Last summer I decided to assign Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects in the graduate course I was getting ready to teach. The title notwithstanding (Chiang earns his living as a technical writer) the book is a science fiction novella set in a near future when artificial digital life forms—digients—are cultivated and commodified as human companions. Eventually, invoking a Citizens United–like legal precedent, individual digients incorporate themselves to claim the legal status of people. The book was a good fit for a course on the human and the nonhuman, especially in the semester when Arrival, a film based on another Chiang story, was due to hit theaters.
One small problem: published in a limited edition by Subterranean Press in 2010, the book was already out of print. The four hundred original copies had become collector’s items. But there was a modestly priced Kindle edition available, and that’s what I listed on my syllabus. Fast-forward to the first week of class, when an email arrives from a student informing me that the only copies of Lifecycle he can find are hundreds and hundreds of dollars on eBay. Nipping over to Amazon I discover that the Kindle edition, once only $4.99, is … gone, without a trace. The only books available are indeed prohibitively priced collector’s copies.
Fortunately for the syllabus, Subterranean Press turned out to have the entire text of the novella available on its website. Their online version lacked the original’s illustrations and other aspects of the book design, but it would do as a surrogate. Still, not least because of the title at hand, I was intrigued: I wanted to know what had happened to the Kindle book as a software object. Could its disappearance, I wondered, have had something to do with Arrival’s imminent arrival in the theaters? Perhaps the rights to Chiang’s backlist had been renegotiated? Reminded of the 2009 episode when Amazon remote-deleted copies of—of all things—George Orwell’s 1984 from its users’ actual Kindle devices, I was relieved to find that my own Kindle edition of Chiang’s book was still intact. But it was nowhere to be found in the Kindle storefront.
Chiang has since been kind enough to clarify that the Kindle rights were not renewed because Lifecycle will be anchoring his next collection of short stories. But what did it mean for me to own a Kindle book that had apparently, overnight, become a Kindle rare book, just like its small press progenitor? And what could the appearance and disappearance of this one Kindle title tell us about the life cycles of actual software objects—to say nothing of books—in the world today?
Because books, I think we can all agree, are not what they used to be: “Until recently,” notes Keith Houston on the first page of a lavishly produced book about books entitled The Book, “a book was a book and the word came without caveats.”1 Students and historians of the book might quibble that nothing about books has ever been quite so simple; nonetheless, it seems clear that something has changed. Most books nowadays begin their life cycles as digital files in word processing and desktop design software. But where do the individual lives of books go from there?
Think of what follows as a kind of travelogue, a book story that will take us around the planet. Like any good story, it has more than one interpretation, but I’ll give you mine up front: the digital age hasn’t killed books, but neither has it left them alone. The internet has taken books, absorbed them, remade them, and capitalized them, turning them into what Brian Massumi once called “motors of exchange”2; and in the process, as we will see, books have become part of the life cycle of software objects.
Properly speaking, the object at hand—the Kindle MOBI file that was, or is, the electronic edition of Chiang’s novella—is best understood not as a software object but more generically as a digital object. In this I follow the media philosopher Yuk Hui, who offers an itinerary from natural objects (after Aristotle) to technical objects (after Gilbert Simondon) in order to argue for the existence of digital objects in his recent monograph of the same name.3 For Hui, as in my own work on “formal materiality,” digital objects are constituted relationally: “formalized by metadata and metadata schemes, which could be roughly understood as ontologies,” is how he puts it, leveraging the dual meaning of the word ontology in Western philosophical traditions and in the computational sciences. (This is something the digients of Chiang’s story would understand very well, for their existence is continually imperiled by the limited capacity of the virtual worlds they inhabit to render their digital selfhood across changing platforms.) With respect to the Kindle MOBI file, however, the basis of its existence for me was and remains not only relational but also contractual. As explained in Amazon’s terms of service, Kindle content is licensed, not sold: the ebook thus exists for me only because I have purchased a license for it, the license being the schema (Hui’s term) ensuring that its binary codes continue to be presented to me as Chiang’s exacting prose.
