Friday, 24 February 2012

The Content Providers Strike Back

It is a period of great conflict on the Internet. For years, the War against Piracy has pitted content providers (the entertainment industry, movie studios, record labels, publishers) against guerrilla bands of techies and lone digital freedom fighters with the ordinary consumer caught in the middle. Following a massive wave of protest against digital restrictions when hundreds of websites took themselves offline to protest the USA’s restrictive SOPA and PIPA legislation, the content providers have struck back and are driving the conflict to a head: the file hosting site Megaupload was shut down and the owners including Kim Dotcom (1) arrested for copyright infringement; the ebook hosting site was shut down after a coalition of publishers issued an injunction against the site; earlier this week, the UK High Court ruled that the torrent hosting site, The Pirate Bay, facilitates copyright infringement and could potentially be blocked by UK ISPs. 

Short of shutting down every new torrent hosting site, how can content providers effectively combat piracy? How can they survive in a new digital-based economy? Who will emerge triumphant from the battlefield of the War against Piracy? 

A couple of years ago, I wrote this article for The Guardian’s Comment is Free in which I argued that treating digital commodities like physical commodities is a mistake. In an economic system based on physical commodities, resources are controlled by scarcity, by physical distributions, and by resources’ natural decay. Content providers have total control over these products – where they go, how they are used, etc. A vinyl record cannot be easily copied, can only be manufactured by the content provider, can only be obtained from a designated shop, and eventually degrades. The quintessential physical resource, gold, is only valuable because of its scarcity. In short, the economic system of physical commodities is based on physical restrictions. 

Digital commodities don’t have physical restrictions and therefore require a different economic system. An MP3 file can be copied ad infinitum, can be shared easily through the framework of the Web, and will remain playable for as long as the software is available to play it. The balance of power has shifted and the customer has a lot more control over the product. Rather than adapting to digital commodities, many content providers have simply imposed – or tried to impose – physical restrictions on digital resources: making files with DRM, files that cannot be copied, files that can only be opened a certain number of times, ebooks that can only be opened by a certain number of users at a time (2). These methods of restriction are artificial – they are imposed by the content provider to generate artificial scarcity – and they are a way of holding on to an out-of-date economic system. 

Over the past few years however, a new economic system has developed: one that is more suited to digital commodities and the increased control of the customer. A ‘trust economy’. In the old economic system, customers paid for content for one reason: it was the only way to get the content. In our new economic system for digital products, customers aren’t forced to buy movies, books, music, etc.: there are other ways to get them. And so we have different reasons for paying for content. First, because we feel it is the right thing to do: that creators deserve to be rewarded for their work and creativity. Second, because the paid content is easier to get than the pirated content (3). 

These reasons for paying for content both involve trust and openness. If content providers trust their customers to do the morally right thing and treat them like adults by providing high-quality content and being open by not imposing artificial restrictions, then customers reward them by pay for their content. Rather than the cynicism and distrust of artificially generating scarcity or imposing artificial restrictions, the trust economy returns to a more basic economic philosophy: ‘if you so something well, you get rewarded’. (4) 

Piracy tends to occur in circumstances where content providers are not open, do not provide a high-quality product, and do not trust their customers or treat them as adults. This recent Oatmeal comic demonstrates this in the case of HBO’s Game of Thrones (5). The comic prompted an interesting comment discussion on Gizmodo about why people pirate content. And Cory Doctorow discussed this recently on BoingBoing in relation to a study which showed that US box office returns are not correlated to BitTorrent sharing. Rather, torrenting increases when a content provider makes a resource artificially scarce: the example used is piracy driven by the gap between US and UK releases of The Muppets. 

The economic principles of the trust economy are openness, mutual respect between content provider and customer, and trust. Digital commodities have already given customers more control: content providers can either treat them like adults and trust them to do the morally right thing or continue to artificially restrict digital content. The content providers who recognise this developing landscape and who adapt to it will be the ones who survive the War against Piracy. 

(1) Not his birth name but it’s not as bad as some of the other pseudonyms listed on his Wikipedia page.

(2) As a librarian working with e-resources, this last one is the one that really gets on my nerves. It’s often the high demand ebooks, the ebooks labelled as required reading on reading lists, that run into these limits and result in students being unable to get access: a problem that is exacerbated by the high demand that caused the problem in the first place. 

(3) The economic principle behind iTunes Music Store. 

