IF the adverts are any guide, this will be a Kindle Christmas.
Soon enough, people will be getting ready for the Dickens bicentenary by downloading the complete works for 99p. Come the 25th, they'll wonder about poverty, hard times, and whether Papa will keep his position. After that, they'll probably have a look at Dickens.
As is traditional, the family will then gather around the cosy glow of the plasma screen and stream a few carols. Perhaps they'll update their Facebook status to "God bless us, every one!" while children rush to see whether Santa has Skyped. Text messages of comfort and joy will go forth. For many, it will be virtually the best Christmas ever.
As someone whose home is lagged with books, I look at the Kindle as primitive tribes used to look at TVs, wondering where the little dancing folk were hidden. The MP3 player is a wonder too. As one whose vinyl and CD needs have depleted cubic metres of the world's petrochemical reserves, I marvel at its magic: all that sound in one little box.
This is, of course, the wrong way to look at things, and probably old hat. It doesn't matter, they inform me, that a Kindle doesn't allow me to do anything so quaint with a book as lend it or give it away. Having physical possession even of a music file is obtuse: Spotify or some such will bring forth any track "on demand", as though from the ether.
The correct word, apparently, is "cloud". It's where we all live, or will live. Those who have not already moved will be moving soon, along with their photographs, their bank accounts, medical records and memories. Reality is already a by-product of servers buried in America, a genuine matrix. The world is dematerialising.
I'm not especially worried, in principle. Mourning the death of the book as an object built from ink and paper seems to me to miss the point of what a book is. A collection of words intended to be read is a book. The physical thing is, and always was, a means to house virtual worlds, or just to furnish a room.
I'm a little less sanguine, though, when I'm told that Amazon can delete any title I happen to have "bought" on its Kindle if it sees the need. I'm less enamoured of promised wonders, equally, when I hear of Google's concept of books – or music, or film, or whatever – as mere "content", preferably "free".
Having read about it in a book, I know how hard Dickens fought for copyright laws, and demur. It's not Luddism; I'll have my own Kindle before long, I'm sure. But I'll keep the lagging on my walls and go on buying CDs. When the broadband plays up or the hard drives fail, it's better to keep the music, as it were, real.
The virtual world is marketed as the epitome of choice. Choice tends to depend, though, on physical possession: possession is still nine-tenths of any useful law. Independent bookshops are going out of business by the week because Amazon has put them out of business. Amazon and its technology have won. Record shops are in much the same plight. Apple's iTunes and the rest, selling music at a keystroke, have won.
These developments are revolutionary. But the revolution leaves us dependent on those nice people at Amazon, Apple, Google and a very few others. Choice, strangely enough, has concentrated all power. You might have noticed as much if you still happen to have a high street. Who's hanging on as the supermarket delivery vans whiz by? I'm betting it's the charity shops, last bastions of what we used to call community.
Many people will probably be able to get It's A Wonderful Life on demand this Christmas. I wonder how many will spot the ironies. Here's Frank Capra's hymn to what is solid, real, human and valuable. It speaks about small-town life, the passage of time, friendship, memory, and contact between people. But Sky will send stored pulses from a vast menu to isolated groups for whom Capra's virtues are just another fantasy. The cloud removes the risk of contact. It says that reality is whatever you can summon through a keypad. And, it whispers: only what you can summon through a keypad.
So marvellous is the technology, few bother to wonder if there is a price to be paid. Bookshops that can't compete? High streets that have ceased to be convenient? Things you buy but do not own? Lives that have come to depend on a few multi-billion dollar corporations presenting themselves as the last word in benign? Above all, the overwhelming sense that all of this is inevitable, and therefore welcome?
Eight hundred million people have Facebook accounts; I do not. By my arithmetic, that makes me outnumbered. I am also open to the possibility that it makes me wrong. I don't know much about technology, but I know a little bit about tracking cookies. My anti-virus software removes the insidious little mites that implant themselves daily just to tell someone where I've been on the internet. It's a futile game: I remove them, back they come. Why bother?
Doesn't bother you? Doesn't matter that tracking cookies are not a patch on the electronic tags that are mobile phones? Doesn't matter that if you highlight a passage on a Kindle page this information is transmitted to Amazon? Or that information on your reading habits is, within the cloud, not even the half of it? Let's not even mention governments.
No-one will know which book of paper and ink I read tonight. You might not think that's a big deal. Funnily enough, I do. Were I writing a science-fiction dystopia, it would begin: "At least in the real world, you could see them coming."
But please don't let me spoil things. Think of me as a ghost of Christmas past.
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