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Full Speed Reverse

In the last month, there’s been a lot of mainstream media attention on the borderlands between paper print and digital print, between text and etext. Google seems to be the focus of much of this interest, and my guess is that the announcement and proposal of a settlement between Google and a broad class of authors and publishers and [. . .] library partners is making a lot of people nervous.

It was easy to believe that the future of the book, not just its electronic advent but its commercial feasability, was in fact a distant future, somewhere between an Apple-branded tablet device and flying automobiles.1 As long as the present day ability of readers to curl up in the bathtub with their favorite gathering of toxically produced wood pulp remained unchallenged, no one really considered the economic and social impact of etext and ebooks.2 The day people realized Google was moving its books project out of the academic cloister toward commercial respectability was the day everyone crapped their paper print diapers.

The US Department of Justice feels that the breadth of the settlement raised ‘significant legal concerns’, especially the problem that the agreement seems to give publishers the power to restrict price competition and drive other digital distributors from the market. The DOJ believes that the settlement in its current form fails to comply with Rule 23 of a federal law governing class-action settlements. As Tom Krazit of CNET observes, it seems the DOJ wants Congress to determine the fate of copyright orphaned works and the public’s ability to access such works rather than market forces to find a solution on their own. To my eyes, media incumbents know they cannot force Google to do its bidding and Google is keenly interested in granting public access to this information. Siccing the DOJ on the settlement is one way to express incumbent corporate interests. If these interests prevail, we all get to stay curled up in the bathtub.

Or do we?

It would be one thing if Google only wanted to offer access to these orphaned works, but Google has a broad range of initiatives whose target is the shadowy realm between paper and digital print. First, to smooth the feathers of its competitors, Google announced it would allow rivals full commercial access to its etext archives so companies like Amazon and Barnes and Noble could sell users access.3 Google also wants to help readers stay in the tub, announcing in the last days of summer 2009 that the direction of textual flow can be reversed, from digital to paper. Ebooks? We ain’t got no ebooks. We don’t need no stinkin’ ebooks!

And in case you missed it, Google even has come up with a way to help dead-tree news dealers relinquish their toxic hold on the world’s water resources with a new service called Fast Flip.4 RSS clients are too electrotexty for the partially bleached newsprint hordes. They need something more visual. For my money, I think Fast Flip is pretty slick and that it will help the electronically challenged get a better sense of the news available on the Internet. I’d love to see this kind of functionality available in a clientside RSS reader.

The recent and ongiong mainstream media concern with the flow of information from paper to electronic media—the concern with the transduction of material across disparate ontological orders—signals to me that electronic text is almost here. One of the largest commercial interests in the world is bringing its energy and vision to accelerating the nascent market for electronic texts, while the DOJ’s puppet masters think it’s best to encourage the parties to continue negotiations to modify it.5 A few more rounds of just this kind of judicial heel-dragging and paper print laggards will find themselves in exactly the same place that the captains of the music industry are in today.

It’s unfair, though, to suggest this is a problem limited to US media incumbents. Across the pond, Hachette Audio and Digital Media are using the abridged audio book version of Iain M. Banks’s latest novel Transition (hardcover by Orbit, a Hachette imprint) to sell paper print copies of the book. This strikes me precisely the kind of thinking one can expect from the benficiaries and proponents of incumbent media because the transition that’s really called for is not from audio to back paper. If paper print publishers truly understood the nature of media shift, they would give customers free audio versions of the paper print books they purchase. The reason publishers do not do this is because they want to believe that the new media can be used as a means to preserve the old media. The beneficiaries of paper print are blind to the possibility of using the old media to way to accelerate the shift to the new media and, by doing so, advantageously positioning themselves in relation to new media. They believe the old business can be maintained, impossibily, by routing through the new business. They do not see that the new business is inevitable.

They do not see that there is no other side.

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1 “Flying” as part of intended operation rather than the result of accidentally becoming airborne.
2 I don’t make exception for Amazon’s Kindle because I don’t think the device is mainstreamable. Its design will influence nothing except by way of precaution.
3 This move should be called The Google Gauntlet because the unspoken challenge is compete with free. Google will charge advertisers, not users, for access to these archives. So, say, Amazon would be on a fool’s errand to try to sell users access to the archive. The slap across the other cheek just before Google throws the gauntlet on the ground sounds something like I dare you to create a search service better than ours. LOLOLOL.
4 I wish the flip was off as well as fast.

5 The pull-quote featured in the BBC’s US objects to Google book deal would be sad if it weren’t so predictable. Sheila tells the BBC that

Speaking as a researcher, I find Google Books a practical way to obtain information from rare books. But I do not want to read a novel online

missing the point that reading a novel on a computer is the least of the affordances of a digital text over a print text. One wonders if Shelia would say “But I do not want to search for a unique phrase online.”