(4) On the theme of treating customers like adults, consider that patronising ‘You wouldn’t steal a handbag; you wouldn’t steal a car’ film at the start of DVDs. This film is so irritating because: 
a. it demonstrates the content providers’ lack of understanding and makes a category mistake by equating a digital commodity with a physical commodity. 
b. it punishes precisely the wrong person. It makes someone who has done the right thing by buying the DVD suffer through a patronising video which accuses them of being a criminal. 

(5) FYI, even though that comic has been doing the rounds, Virtual Shackles made exactly the same joke months ago and did it a lot more subtly.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Gradations of self-awareness in blogging

The simple, self-publicising blog post:

In May, I will be going to the CILIP in Wales Conference in Cardiff. On the Friday, I’ll be on a panel with some amazing people and presenting a workshop with fellow Voices member, Ian Anstice. I’m massively pleased to have been asked and I’m really looking forward to it. The theme is leadership and I’m glad for the opportunity to consider my own leadership potential and to talk about the topic. It’s so important in these interesting times that we all speak up for the profession and… etc. etc.

The analysis of leadership that I really want to write:

I’m not a leader. I’m not special. I don’t feel that I am someone to be emulated. All I’ve ever done is faked it.

Basically I don’t feel like I’ve done anything special. I’ve written some articles and presentations to share some of my ideas and I’ve tried to campaign for public libraries: dashing off some emails to newspapers and MPs and occasionally doing a nervous radio interview. Maybe I helped the campaign in North Yorkshire but I certainly wasn’t a leader of a campaign group and it was nothing like what other people have done, in Gloucestershire for example.

Most people could have done the things that I have done. Which, if you really think about it, is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic.

Why I wouldn’t write that blog post:

Although the CILIP Wales invitation makes me feel like a complete fraud, I still feel the need to perpetuate that fraud. Over the past few years, I’ve carefully cultivated a persona and acted on so much of the pseudo-management speak in the library community about ‘personal branding’ and ‘marketing oneself’ that the disconnect between the professional-Simon and the personal-Simon now feels like an unmanageable gulf. This invitation to be on a panel of “leaders in the Information and Library profession” makes me feel as though ‘SimonXIX’ has become a stage creation – an identity to wear on the library community stage and an identity which is drifting further and further away from ‘Simon Barron’. Or, to use an analogy closer to my heart, if SimonXIX is my Batman persona – an identity consciously created for an express purpose – then which is really the mask: Batman or Bruce Wayne?

The sentence that came to mind – the sentence that I really wanted to write or tweet or whatever – was ‘If someone like me is regarded as some kind of leader in this profession, then the profession is in deeper trouble than I thought’. Which is not only simultaneously arrogant and disgustingly self-deprecating but also insulting to the wider library community to which I attach myself.

And the instant I thought that sentence – which, despite the above-mentioned disgust, I think of as quite a clever and well-formed sentence with its layers of implication and right tone of Woody Allen-style condensed wit and self-deprecation – I knew that I couldn’t tweet it. Because in creating SimonXIX, I’ve built up an audience and the Paradox of Audience is that having people read your work makes you less free to write what you want to write.

There are now two obvious reactions for you, the reader. The first is to ask what arrogance drives me to think that this blog has an audience: the word ‘audience’ here is used very loosely to refer to the approximately 1800 people who Blogger tells me view at least one page every month (the actual number of people will even be considerably less than that since that figure refers to ‘pageviews’ including multiple visits by one person: for all I know, the 1800 pageviews could be generated by a single, very enthusiastic reader. If so, hello to you). The fact, which it’s not very modest to say, is that I do have a readership and I am aware of them. The second reaction on the part of you, the reader, would be to say "Fine: if you want to be free, I won’t read your blog then" and wander off to some other corner of the Web. I’m trying hard to not appear ungrateful: I’m glad that people read what I write; I’m glad that this effort isn’t a completely onanistic exercise. I’m just trying to express the truth even if that truth is uncomfortable.

Anyway, the Paradox of Audience. Having an audience has a constraining effect because I am aware that there are people out there judging what I’ve written. Being aware of this means in that in some ways what I write is altered to match the (perceived) expectations of that (perceived) audience. So, coming back to the case in hand, to write about feeling like a fraud and feeling that I don’t want to be seen as a leader would undermine the SimonXIX who gets invited to go talk at conferences about being a leader (and the fact is that going to Wales and meeting people sounds fun and exciting and I wouldn’t want to sabotage that). It also runs counter to the aforementioned ‘personal branding’, ‘we’re-all-self-employed-now’ ideology that is predominant among young library folk like myself.

