Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 8, Number 11: November 2008


Pointing with Pride, Part 7

I’m trying to make these shorter—just offering some tidbits and highlights along the way.

June 2001: Number 7

Let’s start with a little silly-season stuff, namely this tidbit from Trends & Quick Takes under the headline “Get yourself an outfit and be a cowboy too!”:

Microsoft wants most of us to think we’re project managers. Big two-page ads in computer magazines have the following large type: “Have you answered more than 10 questions today? If so, then you’re a project manager.” Thousands of technical support people, help desk staff, and reference librarians will be mighty surprised by this assertion.

It’s simply, really. Microsoft wants you to buy Microsoft Project 2000. Why buy a project scheduler if you’re not a project manager? It’s a little like the new definition of “ebooks” that includes print-on-demand books (and in a few years will probably include any book for which the text was originally in digital form): the easiest way to expand a market is to redefine it.

Think that was fun? Here’s Dick Brass, Microsoft’s “chief evangelist for electronic books,” in an article at Industry Standard:

When he spoke to senior executives at a big wood and pulp company he said, “I see dead people everywhere, and they don’t know they’re dead.” The Microsoft timeline has a “history of printing” that ends with the final paper edition of the New York Times being printed in 2018—you may have seen that date in some short-lived MS ads.

“Twenty years from now, 90 percent of everything published will be published electronically.” That’s Brass’ claim. He goes further, however, in a curiously paradoxical statement. “Literacy will spread. Poverty will retreat. There’ll be no village in India or Africa too poor to have a library equivalent to the greatest universities in the world.” And yet, Microsoft intends to make sure that its ebooks are fully protected, with every use paid for. How will these incredible libraries come about?

Brass goes on to say, “It’s like 1908 in the automobile industry. Twenty years later, it was hard to find a horse in a major American city. The same will be true for books.” Read that carefully: by 2019, it will be hard to find a [print] book in a major American city. Short of massive thermonuclear war, this vision sounds absurd. But that’s what the man said, and he’s a Microsoft hotshot.

The curious thing is that the “90 percent” figure might be right, depending on your definition of “published”—and that doesn’t reduce the role of print books, or print in general, at all. Anyone want to bet on finding it hard to find a [print] book in a major American city by 2019? Most of the most avid ebook supporters wouldn’t take that bet; they understand complementarity.

February 2002: Number 17

I tried to offer “monophone comments on a trilingual econference,” a series of articles and virtual discussions on aspects of reading, publishing and dissemination in a “digital age,” It was frequently tough going. I was favorably impressed by Roger Chartier’s piece on “Readers and Reading in the Electronic Age,” where he notes other people’s “obsessive theme” of the “disappearance of the book.” I quoted one key paragraph:

Even without imagining this still hypothetical future, one may wonder whether the electronic book in its current form will be able to attract or produce readers. The long history of reading clearly shows that revolutions in the order of practice always lag behind, and are often slower than, revolutions in technology. New ways of reading did not follow immediately from the invention of printing. Similarly, the intellectual categories which we associate with the world of texts will endure with the new forms of book. It might be useful to remember that, after the invention of the codes and the disappearance of the scroll, the ‘book’—here meant as ordered discourse—often corresponded to the textual matter previously contained in a scroll.

Chartier was also concerned that the “electronic revolution” could deepen inequalities (third-world nations have ridiculously cheap paperback books but typically not great computing infrastructures). Some commenters dismissed any doubts about the inevitable revolution. One lamented the loss of mental depth but seemed to think that, too, was inevitable.

The second paper, in translation, began: “The subject of this piece is the metaphysics of the book. I shall look at the way in which the Web frees it from our inadequate conception of it.” The paper and my notes on it both gave me a headache.

October 2002: Number 27

My favorite piece in a scattered issue was a reprint from my “disContent” column in eContent Magazine—remember when I was reprinting select “disContent” columns?—about Cubed: Media About Media About Media. The idea was to take all the metamedia of the day and go one step further: would focus entirely on metamedia. It would “set the record straight about journalism about journalism” and it would, of course, combine a print magazine, a website with some free content to entice you to subscribe, and a blog.

