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Book Reviews: property ownership in an age of digital downloads

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Do your digital Christmas gifts really belong to you? A thought-provoking look at property in the age of downloads leads this month’s selection of new titles.

The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy

By Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz, The MIT Press, £22.95, ISBN 9780262035019

Chances are if you own an iPod, Kindle or even a desktop or laptop you are no stranger to the world of the digital download. It is becoming more and more common to simply pay for a digital copy of a song, book or film, rather than worrying about cumbersome physical objects. Who even has time to wait for an Amazon delivery these days, anyway? The digital download has done wonders for the instant gratification of consumers, but at what cost? Like it or not, each time you click ‘pay now’ on a digital purchase, you are entering a new and confusing world, rife with rules, regimes and regulations that restrict how you interact with your downloads.

Authors Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz use their book to delve into the complex, jargon-ridden world of the rights of digital consumers, to uncover the mystery of whether we can really be considered ‘owners’ of our digitalia. As the owner of a physical object you enjoy certain freedoms; if you have a collection of print books, you are free to annotate them, modify them, or even destroy them if you want to. The same however, cannot be said to the ‘owners’ of downloaded goods.

Every time you buy an ebook from Amazon or a song from iTunes you sign an end-user licence agreement (EULA) - let’s be honest, you have probably never read it - the contents of which are far removed from the freedom we enjoy with physical ownership. Consumers do not actually own digital purchases, they license them and have the permission to read, listen to, play, or watch them. Slightly more worrying is the fact that the company providing the software used to access these files effectively has control over a user’s digital library.

Here’s an interesting case. In July 2009 Amazon remotely, and without warning, wiped (irony of ironies) George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ from all Kindle ereaders, following a dispute with the publishers.

Small fry, perhaps? Permissible collateral damage? Well, what happens when devices, or corporations, become obsolete? That’s what happened to HDGIANTS Inc, a former distributor of high-quality audio and video files. When it went bankrupt, its servers were switched off, and with that, portions of the digital libraries of thousands of paying customers evaporated.

So how content should consumers be with their content? A bookshop cannot, as Schultz and Perzanowski point out, creep into your house in the middle of the night and reclaim the contents of your physical shelves - so why can digital providers? Is it fair that book lovers and audiophiles are charged prices akin to a physical copy for a digital download that is completely at the mercy of publishers and licensers? What is the benefit to the consumer of opting for digital files? Are the benefits of reducing waste and getting instant gratification really worth it?

‘The End of Ownership’ presents the confusing world of the digital consumer in wonderfully accessible prose, replacing hideous jargon with the simplest of analogies, from thieving bookshops to the goblins from Harry Potter. It will answer the questions you have regarding digital ownership, and it’s inevitable that more than a few of them have never even crossed your mind.

In an increasingly complex world, plagued by unreadable (certainly unread) terms and conditions, it is more than a little refreshing to have something explained in good, plain English.

Jade Fell


Why the Wheel is Round: Muscles, Technology and How We Make Things Move           

By Steven Vogel, £24.50, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226381039

Few, if any, engineering books can have started by encouraging the reader to go through a series of physical exercises in which they see how far they can twist their extended arm, turn their wrist and rotate their head.

It may sound more like pilates than technology, but ‘Why the Wheel is Round’ takes us deep into the world of biomechanics - in essence how muscles pulling on bones allow us to carry out tasks and how biological materials like wood, horn and shell fit them for toolmaking.

Author Steven Vogel, who before his death in 2015 was emeritus professor of biology at Duke University, USA, was a self-confessed “unreconstructed academic”, who delighted in looking beyond the applications of science to its origins and underpinnings.

The challenge of finding out for yourself the limits of the body makes for a clever starting point in his investigation of the relationship between human physiology and the technology we’ve come to rely on.

The paradox is that, although muscle alone has been the main motor driving technology for most of human history to date, it’s limited by the fact that it can only pull, and has to remain fixed at both its ends. Children may somersault across a field, insects cartwheel down sand dunes and shrimp roll along a beach, but no animal joint has ever evolved that’s capable of the continuous rotation we see in mechanical systems from egg beaters to electric motors.

Engineers will point out that the simple solution is to add a crank mechanism, but that solution was unknown until about 1,000 years ago. How did people manage before that? Vogel combines his engineering expertise with his remarkable curiosity about how things work to explore how such mechanisms were, until very recently, powered by the push and pull of the muscles and skeletal systems of humans and other animals.

The crucial advance consisted not merely of a rotating wheel, but of the combination of wheel and axle, one rotating with respect to the other. In one sense, it’s the axle - enhanced by bearings and lubrication - that defines the technological revolution and which hasn’t been observed in nature in creatures larger than bacteria.