As another example, consider swearing in a professional context. One of my colleagues (who I hope won’t mind me mentioning this) seems all-too-aware that swearing as part of his/her professional persona appears, to some members of his/her audience, unprofessional and offensive. By cultivating a wide audience of people with diverse attitudes to swearing, this person becomes less free to indulge in casual (but appropriate, I’m sure) swearing.

And so, being aware of this Paradox of Audience makes me see that I’ve become trapped in a cage of my own creation. As my popularity grows (arrogance again), I feel less able to take off the SimonXIX mask. Bruce Wayne now has to be Batman all the time.

The motivation behind this blog post:

This blog post is really intended as a long explanation of why I’ve not been blogging much lately and to give an insight into the gradations of self-awareness that layer themselves inside the head of the young over-educated philosopher-cum-librarian. Over the past month, I feel like I should have blogged about National Libraries Day, Library Day in the Life Round 8 and my not-altogether-positive-thoughts on the This is What a Librarian Looks Like tumblr (which, while I’m already alienating my audience, I might write about anyway). The overall post is best viewed as an apology.

The secondary motivation behind this blog post:

Underneath these concerns about perception and self-identity, I’m aware that despite complaining about the professional-identity mask, I’m now writing about that mask without the mask on. And I’m aware that writing this blog post about my difficulty writing simple blog posts is a perverse way to drum up sympathy. It’s a way to get friends and colleagues to look at me, to pay attention to me, and to make them/you say, ‘No, Simon: don’t be silly. Of course you’re talented. Of course you’re deserving of attention. Of course you’re a leader.’ It’s a way for me to say ‘Look. Look at me. Look at the labyrinths of self-analysis inside my mind. Look at my suffering. Look at how I match the stereotype of the tormented genius. Look at me. Look.’ This motivation is again produced by the self-disgusting arrogance mentioned throughout.

The motivation behind the above paragraph:

And it strikes me that this whole meta-analysis is really nothing more than an attempt to reflect the writing style of some of my favourite authors – David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen – all of whom, to some degree, wrote about the horrors of being young, successful, white, and middle-class (I’m also aware of the influence of recently reading Stewart Lee’s (excellent) autobiography, How I Escaped My Certain Fate). Being aware of this motivation makes me feel horribly whiny and privileged and I’m sure I don’t need to enumerate the myriad injustices and social problems that are more worthy of a 1500+ word document.

And this awareness of consciously aping someone else’s writing style, as well as being pathetic and indicative of a failure to develop my own style, leads to concerns about the apologetic tone of this self-indulgent post. Even using the term ‘self-indulgent’ is a way to acknowledge that I’m aware how selfish this post is and to imply my apologies to you, the reader. When working on the enquiry desk at work, I often say "Sorry" to library users more than is strictly necessary ie. simply when enforcing the rules which the users should be aware of and which by rights ‘the library’ (in the form of me, a representative from the library staff) should not apologise for. And I wonder how much this excessive apologising is a subconscious way to ingratiate people towards me by prostrating myself before them, humbling myself, and appearing to be the morally ‘bigger man’.

The motivation behind this whole ‘stepping outside myself’:

And I’m worried that maybe I’m writing this whole Russian-nesting-doll analysis of the psychology of blogging to seem clever. To show off how postmodern I can be. So that someone – probably the single reader postulated above – can look at this, momentarily think "Oh, that’s clever", and then wander off to look at pictures of cats-not-eating-cheeseburgers or whatnot. Whereas in reality, the likely reaction for you, the reader, is to think "What a pretentious arse and what a waste of my time".

And after hitting publish:

All of which is why, instead of my customary practice of consciously posting blog posts at a time when I know a lot of people will be at their computers, I’m posting on a Saturday morning. And instead of tweeting the link my customary and cynically calculated three times (once in the morning when people first log-in, once at midday when people check their Twitter / RSS feeds at lunch, and once at 1630 to catch Americans logging-in (this whole practice makes me feel like a marketer and therefore disgusted with myself)), I’ll just tweet it once.

Which finally reveals that this is a blog post that I don’t particularly want my audience to read. Partly because at this point taking off the SimonXIX mask feels too risky to my career and future prospects. Partly because I’m embarrassed to be revealing so much about the twisted inner workings of my mind and simultaneously afraid that no-one will relate to this at all.

