(Forgot to post this earlier this year. Here it is.)
Years and years ago, I heard about a book William Gibson had written. A strange book that would destroy itself as it was read.
I could barely remember what the book was called: Agrippa.
I heard of this book when I was a kid. There was just something inexcusable about information that will destroy itself. I think that somehow, retaining digital information — and all information in general — is just hard-wired in me. Deleting stuff is kind of sad. I think that as a writer, the best thing that has ever happened to me are the version control systems: I can delete stuff without permanently getting rid of anything. And, of course, as a part of learning to create, you need to realise that sometimes creation is also about destruction of things that don’t work. But I don’t want to utterly destroy the failures - they’re there, lurking in version history.
I have memories of things. And that’s what Agrippa was about: memories. Memories that get buried in mind. Memories that get buried in encryption.
And it’s fascinating that Agrippa is remembered.
Gibson himself seems to think Agrippa is a little bit overrated and over-analysed, and to some extent, I agree. (Having proven the point, the poem itself is available right here on his web page.) But it’s still think it’s a fascinating lesson in how digital books seem to change.
Agrippa was an ebook before ebooks were cool. It was also an ebook with digital rights management before the publishers got to that bandwagon.
Here’s an informative website about all things Agrippa. For a book that supposedly destroys itself, it seems to be particularly meticulously documented.
And that, of course, raises the question: if the poem wouldn’t destroy itself, would it have gotten as meticulously documented?
That was Agrippa’s entire marketing shtick. “You can only read the poem once.” The folks got a fair warning. The response was predictable: “Okay, let’s make that count, dammit, and make sure we can read the poem more than once.” Everyone instinctually knew that this bit of a poem was incredibly precious and they had to save it.
But would they have done so if they hadn’t gotten that fair warning, I wonder?
Earlier this year, I purchased another of William Gibson’s books - in electronic form, again. Here’s what Chapter 1 looks like:
People have given a fair shot at Agrippa so far. I really hope someone takes a crack at the actual program and sees what kind of encryption the program uses. People basically did a
dd disk image out of the floppy and it predictably runs in an emulator, so that’s a few less things to worry about. Now they can just focus on figuring out the encryption method used in the program and what keys it uses. Because they are all self-contained on that floppy image.
That is the downfall of all digital rights management systems, by the way: In order to let people to actually use the content, someone has to have the key. And in order for people to actually pay for the content, you need to actually show them the work in unencrypted form, and for that, you need the bloody key again.
The book I purchased, and which is depicted above, is Pattern Recognition - an awesome novel, by the way. Not a big deal is made out of the fact that the book also uses an access control mechanism and encryption.
Of course, we live in a gentlemanly age these days. The EPUB file is fully standards-compliant. It just includes a separate file that says, using XML Encryption Standard, that each component file is encrypted using AES128 in CBC mode, using a key that is identified as such-and-such and is stored somewhere - the file doesn’t exactly specify where.
Oh, and there’s this little-spoken-of plugin for Calibre that can figure out where Adobe Digital Editions keeps these keys and will automatically unencrypt the EPUB file.
Now, I hope Mr. Gibson and his fine publisher doesn’t get too worked up about this. I paid a fair price for the book and have absolutely no interest in spreading the file further. I’ll sit on my Calibre library - just like I have a copy of Neuromancer sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read again when I get around to.
But this is what happens when we don’t have fair warnings. I needed to be vigilant. I purchased the book because it said it was an EPUB file, and EPUB files can be read on computers and other devices without much fuss. We have some assurances of compatibility.
I can hand my copy of Neuromancer to any of my friends. If I go weird in the head and press them on if they can read it, they might just say “sure, it’s possible for me to read it, it’s a fucking book.” Similarly, I could lend them my EPUB copy of the book, and they might say “oh, I have an EPUB reader somewhere. Thanks for plugging Calibre. It’s a monster of a program, but dammit, it works.”
But you don’t have the same assurances with the EPUB file I originally purchased. It’s not really an EPUB file. It’s an EPUB-file-shaped object.
Much like Agrippa isn’t a book. It’s a book-shaped object. With a floppy disk that used to contain a poem.
If you don’t have digital rights management around, you don’t need to worry about ending up with unreadable book-shaped objects.
You may remember the time when you were able to read “EPUB for Adobe Digital Editions” files. But you can’t transfer memories.
You do have some assurances that you can read EPUB files. That stuff at least has open specifications. There’s reader software out there that doesn’t depend on whims of digital rights management snake oil peddlers. They try to assure publishers that no one will ever figure this stuff out, even when people have been demonstrably figuring it out for decades.
How they figured to peddle it to Gibson’s publishers is anyone’s guess. But I guess Agrippa’s tale just isn’t publicised enough.