an accidental repetition.

The plot thickens, however. Using my library’s Twitter account, I posted a reply to the original Marshall McLuhan post that sent me to Amazon. I asked if the “Massage” in the e-book chapter title was a joke or an accidental repetition of the famous error that McLuhan liked and retained as the title for the other book. The McLuhan people made no response on Twitter. However, a month later, when I went back to “look inside” the Kindle edition of Understanding Media again, the chapter title had been corrected, the errant a replaced with an e to read, correctly this time, “The Medium is the Message.”

So we are left with a minor mystery about what I stumbled into there, or in fact whether I hallucinated the whole thing like a case from an Oliver Sacks book. Did I overdose on my late-night reading of McLuhan and suffer a distortion of my sense ratios? Was someone at Gingko Press or Amazon goofing with us? Did my Twitter message prompt someone to correct the goof, whether it was intentional or not? What my experience underscores, in any case, is a point that has McLuhanesque reverberations—namely that e-books are not at all the fixed objects that print books are. They are malleable, slippery, and changeable at a moment’s notice. When there are errors like the chapter title misspelling I discovered, they can be fixed and an updated version of the book in question can instantaneously replace the incorrect one. Amazon has a mechanism for feedback of this sort—a link at the bottom of the page of every e-book they sell, where the reader can report formatting glitches and typos. As Jamie Lendino has pointed out, errors abound in the e-book world because “in the race to make everything digital, it appears a lot of corners were cut.” Especially with older titles, where conversions from print have been done using optical character recognition (OCR), careful proofreading, as would have been performed in bygone years of traditional print publishing, does not seem to be happening consistently.

In a more disturbingly Orwellian way, Amazon also has the power to reach into someone’s Kindle and remove entire books from a user’s private library. In 2009, this occurred, ironically, with copies of Animal Farm and 1984. Amazon discovered the editions of the books in question “had been digitally uploaded to its Kindle e-book store by a company that didn’t own the rights.” Justin Gawronski, a teenager from Michigan who was reading 1984 for a school project, lost, without warning, not only his copy of the book but along with it all the notes and highlights he’d made using his Kindle. He sued Amazon. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he said.  CEO Jeff Bezos agreed, calling his company’s actions “stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.” Amazon settled with Gawronski for $150,000, the remains of which, after legal fees, the teenager laudably donated to charity, keeping a $30 Amazon gift card for himself. (Pause here for self-examination!)

The more recent case of Linn Nygaard also raises questions for a media ecology analysis of text and e-text. Nygaard is a Norwegian IT consultant whose Kindle account and considerable library of e-books was suddenly deleted due to an unspecified policy violation. After the story was reported by a blogger friend of Nygaard’s, and subsequently “went viral” across the web, her Kindle account was just as suddenly and with as little explanation reinstated. When the topic came up on a forum hosted by Amazon itself, an official Amazon moderator of the forum, responded: “We would like to clarify our policy on this topic. Account status should not affect any customer’s ability to access their library.” Despite the reversals in both Nygaard’s and Gawronkowski’s cases, Amazon’s policy—and variations of it are pervasive across the e-book landscape—marks a dramatic shift away from the traditional understanding of book ownership. In line with current trends in digital rights management (DRM), Amazon’s policy states: “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold.” The terms of use further stipulate that if you violate them, “Amazon may immediately revoke your access to the Kindle Store and the Kindle Content without refund of any fees.” The point is this: the strings of the medium are being pulled by someone other than the reader. What would McLuhan say about that? I think he might say, among other things, that it all adds up to high heat when compared with the cooled down paperback experience.