There were five factual paragraphs in an otherwise mythical “press release” and attachment, still true today (although some metamedia, such as Brill’s Content, has disappeared):

First, there were media—discussions and examples of real life but at one remove. In recent decades, there have grown to be so many media that life is something you do in between exposures.

Media about media—metamedia—add another layer of separation: You can think of them as media squared. These aren’t new, to be sure. What newspaper doesn’t include columns and reviews on other media—TV, books, movies, the Web?

Even media wholly about media go back decades. Consider Variety and Broadcasting & Cable, Editor & Publisher, Publisher’s Weekly, just to name a few. Columbia Journalism Review and St. Louis Journalism Review are long-standing examples of critical media about media (or journalism about journalism).

The trend has grown in recent years—and there are new media to have media about media. American Journalism Review, Publish!, Brill’s Content, even EContent; on the radio, “On the Media”; on TV, “Talk Soup” and ‘serious’ discussions of media elsewhere.

The Internet? Where to begin? In addition to the Web versions of print metamedia, there’s, the Online Journalism Review, and of course the stunning success of [Inside].com. A whole new medium, Weblogging, has encouraged many more media about media, most noticeably Jim Romanesko’s MediaNews.

July 2003: Number 37

“Why make records when you can make enemies?” That was the headline over a Copyright Perspective focused on RIAA—and some things haven’t changed much in five years.

Why does all of this matter to libraries and librarians? Because the ultimate goal of Big Media appears to be absolute pay per use with absolute control over all uses of “their” songs, books, movies, etc.—and if you think libraries will be exempted, think again…

Nor are proposed “remedies” that could damage your computer even if you’ve done nothing wrong anything new. I started with some quotes from Media Life on RIAA tactics.

Meanwhile, “With the help of unnamed technology firms, music companies are quietly looking into ways to interfere with pirates’ ability to download files, including such guerilla tactics as knocking potential downloaders offline and even messing with their hard drives.”…

Set aside that word “pirates,” a largely incorrect term that deliberately biases reader opinion. As the next sentence notes, “That some of these tactics may be illegal to carry out has so far not deterred record labels.” In which case, the record labels are setting themselves up for to be on the other side of lawsuits. How about this one: “One program would scan computer hard drives for pirated music files and automatically delete them.”

Repeat after me: There is no way to determine that an MP3 file on a computer has been “pirated.” I know of no reliable way to differentiate between the MP3 files on my PC (all legitimately ripped from CDs that I own, none of which are available for sharing) with MP3 files that Scurvy Jack copied from Peg-Leg Pete’s MP3-o-rama site… Deleting any of those files would be an act of destructive cracking and should be subject to substantial civil or criminal penalties. The article mentions wiretap laws; there must be others that apply.

I’ll stand by the italicized statement above. I have more than 1,000 MP3 files on my PC. Almost all of them are of commercial music. Other than the high bitrate (I rip at 320Kbps), there is simply no way to differentiate these files from illegal downloads. None.

March 2004: Issue 47

This issue had one of those new continuing features that somehow never continued: The Way We’re Wired. It started with eloquent reader feedback regarding my comment that Amazon harms local booksellers even while I was praising NetFlix, which could be seen as harming local video rental stores. “Isn’t it at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical to criticize Amazon but support NetFlix?”

I haven’t said this in quite a while, and perhaps never in a sufficiently straightforward manner.:

Ø  If you have a locally owned video/DVD store in your neighborhood that stocks the movies you want to rent, and you find that store an agreeable place to do business, you should certainly favor that store over NetFlix.

Ø  Conversely, if there are no locally owned bookstores in your area, or you are repelled by the local bookstores, then you should evaluate chain stores and internet bookstores to see which ones suit you best…

For us, the choice was easy. I’d had a six-month trial NetFlix membership… but we were renting most of our DVDs at a good local video/DVD store. About the time the NetFlix freebie was going to expire, the local store disappeared, thanks to rent gouging by the mall owner. That left two choices: local Blockbuster franchises or NetFlix. I don’t care for Blockbuster, for a variety of reasons. I like NetFlix.

