1. Book-buying for the globally-minded voyeur

    Posted January 17, 2011 in ephemera, visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    In looking for alternatives to Amazon, I’ve come across quite a few websites that are completely new to me. One of them is The Book Depository, a well-stocked online bookstore whose prices seem, so far, to be competitive with Amazon’s.

    The Book Depository has a nice feature called “Book Depository Live“, which allows you to see people buying books in (quasi) real time. Using Google Maps, the feature scrolls across the globe to show you the buyer’s location and the purchased book’s title.

    Someone in South Africa buys a book

    If I could make a suggestion to the people behind this feature, it would be that the links to books should open in new tabs. That way you could click on a book that looks intriguing without being taken away from the map view. As it is, you need to hold Shift (or Cmd if you’re on a Mac) while clicking if you want to stay on the map.

    Despite this minor quibble, though, I like this feature. It reminds me of when Twitter was still new and visualisations of tweets superimposed on top of world maps were doing the rounds. Those projects were hypnotic but ultimately empty, because Twitter content suffers when isolated from conversational context. But in The Book Depository Live you might come across an interesting-looking book that you end up buying, and maybe being affected by in some way. I guess that’s something a book has over a tweet.

  2. More reasons to reconsider your Kindle purchase

    Posted December 18, 2010 in books, politics  |  No Comments so far

    I wrote a few weeks ago about my growing concerns over Amazon, the Kindle and censorship. Amazon – with its Kindle e-reader – is asking us to give it absolute control over what we can and can’t read. Now imagine books you own disappearing from your home without warning, just because another country’s government has deemed their contents politically undesirable. Would you tolerate that? If yes, the Kindle is for you – but if not, you should think twice before embracing it wholeheartedly.

    Yesterday, the Register published an article about further signs of censorship within the Kindle system. This censorship isn’t political – instead, the books affected are erotica novels with themes like incest and so on – but it’s still concerning.

    [Jess Scott, one affected author] went on: “I see other similarly-themed books still available for purchase, and see books with the subjects of rape, bestiality, etc, available for purchase (books that have not been deleted from Amazon’s catalog). If underage sex is illegal, why is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita still available for purchase?”

    The reply from Amazon, according to Jess, boiled down to a simple statement that they would judge each case on its merit, and they would act as their own judge and jury in cases such as these…

    It looks as though the Kindle marketplace is going to become something like an iTunes App Store for books, where unexplained and arbitrary decisions are made centrally about what users are allowed to access. That policy isn’t great when applied to apps, but it’s even less appealing where books are concerned.

    I find these shady shenanigans especially annoying because I really like my Kindle, and I’d like to store books on it just as permanently as I do on my bookshelf. At the moment I’m investigating how to “jailbreak” the Kindle, and when I get round to it I’ll post up a guide here.

  3. Amazon sells Wikileaks cables (but presumably not for much longer)

    Posted December 9, 2010 in ephemera  |  4 Comments so far

    In a bizarre twist, Amazon is currently selling a Kindle book that contains the Wikileaks diplomatic cables. Obviously it’s not going to be up for much longer but it’s still a strange development:

    As you’d expect lots of fun is being had with Amazon’s user-generated tags:

    But the reviewers who are laying into Amazon are missing the point, which is that the book is obviously going to be taken down in the next few hours, if not minutes. There’s no way anyone at Amazon has done this deliberately – a Kindle seller has uploaded this and it’ll be gone soon.

    It’s either naked commercial opportunism or a cheeky prank. Even still, it’s pretty odd.

    Update at 18:11 GMT – well I was wrong, a few hours have passed and the book is still on sale. And Amazon can hardly be oblivious given that even the BBC has picked up on it:

    “In a twist to the story it has emerged that Amazon, which last week refused to host Wikileaks, is selling a Kindle version of the documents Wikileaks has leaked…”

    So what’s going on at Amazon? Are they just being cynical?

    Update at 21:11 GMT – it’s finally been taken down! I wonder what’ll happen to the copies that people bought and downloaded? Will Amazon offer refunds?

    "Bye bye book"

  4. Amazon’s moral failure over Wikileaks – why we were entitled to expect more

    Posted December 4, 2010 in comment, politics  |  No Comments so far

    I’m not sure exactly how much I’ve spent with Amazon in the last year, but it’s a lot. If I buy something online, I’ll probably buy it from Amazon even if it’s slightly cheaper elsewhere. I buy books, MP3s and big-ticket items like computers too. So I guess I have a strong “brand relationship” with Amazon.

    Like many people, I’m re-evaluating this relationship after Amazon dropped Wikileaks in an apparent concession to US government pressure (their official statement didn’t impress me much either) and I may stop buying things from them.

    But here’s a good question – if you plan on boycotting Amazon for not hosting Wikileaks, why not boycott every firm that doesn’t host Wikileaks? This is my answer, and it’s grounded in Amazon’s ambitions (specifically the Kindle) rather than a general sense of corporate morality.

    The Kindle strategy: mediate between reader and book

    When Amazon started out, it just sold books. As it grew it started selling lots of other stuff (encountering more than a few UX problems along the way) but books and their readers remained key to its identity, as was affirmed by the launch of the Kindle in 2007.

    Before the Kindle, Amazon’s relationship with the reader began with browsing for a new book and ended soon after it arrived. The packaging discarded, the book was opened and Amazon was forgotten: the relationship was now directly between the reader and the book.

    With the Kindle, this relationship was to change. Rather than just enabling the book’s purchase, Amazon would remain in the equation while the book was being read. The relationship, instead of being a direct one between reader and book, would – through the Kindle – be mediated by Amazon, who would enjoy a more meaningful connection with the reader.

    It’s a great strategy, and well-executed too: the Kindle is a joy to use. But underlying this strategy – and this is where Wikileaks becomes relevant again – is the increased need for trust between Amazon and the reader.

    Trust, neutrality, and moral failure

    Trust isn’t important when Amazon sells me a book. I need to trust that they won’t rip me off, yes, but that would be illegal – the trust is backed up by law. And once I’ve got the book in my hands, what can Amazon do? They can’t stop me reading it.

    In the world of the Kindle, however, trust changes and becomes absolutely essential. This is because, in this transformed relationship where Amazon is the mediator, Amazon can remove books from your Kindle. It can do so remotely, without warning, at its own discretion, even if you paid for them or got them elsewhere. The reader must therefore trust Amazon not to do this. If she doesn’t, her relationship with the written word is no longer free.

    When Amazon remotely wiped 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindles in 2009  this trust was damaged. That was due to rights & ownership problems – it wasn’t political, it was commercial. But the Wikileaks incident shows that Amazon will remove content for reasons that are ultimately political.

    This doesn’t just damage that trust, it destroys it completely, and with it Amazon’s credibility as an organisation fit to mediate my relationship with the book. What if there was political uproar over a controversial novel, and Amazon was pressurised to remove it from the possession of people who had paid for it? We know now that they’d do it, and the implications are depressing.

    In fact they’re so depressing that I feel glad that the Kindle wasn’t invented a century earlier. How much more effective would Soviet suppression of samizdat have been if the Kindle was in widespread use back then? What would have happened to Lolita, Lady Chatterly’s LoverUlysses, or any of the hundreds of books that were banned and burnt in supposedly less enlightened eras? How much would we have lost?

    The banning of Wikileaks raises questions that are particularly sensitive given Amazon’s lofty aspirations. How can you promise to manage someone’s relationship with the written word – and therefore with culture, politics, literature, and arguably thought itself – when you can’t be trusted to remain neutral and impartial? Amazon has to be held to a particular moral standard, and it is this standard it has failed to meet. We were within our rights to expect more.