08/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Kindle Ate My Homework

I've been a huge proponent of personal computers and all other gadgetry in general. Bought Radio Shack's TRS-80 back in 1980-when-it-came-out. The first 128K-no-hard-drive Mac. The original Palm Pilot. No tech too glitchy, no adoption too early.

The commonality about it all? I've been in ultimate control of what content was in it. Big Brother might be watching, but it was strictly hands off. Amazon slapped my sense of ownership and control across the face yesterday when I learned they reached right into the Kindles of an unspecified number of customers and deleted -- irony of ironies -- copies of George Orwell's 1984. Also his Animal Farm.

According to the NYTimes, some owners got to bear witness to the digital zap as they were in the midst of reading the book. Including one student who had been making notes on the work for a summer class -- since his annotations were part of the digital files they, too, vanished. (Hence the inspiration for this blog entry's title...)

Amazon's reasons were sound enough: the company that had originally uploaded the books to be sold were not the legal holders of the copyright so they were not entitled to profit from them. and the customers with the vanishing literature were refunded their purchase price. But the "no excuse" part was Amazon reaching out its digital tentacle into owners' personal Kindle devices and wiping out the files.

It seems an accidental glimpse of what could be construed as censorship on a massive scale. Amazon, in retrospect, realized they screwed up as a spokesman said, "We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances." Gotta love the conditional nature of "in these circumstances."

What happens a couple of more generations down the road when printed text is nothing more than a quaint reminder of the way people used to read? When some government decides that certain material is deemed illegal and is able to wipe it out from millions of digital memories, Hitler's book burnings will seem a drop in the bucket.

Guess I better start stocking up on printer paper.

Marc Hershon is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Jonathan Littman. Ironically, their book is available in a Kindle edition.