To Own or be Owned: A Virtual Reality Check

Amazon’s electronic reading device known as Kindle is not exactly as “Green” as it is cracked up to be, but now we have another reason to reconsider the merits of paper-based reading: Censorship.

Kindle users may not have anticipated it, but Amazon can recall an e-book purchase at the push of a virtual button. Need those annotations for a book report? If your digital reading material is recalled, Amazon removes those too.

Tough luck.

Amazon claims they are working to amend a hasty retraction process that resulted when an allegedly unauthorized source made available a number of e-books to which the lawful copyright holder objected, reports the New York Times in “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle Devices“. Refunds for the illicitly encoded material are on the way, but the questions have only begun. And well they should.

In an ongoing series on the transformative impact of high tech, the Social Critic aims to explore the lesser known consequences of the virtual world. In this instance, we find a stark reminder that in the digital universe the price of “virtual” amounts to easy come, easy go. You can’t share an e-book. You can’t recycle an e-book reader — at least not in the Green manner one might have hoped [see “GreenSmart vs. GreenDumb”]. And you can’t take for granted that you “own” anything in the virtual realm in the same physical manner it is possible to own DVDs, books, magazines, newspapers and the like.

What this article doesn’t touch upon is disturbing in its own right: The questionable health effects, particularly on the eyes and brain, of exchanging the tangible for an imperceptibly flickering digital view screen. Over time, exposure may blunt brain development in children, promote sleep and attention disorders, lead to career-limiting repetitive strain injuries to the spine, elbowswrists or fingers — or more commonly still, eyestrain and headaches — all while aiming electromagnetic radiation at our craniums (of which cell phones and CRT monitors are among the worst EMF offenders). None of this, however, takes into account the fastest growing concern of all: the controversial notion of Internet addiction. Until recently, in fact, China took a very heavy-handed approach to digital addicts: electroshock therapy.

Library systems, in a sign of the times, are taxed, meanwhile, not by people who wish to check out books but by the number of people who wish to access the Internet. As discussed in the aforementioned post, the billions of computer users plugged into electric grids around the world, connected, in turn, by scores of Internet data centers, come at a profound environmental cost that most of us fail to appreciate. In the US, these electrical requirements translate into burning more coal, a process that for all the talk of “clean“, is anything but.

In the irony of all ironies, this Digital New Age appears to have brought us full circle: From transnational trains at the turn of the last Century belching out billowing clouds of coal-black ash to power plant smokestacks “sequestering“, at best, billions of short tons of the same in the opening decades of the 21st Century. Much of this progress arrives under the trendy guise of going Green — paying our bills online, killing time on Facebook and surfing for free media content on the web even as news and content providers go broke for their efforts. Talk about unsustainable — in more ways than one!

In exchange for the privilege of conducting increasing amounts of our business and personal lives virtually, we pursue nifty new interfaces — costly electronic devices, cell phones and seemingly essential hardware and software packages, which we have been conditioned to frequently upgrade as a result of wear, tear and obsolescence. All of this lends itself quietly but effectively to privacy-intruding remote processes most of us fail to comprehend. Ours is an inverse relationship with technology: As the devices of our supposed need or pleasure become exponentially complex, our appreciation for how little we control, own and regard as personal and private diminishes.

Are our ownership claims even worth the virtual paper they are printed on?

Probably not.

Have you read any virtual fine print, for that matter, lately?

Who does?

Arguably, it causes more eyestrain — a greater headache literally and figuratively — to read a large body of typewritten material on a bright, brazen, backlit surface largely devoid of eye-resting “white space”, much of it jam-packed instead with ad-based imagery begging for attention. So what’s a person without an entire day to spend sifting through this chaotic “information soup” to do? Answer: Go in search of the news, information, social contact and entertainment we want — not necessarily that which we need.

In spite of our collective fascination, electronic interfaces are simply too fatiguing for many users to devote a great deal of voluntary attention to any single task. Real-world books, newspapers, magazines, DVDs and music albums are carefully crafted, edited, designed and packaged, whereas in the virtual world we are often gatekeepers and content generators — empowering, to be sure, but demanding nonetheless. For instance, few of us went to the time and expense to crop, retouch and “develop” our own photos years ago, but nowadays the time, expense and effort of digital photography — the self-service we euphemistically refer to as “creative control” — is a common undertaking by many a digital camera owner. But what happens when time, attention spans and the digital format itself are limiting factors?