It’s an account of how, throughout history, inventors have come up with solutions that complement our physical abilities while overcoming our weaknesses. From the basic wheel to more complex cranks, cranes, carts and capstans, ‘Why the Wheel is Round’ examines the contraptions and tricks we have devised in order to more efficiently move and move through the physical world.

Some are familiar, others - like the dog-powered butter churn - arguably less so. And it’s not all about large-scale exploitation of energy; dental work is only really tolerable if it involves gradual drilling and humans have been doing this for thousands of years, it turns out, using a range of ingenious approaches.

This isn’t just a theoretical review of biomechanics. A number of the devices described can be built out of everyday components and materials, and in a ‘Making Models’ appendix Vogel, who was an inveterate modelmaker, provides instructions for inspired readers to construct their own muscle-powered technologies like trebuchets and hand cranks.

Dominic Lenton


Lenin on the Train

By Catherine Merridale, £17.00, Allen Lane, ISBN 9780241011324

I first learned about Lenin’s 1917 journey from Zurich to Petrograd from Gleb Kerensky, the son of Alexander Kerensky, the head of Russian Provisional government. I interviewed Mr Kerensky Junior in the English town of Rugby, where he then lived, in October 1988 while visiting the UK from Moscow on a month-long journalistic attachment to the Guardian. I remember being genuinely shocked when the ageing Mr Kerensky referred to Lenin as a German spy. I tried to object,  my irritated interviewee shouted: “No, it is a proved fact!”

My ignorance of the story might have been explained by the fact that in the Soviet Union it had been either completely silenced or dismissed outright as yet another fabrication of the ever-so-devilish Western propaganda. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt a bit ashamed of my past ignorance.

Imagine then my pleasure at  the arrival of this book. ‘Lenin on the Train’ is the most comprehensive history book on a momentous episode - and an example of the involvement of technology in changing history.

As in her previous Wolfson Prize-winning title, ‘Red Fortress: the Secret Heart of Russia’s History’, Merridale is out to deconstruct some popular myths surrounding Lenin’s historic train journey from Zurich to Petrograd in April 1917. To begin with, contrary to what many historians assert, the carriage he and his Bolshevik cronies travelled in was not technically ‘sealed’, and its passengers were able to circulate freely all over the train, to come out at station stops and so on. Secondly, Lenin had not been recruited as a spy (pace Gleb Kerensky) by the German secret services; there was no need. The Germans simply assisted him in undertaking the trip by organising it and paying his expenses. Delivering Lenin to Petrograd, they hoped, would be a huge destabilising factor for Russia (they were right; the October Bolshevik coup d’etat followed shortly), which could lead to the latter opting out of the First World War (they were spectacularly wrong).

The book contains a number of fascinating technical details. The travelling party consisted of 32 Russians, including Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya and his party-comrade-cum-mistress Inessa Armand - a rather delicate scenario. Despite the German promises of a free passage, Lenin’s group was shepherded off the train in Schaffhausen on the German-Swiss border for a thorough customs inspection. There was a bit of a scuffle among the travellers for the best compartments; no one wanted to ride close to the toilet, particularly after Lenin, himself a staunch non-smoker, banned smoking in all the compartments and corridors and only allowed puffing away in the toilet - a fact that resulted in long queues, for most of the Russians were heavy smokers. Lenin’s truly ‘revolutionary’ solution was to issue special ‘smoking tickets’ to the toilets, which did help to reduce the queues.

The sheer pettiness of these mundane arrangements by the people who were about to change the course of history is mind-boggling. Reading about them makes one think of how easily that unsentimental train journey could have been disrupted, with no Bolshevik revolution and all the decades of suffering that followed taking place as a result.

Vitali Vitaliev



From the IET Archives: Vintage electric toys

Among the IET’s rare books is a German volume, ‘Sammlung elektrischer Spielwerke fur junge Electriker’ (‘Collection of Electrical Toys for Young Electricians’) by Georg Heinrich Seiferheld, which was published in eight instalments between 1787 and 1799.

Seiferheld’s work is discussed in Michael Brian Schiffer’s 2003 book, ‘Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment’, which describes an electric card game:​“The operator handed the player a set of eight cards, all hearts, consisting of 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace. After the player chose a card, it was placed, face up, upon the centre of a cardboard disk, about a foot in diameter. A second disk of cardboard, the same size, was lowered carefully on the first, covering the selected card. Around the circumference of the upper disk was arrayed another set of the cards. When the operator pressed down on the upper disk, the hearts in one of the cards, the same card chosen by the player, lighted up: their edges gave off sparks.”

Directed at the interested layperson without electrical knowledge, the book was intended to encourage experiment, since - as Seiferheld put it - “from children come people, and amusing devices often give occasion for greater things”. Books such as Seiferheld’s work attracted interest and by the end of the 18th century toys were being mass-produced for the first time.

Jon Cable

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