Through the lens of recent trends in social media, another view of this question emerges. Reading an e-book within the networked environment is automatically a more social experience. In McLuhan’s terms, readers of e-books operate within the interdependent global village created by instantaneous electronic communication. As McLuhan put it in The Gutenberg Galaxy“We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums.” Elsewhere he said of the global village: “You have extreme concern with everybody else’s business and much involvement in everybody else’s life. It’s a sort of Ann Landers column writ large… huge involvement in everybody else’s affairs.” Never mind Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and online forums on every topic imaginable—e-books and e-readers now enter the scene, with the promise of transforming the once solitary act of reading into a global village experience, constant interruptions and nosey neighbors peering over the reader’s shoulder. Among those nosey neighbors are the e-book purveyors themselves, who are only providing the courtesy of letting you borrow their product and are going to keep a close eye on you while you do so. In a 2012 article in the Wall Street JournalAlexandra Alter put it this way: “The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books.” Alter provides the following sample of what one of the major e-book mongers has learned:

Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.

That factoid on long nonfiction books is not heartening for me as I type away at what I hope might turn into one here, but it rings true with my experience. By contrast, if we could compare data for the writing of long books, I suspect it would be revealed that it is the would-be novelists who give up sooner, abandoning their fleeting romantic dreams when faced with the terror of the blank page, and that writers of nonfiction tend to be more stalwart in traversing these broad fearful expanses to reach the finish line. This whole dimension of e-book surveillance, at any rate, represents a darker side of McLuhan’s global village.

As I write this, the curious case of Edward Snowden is unfolding. Snowden, who has been lodging at the Moscow airport for several weeks at the time of this writing, was a government contract geek who spilled the beans on National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance practices of questionable legality and constitutionality. (Do we have a right to privacy?) Snowden’s stated aim in releasing the information he did was that he wanted to spark a debate in the U.S. and elsewhere on the question of how we as a society will balance our need for security with our desire for and right to privacy and freedom. How are we to strike a reasonable balance? In the case of e-books, the same sorts of questions emerge. How can the reader strike a reasonable balance? On one side we have the manifold intrusions and codependent monitoring made possible by the globally networked environment. We have sharing and gossip and the gift of gab. We have, as Pat Muir puts it in an article about Facebook, “everybody all up in [everybody else’s] business.” On the other side, we have the traditional solitary, immersive, contemplative reading experience.

What do we make then of the sweeping surveillance of our reading habits by Big Brother Bezos & Co.? Just as the NSA claims to be only gathering “metadata”—nothing personal, no need to worry!—so also with the data (meta) that your e-book reports back to the marketers. Metadata only reveals trends and anomalies. No one’s privacy is directly invaded … until it is. And yet, whether we are living under surveillance in a quasi cream puff police state or reading under surveillance by Barnes & Noble marketing department statisticians in some corporate cubicle farm, we must ask ourselves: What is the psychic toll? What is the social toll? How does surveillance impact us in the depths of our being? Does it shackle us in some way? And if so should we shake off these shackles or merely rattle them with terror and glee to the beat of the tribal drums McLuhan spoke of?

Then there are the more innocuous forms of social sharing with all our other siblings (never mind Big Brother) in the global village scrambling to look over each other’s shoulders. From my e-reader, I can, on the fly and with only a momentary interruption, share a passage of the book I’m reading with all my Facebook friends, for example. Or I can highlight that passage and type in an annotation that will not only be preserved for me in “the cloud” so as to sync across all my devices, but can also be shared, if I choose, with other readers of the same e-book. If I choose to turn on that feature on my Kindle, I can also see how many other readers highlighted the same passage. The question is, do I want to turn that feature on? As a reader, do I want to turn on or do I want to tune out?

