Kindle: The Labor of Reading in an Age of Ubiquitous Bookselling

Published by Ted Striphas on Sun, 07/11/2010 - 11:10

Today I’ll be talking about online retailer’s portable electronic reading device, Kindle, which went on sale beginning November 19, 2007 and immediately caused a stir. Kindle’s purpose, explained Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in a Newsweek cover story, would be to bring books—what he called “the last bastion of analog”—into the digital realm.[fn]Quoted in Steven Levy, “The Future of Reading,” Newsweek (November 26, 2007), 57.[/fn]  Later that week on The Charlie Rose Show, which devoted a full, hour-long program to Kindle, Bezos retrenched somewhat. There, he indicated that his company’s new e-reader wasn’t intended to “outbook the [printed] book." “Instead of trying to duplicate every last feature,” Bezos clarified, “we have to look for things that we can do with this technology that we could never do with a paper book.”[fn]“Jeff Bezos Interview,” The Charlie Rose Show (November 19, 2007), n.p., Lexis-Nexis [transcript].[/fn]

Here, Bezos put his finger on what you might call the "paradox of the ebook.”[fn]This phrase is meant as an homage to James Carey, “The Paradox of the Book,” Library Trends 33(2) (Fall 1984), 103-113.[/fn] By this I mean that Kindle and other e-reading devices are at once less and more capable of duplicating the form and function—call it the experience—of printed books. I’ll demonstrate in a moment how a great deal of public conversation about Kindle, and about the moral and intellectual worth of ebooks in general, operates within the narrow discursive confines of this paradox. For now, though, I want to argue that a fixation on Kindle’s paradoxically imitative qualities deflects attention from the ways in which Amazon aspires to transform the reading of digital texts into an economically lucrative, value-generating activity.

The Paradox of the Ebook
Kindle presents itself as clearly and undeniably book-like—by which I mean, printed book-like. Its box resembles a codex volume whose form suggests that it might be stored on a bookshelf alongside a dictionary, encyclopedia, or other substantial reference matter. Its carrying case could easily pass for a fine, leather-bound journal, or perhaps a daybook, not unlike those you might find in a book or stationery store. These are what the literary theorist Gerard Genette would call the “paratextual”—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “paratechnological”—elements whose purpose is to frame the perception and use of a given text or, in the case of Kindle, a given textual platform. They are, in Genette’s words, “thresholds of interpretation” through which one must pass en route to using Kindle (figure 1).[fn]Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. J. E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).[/fn]

Figure 1: Kindle and its paratexts. Photograph by Ted Striphas

Beyond these accompaniments, Kindle has been widely praised for mimicking the “immersive” experience said to characterize printed book reading, thanks to its use of high-tech electronic ink developed at MIT’s famed media lab. “The key feature of a [printed] book is that it disappears,” Bezos has claimed, and it is precisely this level of transparency that his Kindle is supposed to achieve.[fn]Qtd. in Levy, “The Future of Reading,” 60.[/fn]

You probably can see where all this is headed—straight into the paradox of the ebook. This is especially so when you factor in all of Kindle’s ostensible improvements over printed books, which are often and widely touted. These include a built-in dictionary, the ability to change font sizes at the push of a button, wireless connectivity and content delivery, and more. I won’t adjudicate or try to reconcile this paradox. If anything, I believe that paradoxes result from poorly posed problems. And because I sort through this issue at length elsewhere, in the interest of time I won’t delve into too much detail here. I will note, however, that since at least the time of Plato, virtually every communication technology has been accused of diminishing the presence and authority of the Word, from the human voice to the human hand on down to the typewriter, the word processor, and beyond.[fn]Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 2009), 23-26; Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), 215-286.[/fn]  So either we resign ourselves to living in a world in which technology leads to incrementally diminished capacities and to a spiraling loss of authenticity, or else we try to reframe the problem so that we might ask different questions about communication technologies—beyond, say, Kindle’s ability (or not) to “outbook the book.”