It stands to reason that as the novelty of this digital medium wears off, we will increasingly reserve our limited energies for learning a whole lot more about a whole lot less, particularly in comparison to our analog-based predecessors. The information at our fingertips may be limitless but our patience is not. More disturbing, the digital landscape may not be as boundless as we would like to believe. Not only does the virtual printing press make it a lot easier to remove unflattering stories from the electronic record, it’s also a lot easier to let the news we can use fade into a backdrop of dizzying digital distractions, the search result that never appears, the umpteenth page we never click.

For all his technological high hopes, would the late, great newsman, Walter Cronkite, be impressed?

When a resource is rare, even something so amorphous as “the news”, it is perceived as valuable and desirable. When it’s easy, cheap and pervasive, we take for granted that it will always be there, and that nothing will escape us even if we opt out entirely. If an asteroid were headed our way, many of us would learn of it from a coworker or a friend on MySpace — the proverbial grapevine now stronger than ever, the “herd immunity” theory, if you will, applied to social awareness.

Witness the phenomena of college-educated individuals passing along hoaxes, chain letters and urban legends via email without so much as a 30-second effort to verify the claim. Technology may make it easier to avoid making fools of ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we’re making the best use of it. The Digital Age, in this respect, presents a curious duality: People who are inclined to believe almost anything they see and read in an email or on YouTube, and those who become so wary of sloppy citizen journalism and anonymous email assertions that eventually mainstream media sources are lumped in the same suspect category. Such is life in the disposable e-universe: The democratization of information on the one hand, the responsibilities of liberty diminished on the other.

As much as technology connects us, a prevailing counterforce threatens our capacity for common experience, shared culture and community values. In the virtual world we lose, most notably, what art, literature and history buffs refer to as a “sense of place“. As our digital future progresses, we are certain to experience less and less of the hallowed, snapshot-in-time sensation of looking back on an old photo, magazine, newspaper, yearbook or, for that matter, the tactile experience of turning the pages of a letter or book sans mouse and keyboard.

There’s something we’re sacrificing in this brave new world, and it’s more than the paper it is written on.

Welcome to the here and now. It’s great for contract attorneys and high-tech moneymakers — a deceptive deal for the environment, news providers, and consumers alike. Still, we’re eating it up, one “IT” gadget off the production line at a time. Pay off that home or car loan early? Save money for the kids’ college tuition or your retirement fund? Embark on a once-in-a-lifetime road trip from coast to coast? Naw. We have more pressing pastimes to spend our digital dinero on. And they’re lovin’ it.

Psst! I hear Sony makes a pretty cool e-book reader, too. Circuit City, anyone? Their virtual doors are open for business!

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Resources:

Printed Copies of Orwell Books Pulled from Kindle | Yahoo News

Some E-Books Are More Equal Than Others | David Pogue/NYT

Internet Use Burns Coal, Report Says

Better Technology Needed if Carbon Sequestration is to be Viable | TSAugust

The Internet Begins with Coal

The Internet is Big and has a Carbon Footprint to Match

Data Center Overload | NYT Magazine

User Demand for the Internet Could Outpace Network Capacity by 2010

The Sustainability Challenge: Can the Internet Help?

The Illusion of Being Well Informed | The New Ledger

When Computers Attack: Protect Yourself from Computer-Related Health Problems

Ergonomists: Kids too are at Risk from Repetitive Strain Injuries | Science Daily

Nighttime Computer Users May Lose Sleep

Look What They’ve Done to My Brain, Ma

Brain & Behavior: Blame it on the Box

Mind Control by Cell Phone | Scientific American

Is Google Making Us Stupid? | The Atlantic

Is Google Making Us Smarter? | Seed Magazine

Men as Internet Victims

Do Social Networks Bring the End of Privacy?

Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Issues Warning on Cell Phone Risks

Teens Risk Health with Night Texting, Talking

Social Networks: Primates on Facebook | The Economist

Who Really Owns Your Phone?

Did You Hear About Censorship?

Internet Censorship in the US? Or Just Law Enforcement?

Top 25 Censored Stories for 2009 | Project Censored

Is Professional Blogging a Sustainable Business Model?

The Economy of Free is Stupid | Social Media Explorer

Free is Not a Business Model

Are the Days of Free Internet News Coming to an End?

