Determining Our Tech

From Library Babel Fish, June 25, 2015

I’m a sucker for optimism. That’s one of the reasons I liked David Weinberger’s recent essay in The Atlantic in which he first describes how the internet has been “paved over” by data-sucking giant corporate interests and then explores how we can still have an internet that reflects and embodies its original ideals – a place where people can share ideas, build their own stuff, and participate in open culture. You can use the paved-over internet or you can “feel the loam between your toes.” A lot of people who didn’t know where to start got online only when a paved road was presented to them along with a click-through agreement to surrender their content and privacy. But there are parts of the internet that aren’t commercialized, that do allow people to tend their own gardens still.

The giants have the benefit of network effects – Google and Facebook are so big their very size exerts a kind of gravitational pull, and where pull isn’t enough they can simply buy their potential competitors to absorb or kill them. But our confidence in them has been shaken by the reverberations of the Snowden revelations. People who have felt helpless about their identities being exploited whenever they use a popular service are now feeling angry as well. That irritation can be fanned into fury as terms of service change with little warning and the platforms that have become our surrogate memories and social gathering places become high-handed about what we can see and whether we can have the stuff we contribute.

Of course, this metaphor of paving and gardening reminds me of libraries and how (with the collusion of the scholars we serve) we have entrusted our scholarly record to giant corporations which lobby for stricter rules about sharing and are busy buying up the smaller fry and are now even trying to invade our institutional repositories. In 2013, more than half of scholarly papers published were the intellectual property of five corporations. In the social sciences, that number is a whopping 70 percent. These companies make tidy profit margins – between 30 and 40 percent, largely riding on the demands made on libraries to provide All the Things and the desperation of academics to exchange their research findings for reputational crumbs.

We have choices, but they are not simple ones. Nobody forces you to be on Facebook. I’m not, but I have the luxury of connecting with my family by alternate means and enough money and a smidgen of tech skills to run my own website – and no great need to attract attention to it because I have a job. Still, I miss seeing a lot of family news and family members have to go through extra steps to share news and pictures with a grumpy Facebook refusenik. Nobody forces you to publish with journals owned by the big five, unless you’re seeking grants or a steady job and can’t afford to go against the grain. Again, I have a job and nothing much to prove – so it’s up to me to make it possible for those with less security to make their work accessible and open.

Recently Björn Brems suggested that  librarians should simply cancel all subscriptions to fix this problem. On Twitter Mike Taylor predicted that things would sort themselves out within three months of the mass die-off of subscription journals. Of course, that ignores the likely fallout: librarians would be fired and possibly arraigned on charges of collusion, the budgets they had devoted to subscriptions would not be reallocated to supporting institutional repositories or any other way of sharing information, and the many scholars who email colleagues for the PDFs they no longer could access would find out their colleagues couldn’t access them, either. Three months for the establishment of a new and better system seems a bit optimistic and based on some serious misconceptions, such as that the scholarly record Is safely preserved in LOCKSS and that somehow the copyrights publishers hold to that material will suddenly be irrelevant as publishers implode. Remember that the majority of books published in the 20th century live in copyright limbo? Yeah. Canceling subscriptions en masse won’t fix the ownership problem.

All that said, we do have the potential to reclaim and rebuild the commons – both the internet that isn’t wholly owned by the handful of mega-corporations and the scholarly commons that is largely controlled by five companies. It will take work, though. Librarians will have to say no more often (which shouldn’t be too hard – think how much practice we’ve had over the past three decades!) and say yes to funding open access publishing that isn’t dependent on those five companies (which is rather trickier in the current austere environment, but we’re smart people, we’ll get better at it). Scholars need to balance their understandable need for self-preservation with the moral obligation to make their scholarship accessible to those without wealthy institutional sponsorship – and senior scholars in particular need to protect those who take these risks. Their record isn’t so great at the moment, as the contingent majority would attest. But it’s our scholarship, and our system and we can fix it.

And those of us who are in favor of intellectual freedom have to do our part as citizens to fight for the right to have some part of the internet that isn’t privately owned and paved over. Again and again. And yet again, because there will be many legislative battles to fight.

Let’s celebrate our victories, educate one another, and keep trying. There’s an awful lot at stake.