Censorship (or lack thereof) in the Digital Age

More and more information and literature is available to us through only few clicks or swipes thanks to resources such as the Digital Public Library of America  and Project Gutenberg, but today’s ever-evolving technology can also allow for censorship of these materials. Clean Reader  is a fairly new e-reader app that allows readers to censor swearwords and other offensive phrases from books purchased through the app’s online bookstore. A recent article from the Guardian goes into further depth about the app, created by the mother and father of a young student in Idaho.

Expletives are replaced with less offensive alternatives in the Clean Reader app.


While the app received positive feedback initially, as indicated in the initial article, the tide soon turned as authors began to notice that their work was being censored. Less than two weeks after the publication of this article, another was posted about the outcry from the censored authors. Fittingly, most of the protests came from Twitter and blogs, as has become the norm in today’s digital world.



These very public objections have led the founders of Clean Reader to remove the books that belong to the Inktera and Smashwords bookselling systems, as well as those of several other authors, from their bookstore. The removal of these books has been seemingly swift and fairly painless. Author Joanne Harris, one of the app’s biggest opponents, considered this a win, telling the Guardian, ” It is a small victory for the world of dirt. And a wise move on their behalf. I think somebody would have proved how fundamentally illegal it is, and would have taken them to court … it’s interesting to see how pressure from the internet has done it, and how widespread support is for the integrity of books. A lot of people don’t want to see books tampered with.”

Authorial intention seems to be an underlying issue of the controversial Clean Reader app. Many of the supporters of the app don’t believe the author’s intentions are significant in reading a book, and feel that once a book is published, readers can do with it what they please, and this apparently includes changing words in the text. Most of the authors seem to align with Harris, whose opinion is clearly the opposite.  Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other forms of social media have made knowing an author’s intentions much easier than in the past. While we rely on Thoreau’s journals, correspondence, and revisions to attempt to understand his intent in writing Walden, many authors today will directly answer questions from their readers through various social media platforms. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable, but in the case of Clean Reader, I feel it is a positive.

Is a “Digital Dark Age” Imminent?

In a recent article from NPR News, Google Vice President Vint Cerf suggested that our current times may be looked back on as a “digital Dark Age” due to our digital preservation of information. Many of our photos and documents will likely become inaccessible as certain softwares becomes obsolete, which could create a problem for anyone in the future trying to research our times. Cerf says, “We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realizing it.” He points to digital correspondence as one of the biggest losses of information, as most of us delete emails and the like with very little consideration. However, a great deal of research has been conducted on the written correspondence of authors, politicians, and other historical figures (Cerf refers to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln, a book written after intense study of Lincoln’s letters), and there is concern that research of this variety will be nearly impossible when looking back on our era.

Google VP Vint Cerf
Google VP Vint Cerf

The irony of one of Google’s higher-ups cautioning against digital storage is inescapable, though one possible solution is suggested, the “snapshot.” I have to wonder if resources such as the Digital Public Library of America, as discussed in class, would also be useful in this regard, though emails and other more personal files remain an issue.


Cerf’s prediction also seems to call the entire field of digital humanities into question. Though helpful in the present, will anyone in the future benefit from our efforts to digitize works that are already physically accessible, a seemingly more lasting format? Would our time be better spent working to collect the documents we have into books, and analyzing text in more traditional manners, giving future scholars a better chance at accessing the finished product?