The desire for a better social and societal record has led us to huge libraries and massive data centers. We are constantly seeking improved ways to document, remember, and share our information. Our collective cultural database is gigantic, yet as privatization and balkanization take over, especially in digital spaces, our access to it has become highly controlled and monitored by a powerful few. Artist Jesse England’s piece “E-Book Backup” (2014) deals with just that issue.
“E-Book Backup” asks: what are the dangers of a private company having access to the books we supposedly own? The work is a literal copy — a photocopy, from cover to cover — of a Kindle version of George Orwell’s 1984. Over email, England explained the book’s inspiration:
“E-Book Backup” was inspired by a disturbing action that Amazon made in the summer of 2009. One day, Kindle owners who had purchased a certain e-book offered for sale on the Kindle marketplace found that it had been removed from their device by Amazon, who explained that the independent publishers who sold the e-book did not have the rights to offer it for sale. It was George Orwell’s 1984. I couldn’t have asked for a better example of the fragility of this media environment.
The dystopian possibility of large entities controlling our access to information is foretold in 1984. Orwell writes, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” It’s no surprise that North Korea doesn’t allow its citizens onto the world wide web, that the Pentagon funds specific Hollywood films, or that China has constructed advanced censorship tools to erase history. Humans have always been influenced by the media they consume, which means regulating that information flow has always been very important to governments and businesses alike.
In 1998, after people realized the ease with which digital records could be copied, pasted, and shared with anyone online, governments and businesses sought more stringent control, and thus the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was born. Since then user rights and ownership of digital content have waned considerably; while we can copy, lend, and resell a tangible book, this is impossible with most digital equivalents. Instead, in England’s words, “the consumer’s role is reduced from copy owner to content license holder, with all the added limitations.”
“E-Book Backup” is England’s playful counter to Amazon and the DMCA, as well as an invitation for all of us to reexamine our ideas of ownership in digital space. The convenience of cheap and easy cloud storage is appealing, but we must ask ourselves: with these systems, what do we really own and control? While Amazon eventually apologized and returned access to 1984, the unsettling realization that book buyers had such little control over their book, that it could seamlessly disappear — that should be disturbing enough.