It seems to be the buzz this week when an obscure self-help author started calling foul, Slashdot picked it up which is how I discovered the issue. Allegedly, Holly Lisle tried to publish a book titled “How to Think Sideways Lesson6, How To Discover (or Create) Your Story’s Market” and, according to her, Apple said no because she had links to Amazon. Then when she removed the links, they said no because she referenced Amazon. Now, this could either be the author demonstrating her skill on creating interest for her book (which you can’t currently buy in the Apple store) or it could be an Apple employee who, because she first did links, now wants all reference to Amazon pulled out because he or she feels it pushes people to Amazon likely for the other five books/stories.
But there is a deeper issue and that is that with this new app store/eReader model if you want to read a book you have to typically get it through someone’s store. There are ways to side load content to both iPads and Kindles but few know how to use them and generally you are presented with the books the publisher decides you will want to read. What if these folks, rather than focusing on making money, were to say push books to you that favored a point of view, like the competency of a Presidential candidate, the validity of an issue like global warming, or either passive or revolutionary behavior?
In this new world, it may not be whether Apple is censoring in this case that is troubling, but the potential related agenda and the lack of oversight.
Often used as a plot element is science fiction writing, there is a continuing concern about what happens if one organization gains too much control over information. The James Bond movie “The World is Not Enough” explored the very real, and now very visible, concerns surrounding News Corp and its massive control over the news media. Investigations in Europe suggest News Corp was using behavior normally tied to the intelligence gathering organizations in government to get information that could be used to drive readers or possibly blackmail politicians. As the stories come out there is a sense that Rupert Murdoch may have had more control of England than its Prime Minister did, some argue he had similar control in the U.S. Not so much now, as the company runs for cover but that is old school news.
We are now moving to an age where our news feeds come through Google or Facebook and the material we read is often vetted by Amazon or Apple. And both companies censor some things, for instance a book on how to be a pedophile that was pulled from Amazon, however this was done after a huge outcry suggesting they aren’t doing it secretly. And censorship we know about, and agree with, isn’t the problem that secret censorship is. Though it is a slippery slope, if Amazon now aggressively blocks books they think will upset people, to avoid the pain of a boycott, then getting other views becomes far more difficult.
Facebook has announced they will be putting paid content in news feeds which sounds like spam that will be hard to identify as spam. In a newspaper an ad has to clearly look like an ad, or at least you think that is the rule, though there are often the ads that look like a news story and only by reading the small print do you find out that it isn’t. So even in traditional media we push the distinction between real news and paid content. That line is likely to become even fuzzier when social media firms do this. Because ads that we think are stories and act on will simply be far more powerful than ads we see as ads.
But it does show that choices are being made on what we should and shouldn’t read and that these choices are being made by private companies.
What this Apple story should remind us is that much of what we get and view as news is designed to manipulate us into thinking one way or another. Much of this work is done to get us to buy products but, and this is true particularly during an election, much of it is intended to get us to act in ways that aren’t in our best interest. For instance, here in California during the last election a bill that was designed to create a larger pool of money for cancer research tied to taxes on cigarettes was defeated by the cigarette companies posing as tax watchdog groups. Had they clearly identified who they were, I doubt that initiative would have lost but manipulating information to manipulate us is and has been common.
But, as we move into these new media types, the tools that are being created to understand how we tick and to get us to buy products and services can also be used to get us to make bad decisions. In effect we are slowly moving to a form of mind control. I’m thinking we should start thinking about how to protect ourselves from this, like requiring ads be clearly identified and any censorship be disclosed regardless of whether it is Apple refusing the mention of Amazon or the mention of evolution.
In the end, if we let anyone control our information we have turned them into the master and enslaved ourselves. If we don’t fight this trend, we’ll likely deserve the outcome. In short, censorship in any fashion is the first step to mind control because censorship gives us a biased look at the world and takes away our ability to see that bias.
President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group
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