That’s my situation. Yours may differ. For some people, a combination makes most sense: A good local store for mainstream DVDs, a minimum-level subscription to NetFlix for the stuff the local store doesn’t handle. There’s the library too, to be sure…

I believe that local video stores have disappeared to a much larger extent than local bookstores. I believe—without much proof—that Barnes & Noble and Borders, while certainly not as “local” as good independent stores, are reasonable alternatives when no good local store is available, where I have no such belief when it comes to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. But yes, maybe I am inconsistent, possibly even hypocritical.

The General Case and the Way We’re Wired

This mea culpa appears under the “Way We’re Wired” flag because it’s an example of legitimate differences in preferences and habits.

Set aside for the moment local tax revenue issues. Those can be solved… Fact is, some people simply don’t want to deal with certain businesses and have preferred ways of buying that send them to the internet, or to chain stores, or wherever.

I don’t have a problem with that. If that’s your preference, that’s the way it is.

For some of us, maybe most, it depends on the kind of product and the nature of the local stores…

There are local bookstores that drive away customers. I’ve read a science fiction/fantasy magazine editor’s comments on being informed that her local bookstore didn’t sell “that kind of book” and wouldn’t special order such trash. There’s nothing wrong with a store’s stock reflecting the owner’s preferences and with the staff revealing their tastes—but there’s also nothing wrong with customers going elsewhere…

Problems arise when you do your browsing and sampling at the retail store, then buy on the internet to save a buck or two. The extreme case comes with goods such as high-end audio, where you may be using a significant amount of staff time to explore choices. I think there’s an ethical issue involved here, and it’s a direct way to undermine local business…

I hope Amazon doesn’t become the only game in town. For that matter, I hope NetFlix doesn’t become the only game in town. I don’t think either one is likely. Diversity in the marketplace is almost always a good thing.

Amazon has not become the only game in town. NetFlix has not become the only game in town. I do buy from Amazon—but rarely books (Mountain View does have bookstores).

December 2004: Issue 57

From Interesting & Peculiar Products:

Here it is, as promoted in the September 2004 Computer Shopper: wearable television! NHJ’s $219 VTV-101 TV-Wristwatch, with a 1.5” color screen (0.9” high and 1.2” wide, I presume). “It’s rated to run on an internal battery for about an hour and an external battery pack of four AA batteries for 3 hours.” [Emphasis added.] They don’t provide overall dimensions, but it looks to be a little over two inches in each dimension and more than half an inch thick. In other words, one seriously geeky watch. Wonder how long it actually functions as a watch after you’ve watched TV for an hour? It’s designed for the Japanese market, which explains a lot.

October 2005: Issue 67

Here’s an oddity:

“Art finds a mobile home” in the June 2005 EContent is mostly an interesting story about using mobile technology to “bring art to the masses and to provide artists with new outlets and creative forms.” It features the Digital Museum of Modern Art, an entirely virtual museum…

Things get weirder early on. DMOMA’s founder calls mobile “a perfect medium for art” because “it allows users to bypass elite gallery systems and experience art on their terms”—and goes on, “All art can be reduced to a sequence of binary bits—zeroes and ones in endless succession.” One of the artists exults, “There’s no one and nothing between the user and the art. There is no distraction.” That 2” screen? Not a distraction. Reducing, say, Guernica or any Rodin sculpture to “zeroes and ones in endless succession” viewed on a tiny screen? You’ve eliminated elitism and any gap between the user and the art.

Douglas Rushkoff provides the final word: “Because art is no longer a physical thing, it has a disposable quality to it. When something is temporary, artists are going to have to create more of it.” Rushkoff’s a communications professor, so his declaration that physical art is already over, kaput, finis is presumably not just sloppy communication.

Rushkoff, having written off all physical art, thinks people won’t go for $35 for one piece of art on the phone, but might pay “$135 to subscribe to two months of images from certain artists.” Wow: Another $67.50 a month for some transient art on a 2” screen. Makes museum memberships look really cheap.

I’m not saying you can’t have successful art experiences on the tiny screen. I am saying that reducing “all art” to a bunch of bits and bytes and proclaiming the end of art as a physical thing is…well, I suppose “philistine” isn’t politically correct. One comment along the way is just plain strange: “Much art is in galleries or in private collections. Mobile makes it possible for anyone to see art. It’s no longer a privilege for the few.” But the art in private collections won’t be available on mobile phones—or has “art” become some interchangeable thing like sand or water?

