When Sam Gregorsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he reached for his e-reader. It was somewhere under his back, as hard as armored plate. He must have fallen asleep while reading, and then rolled on top of it. He pulled it out, but didn’t turn it on. Instead, he stretched his arm to the edge of the pillow, where his phone was buzzing. A text. “Your personal library has been upgraded. Enjoy!”
The text had come from Amaizin — the maker of his e-reader. Sam was intrigued. He used lots of Amaizin services and products, but the e-books were his favorites. Far from being tempted by the siren songs of YouTunes or the visual richness of UsTube, he preferred to sit quietly, alone, vicariously experiencing the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and touches of other lives, so different from his own — through books.
The old-fashioned, paper kind of books were long gone. After a certain point, nobody had wanted to carry them, buy shelves for them, turn their pages, or figure out what to do with them once they were read. You could fit hundreds, thousands of them on an e-reader. You could get rid of read ones with the swipe of a finger. Trees were spared. Ink was used elsewhere. Luggage got lighter. Presents for avid readers no longer had to be wrapped.
Sam was indeed an avid reader, and his friends often bought him books. Well, usually they bought him Amaizin cards, so he could get for himself whatever books he wanted. To be nice, he sometimes asked the gift-giver for recommendations, but really, most of the time, Sam already knew what he wanted to read next. Or, if he didn’t, he was happy to rely on Amaizin’s recommendation engine.
The recommendation engine was a thing of wonder, fed by many springs of information. It kept track of what Sam read, when he read it, and for how long at a time. It kept track of books he didn’t finish, or that he made his way through slowly. It noted others that he devoured in one sitting. It kept track of what he highlighted, and words that he looked up via the e-reader’s dictionary. And it did that for all his friends, too, and all the other readers who read some of the same books that he did.
But Sam had never before gotten an announcement about his library being upgraded. And it was not his birthday. As he wondered what had triggered the upgrade, he opened the hard shell and turned on the e-reader.
At first, things didn’t seem different. Then he noticed that certain books had disappeared. He remembered old stories, from back in 2009, about how certain books had disappeared from a different brand of e-reader: George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm,” for example. The New York Times had written about one particular customer: “A 17-year-old from the Detroit area was reading ‘1984’ on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. ‘They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,’ he said.” Sam almost shuddered. He had lots of notes in his e-books, too.
And he remembered another old story, from back in 2012, when a publisher had replaced a particular word in a classic novel with another: As the headline in Ars Technica had noted at the time, “Nook version of ‘War and Peace’ turns the word ‘kindled’ into ‘Nookd.” Of course, the change was made on “War and Peace” in translation; still, Sam thought books should keep their words as originally published.
Weirdly, though, he also noticed books that had appeared in his collection overnight, but that he’d never bought or borrowed or asked for. Some of them sounded interesting — for example, a memoir by a guy who called himself “Bono’s Doppelganger.” Sam had heard of Bono. But that reminded him of another story he had read. Back in 2014, many Apple users had realized one day that a certain U2 album had appeared in their iTunes libraries “all by itself.” And many of them were not pleased.
This was weird, Sam thought. What if he lived in a country in which possession of certain books was illegal, and his e-reader was full of those books? What if his e-reader was now full of pornography? Or documents that contained trade secrets — or state secrets? His eyes scanned the list, hoping not to come across “Mein Kampf.” But there were so many books …
Marx seemed to have disappeared, but so had Poe and Nietzsche and Ursula K. LeGuin. He didn’t recognize the titles and authors of many of the books, but he was too worried to either click on them or look them up online to see what they might be. Who knows what inferences might be drawn about him based on those clicks or those searches? What if people found out, and judged him, and started treating him like a giant cockroach?
“The Circle,” by Dave Eggers, was also gone; he hadn’t had time to read that yet.
He scanned the list of books one more time, and he was jarred by a discrepancy. A Ray Bradbury novel was still there. Its title, though, was now “Fahrenheit 75.”
Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Follow the Internet Ethics program @IEthics.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.