Books in Browsers IV – the 2013 edition – has finished, and at least for me it marked an clear change in focus from the past. Convened by Hypothes.is and the Frankfurt Book Fair, and with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Internet Archive, swissnex San Francisco, Safari Books Online, and many additional sponsors – BiB IV was as nearly complete a contrast to the initial BiBs as could be imagined. Continue reading
One of the things that happens when you move publishing from print to digital is that you are suddenly able to measure everything. It’s not just a matter of knowing what books or articles someone buys, but how much of them they have read; what illustrations they have enlarged; what they have tweeted or “Liked” or posted in their blogs; the number of annotations and comments a text receives; mentions in online forums; pretty much anything imaginable. Continue reading
Metadata is a much-discussed topic these days, thanks to the efforts of the National Security Agency to acquire as much telecommunications information as possible. NSA actions have made it obvious that petabyte-scale aggregation of metadata is increasingly possible. What is less clear, particularly for cultural institutions, is the extent of intellectual property rights in metadata and their impact on sharing at a time when data are increasingly susceptible to enhancement via linked open data and semantic description. A recent meeting convened by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, under the direction of Professor Pamela Samuelson and with the assistance of Dave Hansen, assisted by an Alfred P. Sloan grant, explored some of these contours. Continue reading
The end of summer and the start of school; a last round of easy dinner parties and sleepovers for the kids. Such times lead me into conversations about ebooks, ereaders, and why things are the way they are, instead of some other way. Explaining to friends that no, they can’t lend an ebook to their wife in most cases; no, there’s no easy way to set up a shared or group account; and yes, they might be able to get a book from their library, but the selection is incomplete and the process sometimes difficult – it all seems like an old refrain at this point. Continue reading
Recently, Eric Hellman of Unglue.it has begun advocating for future-dated Creative commons licenses to provide greater access to digital books. The idea is that a publisher would specify a future date at which the title would be made available through a Creative Commons license; MIT Press, and a few others, have experimented with this approach This is a solid point for elaboration and experimentation. Eric has iterated the idea for his startup Unglue.it, adding the possibility for individual purchases to incrementally shorten the windowing period. Continue reading
In May 2013, three large ebook retailers and e-ink reading device manufacturers – Amazon, Kobo, and Sony – filed a petition with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission asking it to “waive the accessibility requirements for equipment used for advanced communications services (ACS) for a single class of equipment: e-readers.” In other words, dedicated e-ink devices are difficult to use for the blind, visually-handicapped, and reading disabled, so the manufacturers are asking to be relieved of the need to make them accessible. I find nothing in this pleading which will “advance the public interest.”
At first glance, it seems like it might be reasonable request. The petition observes that e-reader devices are typically low-powered to preserve battery life, have relatively low resolution screens with slow refresh rates, lack sound capability such as microphones and speakers, and cannot support full-featured web engines. As the counsel for the manufacturer coalition states, although these devices “have a similar shape and size to general-purpose tablet computers, e-readers lack many of tablets’ features for general-purpose computing, including ACS functions.” As some on Twitter caustically noted, these devices “suck” too much to support accessibility.
I can’t help but find the arguments of these retailers pathetic and depressing. As the retailers note, “This Petition demonstrates that e-readers are devices designed, built, and marketed for a single primary purpose: to read written material such as books, magazines, newspapers, and other text documents on a mobile electronic device.” I assert that the affordance the blind would most like obtain from increasingly powerful mobile technology is exactly this: to read text on a simple device. For ebook retailers to set up a straw man argument between blinged out retina-resolution tablets supporting complete software stacks and e-ink devices is poor logic and shameful conduct. The choice is not between a Model T and a Tesla – a Kickstarter project could likely find a happy engineering medium if large corporations cannot manage it.
This is an amazing market opportunity gone missing, and as many advocates of accessibility have noted, helping the blind also means helping a rather large number of individuals who have various incapacities, many of which inevitably arise or increase with age. Vast numbers of the blind do use smartphones and tablets to read – they are a vast improvement on the expensive, dedicated accessibility devices of years past. But they are often overkill, and their complexity frustrates as much as it aids, despite Apple’s long dedication to accessibility support. Building an e-reader device that is not a tablet or smartphone but which does support accessibility would be a huge boon to literally millions of readers whose reading is sharply restricted today.
Furthermore, as law professor James Grimmelmann noted in Twitter, this is not a war that ebook retailers should be fighting. If publishers want to disable text-to-speech and other accessibility functions, then they should petition the FCC, not Amazon, Kobo, or Sony. A cynical observer might think that despite Amazon’s recent acquisition of high-end text-to-speech (TTS) technology, the removal of TTS capability from the Kindle Paperwhite series – when it was present on prior Kindles – might suggest that they are simply forcing consumers upstream to tablets. Gasp: could it be possible that the petition to the FCC is motivated by their own financial interests, and not those of the public?
