As often happens, things that appear random seem suddenly to be signs and portents of something that is almost too big to see. This week, every tweet, article, blog post, and invoice that crossed my desk seemed to be a dot on great blank sheet, but if I stand back far enough and take off my glasses, the dots blur, begin to connect, and take on a recognizable shape.
One of those connecting dots was an article in this month’s issue of Harper’s, “Killing the Competition: How the New Monopolies are Destroying Open Markets,” by Barry C. Lynn (of which an excerpt is available online). He writes about things that seem unrelated but together spell out a shift in the way our society works.
The ferment and innovation in the heady days of Silicon Valley has settled as a few big companies have bought hundreds of others, consolidating their grip, and even agreeing among themselves to not hire away other companies’ talent. We went from having six giant publishers and a few big chain bookstores call the shots to having one aggressive giant shaping the book industry: Amazon. Our seeming diversity in craft beers is hobbled by a powerfully concentrated distribution system. Small brewers can make great beer; they just can’t get it on store shelves unless they cooperate with the distributor. Enormous poultry processors have locked farmers into competition among themselves—a practice economists call “tournaments”—not for market share, but for the chance to undercut one another and sell their chickens to the same big companies who set prices however they choose. There are lots of people willing to produce creative work, brew beer, and raise chickens, but a small number of big companies control what happens next.
Connecting the dots
Some other dots appeared this week. Among my book-addicted friends, hackles were raised against Goodreads for losing information about books members had stored in their personal accounts, though members were advised to redirect their hackles in the direction of Amazon. It seems Goodreads used Amazon’s application programming interface (API) to pull in book information, but began to chafe at the conditions of use just as Amazon was growing dissatisfied with the competition for attention that Goodreads represents. Amazon has successfully used the new logic of the seemingly open platform to let people use their massive amounts of data and contribute to it—so long as links point back to Amazon, and only to Amazon, and so long as that data is not repurposed in mobile apps.
Goodreads switched to Ingram but in the process data, while not necessarily lost, is no longer anchored to cover art and bibliographic descriptions. Members have been asked to “rescue” thousands of books in a massive voluntary catalog recon project. We forget, as we merrily spend hours online curating our books and chatting with friends, that everything we’re doing actually belongs to someone else, just as we rarely think about how the information we provide about ourselves is bundled, sold, resold, and combined into strange new products we don’t understand, that can affect us in ways we can’t imagine, rather like our mortgages.
Another point in this connect-the-dot game is how a cordial meeting between American Library Association officials and big six publishers were immediately followed by publishers continuing to state that they still think lending ebooks is not a good idea. It’s becoming clear that the only reason they have spared public libraries in the past is that they are absolutely stuffed with friction, and so haven’t been a threat to business. Going to the library to borrow and return books is, apparently, such an onerous nuisance that no normal person would bother. But that acceptable state of affairs changes the minute people can borrow a book online.
It’s obvious that none of these publishers has tried to use OverDrive—or found themselves 46th in line for a book they want to read on their Kindle or Nook. It also seems highly unlikely they have ever been in the habit of visiting a library to check out books; they would have been horrified to discover they aren’t buffeted by a friction force field as they walk in the door.
The fear and loathing they feel toward Amazon has mysteriously become attached to libraries. If they can’t control the online giant, they’ll do their best to cut off ebook traffic elsewhere. Libraries, deprived of the first-sale right, are a target the big publishers can throttle to death and feel triumphantly in control of something. Besides, unlike the big bully Amazon, librarians are inevitably cordial.
Openness and freedom
Which brings me back to the Harper’s article. Lynn argues that one of the great drivers of American society has been the open market system, one that enables individuals to be independent, both economically and politically. Being independent, they can then “come together as equals and use their collective power to protect their communities, their nation, and themselves.” In many ways this feels like an era when creativity and innovation is flourishing. More people write books than ever before, and millions of people get together online to talk about them. Scholars are publishing more research than ever, and libraries seem to have nearly unlimited access to information, so long as they can pay their bills.
There’s a catch, though. Giant corporations don’t compete, they buy and consolidate, so that they control entire markets while seeming to be open to individual enterprise. In fact, they benefit greatly from people’s eagerness to provide content for nothing. These corporations don’t create, they control the means of distribution, and creators exhaust themselves in competing for a chance to get their chickens to market or their books to readers. Entrepreneurs are free to work their hearts out, but, with few alternatives for distribution, it all begins to look like a brutal mashup of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.
And that disturbing vision connected another dot for me. In recent years, academic work has been reduced to gladiatorial jousting by scholars and scientists for a chance to let their ideas and their names appear in the right arenas. They are too busy wiping blood and sweat from their eyes to notice who controls the game. They are too charged up by the glory of a win to think about who profits. They don’t notice how their freely given labor supports an oppressive system. They even love their oppressors, because that’s who distributes rewards.
But here’s where I see dots beginning to scatter in a pattern that may signal a change in the shape of things. This week, the backlash against the Research Works Act has taken on some aspects of guerilla theatre. In addition to numerous blog posts and more signatories to the Elsevier boycott, @FakeElsevier has begun to post tweets that sound sort of like Elsevier, only absurd. Just to mix it up, sometimes the tweets are taken verbatim from Elsevier statements—and sound no less absurd. FakeElsevier’s profile picture is an impish reworking of the august logo, turned into a tree of knowledge around which a chain full of locks has wound itself, with one lock being examined by a puzzled professorial figure. It’s likely that rogue account will be taken down before long, but never fear; nobody is likely to send a cease and desist order to the Closed Access Journal for impersonating a real publication, though in fact its tweets also sound extraordinarily plausible. When life stops making sense, make nonsense.
I don’t know how widespread this feisty resistance movement is, or whether it will have an effect, but it’s a hopeful indicator of awareness and a stirring of strength among those who produce the knowledge we rely on, and none too soon. We need to get out of The Jungle so we can return to an open marketplace of ideas.