The Indies and the E’s

OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME

Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University.  It’s been a blast so far.  My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture.  More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers.  I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.”  In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading.  Really, it’s an oligarchy.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States.  And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it.  Will the Indies run with it?  Or will all of the students enrolled in my next  “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?

Share

The Visible College

After having spent the last five weeks blogging about about algorithmic culture, I figured both you and I deserved a change of pace.  I’d like to share some new research of mine that was just published in a free, Open Access periodical called The International Journal of Communication

My piece is called “The Visible College.”  It addresses the many ways in which the form of scholarly publications — especially that of journal articles — obscures the density of the collaboration typical of academic authorship in the humanities.  Here’s the first line: “Authorship may have died at the hands of a French philosopher drunk on Balzac, but it returned a few months later, by accident, when an American social psychologist turned people’s attention skyward.”  Intrigued?

My essay appears as part of a featured section on the politics of academic labor in the discipline of communication.  The forum is edited by my good friend and colleague, Jonathan Sterne.  His introductory essay is a must-read for anyone in the field — and, for that matter, anyone who receives a paycheck for performing academic labor.  (Well, maybe not my colleagues in the Business School….)  Indeed it’s a wonderful, programmatic piece outlining how people in universities can make substantive change there, both individually and collectively.  The section includes contributions from: Thomas A. Discenna; Toby Miller; Michael Griffin; Victor Pickard; Carol Stabile; Fernando P. Delgado; Amy Pason; Kathleen F. McConnell; Sarah Banet-Weiser and Alexandra Juhasz; Ira Wagman and Michael Z. Newman; Mark Hayward; Jayson Harsin; Kembrew McLeod; Joel Saxe; Michelle Rodino-Colocino; and two anonymous authors.  Most of the essays are on the short side, so you can enjoy the forum in tasty, snack-sized chunks.

My own piece presented me with a paradox.  Here I was, writing about how academic journal articles do a lousy job of representing all the labor that goes into them — in the form of an academic journal article!  (At least it’s a Creative Commons-licensed, Open Access one.)  Needless to say, I couldn’t leave it at that.  I decided to create a dossier of materials relating to the production of the essay, which I’ve archived on another of my websites, The Differences and Repetitions Wiki (D&RW).  The dossier includes all of my email exchanges with Jonathan Sterne, along with several early drafts of the piece.  It’s astonishing to see just how much “The Visible College” changed as a result of my dialogue with Jonathan.  It’s also astonishing to see, then, just how much of the story of academic production gets left out of that slim sliver of “thank-yous” we call the acknowledgments.

“The Visible College Dossier” is still a fairly crude instrument, admittedly.  It’s an experiment — one among several others hosted on D&RW in which I try to tinker with the form and content of scholarly writing.  I’d welcome your feedback on this or any other of my experiments, not to mention “The Visible College.”

Enjoy — and happy Halloween!  Speaking of which, if you’re looking for something book related and Halloween-y, check out my blog post from a few years ago on the topic of anthropodermic bibliopegy.

Share

Hacking the Real

Lest there be any confusion, yes, indeed, you’re reading The Late Age of Print blog, still authored by me, Ted Striphas.  The last time you visited, the site was probably red, white, black, and gray.  Now it’s not.  I imagine you’re wondering what prompted the change.

The short answer is: a hack.  The longer answer is: algorithmic culture.

At some point in the recent past, and unbeknownst to me, The Late Age of Print got hacked.  Since then I’ve been receiving sporadic reports from readers telling me that their safe browsing software was alerting them to a potential issue with the site.  Responsible digital citizen that I am, I ran numerous malware scans using multiple scanning services.  Only one out of twenty-three of those services ever returned a “suspicious” result, and so I figured, with those odds, that the one positive must be an anomaly.  It was the same service that the readers who’d contacted me also happened to be using.

