A few weeks ago, we learned that Roald Dahl's books get a makeover in order to better fit our zeitgeist (The Guardian). In the margin of this news, an even more worrying development emerged, in my opinion. The language used in Roald Dahl's e-books would automatically change on e-readers (The Times and Good E-Reader).
The entire event led to public outrage and disagreement over the appropriate nature of post-hoc changing creative works. In this short article, I will not discuss the content of these modifications, but I evaluate their form, particularly that of a digital nature. To take advantage of the current collective attention, I will superficially highlight the issues with and solutions for this questionable practice.
Why is this “Big Friendly revisinG” of Roald Dahl so disturbing? It might sound dramatic and far-fetched, but this way our history can be rewritten and not exclusively our interpretation of it. After some small interventions in the text of Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, the Belgians might no longer be the bravest of Gauls.
Furthermore, many will want and expect to consume a creative work the way the artist intended it. Changing it suppresses freedom of expression and enables widespread censorship. This happens a fortiori with post-mortem modifications, to which the artist can not even reply.
In addition to medium independent criticism on this questionable practice, there are specific issues related to digitally and automatically changed e-books. There is possibly no trustworthy trace of such a digital modification. You can think you read the original book, while you are consuming the revised version without noticing.
In this case, the publisher Puffin Books exerted the modifications in the books of Roald Dahl. It is evident that other parties with their own interests could play the same role. Governments can compel publishers to modifications and hackers can at all time and from everywhere force this, as long as a central instance has the authority to change the content.
How do we ensure that we consume the authentic, original creative work? A partial physical solution for the specific digital issues is to buy the first edition or to print the e-book immediately after the purchase, assuming you got the untampered version. At the same time, you undermine the functionality of your e-reader and turn it superfluous.
A digital solution is to register creative works on an immutable ledger by using Distributed Ledger Technology. There are several technical ways to realize this:
- register an entire work, for example on-chain as ordinal on Bitcoin;
- register a reference, on for example Ethereum, to a work stored on another location, such as IPFS or Arweave;
- register the output of a hash-function with a work as input, for example on Bitcoin via a Counterparty broadcast.
All these ways of decentral registration enable the consumer of a creative work to verify its authenticity. This digital verification is even more trustworthy than trying to buy a first edition book or printing a supposedly original e-book. Digital counterfeits of such decentral registrations are in principle impossible, contrary to physical counterfeits. We should not settle for an inferior physical solution, if a superior digital one is available.
This incident exposes the risks attached to a general tendency in our society: several physical objects are replaced by a digital version. On the one hand, this happens for good reasons, because of practical advantages. On the other hand, we should be very vigilant on who retains ultimate control over these digital objects.
With physical objects we expect the connection between the producer and the product to disappear after the transfer of ownership. This is so for books, train tickets, money, … With digital objects this does not necessarily happen, on the contrary. It proves to be the exception, because in general the producer holds ultimate control over the product. A publisher controls your e-book, the public transport company (or other mediating instance) your train ticket and the bank your bank account.
Despite the risks attached to digitizing objects and the advantages connected to owning physical objects, I don’t argue for “de-digitizing” as a modern luddite might. We better resist the tendency to centralization, which digitizing naturally cultivates. We better embrace durable, provable authentic digital objects, rather than those that central instances can change at will. We better avoid digitizing without decentralization, because that leads to power concentration.