Error Correction or Information Control?

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Great piece by Anthony Gottlieb over at The Economist on one potentially big upside for e-readers over books–the ability to correct errors in real time, without the expense of pushing out a new set of copies. From a purely fiscal perspective, that’s a huge deal. Did an error slip past the editors? Not a problem–just update the file and push it onto your subscribers’ e-reader.

Side note: I can already sense the move toward making the word Kindle synonymous with e-reader, the way Xerox defines photocopying. I plan to resist as long as I can.

Gottlieb makes a compelling case. Much of the time, corrections are overlooked or ignored, and the original, faulty information continues its life in the public consciousness. And when we’re talking about books, which have a greater, ahem, shelf life than journals or newspapers, very often the owners never receive the corrections, since they’re made in subsequent editions. If we’re talking about errors of fact as opposed to syntax or style, that can be a problem, especially in school textbooks and the like.

This part at the end, though, got me thinking.

Earlier this year Amazon caused an outcry by deleting electronic copies of some books from its customers’ Kindle reading devices when it emerged that the editions were illegal bootlegs. But would anyone object if electronic copies were replaced, by remote control, with corrected versions? Such updat­ing would be far less expensive than printing and distributing a new physical edition, though no publisher has yet announced plans to do any such thing. Craig Silverman points out that publishers might find it attractive to stay in touch with electronic-book purchasers by letting them sign up for e-mails with news of corrections. Buyers of books about Nietzsche might be interested to hear that his famous remark is taken out of context from notebooks that were not intended for publication, and that he certainly believed in the importance of facts.

Who would object? At first glance, no one. But then I remembered a scene from one of the books that Amazon pulled from the Kindle.

As soon as Winston had dealt with each of the messages, he clipped his speakwritten corrections to the appropriate copy of the Times and pushed them into the pneumatic tube. Then, with a movement which was as nearly as possible unconscious, he crumpled up the original message and any noted that he himself had made, and dropped them into the memory hole to be devoured by the flames.

I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not suggesting that Amazon or Google or any of the other many companies getting into the e-reader business are going to start changing history the way Minitrue does in 1984, but it is fair to say that the situation Gottlieb and Silverman posits isn’t quite as tidy as it seems at first glance. We are facing a digital future; analog formats will survive as fetish objects, collectibles, curiosities. News organizations already scrub mistakes from their websites, sometimes without even acknowledging the changes–you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine a news organization changing the details of an older story in order to push a new one in the direction it thinks will sell.

I don’t have an answer for any of these concerns. Competition between information providers might serve to keep them honest, but it could just as easily become a war for who gets to define the narrative, much like the US has going on right now between the major cable news networks. Depending on physical copies is like fighting globalization–the war is already lost. The organizations best funded and equipped to keep multiple electronic archival copies of documents are the ones most likely to be providing the information in the first place. Where do we go?

Damned if I know, but I suddenly have the urge to close my laptop and curl up on the sofa with a book.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →