Amazon’s Perfect Mistake

Please play that lovely wrong note
Because that wrong note
Just makes me doo doo doot, doo doo doot, wah
Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Leonard Bernstein, “Wrong Note Rag”

The Inverted Jenny isn’t a porn movie or a yoga pose. It’s a rare 1918 U.S. postage stamp characterized by an error.

Only 100 were printed with its central image — the Curtiss JN-4 airplane — upside-down, and today a single copy of this Holy Grail of philatelic flubs sells for more than a million dollars. During a period of childhood nerdiness, I spent countless hours searching for mistakes on stamps in the hopes of discovering the next Inverted Jenny.

But what will become of errors in the electronic age?

Amazon screwed up last month when it sold Kindle users an unlicensed version of a book. The online behemoth then compounded its goof by electronically invading customers’ files to make the book — and Amazon’s mistake — vanish into digital thin air.

That the book in question was 1984, the iconic Orwellian tale in which a “memory hole” sucks up all traces of media accounts not pleasing to Big Brother, ranks high in the “You Couldn’t Make This Stuff Up” department. Kindle 1984 buyers were shocked when they woke up to find that their libraries had been raided, but it was even worse for people like Detroit teenager Justin Gawronski, who lost all his notes for a school assignment, which Amazon erased along with his copy of the book. Will “My Kindle ate my homework” become the default digital excuse for students?

Amazon apologized for its creepiness, but the Kindle technology still allows similar incursions at any time and for any reason. CEO Jeff Bezos may be a great guy, but when a customer’s privacy depends on someone else’s judgment calls, that’s not privacy.

We’ve also grown accustomed to hearing no wrong notes in recorded music, where perfection is the norm and clinkers can be digitally unclinked faster than you can say “Newspeak.” Now, engineers can do much more than merely correct individual played or sung tones. Inventor Peter Neubacker says his Direct Note Access software can “reach into an audio file and change any one of the six notes in a guitar chord without changing the sound of the other notes.” Paging Roger McGuinn and your 12-string!

When a print publication slips up, the mistake can’t be erased, but can be corrected in a future edition — preserving both the error and, for Le Show host Harry Shearer’s reading pleasure, the apology. Online publishers, though, can simply make their mistakes disappear without acknowledging they ever existed.

There’s no need to cancel Kindle, of course, or to stop digital recording or refuse to read online, though one hopes that real books, analog recordings and print pubs can survive and, in some cases, even thrive alongside these technological wonders.

But let’s face it — the digital cat is out of the virtual bag, and as time goes by new technologies will provide even more opportunities for perfection. Which is a fine thing, but if we’re hell-bent on wiping out any evidence of our failures, we’re in danger of losing something precious — the magic of the accident, the oddity, the surprise.

Making and acknowledging mistakes is an essential part of being human. Before inventing the light bulb, Edison is said to have told a reporter, “I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.” And just think: If Columbus had Mapquested and GPSed India, he wouldn’t have bumped into the New World, and then where would we be?

Vladimir Horowitz, as great a pianist as has ever lived, said, “I must tell you I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake you hear it.” We don’t want to discourage future Horowitzes, do we?

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