The Information Policy Blog

The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee

meme hustling, ebooks and democracy

There was an excellent little panel discussion on CBC’s Spark podcast this week about ebooks and how public libraries deal with them. It’s almost 40 minutes long but well worth the listen.

One thing I appreciated was how the panelists discussed the fact that there’s an intermediary between the libraries (who have a mission that includes giving access to as wide a population as possible, along with freedom of expression, community development and preservation) and the publishers (who have a mission to get their books as wide an audience as possible while still being able to pay the people who produce the books). Giving control of the actual distribution of ebooks to these corporate intermediaries could be the source of many of the ebook licensing issues.

After listening to that, I read Evgeny Morozov’s article on Tim O’Reilly and his techno-publishing empire, The Meme Hustler. This included some fundamental criticism of our technocratic age and how Silicon Valley ideas have affected the way we think about technology.

Fuzzy, contentious, and complex ideas have been stripped of their subversive connotations and replaced by cleaner, shinier, and emptier alternatives; long-running debates about politics, rights, and freedoms have been recast in the seemingly natural language of economics, innovation, and efficiency.

It’s interesting (to me) how these two pieces played into each other. In the ebook realm libraries have invited in this technological, non-librarian intermediary. These intermediaries don’t have the same goals as information professionals and independent publishers.

An easy example from the podcast comes when they’re talking about wanting friction for borrowing ebooks. The language of “friction” applied to ebooks isn’t something that came from a publisher. It’s such a technocratic word, targeting our culture’s distaste for inefficiency. But why do we see inefficiency as such a terrible thing? Democracy can be a very spiky inefficient thing, especially when we’re trying to be informed citizens.

Anyway, even if you don’t agree with everything said in these two pieces (and maybe even if you think this is a weird juxtaposition in the first place), they’re both/each separately worth a bit of time and thought.

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