But the problem that interests me is not how to read the text; rather, I want to ask what else this digital object is besides, well, a text to be read. For it is increasingly and perhaps overwhelmingly the case that prose fiction exists today for purposes other than reading. Jim English has noted that Kindle Direct Publishing and other virtual vanity imprints now mean that the long tail of contemporary fiction publishing encompasses “hundreds of thousands of effectively readerless novels.”4 I believe that this estimate will soon strike us as conservative. Techno-horror novelist Charles Stross follows this scenario to its technical and logical extreme:
Feral spambooks will deploy probabilistic text generators seeded with the contents of your own ebook library to write a thousand vacuous and superficially attractive nuisance texts … They’ll slide them into your ebook library disguised as free samples, with titles and author names that are random permutations of legitimate works, then sell advertising slots in these false texts to offshore spam marketplaces.5
In many ways that pestilential future is already here: as one Amazon author who pulls down six figures a year using a squadron of ghostwriters puts it, “If you want to make a lot of money gaming Kindle, the book’s content is the least important part of the process.”6
This is not Chiang’s MO. Revered as the very antithesis of a hack, he produces a short story every year or two. He has never written a novel. Nonetheless, Lifecycle’s complete life cycle extends well beyond its pedigree as a boutique small-press edition from a celebrated author. Now that books can also be files, books travel across global networks in ways that far outpace our ability to track and contain them; like so many other forms of digital content, they proliferate in what Amy Hungerford, in Making Literature Now, usefully terms the “archive of the unfolding present.”7 Querying that archive through a Google search box is an especially bracing reminder that we cannot indulge in selective curation; the unfolding archive is as we find it, at least in so far as it is algorithmically represented through matrices of page ranks.
So it was that I came across Etextlib.ru. This turns out to be a domain registered to an individual in the Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk, online since 2010. Its several thousand unique visitors per day can scoop up, free of charge, Russian-language ebooks in a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres. They can also find English-language copies of many Western titles from high-demand authors such as Suzanne Collins and Stephanie Meyer. Readers are asked to give back to the site by uploading ebooks from their own collections. (A pro forma disclaimer reminds them that, according to Google Translate, “all rights belong to respective owners.”) And yes, a copy of Chiang’s Lifecycle appears there too.
A reader intrepid enough to brave the thicket of advertising and security warnings that pop up on the page—more about these in a moment—is offered several different download formats, including EPUB, MOBI, PDF, and plain text, as well as an XML-based format originating in Russia known as FictionBook2 or FB2. Clicking on one of these does indeed produce a text of Chiang’s novella in the specified format, which can be stored and read on the device of one’s choosing. The ebook that you get, however, is not the now-discontinued Kindle edition but rather a text derived from an FB2 master file created in December of 2010, mere months after the novella’s release. Aside from a reproduction of Subterranean Press’s cover page, the illustrations and design elements from the original are absent.
Etextlib.ru is but one of seemingly dozens of ebook distribution sites hosted in the former Soviet states. Most present a facade replete with trappings of libraries and literary culture. Bright book covers festoon the layout, and the site displays rankings of popular authors and titles across different genres. This is much the same effect that Mark McGurl, in the context of Amazon.com, characterizes as the commodification of the “quality time” we traditionally associate with books and reading.8 Yet a look beneath the surface reveals the actual business model, built (it should come as no surprise) on revenue streams from advertising clicks. Ad tech, as it is known, is one of the perennial growth industries of the web. It uses an auction model to match advertisers who have products to sell with publishers who are looking for revenue, all of it optimized to determine the content you see when you visit an ad tech–enabled site. Adap.TV, which is one of several ad tech auctioneers servicing Etextlib.ru, was purchased by AOL in 2013 for a reported $405 million. Your uncle’s email account notwithstanding, AOL hasn’t really been in the service provider business for a long time; today it is a media and content company, and one of its leading product lines is Adap.TV, since bundled into a service called One.
Let’s take a moment to recap: Ted Chiang publishes a limited-edition novella with the Michigan-based Subterranean Press. A Kindle edition appears but is withdrawn, after being sold for several years through the virtual storefront of Chiang’s Seattle neighbor, Amazon.com. Meanwhile, and within months, an unauthorized text of the novel begins to propagate through a network of websites based mostly in Russia and Ukraine, supported and sustained by advertising revenue. One of those sites’ ad tech engines is supplied by AOL, formerly American Online, formerly headquartered in Vienna, Virginia, and now based in Manhattan as a subsidiary of Verizon. This global network of hosts, revenue streams, and advertisers is quite literally what supports the bookshelf in the virtual storefront from which one may right now obtain an unauthorized but otherwise good-enough reading copy of The Lifecycle of Software Objects. Incidentally, the widely used Alexa traffic rating ranks the Etextlib.ru domain higher than the website for Subterranean Press. (The former is currently valued at just under $20,000.)
Chiang’s story is driven by the obsolescence of the virtual world that is the host platform for the digients, who can continue to exist as social beings only if their software engine is ported to its successor. Unfortunately, their parent corporation has gone bankrupt and so porting the software is not commercially viable. The digients, who are themselves clamoring for individual liberties—you can think of them as woke Tamagotchi—have become what the industry would term abandonware. It is thus left to their small circle of caretakers and enthusiasts to create an incentive for the port—for example, by licensing the digients to a company specializing in artificial sex partners. In all cases, however, the real value of the digients turns out to be their accumulated experiential history as sentient lifeforms. “A digient whose cumulative running time is longer than the lifespan of most operating systems? You don’t see that very often,” one potential benefactor notes admiringly. This open-ended conception of run time—which we may wish to consider alongside McGurl’s constitutive terms for reading in the Age of Amazon, real time and quality time—bears a strong resemblance to the effect of the license that allows me, at least as of the last time I checked, to retain access to Chiang’s ebook despite the fact that it has been withdrawn from the Kindle storefront. The Kindle MOBI file continues to “run” (for me, if not for you) by virtue of my having purchased a license for it.
