Ethics of Circulation

I recently had the great pleasure to take part in a one-day workshop in Barcelona organized by Haidy Geismar and Heather Horst and entitled “The Ethics of Circulation.” The event resulted in a Manifesto in Tweets. The workshop was part of the Academic Book of the Future research collaboration, which is funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our talks were informal but we provided abstracts ahead of time. I include mine here:

Anthropologists have of late become especially interested in the built networks or infrastructures that undergird modern societies, encouraging attention to these “architecture[s] for circulation” that hide in plain sight (Larkin 2008; 2013). Less attention has been paid to the infrastructures by which we produce, share, preserve, and circulate knowledge: the institutions, forms, discourses and materialities that support and structure how humans come to know things—and yet such matters are no less infrastructural than the roadways, electrical grids, and water systems. This neglect is unfortunate since, today, infrastructures of knowledge production and dissemination are being reconfigured and cast anew as problems, both inside and outside the academy. My research looks at one particular flashpoint in these broader processes: the mass digitization of books.

At the beginning of the 1990s, a confluence of interest in the US among Internet entrepreneurs, computer engineers, research libraries, and the state wove together two long-standing techno-cultural preoccupations — 1) the possibility that machines could compress recorded information into dynamic and miniaturized libraries, a la Vannevar Bush’s Memex; and, 2) that the limitations of printed books were an obstacle to progress — into a new trope: the digital library. In the early 2000s, projects began in earnest to digitize books on an entirely new scale, seeming to accomplish these long-deferred dreams. Most famously, Google declared in 2004 that it intended to digitize “all books in all languages.” The site of my fieldwork, the Internet Archive, soon thereafter launched—with funding from libraries, foundations, and Google competitors—a public alternative to Google’s private library. Among those involved in the mass digitization of books, I identified a pervasive conviction: that the book is “closed” and needs to be made “open.” Rendered inaccessible by their materiality (their printedness), by the institutions that store and keep them (physical libraries), and by the state’s often misguided regulation (copyright), books are simultaneously cherished and found in need of urgent remediation. Digitizers—technologists, librarians, university administrators, lawyers, advocates—are futurists, adapting the book as they invent libraries of the future.

For my contribution to the Ethics of Circulation workshop, I will discuss mass digitization as a property contest—or, to be more precise, as an extended inquiry into the book as a form of property. In particular, I will discuss one particularly knotty issue within that property contest: the problem of what has become known as “orphan books” (and orphan works, more generally). The term has various meanings but, generally, it indicates the problem that arises when a would-be digitizer—a library, an archive, or a company such as Google—confronts copyrighted works whose owners are not identifiable or locatable. If there is no one to ask permission of, the digitizer faces the decision to use the work without authorization, risking stiff penalties should the owner come forward later, or not to digitize the work at all. The problem is not new: people have long had difficulties finding the owners of copyrighted materials, especially older works. But changes to U.S. copyright law in recent years, especially the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, have greatly exacerbated it. But it was mass book digitization that brought “orphans” to the national (and international) stage in the 2000s.

In my talk, I will discuss (briefly!) how people at the Internet Archive helped to shape the “orphan problem” in three involvements—the Federal lawsuit Kahle v. Gonzalez; in Orphan Works legislation before the US Congress; and in the Google Book Search Settlement. Although each of these efforts failed, and although some legal scholars have called for the abandonment of the orphan metaphor, I argue that it is precisely in its failure at the national level that the orphan metaphor has done its true work. The response to these failures has been a retreat into a “best practices” approach that depends less on legal formality and more on specific, ad hoc, and often experimental approaches to finding appropriate, “respectful” ways to make things part of public, digital archives.

Adrian Johns has recently called the orphan problem “the single most debilitating problem for the entire enterprise of massive open digital libraries.” Although I don’t disagree with that assessment, I also want to see orphans as a productive metaphor of relation. Anthropologists have since the 1990s turned renewed attention to the concept of property, and intensifying contests around property. For good reason, most anthropological attention has been paid to new property objects and new processes of propertization—the patenting of life forms; the privatization of natural resources; the appropriation of indigenous knowledge or traditional cultural expression; and new forms of intellectual property such as computer software. Activism behind “orphans,” in contrast, works through one of the hoariest of commodity forms—the book—in an attempt to temper intellectual property ownership in digital environments. Playing with the long history of the metaphor of the book as child (and the author as its father), activists deploy the metaphor of book as an orphan in order to undo that relation: not to fortify but to diminish the rights of the author-father, and to establish new potential “parents” in place of the neglectful/absent one.

The orphan book problem thus implicitly asks a series of important questions, among them: Who cares in this time and place about these particular cultural artifacts? What other terms and forms of relation might better serve the goals of digital archives than those provided by current copyright? How might the proliferation of new digital archives push us to consider new conceptions of “publicness” and the social relations therein?

UPDATE: This material was later published in 2017 in book form.


New Media, New Publics?