The extreme solution is to cling to my “cool” sporty little paperback or “hot” venerable hardback with its gaudily glued or stoutly sewn binding and retreat from the global village—pour myself a glass of wine, put some vinyl Sinatra on the phonograph, remove the medium of clothing from the stark nakedness of my increasingly hirsute middle-aged body, draw a bath in the tub (where no e-reader ought to dare to go), pull the shade, lock the door, and strive as best I can to tune out the sounds of the electronic hounds at bay. Another extreme solution is to fight fire with fire, use the technology itself to defend against the abuses of technology. As suggested in a 2012 article by Cyrus Farivar that appeared in the wake of the Nygaard/Amazon saga, a reader who buys e-books from Amazon can “engage in a bit of digital civil disobedience—by stripping the files’ DRM and making sure that Amazon can’t deny you access.” The article goes on to provide step by step instructions for converting a Kindle e-book into a form that Amazon won’t be able to lay a finger on. Of course, the procedure may violate “not only Amazon’s Terms of Service, but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as well” and it’s possible that the civilly disobedient reader could find her or himself in a mess (age) of trouble comparable on a smaller scale to that of Edward Snowden, stripped of his passport (but not, presumably, his Amazon account!) and cooling his heels in the Moscow airport with its subpar Wi-Fi system. “In short,” as Farivar says, “follow these instructions at your own risk.”

A more moderate approach to the issue would be to find a balance between the extremes, which is what I believe McLuhan’s writings ultimately point to. In the case of e-books, we are still feeling our way into how that balance may be struck.  A 2013 article by Anne Trubek seems to me to be on the right track. In contrast to Nicholas Carr, who in his 2011 book, The Shallows, dismisses as “wishful thinking” the hope that e-readers might cure us of our networked attention deficit woes, Trubek claims that the immersive experience of reading e-text on an e-reader exceeds that of the traditional bound book:

The Kindle offers the purest form of immersive reading I have ever experienced. There is something narcotic about it. As scholar Alan Jacobs writes, “Once you start reading a book on the Kindle—and this is equally true of the other e-readers I’ve tried—the technology generates an inertia that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else.” The compulsion to keep reading stems partially from the lack of distractions: E-books, thin, gray, and under-designed, shear off the blurbs and author bios and test-marketed book-jacket covers.

Trubek goes on to address the question of privacy versus the social interaction made possible by e-book technology.  What she craves, she says is not “privacy” per se, but something more like apartness, or as she coins the term, “unlinked reading.” “Unlinked reading is the kind that requires of me deeper attention and allows me to ruminate. It is engrossing—a ‘curling up with’ a book that has to do not with paper and ink but with experience.” Trubek sees value in both unlinked and linked modes of reading and she also sees in the latter a recovery of a pre-Gutenberg tradition of social reading. Consider, for example, the ancient monastic practice of the entire community listening to a book being read out loud during the noon meal. With e-book technology—not to mention book clubs and city- or institution-wide “one book” programs—we have the opportunity to recover something of that communal approach to text. The question is, can we also recover the deeper spirit of contemplation and reflection exemplified by the same ancient tradition?

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About the Contributor

Jonathan Potter

Jonathan Potter
Jonathan Potter lives with his wife, two children, dog, and guinea pig in Spokane, Washington, where he works as a librarian at Eastern Washington University. Potter is the author of House of Words, a collection of poetry published in 2010 by Korrektiv Press, where he also serves as editor and blog contributor. A poem from the collection was featured on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac in 2011. "The E-Book and the Surveillance Society" is excerpted and adapted from a book length study currently in progress with the working title Text and E-Text: The Changing Media Environment for Readers, Writers, Publishers, and Librarians


  1. Have you read the Mcluhan interview from the March 1969 issue of Playboy? It’s the only place that I have seen where Mcluhan is forced (by the interviewer) to be explicit and linear in the presentation of his theories. It is a very clarifying read. Of particular interest is his view of the future society of post-literate, de-tribal used man. Such a man is not concerned with the big-brotherism you are concerned with. Your desire for such privacy would be characterized as a bias of literary consciousness… A bias that would fall away in the electronic consciousness. Not that this comforts me… Neither in the loss of privacy…nor the historical determinism… nor in the utopian idealism of electronic control mechanisms being used by unseen, benevolent overlords. However, Mcluhan is still a super genius in my… book???!!!

    • In the previous reply (written by me), notice how the word de-tribalised was autocorrected by my iPad to “de-tribal used”. As a literary, individualistic person… I find this not simply an inconvenient glitch, but rather, indicative of the nature of digital media. The usurping or shaping of intent is inherent in software design. Just a thought.

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