>The Editable Society

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If you’re using a book reader like the Kindle or iPad and are downloading books to read, they are just like real paper books, except that the written word is now dynamic and the text can be changed out.

Wired Magazine, May 2010, has an article by Steven Levy called “Every Day They Rewrite the Book.”

“When you are connected to an e-reading device, the seller does have the capability to mess with the content on your device, whether you ask it to or not.”

Mr. Levy tells how “people were shocked to discover this last summer when Amazon, realizing that it had mistakenly sold some bootlegged copies of George Orwell’s 1984, deleted all of them from customers’ Kindles.”

Since them, Amazon “notifies customers of an update to the book they purchased; if a buyer wants the changes made, the company will replace the old file with the new one. In other words, the edition you buy remains fixed unless you agree otherwise.”

Changes on the fly—with the owner’s consent—is a positive thing when for example, publishing mistakes get corrected and new developments are updated, as Levy points out.

I guess what is amazing to me is that things that we take for granted as always being there…like a book, a song, a document, a video, a photo are not static anymore. As bits and bytes on our computers, e-readers, iPods, smartphones, and so on, they are every bit as dynamic as the first day they were created—just go in and edit it, hit save, and voila!

Documents and books can be edited and replaced. Songs, videos, and photos can be cropped, spliced, touched up and so on. There is no single timeless reality anymore, because all the material things that is being digitized or virtualized are subject to editing—or even deletion.

On the one hand, it is exciting to know that we live in a dynamic high-tech society, where nothing is “written in stone” and we can change and adapt relatively easily, by just logging on and making changes.

On the other hand, living in such a malleable electronic wonderworld means that with some pretty unsophisticated and common tools these days, pictures can be doctored, books can revised, and history can be literally rewritten. For example, just think about how anyone can go on Wikipedia and make changes to entries; if others don’t cry foul and undo the revisions, they stick.

It seems to be that with the technology to quickly and easily make changes electronically, comes the responsibility to protect what is true and historically valuable. No one person should decide what is fact or fiction, a valid change or a distortion of reality—rather it is a mandate on all of us.

I think this is where the importance of democracy and things like crowdsourcing comes into play—where as a society we together direct the changes that affect us all.

It is a frightening world where files can erased or doctored, not just because your own work can be changed, deleted, or destroyed, but because everyone’s work can be—and nothing is long-lasting or stable anymore.

I may be particularly sensitive to this being the child of Holocaust survivors, where the notion of a world where holocaust deniers can just “edit” history and pretend that the holocaust never happened is a scary world indeed.

But also a world, where malevolent people like hackers and cyber terrorists or dangerous devices like e-bombs (electromagetic pulses or EMPs) can damage systems and storage devices, means that electronic files are not secure from change or erasure.

We’ve become a society where everything is temporary—our marriages, our jobs, our stock portfolios, our homes, and so on—everything is disposable, changeable, and editable. We have truly become an editable society.

We need to balance our ability to edit with the necessity to create order and stability, and like Amazon learned, not change out files at random (without notifying and getting permission).

In IT, this is the essence of good governance, where you plan a structure that can breathe and adapt as times change, but that is also stable and secure for the organization to perform its mission.

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