Posted tagged ‘commercialism’

digital books: when it rains, it pours.

March 16, 2010

The recent release of David Shield’s book Reality Hunger: a Manifesto (see here and here) comes on the heels of increasing controversy in Europe over Helene Hegemann’s literary debut Axolotl Roadkill (see here). Hegemann is already caught up in an intellectual property scandal; we’ll see what happens to Shields. Both books take a recombinant, “remix” approach to writing, cobbling together excerpts of other people’s writing with their own bits of text. How very contemporary. The idea of remixing as a unique mode of cultural production and the attendant issues of intellectual property that always seem to follow it have now made it into the book market.

While consumers read literary mash-ups like last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, media giants like Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble are competing to get the reading public hooked on portable hand-held digital reading devices: Kindle, Reader and Nook. Consequently, the publishing industry is already embroiled in typical efforts to protect corporate property: conflict over ebook file formats and which devices can read which formats, as well as concern over the proliferation of ebooks as a hot commodity for file sharing.

At the same time, but getting less media attention, has been Google’s ongoing commercial/legal negotiation with various publishers, universities and other authorities as they expand the ever-growing Google Books project. The project makes a massive amount of material available to the public, online, much of it for free, but many books and other printed materials are still not fully usable or readable thanks to pressure from publishers.

There are many things that are controversial about Google Books. For one, why should we trust a private corporation with the next generation of media services we would normally expect from public libraries? If Google cuts a deal with publishers, much of the content would likely become pay-to-play – and then, publishers would have some say in the cost and accessibility of their products. Even if Google was committed to keeping user access free and open, other issues might arise, too.

Nicholas Sarkozy, Jean-Noël Jeanneney and others close to the French National Library have argued that Google books will only speed the trend of cultural globalization as Americanization, and place control of books belonging to France’s national “patrimony” in non-French hands. Other times, their line seems to be pan-European. But whether they argue for a French digital library (like Gallica), or a European Union version (like Europeana), the point is to mount a public, European challenge to American corporate digitization projects like Google’s.

These varied anecdotes suggest that we’re witnessing an interesting moment of transformation in books, and in the ways that people talk about, think about, buy and sell, and fight over, books. With so much intellectual content and so much money at stake, this dialogue, now fairly widespread, will only get hotter.

Brooks on the Attitudinal Health of “Protocol Economies”

December 22, 2009

Today’s NYTimes features an op-ed by David Brooks that offers an alternative take on the changing notions of ownership I brought up in my post a few days ago. Brooks’ frames this as a transition from an economy of physical things (his corn and steel, my bicycle) to an economy of “protocols”:

A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass.

Brooks then goes on to argue, referencing a new book by Arnold Kling (of the Cato Institute) and Nick Schulz (of AEI), that the success of a protocol economy “depends on its ability to invent and embrace new protocols.” And what is it that allows economies to nurture this ability?

Protocols are intangible, so the traits needed to invent and absorb them are intangible, too. First, a nation has to have a good operating system: laws, regulations and property rights.

[…]

Second, a nation has to have a good economic culture. “From Poverty to Prosperity” [ed., a new book by Kling and Schulz] includes interviews with major economists, and it is striking how they are moving away from mathematical modeling and toward fields like sociology and anthropology.

What really matters, Edmund S. Phelps of Columbia argues, is economic culture — attitudes toward uncertainty, the willingness to exert leadership, the willingness to follow orders. A strong economy needs daring consumers (Phelps says China lacks this) and young researchers with money to play with (Romer notes that N.I.H. grants used to go to 35-year-olds but now they go to 50-year-olds).

A protocol economy tends toward inequality because some societies and subcultures have norms, attitudes and customs that increase the velocity of new recipes while other subcultures retard it. Some nations are blessed with self-reliant families, social trust and fairly enforced regulations, while others are cursed by distrust, corruption and fatalistic attitudes about the future. It is very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.

