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It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Upon reaching into his bag to draw out his small black reading device, Winston Smith was greeted with a most unusual image. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOUR KINDLE”, the caption beneath it ran.

…Or so the keyboard warriors might have us believe of the infamous Kindle incident of 2009.

The irony of Amazon choosing to delete 1984 was not lost on readers.
The irony of Amazon choosing to delete 1984 was not lost on readers.

Down Amazon’s memory hole went Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm – the books were inexplicably and, more disconcertingly, remotely erased from the Kindle devices of readers who had previously purchased them. All that remained: a refund and a growing sense of unease.

The irony, which could only have possibly been topped were it Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, was, of course, not wasted on the victims, who instantly took to the dizzy skies of social media to protest this seemingly blatant attempt at censorship. What else could it be? One poster went so far as to compare the incident to “Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the night, taking some books off our nightstands, and leaving a cheque on the coffee table”.

Thankfully, Amazon was quick to settle the waves of censorphobic pique. The eBooks were merely pirated copies sold by a company with no rights to the material – ‘twas a legal issue, pure and simple.

But, in a society in which the digital has trumped the physical, CDs have snuffed it to downloads, mobile “selfies” trumping “Kodak memories”, and hardback sales dwindling at just 50 per cent of eBooks’, the question simply cannot be avoided: should we replace the ink of the printing press with the pencil of the digital world, all too easily erased, edited and changed?

Sure, the sentimental reasons are all there – that wonderful whiff of a fresh print, the feel of an old favourite in the hand in all its dog-eared, bent-spined beauty, but the digital vs. physical debate takes a darker turn when we consider the Thought Police of the future. Who needs to worry about memory holes or misplaced specks of dust when historical revisionism at its very worst can be practiced at the click of a button? In an instant, one of the greatest works of bitter-hearted anti-authoritarian fiction could become a gushing laudation of totalitarian life – and how could we possibly prove or stop it?

Image: Reg Media
Image: Reg Media

It therefore seems the pragmatic choice to stick with the good ol’ printing press. After all, this is the age in which information wars are fought on the front lines of the World Wide Web – it’s probably best to keep our content safe in the confines of ink and paper.

Even so, this is likely exaggerated (yet nonetheless thought-provoking) dystopian speculation at best. Although Amazon’s vague content guidelines, which define “Offensive Content” as “probably about what you would expect”, have caused eBooks to be withdrawn from the virtual high street, sparking outrage from numerous freedom of expression movements, we must remember that – for the moment, at least – Amazon, as with other eBook providers, is a commercial entity, not a political one.

While it may attempt to act as moral arbiter at times (rightly or wrongly so), it is merely guided by the markets, surfing the curves of our consumer impulses, and offering us books and eBooks accordingly. And, as such, the future lies with us – the customers as kings. That is not to say that we shouldn’t be wary of change, though. Big Brother is always watching, after all…

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