I’m looking forward to participating in a Wenner Gren Symposium this March entitled New Media, New Publics?, with a great group of anthropologists and other scholars thinking about contemporary media. My contribution will be an exploration of the desire within mass digitization to make books open as an improvement upon their presumed closed nature. I look at the particular case of the “orphaned book,” a product of mass digitization that embodies a clash in digital libraries between books as private property and books as cultural property.

Writing to Be Read

Cross-posted at the Savage Minds blog, as part of its Writers Workshop.

In the midst of my fieldwork into the “future of books,” I encountered an equally familiar and unfamiliar character: the academic author. Certainly, I knew a thing or two about such a figure. During my many years as an acquisitions editor at a university press, I had published an awful lot of them, and, as a graduate student doing dissertation fieldwork, I was in preparation to become one myself. As they say, some of my best friends are academic authors. Yet, at the same time, this new academic author, this ethnographic datum before me, was curiously distinct.

The context was the proposed conclusion to litigation over Google’s book digitization program, announced in 2004 and quickly the object of legal dispute. In 2005, author and publisher trade groups had banded together into only large class-action lawsuit, charging Google with massive copyright infringement. For two years, author and publisher representatives negotiated and, in late 2008, they revealed a settlement that resolved their differences. Their plan was essentially to turn Google’s database of digitized books into a commercial product sold by subscription to libraries. This way there would be money for everybody: authors, publishers, and Google—in what was called a “win-win-win.” Despite their confident sense of achievement, opposition to the settlement slowly grew, from expected and unexpected quarters until, in February 2011, the judge in the case finally rejected it. Despite its defeat, the maelstrom it put into motion was productive, and one just product was the “academic author.”

Speaking for the “author class,” the Authors Guild had sought to represent the book authors Google had harmed. According to its website, the Authors Guild is “the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization for writers,” and it understands an “author” to be a commercially motivated writer. According to its membership requirements, one must earn writing income “of at least $5,000 in an 18-month period,” and have book contracts that “include a royalty clause with a meaningful advance.” In fashioning a settlement in the Google Books dispute, the Author Guild’s foremost goal was to seek forms of compensation from Google as well as mechanisms for controlling the company’s use of authors’ books. In sum, the “author” of the Authors Guild is an author primarily concerned with the economic exploitation, and legal protection of, his or her copyright.

Perhaps, however, a book author has concerns other than those of the 8,000 or so members in the Authors Guild? A group of academics, primarily from the University of California system, started from that assumption. They wrote letters and testified against the Google Book Search Settlement, arguing that the Authors Guild had failed to represent the interests of “academic authors,” and in fact could not represent such authors because they had different motivations, interests, and reasons for being authors in the first place. Moreover, pointing out what should be obvious, scholars had written the majority of books in research libraries (where Google got its books to digitize) so that, in this case, their concerns were not marginal but central.

Behind their assertions lay the as-yet unspoken need for a new author advocacy group: an Authors Guild for academic authors. What would a settlement with Google have looked like if academic authors had been at the negotiating table, representing themselves, in addition to and alongside the Authors Guild? Would there have been provisions for greater public access? For making the more books available with Creative Commons licenses? For accelerating the entry of older books into the public domain? For text-mining research, for reader privacy, annotation features, library user rights, and sustainable pricing?

Earlier this year, this advocacy effort took concrete, organizational form when a new non-profit called the Authors Alliance officially launched. Spearheaded by the same academic authors who spoke against the Google settlement, the Alliance’s stated mission is “to promote authorship for the public good by supporting authors who write to be read” (emphasis mine). Certainly Authors Guild members, too, must believe themselves to be writing so as to be read, but, in the Alliance’s usage, the meaning of the phrase “write to be read” is meant to draw an distinction between writing to earn money (that is, to exploit a copyright) and writing otherwise (that is, “to be read”).

The appearance of the Authors Alliance—with its interest in advocating for authorship in the public interest and with its description of academic authors as writing “to be read”—invites our reflection. Do we write to be read? And what would it mean to each of us, individually, if we did?

There are many reasons that we find ourselves at the keyboard writing. We write to be published. We write to get a job (or, less, a job interview). We write to beef up our resumes. We write to get promoted. We write because we have something we want to say. We write so that people know we are working. We write because we are fulfilling a funder’s request for “deliverables.” We write to change the terms of a debate. We write to gain prestige. We write to increase our salary. We write because an editor or colleague cajoled us into doing so. We write to elevate our status. We write to stay in the game. We write because we did valuable research and it needs to be recorded. We write because we know stuff. And so on.

But do we write to be read? Perhaps, to some, it’s too simple a question, but I find it both complex and provocative. What difference would it make to our work, to our profession, to the institutions we inhabit, if we proceeded under that self-understanding? Indeed, how should we understand the phrase?

Whether or not you join the Authors Alliance—which, by the way, costs a mere $25—it’s worth a pause to reflect on what it would mean, to you, to “write to be read” and then to see what difference it makes—or not—to whatever you do next.