At the Technology Liberation Front, Adam Thierer has been reviewing, in installments, Tim Wu’s new book The Master Switch, and has received interesting pushback from Wu. One point of debate has been about the definition of “monopoly”: Wu wants an expansive one, according to which a company can have plenty of competition, and consumers multiple alternatives, and yet that company can still be said to have a monopoly. (Thierer responds here.)
I think Wu’s definition is problematic and not, ultimately, sustainable, but I see and sympathize with his major point. I can have alternatives to a particular service/product/company, and yet find it almost impossible to escape it because of what I’ve already invested in it. When I read stories like this, or talk to friends who work for small presses, I tell myself that I should never deal with Amazon again — and yet I do, in part because buying stuff from Amazon is so frictionless, but also because I have a significant number of Kindle books now, and all those annotations that I can access on the website. . . . I don’t want to lose all that. I can feel my principles slipping away, just as they did when I tried to escape the clutches of Google.
Amazon is not, technically speaking, a monopoly, and neither is Google. But they have monopoly-like power over me — at least for now. And I need to figure out just how problematic that is, and whether I should opt out of their services, and (if so) how to opt out of them, and what to replace them with. . . . Man, modern life is complicated. These are going to be some of the major moral issues of the coming decades: ones revolving around how to deal with services that have a monopolistic role in a given person’s life. Philip K. Dick saw it all coming. . . .
Whatever I do as a writer, it seems that as a reader I am going to be forced to choose between Google and Amazon. I think here of Hamlet’s words:
'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.
Guys, whatever you do, just don't be evil, okay?
Concerning the whole deleted-books-from-your-Kindle imbroglio, Sam Jordison writes in the Guardian:
This early Kindle book-burning episode also provides a reminder of how closely ebook devices monitor their users' reading. And that provokes quite a few questions. What's to stop advertisers paying to find out about your preferences, for instance? What's to stop churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area? What's to stop governments finding out about your revolutionary reading preferences?
Now, Jordison later grants that these “sinister manipulations . . . are improbable” — though “not entirely impossible” — and as a great believer in the right to hyperbole I won't give him a hard time about that. I won't even say anything about the palpably ludicrous notion that this is a form of “book-burning.” But: “churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area”? Seriously? You think your local churches are scheming to find out what people in the neighborhood are reading? (What are you supposing they wold do if they found out — have you stretched on the rack, perhaps? Or pressed to death with stones?) And you envision churches asking for Amazon’s help in this endeavor? And Amazon perhaps agreeing to cooperate? — Okay, okay, okay: hyperbole it is. But even if you’re going to speculate about the most outrageous improbabilities imaginable, what you come up with is “churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area”? Really??