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.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Paradise Lost! Westgate City Center development thankfully collapses under a pile of bills.

  Too beautiful for this world!  All beauty fades eventually and every dream must end.  And stuff like that.

Rebekah L. Sanders over at the Arizona Republic reports that another bloated, gaudy consumer/workers paradise has lurched into bankruptcy and repossession.  This isn't the first one in Phoenix since the crisis began to get into trouble and it probably won't be the last considering where the economy is headed.  But if you've ever been there, you'll know that this place in particular is hilarious.

I used to deliver there for work and it was big on this artificial, corporatized "live, work and play" nonsense.  "I can see my loft from here," said the giant wall-sized youths on the signs, conveniently plastered over the windows of empty, dust-gathering chain stores. This place was a cheap corporate facsimile of a copy of a sketch of the old neighborhoods of old, just with everything that made those kinds of neighborhoods interesting and worth living in stripped out.

With the piped in easy listening mall music reaching up to the balconies of the "loft-style" apartments, surrounded as they are by one crap corporate chain after another and their zombie-like patrons most days, Cardinals fans eight days a year, and shitty arena rock douches on the other weekends, I often wondered just what kind of crap demographic they hoped to attract, and just how they intended to cut them down from the balconies before 10 AM business hours when they finally were overcome by the vacuousness of their surroundings and hanged themselves.

Good riddance.
Part of Glendale Westgate City Center repossessed by lender
The developer who launched Westgate City Center, the landmark sports-and-entertainment complex that helped transform Glendale, has officially lost ownership of the major part of the development.
The core of the Ellman Cos.' project, outside University of Phoenix Stadium and Arena,was repossessed Monday by the lender, iStar Financial, after it failed to sell at a foreclosure auction for a reserve price of $40 million.
The 33-acre property, which features restaurants, shops and an AMC movie theater along with Bellagio-like fountains and Times Square-style billboards, was designed as a suburban sports, entertainment and commercial hub to rival downtown Phoenix.

The remaining land owned by Ellman Cos., 95 acres of mostly parking lots slated for future development, is scheduled for foreclosure auction in November by lender Credit Suisse.

The auction is the latest blow to Glendale's prestigious sports district and another example of how the city has been shaken by the economic downturn.

The Phoenix Coyotes went through bankruptcy two years ago and still have no permanent owner. Now Westgate, at Loop 101 and Glendale Avenue, has been taken away from Steve Ellman, the city's development partner for more than a decade.

Westgate's opening in 2006 was like a launch party for the West Valley, with excitement brimming about the region's future as the flashy complex rose out of farm fields.

The Coyotes played next door, and the Arizona Cardinals had just moved in nearby.

Ellman, the chief executive of the company, called Westgate his favorite project.

At the time, a planning expert had cautioned the project was a gamble that relied on synergy between sports fans and shoppers.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Announcing the first issue of the new PCWC broadsheet, "The Crisis"

Governor Brewer lets out a mighty class war cry of sheer victorious glee after signing the corporate tax cut earlier this year.

So it is with the bad news that Arizona has fired more than 10,000 public school employees -- more than 6,000 of them teachers -- and the good news that one in every ten bosses who dies on the job is murdered, that we announce what we hope to be an ongoing agitational broadsheet aimed at regularly stoking the fires of opposition here in the Copper State, Phoenix in particular. We're calling it, simply enough, "The Crisis" and it is intended for hand to hand distribution in the city.

Since the last year's struggles against both the reactionary rightwing attack and the wishy-washy leftist recuperation, we have become more and more aware that no one in the state is addressing the increasingly perilous and precarious economic situation of so many workers and excluded people in Az. Lines at state social service agencies stretch for hours in the 110 degree heat, jobs have not come back, wages have fallen and the economic situation of more and more people every day seems to sit on a knife's edge.

The successful division of the working class created by the racist right has limited the ability of the class to find ways to fight back against the attack, as well as to envision new ways of organizing life that go beyond merely calling for increased intervention into poor and working class people's lives. In Arizona this is particularly an interesting question because there is such hostility to government solutions, even among the working class.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the obvious class assault that is the imposition of austerity. Vital services are disappearing. Take for instance the recent decision by the state to throw more than a hundred thousand poor and working class people off the state's health care plan.  Beyond that, people making more than $920 a month have been disqualified from eligibility, at the same time that the state weekly unemployment benefit pays out about 210 dollars a week. Given that payments in Arizona top out at $240 a week, that average means substantial numbers of unemployed people who once could count on health care while out of work no longer have it.

In addition, the state currently runs a budget surplus, largely made on the backs of the foreclosure crisis, as formerly working class folks ejected from their homes have lost the mortgage deduction, boosting income tax revenues. And never mind that the arguments for austerity coming from the political and business class were built on dire -- even catastrophic -- budget projections. Meanwhile, the state passed a corporate sales tax cut, further shifting the tax burden onto the poor and working class with a whopping $1.5 billion dollar giveaway to the rich over the next seven years.

At the same time, the legislature continues to contemplate a flat tax, which would cut taxes on the rich even more, with a resulting rise in tax payments at the bottom. And, if it couldn't get any worse, this summer the state rejected Federal money for unemployment extensions, potentially stranding thousands of unemployed Arizonans when their state benefits run out. With an unemployment rate of 9.6%, and an average length of unemployment steadily creeping up towards a year, that's guaranteed to leave some very marginalized people hanging.

As usual, we don't find these conditions depressing, we find them interesting and worthy of intervening in and experimenting with. Potential exists for some interesting organizing and possibly for a breech in normal politics. So, look for copies of the new broadsheet soon. Once more into the breach we go!