Audience Labor
Dallas W. Smythe’s path-breaking essay, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” published in 1977, is particularly helpful in this regard. There, Smythe set out to answer the seemingly straight-forward question, What do television and other advertising-supported media make? Or, as Smythe more eloquently put it, “What is the commodity form of mass-produced, advertising-supported communications?”[fn]Dallas W. Smythe, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 1(3) (Fall 1977), 2.[/fn] The most immediately apparent answer is programming content, of course, or the “stuff” we see on TV. Yet, Smythe rejected that commonsense view in no uncertain terms: “The bourgeois idealist view of the reality of the communication commodity is ‘messages,’ ‘information,’ ‘images,’ ‘meaning,’ ‘entertainment,’ ‘orientation,’ ‘education,’ and ‘manipulation.’ All of these concepts are subjective mental entities and all deal with superficial appearances.”[fn]Ibid; emphasis in original.[/fn]

Thus media content and its more manifest ideological dimensions were, to use the Marxist terminology, merely the “form of appearance” of something even more fundamental—the labor audiences perhaps unwittingly engaged in each time we turned on our TV sets. Consequently, Smythe referred in his work not to "audiences" but instead either to the “audience product” or the “audience commodity.” He did so in an effort to underscore how television networks packaged and sold viewers to advertisers, with the promise that some, and hopefully many, would go on to consume the products the latter were charged with promoting.[fn]Ibid., 5.[/fn]  For Smythe, then, TV watching was an instrument for commodifying (or in today’s industry parlance, “monetizing”) human labor power, albeit one that put a significant twist on an old Marxian theme. Rather than selling one’s labor power on the open market for oneself and being remunerated accordingly, TV executives and producers essentially alienated viewers’ labor power from them and reaped all of the financial rewards.

Now this is, admittedly, fairly old news as far as television and perhaps journalism studies are concerned. That said, it’s an issue to which book historians have largely, and perhaps understandably, been oblivious. Consequently, in what remains of this paper I want to stage the “problem” of Kindle by following a blueprint similar to the one drawn up by Smythe.

The Labor of Reading
Kindle has been generically described as a “mobile technology.” It certainly is a capacious device, able to store the equivalent of about 200 printed books in the factory-installed memory alone. Beyond offering users the allure of a carrying a well-stocked but still light weight library wherever they go, Kindle can be considered a mobile technology for another reason as well. Onboard mobile phone technology makes Kindle probably the first stand alone e-reading device to provide for instantaneous, two-way communications between bookseller (in this case and consumer. It’s not merely a mobile technology, in other words, as much as it is a digital version of the book mobile in which you pay for, rather than borrow, whatever you may care to acquire. It’s little wonder, then, that Bezos describes Kindle not as a device but as a “service” and as “an extension of the Amazon store.”[fn]Qtd. in Levy, “The Future of Reading,” 58.[/fn] Kindle promises to usher in nothing less than an era of convenient, ubiquitous bookselling.

Much has been made about Kindle’s downstream capabilities—the fact that you can acquire the complete contents of any Kindle-formatted book in under a minute, provided you’re within range of a cell tower. But what about the data it transmits upstream, back to The Kindle license agreement and terms of use are instructive in this regard. In the subsection entitled “Information Received,” the agreement states: “The Device Software will provide Amazon with data about your Device and its interaction with the Service (such as available memory, up-time, log files and signal strength) and information related to content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device).” Here’s the especially intriguing part: “Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make on your Device are backed up through the service and subject to the privacy notice.”[fn]“Amazon Kindle: License Agreement and Terms of Use,” [Accessed October 3, 2008.][/fn] And there, it’s worth mentioning, all of the data you generate while reading on your Kindle falls within the purview of “the information we [] collect and analyze” for marketing and related purposes.[fn]“ Privacy Notice,” [Accessed October 3, 2008.][/fn]

I’ll return to this point shortly, but first let me say a few words about the recent changes Amazon has made to its corporate identity and core mission. At the risk of over-generalizing, it probably would be fair to say that most people consider to be an online retailer. That’s a safe enough assumption, but it’s only partially accurate. Since 2002, the company has actively—and until the last year or two, quietly—been making itself over into a “web services” provider, or even more ambitiously into a “platform” upon which to construct on- and offline businesses. Kindle’s data collection efforts thus belong to a much broader corporate strategy in which, as Forbes magazine has put it, Amazon’s “behind-the-scenes data center services” are beginning to emerge center stage.[fn]“Amazon’s Hot New Item: Its Data Center,” Forbes (February 2, 2008), n.p.,[/fn] These include Amazon Web Services’ Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2, which provides paid-for, on-demand computing capabilities to third-party businesses, and Amazon Simple Storage Service, or S3, in which businesses pay Amazon to store their data on the company’s voluminous servers. Amazon’s goal with these and other efforts is to monetize any and all of the company’s excess capacity, and to transform idle assets into nonstop, value-producing ones.