Well, last week, Facebook implemented a new partnership with an internet security company called Websense.  The latter checks links shared on the social networking site for malware and the like.  A friend alerted me that an update I’d posted linking to Late Age came up as “abusive.”  That was enough; I knew something must be wrong.  I contacted my web hosting service and asked them to scan my site.  Sure enough, they found some malicious code hiding in the back-end.

Here’s the good news: as far as my host and I can tell, the code — which, rest assured, I’ve cleaned — had no effect on readers of Late Age or your computers.  (Having said that, it never hurts to run an anti-virus/malware scan.)  It was intended only for Google and other search engines, and its effects were visible only to them.  The screen capture, below, shows how Google was “seeing” Late Age before the cleanup.  Neither you nor I ever saw anything out of the ordinary around here.

Essentially the code grafted invisible links to specious online pharmacies onto the legitimate links appearing in many of my posts.  The point of the attack, when implemented widely enough, is to game the system of search.  The victim sites all look as if they’re pointing to whatever website the hacker is trying to promote. And with thousands of incoming links, that site is almost guaranteed to come out as a top result whenever someone runs a search query for popular pharma terms.

So, in case you were wondering, I haven’t given up writing and teaching for a career hocking drugs to combat male-pattern baldness and E.D.

This experience has been something of an object lesson for me in the seedier side of algorithmic culture.  I’ve been critical of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other such sites for the opacity of the systems by which they determine the relevance of products, services, knowledge, and associations.  Those criticisms remain, but now I’m beginning to see another layer of the problem.  The hack has shown me just how vulnerable those systems are to manipulation, and how, then, the frameworks of trust, reputation, and relevance that exist online are deeply — maybe even fundamentally — flawed.

In a more philosophical vein, the algorithms about which I’ve blogged over the last several weeks and months attempt to model “the real.”  They leverage crowd wisdom — information coming in the form of feedback — in an attempt to determine what the world thinks or how it feels about x.  The problem is, the digital real doesn’t exist “out there” waiting to be discovered; it is a work in progress, and much like The Matrix, there are those who understand far better than most how to twist, bend, and mold it to suit their own ends.  They’re out in front of the digital real, as it were, and their actions demonstrate how the results we see on Google, Amazon, Facebook, and elsewhere suffer from what Meaghan Morris has called, in another context, “reality lag.”  They’re not the real; they’re an afterimage.

The other, related issue here concerns the fact that, increasingly, we’re placing the job of determining the digital real in the hands of a small group of authorities.  The irony is that the internet has long been understood to be a decentralized network and lauded, then, for its capacity to endure even when parts of it get compromised.  What the hack of my site has underscored for me, however, is the extent to which the internet has become territorialized of late and thus subject to many of the same types of vulnerabilities it was once thought to have thwarted.  Algorithmic culture is the new mass culture.

Moving on, I’d rather not have spent a good chunk of my week cleaning up after another person’s mischief, but at least the attack gave me an excuse to do something I’d wanted to do for a while now: give Late Age a makeover.  For awhile I’ve been feeling as if the site looked dated, and so I’m happy to give it a fresher look.  I’m not yet used to it, admittedly, but of course feeling comfortable in new style of anything takes time.

The other major change I made was to optimize Late Age for viewing on mobile devices.  Now, if you’re visiting using your smart phone or tablet computer, you’ll see the same content but in significantly streamlined form.  I’m not one to believe that the PC is dead — at least, not yet — but for better or for worse it’s clear that mobile is very much at the center of the internet’s future.  In any case, if you’re using a mobile device and want to see the normal Late Age site, there’s a link at the bottom of the screen allowing you to switch back.

I’d be delighted to hear your feedback about the new Late Age of Print.  Drop me a line, and thanks to all of you who wrote in to let me know something was up with the old site.

 

Share

Algorithmic Literacies

I’ve spent the last few weeks here auditioning ideas for my next book, on the topic of  “algorithmic culture.”  By this I mean the use of computers and complex mathematical routines to sort, classify, and create hierarchies for our many forms of human expression and association.

I’ve been amazed by the reception of these posts, not to mention the extent of their circulation.  Even more to the point, the feedback I’ve been receiving has already prompted me to address some of the gaps in the argument — among them, the nagging question of “what is to be done?”

I should be clear that however much I may criticize Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, and other leaders in the tech industry, I’m a regular user of their products and services.  When I get lost driving, I’m happy that Google Maps is there to save the day.  Facebook has helped me to reconnect with friends whom I thought were lost forever.  And in a city with inadequate bookstores, I’m pleased, for the most part, to have Amazon make suggestions about which titles I ought to know about.

In other words, I don’t mean to suggest that life would be better off without algorithmic culture.  Likewise, I don’t mean to sound as if I’m waxing nostalgic for the “good old days” when small circles of élites got to determine “the best that has been thought and said.”  The question for me is, how might we begin to forge a better algorithmic culture, one that provides for more meaningful participation in the production of our collective life?

It’s this question that’s brought me to the idea of algorithmic literacies, which is something Eli Pariser also talks about in the conclusion of The Filter Bubble. 

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that one of my chief concerns with algorithmic culture has to do with its mysteriousness.  Unless you’re a computer scientist with a Ph.D. in computational mathematics, you probably don’t have a good sense of how algorithmic decision-making actually works.  (I count myself among the latter group.)  Now, I don’t mean to suggest that everyone needs to study computational mathematics, although some basic understanding of the subject couldn’t hurt.  I do mean to suggest, however, that someone needs to begin developing strategies by which to interpret both the processes and products of algorithmic culture, critically.  That’s what I mean, in a very broad sense, by “algorithmic literacies.”

In this I join two friends and colleagues who’ve made related calls.  Siva Vaidhyanathan has coined the phrase “Critical Information Studies” to describe an emerging “transfield” concerned with (among other things) “the rights and abilities of users (or consumers or citizens) to alter the means and techniques through which cultural texts and information are rendered, displayed, and distributed.”  Similarly, Eszter Hargittai has pointed to the inadequacy of the notion of the “digital divide” and has suggested that people instead talk about the uneven distribution of competencies in digital environments.

Algorithmic literacies would proceed from the assumption that computational processes increasingly influence how we perceive, talk about, and act in the world.  Marxists used to call this type of effect “ideology,” although I’m not convinced of the adequacy of a term that still harbors connotations of false consciousness.  Maybe Fredric Jameson’s notion of “cognitive mapping” is more appropriate, given the many ways in which algorithms help us to get our bearings in world abuzz with information.  In any case, we need to start developing a  vocabulary, one that would provide better theoretical tools with which to make sense of the epistemological, communicative, and practical entailments of algorithmic culture.

Relatedly, algorithmic literacies would be concerned with the ways in which individuals, institutions, and technologies game the system of life online. Search engine optimization, reputation management, planted product reviews, content farms — today there are a host of ways to exploit vulnerabilities in the algorithms charged with sifting through culture.  What we need, first of all, is to identify the actors chiefly responsible for these types of malicious activities, for they often operate in the shadows.  But we also need to develop reading strategies that would help people to recognize instances in which someone is attempting to game the system.  Where literary studies teaches students how to read for tone, so, too, would those of us invested in algorithmic literacies begin teaching how to read for evidence of this type of manipulation.

Finally, we need to undertake comparative work in an effort to reverse engineer Google, Facebook, and Amazon, et al.’s proprietary algorithms.  One of the many intriguing parts of The Googlization of Everything is the moment where Vaidhyanathan compares and contrasts the Google search results that are presented to him in different national contexts.  A search for the word “Jew,” for example, yields very different outcomes on the US’s version of Google than it does on Germany’s, where anti-Semitic material is banned.  The point of the exercise isn’t to show that Google is different in different places; the company doesn’t hide that fact at all.  The point, rather, is to use the comparisons to draw inferences about the biases — the politics — that are built into the algorithms people routinely use.

This is only a start.  Weigh in, please.  Clearly there’s major work left to do.

Share

The Conversation of Culture

Last week I was interviewed on probably the best talk radio program about culture and technology, the CBC’s Spark. The interview grew out of my recent series of blog posts on the topic of algorithmic culture.  You can listen to the complete interview, which lasts about fifteen minutes, by following the link on the Spark website.  If you want to cut right to the chase and download an mp3 file of the complete interview, just click here.

The hallmark of a good interviewer is the ability to draw something out of an interviewee that she or he didn’t quite realize was there.  That’s exactly what the host of Spark, Nora Young, did for me.  She posed a question that got me thinking about the process of feedback as it relates to algorithmic culture — something I’ve been faulted on, rightly, in the conversations I’ve been having about my blog posts and scholarly research on the subject.  She asked something to the effect of, “Hasn’t culture always been a black box?”  The implication was: hasn’t the process of determining what’s culturally worthwhile always been mysterious, and if so, then what’s so new about algorithmic culture?

The answer, I believe, has everything to do with the way in which search engine algorithms, product and friend recommendation systems, personalized news feeds, and so forth incorporate our voices into their determinations of what we’ll be exposed to online.

They rely, first of all, on signals, or what you might call latent feedback.  This idea refers to the information about our online activities that’s recorded in the background, as it were, in a manner akin to eavesdropping.  Take Facebook, for example.  Assuming you’re logged in, Facebook registers not only your activities on its own site but also every movement you make across websites with an embedded “like” button.

Then there’s something you might call direct feedback, which refers to the information we voluntarily give up about ourselves and our preferences.  When Amazon.com asks if a product it’s recommended appeals to you, and you click “no,” you’ve explicitly told the company it got that one wrong.

So where’s the problem in that?  Isn’t it the case that these systems are inherently democratic, in that they actively seek and incorporate our feedback?  Well, yes…and no.  The issue here has to do with the way in which they model a conversation about the cultural goods that surround us, and indeed about culture more generally.

The work of culture has long happened inside of a black box, to be sure.  For generations it was chiefly the responsibility of a small circle of white guys who made it their business to determine, in Matthew Arnold’s famous words, “the best that has been thought and said.”

Only the black box wasn’t totally opaque.  The arguments and judgments of these individuals were never beyond question.  They debated fiercely among themselves, often quite publicly; people outside of their circles debated them equally fiercely, if not more so.  That’s why, today, we teach Toni Morrison’s work in our English classes in addition to that of William Shakespeare.

The question I raised near the end of the Spark interview is the one I want to raise here: how do you argue with Google?  Or, to take a related example, what does clicking “not interested” on an Amazon product recommendation actually communicate, beyond the vaguest sense of distaste?  There’s no subtlety or justification there.  You just don’t like it.  Period.  End of story.  This isn’t communication as much as the conveyance of decontextualized information, and it reduces culture from a series of arguments to a series of statements.

Then again, that may not be entirely accurate.  There’s still an argument going on where the algorithmic processing of culture is concerned — it just takes place somewhere deep in the bowels of a server farm, where all of our movements and preferences are aggregated and then filtered.  You can’t argue with Google, Amazon, or Facebook, but it’s not because they’re incapable of argument.  It’s because their systems perform the argument for us, algorithmically.  They obviate the need to justify our preferences to one another, and indeed, before one another.

This is a conversation about culture, yes, but minus its moral obligations.

Share

Cultural Informatics

In my previous post I addressed the question, who speaks for culture in an algorithmic age?  My claim was that humanities scholars once held significant sway over what ended up on our cultural radar screens but that, today, their authority is diminishing in importance.  The work of sorting, classifying, hierarchizing, and curating culture now falls increasingly on the shoulders of engineers, whose determinations of what counts as relevant or worthy result from computational processes.  This is what I’ve been calling, “algorithmic culture.”

The question I want to address this week is, what assumptions about culture underlie the latter approach?  How, in other words, do engineers — particularly computer scientists — seem to understand and then operationalize the culture part of algorithmic culture?

My starting point is, as is often the case, the work of cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams.  He famously observed in Keywords (1976) that culture is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.”  The term is definitionally capacious, that is to say, a result of centuries of shedding and accreting meanings, as well as the broader rise and fall of its etymological fortunes.  Yet, Williams didn’t mean for this statement to be taken as merely descriptive; there was an ethic implied in it, too.  Tread lightly in approaching culture.  Make good sense of it, but do well not to diminish its complexity.

Those who take an algorithmic approach to culture proceed under the assumption that culture is “expressive.”  More specifically, all the stuff we make, practices we engage in, and experiences we have cast astonishing amounts of information out into the world.  This is what I mean by “cultural informatics,” the title of this post.  Algorithmic culture operates first of all my subsuming culture under the rubric of information — by understanding culture as fundamentally, even intrinsically, informational and then operating on it accordingly.

One of the virtues of the category “information” is its ability to link any number of seemingly disparate phenomena together: the movements of an airplane, the functioning of a genome, the activities of an economy, the strategies in a card game, the changes in the weather, etc.  It is an extraordinarily powerful abstraction, one whose import I have come to appreciate, deeply, over the course of my research.

The issue I have pertains to the epistemological entailments that flow from locating culture within the framework of information.  What do you have to do with — or maybe to — culture once you commit to understanding it informationally?

The answer to this question begins with the “other” of information: entropy, or the measure of a system’s disorder.  The point of cultural informatics is, by and large, to drive out entropy — to bring order to the cultural chaos by ferreting out the signal that exists amid all the noise.  This is basically how Google works when you execute a search.  It’s also how sites like Amazon.com and Netflix recommend products to you.  The presumption here is that there’s a logic or pattern hidden within culture and that, through the application of the right mathematics, you’ll eventually come to find it.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this understanding of culture.  Something like it has kept anthropologists, sociologists, literary critics, and host of others in business for well over a century.  Indeed there are cultural routines you can point to, whether or not you use computers to find them.  But having said that, it’s worth mentioning that culture consists of more than just logic and pattern.  Intrinsic to culture is, in fact, noise, or the very stuff that gets filtered out of algorithmic culture.

At least, that’s what more recent developments within the discipline of anthropology teach us.  I’m thinking of Renato Rosaldo‘s fantastic book Culture and Truth (1989), and in particular of the chapter, “Putting Culture in Motion.”  There Rosaldo argues for a more elastic understanding of culture, one that refuses to see inconsistency or disorder as something needing to be purged.  “We often improvise, learn by doing, and make things up as we go along,” he states.  He puts it even more bluntly later on: “Do our options really come down to the vexed choice between supporting cultural order or yielding to the chaos of brute idiocy?”

The informatics of culture is oddly paradoxical in that it hinges on a more and less powerful conceptualization of culture.  It is more powerful because of the way culture can be rendered equivalent, informationally speaking, with all of those phenomena (and many more) I mentioned above.  And yet, it is less powerful because of the way the livingness, the inventiveness — what Eli Pariser describes as the “serendipity” — of culture must be shed in the process of creating that equivalence.

What is culture without noise?  What is culture besides noise?  It is a domain of practice and experience diminished in its complexity.  And it is exactly the type of culture Raymond Williams warned us about, for it is one we presume to know but barely know the half of.

Share

Who Speaks for Culture?

I’ve blogged off and on over the past 15 months about “algorithmic culture.”  The subject first came to my attention when I learned about the Amazon Kindle’s “popular highlights” feature, which aggregates data about the passages Kindle owners have deemed important enough to underline.

Since then I’ve been doing a fair amount of algorithmic culture spotting, mostly in the form of news articles.  I’ve tweeted about a few of them.  In one case, I learned that in some institutions college roommate selection is now being determined algorithmically — often, by  matching up individuals with similar backgrounds and interests.  In another, I discovered a pilot program that recommends college courses based on a student’s “planned major, past academic performance, and data on how similar students fared in that class.”  Even scholarly trends are now beginning to be mapped algorithmically in an attempt to identify new academic disciplines and hot-spots.

There’s much to be impressed by in these systems, both functionally and technologically.  Yet, as Eli Pariser notes in his highly engaging book The Filter Bubble, a major downside is their tendency to push people in the direction of the already known, reducing the possibility for serendipitous encounters and experiences.

When I began writing about “algorithmic culture,” I used the term mainly to describe how the sorting, classifying, hierarchizing, and curating of people, places, objects, and ideas was beginning to be given over to machine-based information processing systems.  The work of culture, I argued, was becoming increasingly algorithmic, at least in some domains of life.

As I continue my research on the topic, I see an even broader definition of algorithmic culture starting to emerge.  The preceding examples (and many others I’m happy to share) suggest that some of our most basic habits of thought, conduct, and expression — the substance of what Raymond Williams once called “culture as a whole way of life” — are coming to be affected by algorithms, too.  It’s not only that cultural work is becoming algorithmic; cultural life is as well.

The growing prevalence of algorithmic culture raises all sorts of questions.  What is the determining power of technology?  What understandings of people and culture — what “affordances” — do these systems embody? What are the implications of the tendency, at least at present, to encourage people to inhabit experiential and epistemological enclaves?

But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake here, too: who speaks for culture?

For the last 150 years or so, the answer was fairly clear.  The humanities spoke for culture and did so almost exclusively.  Culture was both its subject and object.  For all practical purposes the humanities “owned” culture, if for no other reason than the arts, language, and literature were deemed too touchy-feely to fall within the bailiwick of scientific reason.

Today the tide seems to be shifting.  As Siva Vaidhyanathan has pointed out in The Googlization of Everything, engineers — mostly computer scientists — today hold extraordinary sway over what does or doesn’t end up on our cultural radar.  To put it differently, amid the din of our pubic conversations about culture, their voices are the ones that increasingly get heard or are perceived as authoritative.  But even this statement isn’t entirely accurate, for we almost never hear directly from these individuals.  Their voices manifest themselves in fragments of code and interface so subtle and diffuse that the computer seems to speak, and to do so without bias or predilection.

So who needs the humanities — even the so-called “digital humanities” — when your Kindle can tell you what in your reading you ought to be paying attention to?

Share

Book Rentals — A New Road to Serfdom?

Last week I blogged about the proliferation of book rental programs, particularly those focused on college students and their textbooks.  I raised questions about their promises of savings over traditional purchase and buyback, and asked whether most college students ever truly bought their textbooks, anyway.

But there’s more at stake in book renting — beyond the possibility of manipulation by advertising, or even the mutation of a business model.  There are broader social, economic, and attitudinal considerations that arise when people like you and me cease being the owners of books and instead become their lessees.

The last time book renting really caught on was during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  I’ve blogged about this before; it’s how the now-defunct Waldenbooks chain got its start.  What’s interesting to me is the context out of which book rental first emerged: a severe economic crisis — a time when the gap between rich and poor became a chasm, and disposable income all but dried up for ordinary people.  While I don’t believe the present-day renewal of interest in book renting is reducible to the economic meltdown of 2008 (and beyond), I cannot help but be struck by the similarity in the timing.

Indeed, in the United States, we’ve been hearing report after report about how the income of the wealthiest Americans — a tiny minority — has been growing, while that of the majority has been slipping.  Right now the wealthiest 20% of the population controls a whopping 84% of the nation’s wealth.  In crude terms, we’re moving in the direction of a society consisting of “haves” and the “have-nots,” or, more to the point, of people who can afford to own property (broadly construed) and those who cannot.

Now, I don’t mean to deny the benefits that come from book renting.  Realistically, most people don’t want to own every book they read, and for good reason.  Not all books are keepers; they’re also heavy and consume valuable space — the paper ones, anyway.  Beyond that, when books become too expensive for people to own outright, it’s good to have some type of affordable option (in addition to libraries) to keep people reading. Rental may be something of a boon from an environmental standpoint, finally, because you can produce fewer goods and consume fewer resources in the process.

But there’s also a major downside.

Renting books, as with rental more broadly, means you no longer get to set the terms of your relationship with these goods.  Can you underline, highlight, or annotate a book you’ve rented?  What about dog-earing important pages?  Legally speaking, can you loan a rented book to a friend?  Can you duplicate any of the pages, assuming they’re for personal use?  In a traditional ownership situation, you’re the one who provides the answers to these questions.  You’re in control.  When you lease, the answers are dictated by the property owner, or rentier, who naturally puts her or his interests ahead of yours.

Renting is, then, a type of power relationship in which the rentier holds all of the cards — or, at least, the really goods ones.  And here I’m reminded of a passage from the cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams, who, in his magnificent essay “Culture Is Ordinary” (1958), talks about how the coming of power and consumer goods to the impoverished Welsh countryside transformed people’s senses of themselves.  The ability to own consumer goods, Williams said, heightened the “personal grasp” his friends and family felt over their lives.  The presence of these items and their ability to use them however they saw fit made them less beholden to wealthy, outside authorities.

Today, the tide seems to be shifting the opposite way.  Economic conditions are such that rental is becoming a more attractive option again — and not only for books.  And with it slips that sense of personal grasp Williams talked about.  Often, signing a lease is an exercise in having to accept terms and conditions someone else has laid out for you.  More disturbingly, doing so over and over again may well reinforce an attitude of deference and resignation among we, the lessees.

With apologies to Hayek, renting books could be a pathway leading us down the road to serfdom.

Share

Rent This Book!

I’ve been struck this start of the school year by the proliferation of textbook rental outfits here in Bloomington, Indiana and elsewhere.  Locally there’s TXTBookRental Bloomington, which brokers exclusively in rented course texts, as well as TIS and the IU Bookstore (operated by Barnes & Noble), both of whom sell books in addition to offering rental options.  The latter also just launched a marketing campaign designed to grow the rental market.  Further away there’s Amazon.com, which isn’t only offering “traditional” textbook rentals but also time-limited Kindle books.  These are “pay only for the exact time you need” editions that disappear once the lease expires.

There’s been a good deal of enthusiasm about textbook rentals.  Many see them as a welcome work-around to the problem of over-inflated textbook prices, about which many people, including me, have been complaining for years.  Rentals help to keep the price of textbooks comparatively low by allowing students the option of not having to invest fully, in perpetuity, in the object.  Indeed, the rental option recognizes that students often share an ephemeral relationship with their course texts.  Why bother buying something outright when you need it for maybe three or four months at most?

My question is: are textbook rentals simply a boon for college students, or are there broader economic implications that might complicate — or even undercut — this story?

I want to begin by thinking about what it means to “rent” a textbook, since, arguably, students have been doing so for a long time.  When I was an undergraduate back in the early 1990s, I purchased books at the start of the semester knowing I’d sell many of them back to the bookstore upon completion of the term.  Had I bought these books, or was I renting them?  Legally it was the former, but effectively, I believe, it was the latter.  I’d paid not for a thing per se but for a relationship with a property that returned to the seller/owner once a period of time had elapsed.  That sounds a lot like rental to me.

So let’s assume for the moment that the rental of textbooks isn’t a new phenomenon but rather something that’s been going on for decades.  What’s the difference between then and now?  Buyback.  Under the old rental system you’d get some money for your books if your decided you didn’t want to keep them.  Under the new régime you get absolutely nothing.  Granted, it wasn’t uncommon for bookstores to give you a pittance if you decided to sell back your course texts; more often than not they’d then go on re-sell the books for a premium, adding insult to injury.  Nevertheless, at least you’d get something like your security deposit back once the lease had expired.  Now the landlord pockets everything.

Some industrious student needs to look into the economics of these new textbook rental schemes.  Is it cheaper to rent a course text for a semester, or do students actually make out better in the long run if they purchase and then sell back?

If I had to speculate, I’d say that booksellers wouldn’t be glomming on to the latest rental trend if it wasn’t first and foremost in their economic self-interest — even if they’re representing it otherwise.


Coming next week: textbook rentals, part II: what happens when books cease being objects that ordinary people own and accumulate?

Share

A Second Age of Incunabula

What a difference a few years can make.  I’m talking about the proliferation of e-reading devices among my Indiana University undergraduates — devices that were virtually non-existent in their lives not so very long ago.  Let me explain.

In 2006, I piloted a course based loosely on The Late Age of Print called “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”  We ended, predictably, with a unit on the future of books in an age of digital media.  We read (among other things) a chapter or two from Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies, in addition to Kevin Kelly’s provocative essay from The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!”  The materials provoked some intriguing thoughts and conversation, but it seemed to me as if something was missing; it was as though the future of books and reading wasn’t palpable yet, and so most everything we talked about seemed, well, a little ungrounded.  Remember — this was about a year before the first Kindle landed, three years before the Barnes & Noble Nook, and a full four years before the release of the iPad.  We’re talking ancient history in today’s technological terms.

When I taught the course two years later, things had changed — somewhat.  There was genuine curiosity about e-reading, so much so that a group of students asked me to bring in my Kindle, hoping to take it for a test drive.  I did, but didn’t realize that the battery had died.  The demonstration ended up being a bust, and worse still, it was the last day of class.  In other words, no do-overs.  Still, that didn’t stop some of the students from writing papers about the possibilities e-readers held for them and their peers.  While I appreciated the argument — and indeed, the earnestness — I ended up being a little disappointed by those papers.  On the whole they were flatly celebratory.  The lack of critical perspective was, I believe, a function of their having had little to no actual interaction with e-reading devices.

Now it’s 2011, and I’m teaching the course once again.  Boy, have things changed!  On day one I asked the group of 35 if any of them owned an e-reader.  I expected to see maybe a few hands, since I’m aware of the reports stating that these devices have had more uptake among older users.  Much to my surprise, around half the class raised their hands.  We’re talking mostly 20 year-olds here.  I had to know more.  Some told me they owned a Kindle, others a Nook, and still others said they were iPad people who read using apps.  In a couple of instances they owned more than one of these devices.  They especially liked the convenience of not having to lug around a bag full of heavy books, not to mention the many public domain texts they could download at little or no cost.

There I was, standing in front of a group of students who also happened to be seasoned e-book readers.  Because they’d self-selected into my class, I knew I needed to be mindful about the extent to which their interest in electronic reading could be considered representative of people their age.  Even so, it was clear on day one that our conversations would be very different compared to those I’d had with previous cohorts in “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”

At the end of class a student approached me to ask about which version of Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, one of the required texts, he should buy.  Old analog me assumed he was referring to cloth or paper, since I’d brought in my hardback copy but told the group I’d ordered paperbacks through the bookstore.  My assumption was wrong.  He told me that he wanted to purchase the Kindle edition but had some hesitations about doing so.  How would he cite it, he asked?  I said he should go ahead and acquire whichever version most suited him; the citations we could figure out.

A very different conversation indeed — one that I expect will become much more the norm by the time I teach “The Cultures of Books and Reading” the next time around.  For now, though, here go the 36 of us, slouching our way into a moment in which analog and digital books commingle with one another.  It reminds me a little of the first 100 years of printing in the West — the so-called “age of incunabula,” when manuscripts, printed editions, and hybrid forms all co-existed, albeit not so peaceably.  I wonder if, at some point in the future, historians will begin referring to our time as the second age of incunabula.

Share