So, according to Brooks, successful economies must quickly adopt new protocols, and the two most important factors in being able to adopt protocols quickly is to develop strong intellecual property rights and then to have inate anthropological characteristics that will develop strong leaders and eager followers, all arranged into self-reliant families. In short, Brooks takes a Randian, social Darwinist perspective on the global information economy. Those who excel in such economies do so because they originate from superior cultures and are bolstered by regulations which prevent the untermenschen from ransacking their protocols (which would, one assumes, weaken the incentive for futher protocol development). This is a proposal for a Bell Curve of the information economy.

On a related note, Arnold Kling got himself into a little scandal last February, when he suggested that Obama’s stimulus plan was actually “a reparations bill” (additional commentary here). Unintentionally as it may have been, Kling draws a very neat line between the ethics of slavery and colonialism and opposition to the so-called Socialism of government-run social services.

In any case, ignoring for the time being the fact that we all still rely very much on things like food and petroleum, not just “protocols,” Brooks’ logic (or the logic he takes from Kling, Schulz, et al) also fits quite nicely into a Hayekian/Trickle-Down worldview wherein the concentration of resources in the hands of the few somehow ultimately translates into prosperity for the masses.

As such, Brooks’ argument seems to have nothing to do with changing systems of value and ownership in the protocol age, except in that it seeks to justify the imposition of artifical scarcity on digital resources in order to preserve the same old justifications for enclosure that existed in those old-fashioned physical economies.

Who Owns Science? Part 2: the Bayh-Dole Act

December 18, 2009

In the United States, the question of who owns science was given a loud and clear answer in 1980 by Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole. Their “Bayh-Dole Act” allowed businesses and non-profit organizations to retain private, patent-style rights to control innovations and discoveries, even discoveries developed using federal funding. This effectively privatized large parts of big medicine and the military industrial complex. It also created a new academic trend: universities across the country created offices of technology transfer, which were responsible for surveying research being done and looking for ways to snatch up innovations and take them to market. This greatly accelerated a trend brewing since World War Two: universities began to rely more and more on private sector profitability for their funding. Ask any graduate student in the sciences who funds his/her education, and you’ll find many with private sector grants. It also encouraged another trend: the question of what topics should be researched became increasingly shaped by what is profitable. Because laboratories and experiments are often so expensive, private sector funders have little incentive to invest unless they think results could be profitable. Hence basic research in science, guided by the latest trends in the field, now takes a back seat to research that is more likely or more certain to generate profits.

Cherry’s 10 cents per bottle: update on the Great Lakes water wars

December 15, 2009

As he prepares to run for Governor of Michigan, current Lieutenant Governor John Cherry (Dem) has been campaigning for a 10-cents-per-bottle tax or fee on companies that sell bottled water from Michigan. He estimates it would raise about $118 million a year, enough money to restore the unfunded Michigan Promise scholarship and put $18 million toward programs for protecting wetlands and the Great Lakes. Taxing bottled water companies to fund education and ecology? Sounds good to me.

The biggest and loudest opponent of the idea, so far, is Ice Mountain, a Michigan-based bottled water company owned by the American Water Division of Franco-Swiss giant Nestle. The company is making two moves to protect its privatized grasp on Michigan waters. First, Ice Mountain lawyers and the IBWA (International Bottled Water Association, a trade group) have been arguing that Cherry’s proposed tax is unconstitutional because Michigan’s state constitution prohibits any tax on sales of food products since 1974. Meanwhile, Ice Mountain PR has been hard at work picking at the special wounds of Michigan’s suffering economy with a widely circulated press release claiming that the tax would raise prices for consumers, raise costs for producers, and threaten jobs. In Michigan, heavily deindustrialized, with one of the highest unemployment rates of any U.S. state and a state government struggling financially, Ice Mountain knows that if it cries about increased costs and job loss, people will take notice. Two shrewd moves to protect the privatization of water, indeed.

But the tax is also being criticized by more publicly-minded critics. Some are concerned that it will prevent Michigan citizens from having access to clean water, especially where tap water is considered unsafe and residents rely on bottle water. Others are concerned that taxing water will add fuel to the fire of privatization, making it seem natural and normal that water is a commodity to be sold, rather than a common resource for public use and enjoyment.

Lt. Governor Cherry has responded to these charges in remarkably anti-enclosure terms (see this story on MLive):

Cherry said he knows putting a fee, or tax, on bottled water may be seen by some as turning water into a commodity. But he argues that businesses that draw and bottle groundwater from Michigan have already done that.
“This is a resource owned by all of us in Michigan,” he said. “And so in that context, if someone takes something that’s owned by everybody and sells it at a profit, it just seems to me to be logical that they have some obligation to reimburse those who own it.”
He said the Legislature has decided to let bottlers extract Michigan’s water without paying a fee, which encourages the use and sale of the state’s water.
“If you want to discourage it, you claim what’s rightfully yours — and that’s a portion of the money,” he said.
Cherry said he supports closing a loophole in the Great Lakes compact which allows shipment of Great Lakes water outside the basin as long as it’s in containers of less than 5.7 gallons.

Cherry’s argument that water is a public resource is refreshing and remarkable in these times when water is increasingly scarce, increasingly polluted, and increasingly captured and commodified by large corporations like Ice Mountain/Nestle. But Cherry’s campaign also needs to be kept in context: it is just another move in a long-standing battle for the water of the Great Lakes.

Peter Annin wrote his award-winning 2006 book The Great Lakes Water Wars (see his website here) to show how and why the region has become the target of such vicious water wars in the last several decades: the lakes hold 18% of the world’s surface fresh water (not including underground aquifers). Amidst a global water crisis, it is no wonder that corporations are working to snatch up this water, while locals fight to protect it. Questions of ownership and jurisdiction are difficult in the great lakes basin, however, which spans 7 U.S. states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York) and sits astride the U.S.-Canadian border. Thus, on top of questions about whether water can and/or should be publicly or privately owned, there are questions here about which states, provinces and nations have claim to the waters as public property.

For more on water privatization and protection in the Great Lakes region, visit Save Michigan Water.

Fight for your rights? The problem with “copies.”

December 12, 2009

Today The New York Times published this story about “backlist titles,” books that were once top sellers in paper format, which may or may not be reissued today as ebooks. As publishers work to reformat and reissue such titles, the question of who owns the rights to reproduce these titles – authors or publishers – explodes back onto the scene. The fact that a change in format (from paper to electronic books for example) compels a new round of copyright battling is interesting, raising many questions: is the electronic version a separate “work” with a separate copyright as opposed to the paper version, or is the electronic version merely a copy of the paper work, which therefore puts the original copyright into play?

Behind this copyright question, a deeper question lurks: what is a copy? Obviously the copy is not identical to the original; a copy must be different, a unique object. But on the other hand, how different is too different? At what point does an object become so different from the original that it no longer counts as a copy? This ontological question about copies (or simulacra) and originals (a la Benjamin and Baudrillard), difference and repetition (a la Deleuze), etc., may seem cute or sophistic, but it could be a real thorn in the side of more practical, legal, ethical and political debates about the right to make copies. While I’m on a roll referencing European philosophers: might this problem of the copy be the Derridean lynch-pin which, when pulled out, will cause the whole copyright house of cards to deconstruct (self-destruct)? If we can’t define what a copy is, how can we tell if a copy has been made? How can we tell if an illegal copy has been made, or profited from?

A new thread: health care reform

December 8, 2009

So far, most of our activity here at Enclosure has been devoted to thinking about ‘privatization,’ i.e. the removal of goods, money, people, services, ideas, etc. from public or common spaces, and their installation behind barriers to access, barriers which shore up our capitalist system of private property: hence the term ‘enclosure.’

But this year’s long and frustrating debate in the United States over health care reform provides an opportunity to look at the issue of privatization from another angle. In this debate, we are not witnessing practices of enclosure or privatization; health care is already privatized and heavily deregulated in this country. The real fight for reformers on America’s liberal left has been the ‘public option,’ the attempt to wrest away health care provision from private hands and put it back in public hands. In other words, health care reformers are looking for the opposite of privatization, call it what you will (public-ization, common-ization, dis-enclosure, de-privatization, and so on…). As critics of the logic and practice of privatization, both authors of this blog are, not surprisingly, strong supporters of the public option.

The fact that so many American citizens and politicians are opposed to a public option furnishes another important topic for discussion. Privatization is not only upheld by organizational and institutional powers (copyright law, property law, lawsuits, police protection, etc.); privatization is also normalized, set up as a cultural value, fought for as a cherished belief (especially on the political center and right). The social, political and economic forms that keep privatization in place are supported by a widespread set of beliefs and values. This is to say that we not only have a system of privatization in this country, we also have a culture of privatization (for more on this, see our earlier post about Kristin Ross and cultural theory). In this year’s health care debates, this culture has proven as big an obstacle to reform as has the weight of inherited structural or systemic forms. The right has flooded the public sphere and the mediascape with messages linking a government-run health care plan with Stalinists and Nazis, as if the right to hold a Medicare card would transport one immediately into Animal Farm or 1984. Meanwhile, they miss the point that our current privatized health care system is more like Lord of the Flies. While we’re no policy experts here at Enclosure, we can say that the same capitalist forces working to slap DRM on our mp3s and privatize local utility systems (e.g. water supply and sewage treatment) have their dirty hands all over our health care system.

The lesson to be learned here is that resisting enclosure and privatization from happening in the first place is just as important and just as difficult as it is to dismantle an already existing system and culture of privatization. Hence we always have to think about privatization ‘before the fact’ and ‘after the fact.’ We have to prevent privatization from taking hold, prevent it from expanding, and to prevent it from becoming totalized.

Defintions: Privatization, again.

December 4, 2009

This week I’m reading and teaching Kristin Ross’s mind-blowing, award-winning book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture. Although the book deals with France in the 1950s and 1960s, it is also quite rich in generating theoretical insights which could be applied more broadly. Ross effortlessly balances empirical cultural study with critical theory, spinning off a new critique of modernity that is rich in particular historical details, much like Walter Benjamin’s work.

One of her key theoretical concepts is “privatization,” by which she means not the private control or ownership of resources, but a certain kind of alienation, individualism, even solipsism, a withdrawal into oneself. She writes:

The movement inward – a whole complex process that is in some ways the subject of each of my chapters and that Castoriadis, Morin and Lefebvre all called “privatization” – is a movement echoed on the level of everyday life by the withdrawal of the new middle classes to their newly comfortable domestic interiors, to the electric kitchens, to the enclosure of private automobiles, to the interior of a new vision of conjugality and an ideology of happiness built around the new unit of middle-class consumption, the couple, and to depoliticization as a response to the increase in bureaucratic control of daily life (p. 11).

Hence, privatization here refers to an overdeveloped sense of privacy, a withdrawal into one’s private home, private thoughts, into one’s subjectivity and individuality. This is a political problem just as much as is the question of who owns your mp3s, your sewage sludge, or any other resource. Ross begins to spell out the political consequences of the idea by riffing on Castoriadis again. Privatization

…emerges when a society’s most important characteristic becomes its success in destroying the political socialization of individuals, such that one experiences public or even social matters not only as hostile or foreign but also out of one’s grasp, unlikely to be affected by one’s actions (p. 106).

This use of the term “privatization” can thus help us to understand why Americans are so hung up on home ownership, why they love their cars so much and hate ‘politics’ so much. It can help us see the personal, individual, subjective consequences of capitalist society’s obsession with privatization. It links up in nice ways with already familiar sociological terms like “bowling alone” and “the lonely crowd.” It connects readily with Habermas’s well-known worries about the decline of the public sphere.

What value could we get out of such a concept? What does it matter if what is being privatized is not our commodities, our possessions, our resources, but rather our time, our space, ourselves? Ross’s brilliant book brings these questions to light, questions which seem eminemently useful, in a new way, for our project on this blog.