Tempting as it is to parse Chiang’s story in relation to the life cycles of the actual software objects that are its ebook instantiations, from the standpoint of a business model such as Etextlib.ru the particulars of its plot are entirely incidental. For Etextlib.ru and other such sites, Lifecycle is precisely an object, or more specifically it is a BLOB, a Binary Large Object, puckish computer speak for any undifferentiated chunk of digital content. The book has value only to the extent that the 104 KB of its existence in FB2 format (roughly equivalent to, say, one medium-quality JPEG) serves to incrementally increase the aggregate of content available for attracting advertising clicks. Ongoing costs for the minute shard of server space it occupies are set against whatever minimal revenue thresholds are necessary for the site to offer a return on investment. This kind of incrementalism stands in stark contrast to what Hungerford describes—in her account of Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade site, an online book venture that served as a testbed for the Cursor software Nash once hoped to monetize—as symptomatic of start-up culture’s quest for the “big coup.”9
Remember that Lifecycle began life as a small-press edition of four hundred signed and numbered copies, with commissioned artwork and two-color printing. Even a book object this deliberate is susceptible to becoming self-reproducing in Massumi’s sense of forms of capital with their own motor of exchange, those whose value is defined more by our desire for them than by the labor that attended their creation. Or to put it another way, books (like all other content) become the agents, the pathogens, of what Jussi Parikka, in his study of computer viruses, has termed viral capitalism: “The virus as a software object is an index of the (capitalist) drive toward virality as a mode of operation based on contagion, mutation, and colonization of various networks.”10 The bibliographical object, in other words, has become just another word virus.
Remember too that the Amazon Kindle edition was withdrawn out of concern for the salability of a future collection of short stories, presumably to be issued from Chiang’s major trade publisher, Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House, itself owned by parent companies Bertelsmann and Pearson, German and British multinationals respectively. Penguin Random House brands itself “the world’s first truly global trade book publisher.” Bertelsmann, incidentally, is one of just five conglomerates that, according to Ted Striphas in 2011, were responsible for three-quarters of the book sales in the world; Viacom, the parent company of Paramount Pictures, makers of Arrival, is another one of those five, and Time Warner (from 2001 to 2009 the parent company of AOL) is another.11
The FictionBook file format created by Dmity Gribov and favored by the Russian ebook sites is, like the Western EPUB format, XML-based. This means that in Hui’s terms it is precisely a schema, a metadata grammar that imposes a particular set of relations on its constituent digital object. Unlike EPUB, however, FictionBook (by design) does not support a Digital Rights Management layer. A book encoded in FB2 is always readable by humans as well as machines. Indeed, FB2 often functions as an exchange format for conversions between EPUB, MOBI, and others. In this it might seem to constitute a resistive gesture against the centripetal forces agitating to concentrate content, as well as capital, in the properties of those five multinational conglomerates. But the same features that make FB2 portable across different platforms and devices also makes it an ideal attractor for the pathogens of viral capital, whether in the form of actual malware or the klept of a Ukrainian ebook pirate.
Just as Stross foresaw, this is the life cycle of nearly all books now, even those as lovingly and selectively produced as Subterranean Press’s creations, which quickly find their way to the underground torrents used to stock sites such as Etextlib.ru. The “death of the book” was an exceptionalist fantasy, born of a media moment that had more to do with San Francisco (or Toronto) than Seattle, let alone Kiev or Moscow—which is to say that in the networks of viral capital, books have proven as adaptive to the ontologies of the digital as anything else. Unlike Chiang’s winsome, precarious digients, they have already been incorporated.
- Keith Houston, The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of our Time (Norton, 2016), p. xv. ↩
- Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari (MIT Press, 1992), p. 200. ↩
- See Yuk Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). ↩
- James F. English, “Now, Not Now: Counting Time in Contemporary Fiction Studies,” Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 3 (September 2016), p. 402. ↩
- See Charles Stross, “Polemic: How Readers Will Discover Books in Future,” Charlie’s Diary (blog), October 10, 2013. ↩
- See Sidd Finch, “Part 1: Confessions from the Underground World of Kindle eBooks,” The Hustle, July 13, 2015. ↩
- Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now (Stanford University Press, 2016), p. xi. ↩
- See Mark McGurl, “Everything and Less: Fiction in the Age of Amazon,” Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 77. no. 3 (September 2016), pp. 447–471. ↩
- Hungerford, Making Literature Now, p. 84. ↩
- Jussi Parikka, Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (Peter Lang, 2007), p. 96. ↩
- See Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (Columbia University Press, 2011). ↩