May 2006: Issue 77

The lead essay was Books, Blogs & Style, and I think it stands up well—well enough that instead of using a page here, I’ll suggest you go read it.

March 2007: Issue 87

Here’s a piece from My Back Pages that really wasn’t snarky enough to fit there: “Free and easy—and legit”:

My freebie subscription to Business 2.0 is almost over. I’m delighted, particularly given the “web page” redesign of the magazine—but mostly given its consistent “the only ethical issues in business are whether you make money and whether you are provably criminal.” Spam link pages? Hey, you can make a buck. Domain ranching? Wow, profit ahead. But that’s a topic for a blog post one of these days.

This one’s a “What’s Cool/Playing the Angles” one-pager, “Free and easy,” in the December 2006 issue (before the big redesign, when the magazine still had serif type and justified margins, and lacked hot buttons on every page). It discusses Mat LaClear’s website, selling four books on real estate. The first one, No Holds Barred: Mugging Tactics for Today’s Real Estate Agent, costs $50 and made LaClear $15,000 in its first month. “But here’s the rub: He didn’t even write it.” It’s a slightly revised version of Closing the Sale by J.C. Aspley, a 1925 title that apparently didn’t have its copyright renewed. (Anything before 1923 is automatically fair game in the U.S.)

LaClear finds books in the public domain that might be salable today, possibly with a little reworking. He scans the book, does a bit of updating, adds a new title and puts it out as a new book under his name. He’s not the only one reselling public domain material; the story mentions several others (and Dover used to publish a number of books entirely based on public domain material). The key to LaClear’s success appears to be targeted email lists—that, and the apparent willingness of would-be real estate hotshots to pay big bucks for these how-to books.

Here’s the final paragraph:

Easy—but what about sleazy? The J.C. Aspleys of the world might bristle at content resellers basically plagiarizing their work for profit. The resellers don’t see it that way, of course. “Is it fair to mankind that good, helpful manuals are lost forever?” LaClear asks. “I view myself as a recycler.”

So do I—although LaClear really should include a back-of-title-page note that “Portions of this book originally appeared in different form as Closing the Sale by J.C. Aspley.” Claiming authorship for the “new” book if he’s just rewritten a couple of anecdotes is sleazy, and would be entirely unacceptable for scholarly work.

But reusing public domain material in new works is neither illegal nor unethical, and I wouldn’t call it sleazy if appropriate credit is given. The public domain’s supposed to generate new content and new uses for old content.

December 2007: Issue 97

Let’s end with a segment of the one and only Trends & Quick Takes Perspective:

Back to Nicholas Carr’s Rough type for a cute little post on that always-right guru, Ray Kurzweil:

I was flipping through the new issue of The Atlantic today when I came across this announcement from Ray Kurzweil: “The means of creativity have now been democratized. For example, anyone with an inexpensive high-definition video camera and a personal computer can create a high-quality, full-length motion picture.” Yep. Just as the invention of the pencil made it possible for anyone to write a high-quality novel. And just as that power saw down in my cellar makes it possible for me to build a high-quality chest of drawers.

The tools have been democratized: “Inexpensive high-definition video camera” is no longer an oxymoron (depending on your definition of “inexpensive”) and today’s under-$1,000 desktops have more than enough processing power (and inexpensive software to use it) to do nonlinear video editing that would have required an AVID or a high-end graphics workstation a few years ago.

None of which democratizes creativity. I’m unlikely to write a great novel, no matter how well Word works—and switching to different software on a faster PC wouldn’t help. I’m unlikely to compose great music even if I buy the appropriate software and hardware. I’m extremely unlikely to make a great movie.

It’s not just creativity. Most creative works involve effort as well as talent. Better tools may lessen portions of the effort, but it doesn’t go away. A good flick involves a host of different talents; unlike most fiction (and nonfiction), it’s almost always a deeply collaborative proposition involving not only different kinds of brainwork but a fair amount of brawn as well. All the nonlinear editing software in the world isn’t going to give one of the friends I could con into doing a home movie the acting talent of Reese Witherspoon or Mary Kay Place or the composing talent of Randy Newman.

Or, in one brief sentence: This stuff is hard.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 11, Whole Issue 108, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services,

Opinions herein may not represent those of PALINET or YBP Library Services.

Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2008 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.