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On e-books and capitalism

It occurred to me this morning, in light of something someone said yesterday on twitter, to wonder about the anxiety some readers have about ownership of the e-books they buy. It's an anxiety that seems to cross all the boundaries of readers, from those who just buy happily from the big outlets to those who campaign against DRM and those who happily pirate. They are all concerned that they should actually, definitely, irrevocably own those pieces of data and they are anxious that someone -- especially the big companies -- might take it away from them.
Capitalist thinking pervades everything. This anxiety is all about property (even, in some cases, where it's expressed as an anxiety over freedom.) I find this interesting, even more so when you consider that many of these same readers are suspicious of the control exercised by big business, which is a valid concern in socialist terms.
Now, from the perspective of writers, a book or story is the product of their labour and their concerns are around the ways in which this is alienated from them, either by official middlemen or by unofficial ones. This makes perfect sense to me: workers need to eat, and in capitalist societies, they are dependent of the product for this, either directly or indirectly.
But the reader anxiety -- 'I paid for this, so I must own it forever' -- strikes me as both symptomatic of the pervasiveness of capitalist thinking and as slightly illogical, especially when it's on the part of those campaigning against big business. There's a disconnect in the thinking, there, somehow, because the radical ideas are underpinned by a deep-rooted attachment to, and anxiety over ownership. Indeed, on some level, the desire for freedom from DRM -- which I share, btw -- is closely entangled with the same desire for control over a perceived piece of property as fuels the supporters and inventors of DRM, though on an individual rather than a company level.

Capitalist thinking infects everything.
For the record, I discover I don't have a deep attachment to owning e-books. Most of those I buy I read once. In my head they're rather like library books. I don't know why this is. I need to think about that more, clearly.


( 54 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 8th, 2013 04:53 pm (UTC)
We have a reader for pdfs, mostly. But entirely for digitized works, i.e. research materials, in the public domain, such as German historian Hermann von Holst's Verfassung und Demokratie der Vereinigten Staaten or Constitutional and Political History of the United States, 5 vols., 1873–91. It's a great tool, speeding up research significantly.

But it's no good for anything like atlases or maps, tables and stats, etc.

IOW, for me, it's not about ownership at all -- it's about access.

Love, C.

Edited at 2013-07-08 04:57 pm (UTC)
Jul. 8th, 2013 06:04 pm (UTC)
It's a good medium for access of that kind. One of the things I hate most is the way in my field a number of important resources -- long out of copyright and only found in large libraries in heavy multiple volume sets -- have been digitised by private companies who charge huge sums annually for use of them. Some of the material that this has happened to was originally done in order to increase and facilitate access. So the digital grab is in direct opposition to the reason they were created.
Jul. 8th, 2013 06:55 pm (UTC)
O yeah. Which is why we download as many of these books as we can. Google's already trying to persuade us to buy them in cheap generic covers and printout.

A lot of companies are doing this.

OTOH, for example with Polish Nobel prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz's wonderful novels out of print in English, this was an affordable way for the library to get print copies to put on the shelves -- or for me (but I don't have room).

An enormous amount of tax funded data is no longer available from the GPO -- that was the Government Print Office -- that provided deposit librariess and other institutions copies of all this. Instead, we are still paying for it, but it is given to private corporations who now charge .... That's the consequence of getting rid of the GPO and what we used to call Government Document. Whole library careers were the care and tending of gov dox, but like libraries and print itself, those too are gone with the transfer to private ownership winds.

Love, C.
Jul. 8th, 2013 09:07 pm (UTC)
I don't have a sense of ownership - I have a sense of access.

I don't care about owning music at all since Spotify. I'd feel the same way about books if there was a subscription service for them too.
Jul. 8th, 2013 09:24 pm (UTC)
Access is the thing for me, too, I think. And some books I only need to access once.
Jul. 8th, 2013 09:26 pm (UTC)
I don't have a problem about ownership but I do find that the e book thing makes me feel very closed off . Open bookshelves and visible books spark conversations and create bridges between people in a way that kindles don't.

On the other hand, my holiday luggage weight has been halved.
Jul. 9th, 2013 10:53 am (UTC)
They are a bit like secret books, aren't they? I find that ood too.
Jul. 9th, 2013 07:20 am (UTC)
One of my big problems with e-books is that I'm very spatial. When I've read a book, I typically know whereabouts in the physical object some passage is and I know where in my stacks and shelves I've placed the whole thing. So, when I come to refer to it again (which I may well do for the purposes of a discussion with someone, even if it isn't a real reference book, because I'm very keen on absolute accuracy and am not in possession of a perfect memory - especially with regard to words), I need it to be that sort of physical object to which real-world navigation skills apply.

Various tribal peoples are like that too. I might be a library / archive aboriginal.

To search for an e-book in an e-reader, I'd need to be able to remember its title / author rather than its colour and position; and, to search for a passage within an e-book, I'd need to already have enough of the right words in the right order rather than a feel for the physical shape of the book and the amount of it that was open. My literature skills are simply not up to it.
Jul. 9th, 2013 10:53 am (UTC)
That makes sense.
Jul. 9th, 2013 07:22 am (UTC)
I've had it drilled in to me that things on computer should be backed up - save your data! So I feel a bit itchy about having things I can't back up.
Jul. 9th, 2013 10:54 am (UTC)
Calibre does that for e-books. But yes, I know what you mean.
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