Internet Companies: The End of the Free Lunch — Again

Advertising Is Not a Sustainable Business Model for the Web

Thoughts on the Costs of Digital vs. Paper

The Future of Reading — Digital vs. Print | Seattle Times

We are the World — and the World Killed Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop“, made an untimely exit from the stage of life after suffering a cardiac arrest Thursday, June 25, Brian Oxman, a Jackson family attorney, reports. More shockingly, Oxman told a CNN reporter that he warned the Jackson family that the star may be headed for a fate not unlike Anna Nicole Smith, who died little over two years ago following prolonged prescription painkiller dependence. Smith also lost her teenage son to a fatal drug interaction in 2006. In Jackson’s case, Oxman says the entertainer suffered chronic pain from a multitude of former stage injuries, among them a fractured vertebra and a broken leg.

Prescription drug abuse often starts legitimately enough. Life happens. We suffer injuries and accidents. And we don’t want to live like cripples before our time. But oftentimes the so-called cure comes with its own consequences.

The similarity between the average Jane or Joe and the Jacksons of the world seemingly ends in the doctor’s office. The average American who suffers a chronic pain condition, whether it is arthritis or severe back pain, is more likely to end up disabled as opposed to receiving pain management that succeeds in restoring one’s lifestyle. Celebrities, on the other hand, encounter the opposite: Eager to satisfy the demands of their high-power clients whose careers and lives must go on in a very public fashion, doctors are less likely to deny their well-known patients powerful forms of pain relief whether such medications are needed or not. The assumption on the part of the medical establishment, ostensibly, is that successful people who “have it together” are not going to throw it all away in pursuit of an addiction. Far be it from the public, all the while, to view a figure who is vibrant, charismatic and larger than life as weak, sickly or disabled. With enough drugs to combat the pain, life goes on as normal — until the consequences catch up.

The exact cause of Jackson’s fatal cardiac arrest, to be clear, is not yet known. Some suspect the superstar’s undernourished appearance, implying that the rigors of Jackson’s physical training program in preparation for a comeback tour are to blame. To that we now add the all-too-familiar specter of drug dependence. Let us not forget that Los Vegas headliner Danny Gans also died this month as a result of cardiac toxicity brought on by a legitimately prescribed painkiller. This is a story, sadly, that never ends. And that is the point. It should end, but it doesn’t.

Aside from the obvious — that drugs, even legitimately prescribed drugs — may lead to an untimely end, what does this tragedy have to teach us?

When singing sensation Susan Boyle, a contestant in the Brittish equivalent of “American Idol”, showed signs of stress and later admitted herself to a treatment facilitySimon Cowell, among others, cited her fragile mental state as the cause of her concert cancellations and erratic moods. In truth, however, the spotlight drives a lot of performers and public figures nutty. Eccentric behavior is much easier to brush off, however, when blamed on prescription tranquilizers, alcohol or illicit drugs. From Elvis Presley to Marilyn Monroe, celebrities of all generations, it seems, are pressured — if not explicitly than implicitly — to turn to drugs for answers rather than to allow anyone to see that their bodies, if not minds, cannot keep up with the frenetic pace of their lives. Were each of them, like Boyle, “unfit” and “ill prepared” for their success? Or would it be more accurate to say that this is the dark underbelly of celebrity — the reality check our celebrity-obsessed culture never confronts no matter how many famous people succumb to the inability to live up to their own or others’ expectations?

Let’s face it: We never want to accept deblitation. We never want anyone to grow old. But for a few fashionably naughty exceptions for sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, we never want anyone to seem all that human, either. As the Susan Boyle “case study” shows, cruelty is aimed at those who are too old, too overweight, too fragile, too offbeat, too ordinary. We like our stars airbrush perfect, immune from the unglamorous slowdowns associated with age and chronic medical conditions. From concert promoters to ordinary fans, we the people seem more inclined to tolerate rumors of substance abuse than to accept the news that a superstar has reached the limits of their physical and mental stamina. Drug abuse and stardom may go hand-in-hand, whereas honesty doesn’t get you very far in a world where image is the only reality that counts.

To live in the fishbowl that is celebrity you have to be a little bit crazy. And if you aren’t off kilter to begin with, living in the glare of paparazzi camera flash will surely induce as much. But the blame belongs to society too. We are the ones who idolize celebrities’ lives, never willing to hear the admission that the pressures are too much and they can no longer live up to fans’ expectations. Doctors, too, are not immune. There’s a pill for that. A surgery that will fix it. And an expectation that enough is never enough.

We are the world — and the world killed Michael Jackson.

May he rest in peace.

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