The point here is that Amazon isn’t just the retailer most of us think we know. It is also and significantly becoming what Business Week has called “a kind of 21st century digital utility” not unlike Siva Vaidhyanathan’s old nemesis, Google.[fn]Robert D. Hof, “Jeff Bezos’ Risky Bet,” Business Week (November 13, 2006), n.p.,; Siva Vaidhyanathan, “The Googlization of Everything and the Future of Copyright,” UC Davis Law Review 40(3) (2007),[/fn]  Of course, Amazon has been collecting, analyzing, and exploiting customer information since the company’s inception back in 1994. But in conjunction with its recent emphasis on data services, it seems to me that Kindle promises to intensify this process in at least three ways:

• first, by broadening the scope of data collection to encompass not only the retail sphere, which as long been mined for what Oscar Gandy calls “actionable customer intelligence," but also now the fine grain of everyday life itself;[fn]Oscar Gandy, “It’s Discrimination, Stupid!” in Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, ed. James Brooks and Iain A. Boal (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1995), 39.[/fn]

• second, and more specifically, by transforming people’s idiosyncratic and heretofore mysterious reading itineraries into data-generating activities;

• and finally, then, by implicating those acts in a larger system of productive relations whereby they become a form of instrumental, value-producing labor.

The result of these processes is a version of Michel de Certeau's readerly world as seen through the looking-glass. Readers, according to Certeau, surreptitiously raid texts as they meander through them, "insinuating … the ruses of pleasure and appropriation" as they render texts temporarily "habitable."[fn]Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Stephen Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), xxi, 131-153.[/fn]  In this way readers play a kind of joke on the gatekeepers of the "scriptural economy," whose power and authority they challenge through their small but significant acts of "textual poaching." Amazon, however, would seem to be playing an even bigger joke on Kindle readers. The technology effectively transforms the latter into the terminal nodes of a massively distributed, on-the-go focus group. Kindle readers may well still insinuate and appropriate, but all the while Amazon is recording, mining, and exploiting their everyday textual encounters for a profit.[fn]Mark Andrejevic, iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2007), 25, 137, 102, 139.[/fn]

The debate about whether Kindle can or cannot “outbook the book” clearly is a smokescreen, one whose terms invite debate around an intractable issue. Like the magician’s art of misdirection, it draws attention to the artifact itself while deflecting it away from the broader productive relations of which the device and its content may be considered the “form of appearance," or their material concatenation. What’s really at stake with Kindle is Amazon’s desire to re-invent itself as a company where the buying and selling of retail goods is not an end in itself but also a means by which to obtain valuable client data. In a more abstract sense, is actively producing laboring subjects in and around an everyday practice—the reading of books and periodicals—which to my knowledge has never shared as direct a relationship to economically productive activity as it does with Kindle.

Of course, it's not enough simply to apply already existing theories of audience labor to emerging media contexts. The specificity of those contexts must be taken into account and our theories, refigured accordingly. Indeed the laboring subjects seems to be producing with Kindle differ in important respects from those Smythe discussed in relationship to television. As an astute commentator pointed out to me, Kindle reading is "a value-productive activity, but not itself a commodity."[fn]I thank this anonymous interlocutor for her/his contribution to the Differences and Repetitions Wiki legacy site, where an early draft of this paper is hosted:[/fn]  Television viewers (and their attention) may be effectively bought and sold. The same cannot be said for Kindle readers, however, for they are not immediate objects of economic exchange. As value producers they behave more like assets or fixed capital—you might even say "human resources," albeit in the grossest sense of the term. That is, they are legally and technologically obliged to labor but without any pretense of work as a socioeconomic ritual.

Beyond this, Kindle also raises the question of what exactly we mean when we invoke the phrase, “mobile technology.” The device certainly delivers on its promise as a portable library, but is that the only way in which to gauge mobility? Isn’t it significant that Kindle content is effectively immobilized by onboard digital rights management technology, which prohibits users from sharing e-reading materials with other Kindle owners? Conversely, what about all of the information that flows upstream from Kindle to, where it then becomes proprietary? If indeed Amazon aspires to transform itself into a kind of “utility,” one built significantly out of information provided to it by the public, shouldn’t it then begin taking on some of the public responsibilities of one? For starters this would require much greater transparency on Amazon’s part, a process that could begin by opening up its proprietary databases to those who would use the information to contribute to public knowledge. Imagine what public librarians might discover about people’s book reading habits, for example, were they given access to such unprecedented information. The point is, if or any other company is de facto going to put the reading public to work, then there ought to be a public benefit beyond a more personalized marketing campaign.

I acknowledge with gratitude and respect the contributions of the "wise crowd" whose feedback on an earlier version of this paper helped to strengthen this one: