Tag Archive for Right to Read

Out from Under the Embargo

I’m delighted to report that my essay, “Performing Scholarly Communication,” is once again freely available on the open web.  The piece appeared in the January 2012 issue of the journal Text and Performance Quarterly but hasn’t much seen the light of day since then, subject to the publisher’s 18-month post-publication embargo.  You can now read and respond to the complete piece on my other website, The Differences & Repetitions Wiki, where I host a variety of open source writing projects.

By the way, if you’re interested in scholarly communication, the history of cultural studies, or both, then you might want to check out another piece appearing on D&RW: ”Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature,” which I coauthored with Mark Hayward.  It’s set to appear in the next issue of the journal New Formations.  A version of the piece has existed on D&RW since March 2012, and in fact you can trace its development all the way through to today, when I posted the nicely-formatted, final version that Mark and I submitted for typesetting.  Always, comments are welcome and appreciated.  If you’d rather cut right to the chase, then you can download the uncorrected page proofs for the “WPCS” piece by clicking here.

Take some time to poke around D&RW, by the way.   There are a bunch of other papers and projects  there, some, but not all, having to do with the history and politics of scholarly communication.

Lastly, a note of thanks to all of you who tweeted, Facebooked, or otherwise spread the word about the final days of the free Late Age of Print download.  I truly appreciate all of your support.

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The Right to Read

A couple of weeks ago I blogged here about a short essay I’d written, “E-books: No Friends of Free Expression,” and about a longer academic journal article on which it was based called, “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  Well, since then I’ve had a bunch of people writing in asking for copies of the article, and even more asking me about the “right to read.”

Here’s what I know about the latter.

To the best of my knowledge, the idea first appeared in a 1994 law review article by Jessica Litman called “The Exclusive Right to Read.”  It was picked up, extended, and given significant legal grounding by Julie E. Cohen in her 1996 (master)piece, “The Right to Read Anonymously.”  Then, in 1997, free software guru Richard Stallman dramatized the idea in a pithy little parable called — you guessed it — “The Right to Read.

The American Library Association proposed something like a “right to read” back in 1953, when it issued its first “Freedom to Read Statement.”  (The statement has since been updated, most recently in 2004, although it remains relatively quiet on the subject of 3G- and wifi-enabled e-readers.)  Meanwhile, the Reading Rights Coalition, an advocacy organization, was formed in 2009 after the Author’s Guild claimed the Kindle 2′s text-to-speech function violated its members’ audiobook rights — a claim that understandably didn’t sit well with the 30 million Americans with “print disabilities.”  Finally, librarian Alycia Sellie and technologist Matthew Goins developed a “Readers’ Bill of Rights for Digital Books,” which concludes with the important provision that reader information ought to remain private.

I’m sure there’s lots that I’ve missed and would welcome any further information you may have about the right to read.  For now, I hope you’re enjoying National Freedom of Speech Week, and don’t forget that reading is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression.

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E-Books: No Friends of Free Expression

I’ve just published a short essay called “E-books — No Friends of Free Expression” in the National Communication Association’s online magazine, Communication Currents. It was commissioned in anticipation of National Freedom of Speech Week, which will be recognized in the United States from October 18th to 24th, 2010. Here’s a short excerpt from the piece, in case you’re interested:

It may seem odd to suggest that reading has something to do with freedom of expression. It’s one thing to read a book, after all, but a different matter to write one. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that reading is an expressive activity in its own right, resulting in notes, dog-eared pages, highlights, and other forms of communicative fallout. Even more to the point, as Georgetown Law Professor Julie E. Cohen observes, “Freedom of speech is an empty guarantee unless one has something—anything—to say…[T]he content of one’s speech is shaped by one’s response to all prior speech, both oral and written, to which one has been exposed.” Reading is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression, because it forms a basis upon which our future communications are built. Anything that impinges upon our ability to read freely is liable to short-circuit this connection.

I then go on to explore the surveillance activities that are quite common among commercially available e-readers; I also question how the erosion of private reading may affect not only what we choose to read but also what we may then choose to say.

The Comm Currents piece is actually a precis of a much longer essay of mine just out in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7(3) (September 2010), pp. 297 – 317, as part of a special issue on rights. The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.” Here’s the abstract:

This paper focuses on the Amazon Kindle e-reader’s two-way communications capabilities on the one hand and on its parent company’s recent forays into data services on the other. I argue that however convenient a means Kindle may be for acquiring e-books and other types of digital content, the device nevertheless disposes reading to serve a host of inconvenient—indeed, illiberal—ends. Consequently, the technology underscores the growing importance of a new and fundamental right to counterbalance the illiberal tendencies that it embodies—a “right to read,” which would complement the existing right to free expression.

Keywords: Kindle; Amazon.com; Digital Rights; Reading; Privacy

Feel free to email me if you’d like a copy of “The Abuses of Literacy.” I’d be happy to share one with you.

The title of the journal article, incidentally, pays homage to Richard Hoggart’s famous book The Uses of Literacy, which is widely recognized as one of the founding texts of the field of cultural studies. It’s less well known that he also published a follow-up piece many years later called “The Abuses of Literacy,” which, as it turns out, he’d intended to be the title of Uses before the publisher insisted on a change.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the work. Feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

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Cheap E-Reads

This week, the big news in the world of e-readers is supposed to be Amazon.com’s announcement about Kindle book sales, which, the company reports, now outpace sales of hardcover books on its website. I won’t get into that claim — at least, not now — but I will direct you to an insightful piece from The Big Money that’s asking all the right questions.

For me, the real news in e-reading is at once more humble and potentially more significant: the launch of the Humane Reader project, which is spearheaded by an organization called Humane Informatics (HI). Its website is unfortunately sparse on information, but here’s what I can tell you. The goal is to improve literacy in developing countries by distributing e-book devices to folks living there. The centerpiece is a cute little nugget of hardware called the Humane Reader. According to HI, it should cost around US$20 in bulk.

That’s right — a e-reader for 20 bucks. I didn’t leave off the last zero.

HI is able to keep the price so low not only by building the Humane Reader out of inexpensive parts but by leaving off what’s traditionally one of the most costly aspects of any digital device, namely, the screen. The organization notes on its website that televisions are prevalent in developing countries, and so it’s designed its e-reader to connect directly with them. What’s more, the Humane Reader can store as many as 5,000 e-books using a tiny SD card. Oh — and did I mention that it’s built significantly around open source technology that can be freely licensed?

This is a brilliant project in so many ways. For months here on The Late Age of Print I’ve been prattling on about commercial e-readers and privacy rights. What I’ve inadvertently downplayed in doing so is the high cost of these devices. Even after the latest price war the cheapest Kindle will cost you $189, while a Nook will set you back between $149 and $199 depending on the model. Don’t even get me started on the price of an iPad. The point is, there are significant economic barriers to entry when it comes to e-books, which, if book reading does indeed go digital, threaten to freeze large swaths of the world’s population out of one of the most important vehicles for literacy. The Humane Reader attempts to address that threat proactively, even preemptively.

The Humane Reader project follows in the wake of initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which has attempted to bring ultra-low-cost portable computers to kids in need all over the planet. It’s also open to criticisms similar to those levied against OLPC, including the fact that technology alone cannot bring about social transformation, much less secure justice or equality on a truly global scale. Nevertheless, I see the Humane Reader as an important piece in a much larger puzzle, and I’m happy to see HI looking to partner with individuals and groups who might help the project fit into a broader, more multifaceted campaign.

Humane indeed — and an especially intriguing development in light of what Julie Cohen, Richard Stallman, and I have been calling the “right to read.”

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The Late Age of Print Open Source Audiobook

I’ve been hinting for the last few weeks that I had a big announcement brewing.  Well, at long last, here it is: together we’re going to make a free, Creative Commons-licensed audiobook of The Late Age of Print! First, some background on what inspired the project, and then a word or two on how you can help.

Listening to Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price on a long car trip got me thinking: why not make an audiobook out of The Late Age of Print? And why not, like Anderson, give the digital recording away for free? The thought had barely crossed my mind when reality started to sink in. “You’re no Chris Anderson,” I told myself. “You don’t have the time or the resources to make an audiobook out of Late Age. Just forget about it.”

Well, I didn’t forget about it. I figured if I couldn’t make an audiobook myself, then I’d do the next best thing: let the computer do it for me, using a text-to-speech (T-T-S) synthesizer. The more I thought about the project, the more convinced I became that it was a good idea. It wouldn’t just be cool to be able to listen to Late Age on an iPod; an audio edition would finally make the book accessible to vision impaired people, too.

And so I got down to work. I extracted all of the text from the free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of Late Age and proceeded to text-to-speech-ify it, one chapter at a time. I played back my first recording — the Introduction — but it was disaster! The raw text had all sorts of remnants from the original book layout (footnotes, page headers/numbers, words hyphenated due to line breaks, and whole lot more). They seriously messed up the recording, and so I knew they needed to go. I began combing through the text, only to discover that the cleanup would take me, working alone, many more hours than I could spare, especially with a newborn baby in my life. Frustrated, I nearly abandoned the project for a second time.

Then it dawned on me: if I’m planning on giving away the audiobook for free, then why not get people who might be interested in hearing Late Age in on it, too?  Thus was born the Late Age of Print wiki, the host site for The Late Age of Print open source audiobook project.  The plan is for all of us, using the wiki, to create a Creative Commons-licensed text-to-speech version of the book, which will be available for free online.

There’s a good deal of work for us to do, but don’t be daunted! If you choose to donate a large chunk of your time to help out the cause, then that’s just super. But don’t forget that projects like this one also succeed when a large number of people invest tiny amounts of their time as well. Your five or ten minutes of editing, combined with the work of scores of other collaborators, will yield a top-notch product in the end.  I’ve posted some guidelines on the wiki site to help get you started.

I doubt that I have a large enough network of my own to pull off this project, so if your blog, Tweet, contribute to listservs, or otherwise maintain a presence online, please, please, please spread the word!

Thank you in advance for your contributions, whatever they may be.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about The Late Age of Print open source audiobook project, don’t hesitate to email me.  I’d love to hear from you!

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Bound for Philly

This one’s for all of my readers in the Northeast, especially those in and around the Philadelphia area.  I’ll be delivering a public lecture at Swarthmore College on Thursday, March 25th at 4:00 p.m.  The location is the Scheuer Room in Kohlberg Hall.  The event, which is part of the College’s Cooper Lecture Series, is free and open to the public.  Please come if you can.

The title of my presentation is “Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read: Privacy and Property in the Late Age of Print.”  Here’s an abstract for the talk, which is more up-to-date than the version you’ll find on the Swarthmore website:

This presentation focuses on the Amazon Kindle e-reader’s two-way communications capabilities on the one hand, and on its parent company’s recent forays into data services on the other.  I argue that however convenient a means Kindle may be for acquiring e-books and other types of digital content, the device nevertheless disposes reading to serve a host of inconvenient—indeed, illiberal—ends.  Consequently, the technology underscores the growing importance of a new and fundamental right to counterbalance the illiberal tendencies that it embodies—a “right to read,” which would complement the existing right of free expression.

The presentation is an opening gambit of sorts for a new book project I’m working on, called The Right to Read.

Anyway,  I’d be delighted to see you at Swarthmore on Thursday.  Please introduce yourself to me if you come.  And if you bring your copy of The Late Age of Print, I’d be happy to autograph it for you.

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The Right to Read

My blogging has fallen off seriously in the last few weeks.  This is due mainly to my finishing up an essay I’ve been working on called “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  Well, it’s done now (at least a solid draft of it), and so I’m back to posting on The Late Age of Print. And in the spirit of the essay, I thought I’d say a few words about the “right to read.”

It’s an idea that, as far as I can tell, was introduced back in 1994 by law professor Jessica Litman, who published an essay in the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal called “The Exclusive Right to Read.”  Her piece was followed three years later by another one, a story by free software pioneer Richard Stallman, called “The Right to Read.”  Law professor Julie Cohen gave the concept its fullest treatment in “The Right to Read Anonymously,” a marvelous work that she published in 1996 in the Connecticut Law Review.

The crux of the argument, articulated most clearly by Cohen, is this: “the content of one’s speech is shaped by one’s response to all prior speech, both oral and written, to which one has been exposed.”  Reading thus is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression; the one simply cannot exist without the other.

I’m rather taken with the idea of a right to read given the ways in which new e-book systems, such as the Amazon Kindle, tether reading to corporate custodians who in turn mine the machines for intimate details about how people read.  As these devices become more prevalent, I worry about the effects they might have on how people practice and conceive of reading.  Until now it was relatively difficult to monitor closely how and what people read.  What will become of reading, and people’s relationship to it, once that freedom is definitively diminished?  Indeed, a right to read seems to me of paramount importance in a context where someone is looking over your shoulder every time that you open an electronic book or periodical.

This of course begs the more difficult question, how should a right to read be implemented?  Cohen’s work is brilliant in that it locates a right to read quite convincingly in the penumbra of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, deriving it from existing case law.  The trouble with this approach, though, comes from the current mood of the U.S. court system.  Jeffrey Toobin’s recent piece in the New Yorker, on the legal backlash against “judicial activism,” suggests that the courts as a whole — and the Supreme Court in particular — are for the most part unwilling to expand rights in precisely the way that Cohen is calling for.

So perhaps a right to read could be established legislatively — maybe even as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  I like this approach in theory, but cannot imagine how it would ever happen in practice.  After all, we’re talking about a Congress that passed the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act unanimously.  This is also a Congress that listens closely to cultural producers such as Disney and lobbying groups like the MPAA, who in all likelihood would oppose a right to read on the grounds that it would force them to give up some measure of control over their intellectual properties (to which I would respond, “exactly!”).

Is there a third way?  I sure hope so, and I suspect if there were it would have to begin at the grassroots.  I’m thinking here of something like a counterpart to the Creative Commons, a nonprofit that gives cultural producers licensing options beyond the more traditional — and traditionally restrictive — terms of copyright.  Would it be possible to begin architecting legal and digital rights similarly — that is, to allow people to read anonymously or at least under their own terms?

This is the question I’m left with having completed my piece on the Kindle, and indeed I believe it’s urgent that we respond to it.  It’s a question that, if I’m right, the future of liberal societies may well hinge on.

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