There is one other omission to note: the complete silence from the International Digital Publishing Forum. The IDPF has spent years working on its new EPUB3 standard, with a stated goal of enhancing accessibility. The EPUB3 specification document calls out: “It is important to note that while accessibility is important in its own right, accessible content is also more valuable content: an accessible Publication will be adaptable to more devices and be easier to reuse, in whole or in part, via human and automated workflows.” Even the American Association of Publishers’ newly launched EPUB3 Implementation Project notes that “Through EPUB 3’s innovative assistive features, people who are blind or have other print disabilities will have access to the same titles, at the same time, as all readers.”
Paradoxically, two of the members of the “Coalition of E-Reader Manufactures” – Sony and Kobo – are members of the IDPF. Although the BISG’s EPUB3 compliance table documents only partial readiness from reading system providers, both Sony and Kobo have publicly indicated more complete EPUB3 support by the end of 2013. Unfortunately, that endorsement seems to falter at one of the format’s core design features. Despite the manufacturers’ naked disrespect for the EPUB3 specification, as far as I can tell the IDPF has yet to issue a press release on the request for FCC waiver, or submit a filing in response to the petition. That is unfortunate if true; the board of a not-for-profit must carry some responsibility.
More fundamentally, corporations able to advance access to knowledge through innovative technology should take gracious pride in the opportunity to open horizons as a fortunate reciprocity for their charters. Instead, in this petition, I see hubris. Make your voice heard: the last date to submit comments to the FCC is September 3, 2013.
The rapid development of online publishing has been a boon for advancing access to literature and science. At the same time, it portends a dramatic lessening of the currently-legislated ability for national libraries with preservation and access mandates to record and store national and world literatures. There are at least two principal axes to this concern: independently published literature, and the growing wealth of alternative direct-to-web publishing channels. Continue reading
When I was about 15 years old, I purchased a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook by mail. I’m not exactly sure why I did that; it was being heavily advertised back then in the progressive magazines I read, and I probably thought it was the cool, geeky thing for a young boy to do. I remember trying to plow through it, but it was sloppily written and I didn’t think much of it; the author has strongly disavowed it, and wants it off the market.
Even in the late 1970s, I didn’t agree with the sentiments; my parents were smart not to intervene or counsel caution. It was a very liberal household for reading, and my father, a professor of literature, also kept a “teaching copy” of The Story of O in a place that was probably a little too accessible — or just accessible enough. My purchase of the Cookbook was primarily about personal semiotics: a (failed) attempt to signal to myself, something about myself.
It was an innocent act. Now, I am not so sure that it would be. With the hands of the NSA clearly deep in international personal and organizational communications traffic, along with presumably any other national security agency around the world worth its salt, tracing that kind of information might well be worth their while. Why not? Storage is affordable at scale, and computation is pervasive.
The government now clearly understands that the most critical internet infrastructure – freely flowing information – doesn’t actually flow that freely, but is usually routed through the application silos maintained by a small number of companies that include Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo. As citizens, it is our responsibility to consider the ramifications that control over the data we generate as individuals offers for surveillance. Regardless of how ferociously companies have fought to protect user information – e.g., EFF has applauded Yahoo, and Google has apparently given ground only reluctantly – these companies remain data honeypots for government infosec query.
Our reading takes place, overwhelmingly, in those silos, within Apple, Amazon, and maybe Microsoft. With the apparent slow withering of Barnes & Noble’s business, it becomes ever more likely that Microsoft’s strategic investment of $300MM in the Nook Media unit might well become the vehicle to majority ownership. With a new reorganization under its belt, Microsoft is clearly interested in entertainment and mobile hardware platforms, and content is a critical component of hardware based business offerings.
Microsoft has drawn significant attention in the NSA scandal as being eager to please government inquiries, being accused of providing low level access to Outlook and Skype services, among others. Although Microsoft has strongly refuted these allegations, it hedges carefully by noting, “Looking forward, as Internet-based voice and video communications increase, it is clear that governments will have an interest in using (or establishing) legal powers to secure access to this kind of content to investigate crimes or tackle terrorism.”
And so whatever protections progressive States like California have been able to secure to protect reader privacy, it is not at all clear they would work against FISA orders on the national level. With our books in the hands of a few very large internet application hosts, and even assuming the best efforts by those companies to protect their users, we can not purchase ebooks, much less read them, with any sense of privacy or confidentiality.
It was a privilege to read the Anarchist’s Cookbook as a teenager and not worry about it; even to have a reasonably decent chance of not having anyone know about it. But no era is innocent, and the 1970s certainly weren’t. I would later take a university political science class on terrorism, studying the tracts and tactics of Black September and Baader-Meinhof; I would read with some fascination Marighella’s manual on urban guerrilla warfare; the Munich Massacre occurred in 1972, and hijackings continued apace through the decade.
We read in a political and social context. It is far too easy for the knowledge of which books we buy, and what we browse online, to become imbued with a deeply and profoundly political cast by organizations with great power, regardless of the intentions and free thoughts of the individual.
For now, the privilege of reading privately, digitally, has been lost. The Internet needs new architectures for distributing and securing data, using encryption that remains in the hands of the users, creating a very different kind of cloud based architecture for data storage and computation. Until then, assume that someone else has a set of keys to your bookshelf.
The only thing that can be said for certain about the relationship of libraries with publishers and ebooks is that they are subject to change. To keep libraries and publishers up-to-date, ALA is hosting a virtual conference, via registration, that includes a session on “New Directions for Libraries and Digital Content.” Robert Wolven, from Columbia University Libraries, will join Peter Brantley, from Hypothes.is, in a discussion of what to expect next for libraries.
Even as Apple lost a price-fixing court case involving the Big 6 publishers (now the Big 5, with the merger of Random House and Penguin Books), ALA continues their on-going dialogue with publishers to attempt to increase access to both current and backlist titles. Spearheaded by the Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG), co-chaired by Robert Wolven, ALA has made surprisingly and steady progress in broadening the available ebook catalog, while continuing to press for changes in license terms; opportunities for content preservation; development of alternative business models; and privacy guarantees for ebook borrowers.
In the longer run, we are likely to confront far greater changes in what “books” are, and how they are procured and read. Both startups and dominant web companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon are utilizing software development techniques and ever more powerful browsers to advance towards a far different horizon for publishing content. Peter Brantley’s article for the American Libraries’ Digital Supplement, “The Unpackaged Book,” highlights some of these evolutions in how books and storytelling are presented on the web, and the opportunities and challenges that libraries face as a result.
This week, Pew Internet Research released a study on young readers, their library habits, and reading preferences. Although ereading continues to grow, the eye-opening part of the survey for some has been the high percentage – 75 percent of those aged 16-29 – who have read a print book in the past year.
Count me among the surprised. I would have thought the percentage of print readers would have been lower. Print has an interesting stickiness – it’s still available nearly ubiquitously, both in book- and general stores, as well as through Amazon – and it has one other gainful characteristic. It is a self-contained media package. Unlike walking around with an LP, CD, or DVD, which are useless in-and-of themselves, most of us can stick a book in our purse, bag, or jacket and not require anything else to go forth and ponder the world’s mysteries or plumb an imagination. (Except reasonably dry weather).
Of course, there’s a fly in the ointment. Well several, but I personally came across one the other day in a jarring fashion. Last month, I wound up purchasing two print books: one, a mass market paperback, and one hardback. Both purchases were driven by vexations with the clumsy, overly-corporatized digital transformation of publishing. First is the continuing gnash-the-teeth frustration that my partner and I have figuring out a way to share our ebooks, which we are wont to do, since we have overlapping interests in literature. We will probably wind up sharing a single Amazon account, but it’s a stupid solution that grates. Second, the rights associated with the pocket book have not been adjudicated for digital; for the hardback book, which is older, and concerns itself with political diplomacy with a scholarly bent, a digital reprint must represent a questionable source of income for its publisher.
I couldn’t read either one of them. It was a purely physical, I’m-getting-older experience, but I found the contrast of type on paper for both the mass market paperback and the better-manufactured hardback rather execrable. The paper stock in both volumes was darker than I would expected, and appeared rough. The printing itself was not very sharp, and the apparent fuzziness of the font’s strokes made the experience more tiresome. I reached for reading lamps to no avail. The fact of the matter is that I am now used to high contrast, highly controllable screens. Putting aside all the endless stupidities of DRM and the inane restrictions on access that prevent my family from enjoying books together, reading digitally is simply superior – it is more customizable, and extends more control to the reader.
It is this basic, raw accessibility of digital reading that makes the recent WIPO Marrakesh agreement on the right to read for people with reading disabilities so damn important. The treaty won’t help me (yet, anyway), but for the first time, it will be possible for accessible editions to cross borders without needless restrictions, and for a reader to be able to access global reading-impaired library platforms built from books from many different countries. Up until now, for example, it has been impossible for the Internet Archive to make available its DAISY-formatted and protected modern books to blind or dyslexic readers in Canada or other Commonwealth countries.
As James Love of Knowledge Ecology, one of the foremost advocates for greater access by the disabled, comments in a statement:
The treaty will provide a dramatic and massive improvement in access to reading materials for persons in common languages, such as English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Arabic, and it will provide the building blocks for global libraries to service blind persons. On the issues that mattered the most for blind persons, such as the ability to deliver documents across borders to individuals, and to break technical measures, the treaty was a resounding success.
Shame on the MPAA, GE, Disney, and Viacom, among other corporations, for resisting the treaty. Their intransigence in gracefully acknowledging the greater access that digital technologies make available to the blind and dyslexic should be widely noted.