And why does one write something without wanting it to be read? For catharsis. Perhaps the real motivation behind writing this was to rid my mind of all this dammed-up toxic self-doubt. To explore the limits of the cage I’ve built for myself in the hope that I won’t have to be constrained by it anymore. To get this ugliness inside me out of my mind and into the world because there’s far more space for it in the world than there is my head. In the final analysis, what is one more blog post from one more whiny, over-educated, narcissistic, young WASP?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The commonplace and the quest for the perfect notebook

One of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks
During the heyday of the printed codex, from the 15th Century on towards the 20th Century, scholars, readers, and philosophers kept commonplace books. A commonplace book was essentially a notebook in which the reader would jot down useful passages from monographs and articles, witty lines from novels, interesting recipes, thoughts, ideas, or day-to-day observations. These notebooks would form a compendium of what the reader had enjoyed in other people’s writing and as a record of ideas that he/she might want to develop. The practice of commonplacing used to be taught as part of a classical education, certainly at Oxford and Harvard. Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and Mark Twain all kept commonplace books which they referred to throughout their lives. 

 For those readers who took the practice to heart, a commonplace book became a reflection of their mind. Professor Robert Darnton writes (1): 

“Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end (unless they are digital natives and click through texts on machines), early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”  (2)

A commonplace book was a means of interpreting the world: scaling down chaotic experience and preserving only snippets of especial knowledge. Note-taking allowed voracious readers to chart and navigate the miasma of the written word – what d’Alembert referred to in the Discours PrĂ©liminaire as the labyrinth of knowledge. Commonplacing and note-taking were – and are – “a semi-conscious process of ordering experience.” (3) For its keeper, a commonplace book was a guide, a map, a familiar, a daemon, a memory outside the mind. 

I have always loved the romantic idea of a commonplace book: a single book filled with striking passages of literature, the best notions discovered in philosophy, and general ideas. A true mirror of my mind. I read a lot and increasingly find myself forgetting the beautiful bits and pieces that I stumble across: they get buried in my mind like diamonds in a desert. Last year, I struggled to remember and find my favourite passage from my favourite novel, Albert Camus’ The Plague. I couldn’t remember the exact wording or which character to said it or to whom or anything about the scene in which it takes place. My only solution was to read the whole book again (which was no bad thing). (4)

Since about 2009, when my life became too complex to keep in my head (or my head became too simple to keep life in), I have been a prodigious note-taker. And yet I’ve never found my perfect note-taking experience. With my increased reliance on keyboards, I’ve become less able and less willing to write by hand. As well as my handwriting now being more or less indecipherable (even to me), I find handwriting inefficient: it takes longer than typing and afterwards I’m unable to manipulate the text in ways I think of as standard (copying, pasting, saving, blogging, tweeting, etc.). Though I have kept Word documents of typed ideas and transcribed snippets for several years, these lack the portability of a notebook. 

Various of my note-taking methods over the years

Now I may finally have found a solution. I recently bought an Android device which allows me to use the Web and download apps: the kind of device that everyone else had two years ago. I downloaded Evernote (remembering skim-reading this post by Ned Potter) and have since used the program for all my note-taking. As well as allowing me to type notes a lot quicker than I could handwrite them, my digital notes are a lot more usable than my analog notes: I can copy from them, I can carry them with me, and, using tags and various notebooks, I can categorise and classify them (5). I set up a notebook called ‘Commonplace book’ in which I’ve been keeping passages from books I’m reading and various snippets amalgamated from my Word document note files and from my Kindle’s ‘My Clippings’ file. 

So now at last it feels like I have my commonplace book – a digital commonplace book that I can access portably on my Android or from anywhere with a computer and an Internet connection. I hope that the technology will continue to work for me and will provide what those great readers of the Enlightenment had in their commonplace books: a guide, a compendium, a memory outside the mind. 

(1) From The Case for Books, Chapter 10 ‘The Mysteries of Reading’. 

(2) There's an interesting (but incidental) parallel here between this Enlightment approach to reading and Jonathan Franzen's recent negative comments about ebooks. Is it possible that we're actually getting closer to our forefathers' fragmentary approach to reading and understanding? See this excellent response to Franzen for more on this.

(3) Darnton again.

(4) For those who are interested, the passage is: 

“Tarrou, who had said nothing up to now, remarked without turning his head that if Rambert wanted to share the misfortunes of mankind, he would never again have time for happiness. You had to choose.”

(5) Some tags I've been using for various notes: 'Library Camp NW'; 'Library campaigning'; 'E-resources'; 'PhD'; 'Library history'.