Tethered Reading

The recent noise about the iPhone highlights a trend recently discussed by Jonathan Zittrain in his book The Future of the Internet; namely how "generative" IT platforms are giving way to closed "tethered" appliances. The iPhone is such a device, in that it is ultimately policed by Apple and is capable of being controlled by them. Zittrain acknowledges the benefits of tethered appliances in an age when the internet is becoming increasingly dangerous but he raises a few spectres of what might result from a world dominated by tethered appliances, where the openness and flexibility engendered by neutral networks and development platforms, an openness that has lead to an unprecedented flowering of productivity and creativity, gives way to greater manufacturer control.

While the threats are many and various it occurred to me that there is an implication for publishing. Imagine you are reading a book on a tethered device like an iPhone or an Amazon Kindle. Both of these devices are connected to Apple and Amazon and are capable of being remotely updated. Imagine you have bought a book which is stored on the said device. Imagine the book is labeled libelous or in some way defamatory, inflammatory or otherwise in contravention of the law and is ordered to be removed from sale.

If you own the print copy then whilst the book can be stopped from selling anymore, you can still possess your own copy. The object still exists and stands as its own testimony and historical record.

On a tethered device that is not necessarily so; as Larry Lessig has noted "Code is law" and the book could be erased as the system operators, having that capacity, are legally coerced into doing so. This has implications not just in terms of ownership of digital materials but has a wider import in terms of how tethered appliances could shift the nature of discourse and alter our understanding of history.

While this is clearly an extreme and hypothetical situation, it's nonetheless something to think about.