Friday, September 30, 2011

Southeast Valley Libraries Are Burning Books

It may be a stretch in these internet times to remember back that far, but perhaps some people will recall a distant July 2009, when Amazon made the literary gaffe of all gaffes late one night by reaching virtually into Kindle users' libraries, located on machines these users had paid for, and deleted titles such as "1984" and "Animal Farm". This happened when Amazon found out that a third party that had claimed rights to the books in fact did not own them.  And so, with a mouse click from a remote location, buried deep within the bowels of the Amazon book tracking behemoth (do not be afraid that Amazon maintains a database on all your book purchases, citizen) -- and without a sense of irony -- the titles were deleted from users e-readers.

The deletion causes quite a controversy, with people justifiably citing censorship, invasion of privacy and even theft as causes for their outrage.  But another issue didn't come up at the time that definitely struck me as curious. It is one of the, perhaps few, redeeming qualities of the electron age that when I give you a copy of something I have on my computer, my copy doesn't go away.  Indeed, not only doesn't it go away, but the quality of your does not diminish.

Love at first sight.
Now, if we can sidestep the question of analog versus digital quality, not only isn't the grade of your copy reduced compared to mine, but when I share a copy with you, it costs me nearly nothing.  So close to nothing we would never think of keeping track between us.  And one thing I would never do would be to ask for it back from you.  I would never call you up and say, "Hey, man, are you done with those Propagandhi mp3's that I gave you?  I need 'em back."   When I give you a copy, thanks to the magic of electrons, we both have one now.  Perfect, right, because there are two of us?

And so this brings me to the just announced deal that Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler and Queen Creek libraries, through the Greater Phoenix Digital Library, a consortium of Valley libraries, have struck a deal with to allow for digital downloads to Kindle devices through the library system.  Even though books, music and other files have been available for other digital devices, Kindle users have had to pay for access.  This in itself is funny, because if I loan you a book from my library, the book works just fine whether you are reading it on the couch or on the toilet.  And, to keep with our digital theme, the music I gave you earlier works just fine on your computer, whatever kind you have.

Now, this deserves a little commentary before I move on to the final point.  Pretty much anyone who uses devices but does not represent a manufacturer of devices would notice that what is happening here (aside from a direct attack on the library as a public, physical institution, since library patrons can now download the files 24/7 from home with their library cards) is that form is dictating access to content.

At the height of the hysteria and crackdown (2003), people still supported file sharing overwhelmingly
So, let's step back a few more years, if we can.  When my friend gave me a VHS copy of  Star Wars, it didn't matter whether you had a Sony and I had some crappy American VCR.  Why the hell there needs to be a separate agreement for me to download Marie Gabriel's new book, "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution" on two formats?  Especially since we know that it is mere proprietaries -- as in limiting access for profit -- that is at the root of the division? This is a library after all.  A library I have already paid for with taxes, if I may strike a right wing note for a moment.

But it gets worse!  The Republic reports, bafflingly, that there is a waiting list for Amazon titles.  A waiting list?!  Why?  The great thing about digital files is that you and I can both have them at the same time.  If for some unexplained reason I am waiting for that newest John Grisham book and so are you, why should I wait just because you were a few keystrokes faster than I am?  It defies logic.

Successfully deleted.
But here's what really makes no sense.  When you "borrow" a digital file from the "library" under this new deal, it self-destructs in 14 days, thus "freeing" it up to be available for the next person in line.  So, the library, dedicated to the spread of free knowledge and public access, is actively destroying books, serving as Amazon's willing executioner of information.  Information that wants to be free, with the only stumbling block being Amazon's desire to make a buck.

But make a buck how?  Well, aside from the licensing deal, it turns out that embedded in each "loaned" file for Kindle will be a link to Amazon where you can opt to purchase the book you got from the library via download.  Wait a minute.  I'm going to buy something I already have?  Naturally, the only way I'm going to do that is if Amazon and library conspire to destroy the copy of the book I already have!  Imagine that with a real book.  Back in the day, if I didn't return the book, maybe there were fines I had to pay, but at least the firemen didn't break into my house and, "Fahrenheit 451"-style, set fire to the book.  And yet that's what the library is doing now, electronically.

 Carson Daly is torn not just between styles of music, but also modes of media production and distribution

I think some people may remember in 2000 when Napster founder Shawn Fanning introduced Britney Spears ("singing a song that's older than she is") while sporting a Metallica shirt.  Metallica, of course, was busy suing Napster for file sharing.  After Carson Daly remarked, "Nice shirt", Fanning famously joked, "You like it?  Actually a friend of mine shared it with me.  I'm thinking about getting my own, though." 

Of course, it was nonsense, at least for a lot of people.  We might buy the shirt, but we weren't going to buy the album.  Not after what at that point was 20 years of what has become a 30 year stagnation or decline in wages.  Who could afford it?  Napster, and the programs that followed, were a godsend to those of us dedicated to music and yet scraping by.  And to the extent that it wasn't nonsense was only because enough of us were still prisoners to dial-up or other slow connections so that sometimes it was too much of a pain in the ass to download a whole album when you were relying on some other person you didn't know to do the same.  Many people can probably remember the phenomenon of setting up files to download while you were sleeping.  All problems that have been solved now.

The thing about electrons is that they are, setting aside the externalized cost to the environment, essentially free to the consumer, at least on the level of the individual file.  Costs are so low, access so easy, reproduction so simple and distribution so effortless that it reveals the contradictions within the capitalist organization of the economy.  And, it must be said, that it is capitalism itself that has set up this contradiction.  Through our own self-organization and desire to be free, we have leapt into it like prisoners facing a blasted hole in a prison wall.  We always wanted out, and now that we can, it is only the force of law that that can push us back in, because we can see the other side.

I'm not a technophiliac, but the most powerful lesson that the relatively new electron based production system reveals is the tenuousness with which commodity production clings to life.  We see it in the riot.  We see it in gifts between friends, in rides to the airport, in knit caps from mom and in our backyard gardens.  And we also see it in the files we share.  And, most importantly, we see the absurdities of the system in its attempts to corral, limit, prosecute and impose proprietary relations on escaped commodities that defy remuneration.  

A system that turns librarians into book burners.

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