Technological regress

A few months ago I got very excited when I discovered that you could use Google Books to read whole books. Google has permission from a lot of publishers to return from their books a ‘limited preview’ of a few pages around the text you searched for. By typing in a few words from the end of the ‘limited preview’, you could read the next few pages and read your way through until your eyes got sore.

Alas, sometime in the last couple of weeks the loophole seems to have been closed. Google Books now skips pages and won’t keep serving up consecutive pages for long. It was great while it lasted.

For people with access to university library accounts, the web is much bigger. Through a library you can generally search or read almost any periodical you want these days, including decades of back issues.

But now I’ve started to feel that even this charmed world has started to narrow. I’ve developed a sense of entitlement to text, and it has come to greatly annoy me if I can’t read something online – I was aggrieved to discover that the London Review of Books was not available through the Sydney Uni library. Fairfax recently decided to remove access to the Australian Financial Review from Factiva. Now you have to search via its own website and pay to read articles, or pay a prohibitive monthly subscription for online access. This is pretty dire for a major daily newspaper, but possibly a good business decision, since I imagine many businesses will cough up for continued access. It has certainly made me buy it more regularly than I otherwise would.

It’s funny how much effort now goes into disabling the distributive potential of the internet, in order to protect the commodity status of text, music, films, etc. Was there ever a clearer case of the productive forces straining relations of production?

Published in: on 10 July, 2007 at 9:17 pm  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Damn straight on your final, rhetorical question. I continue to be aggrieved by the unavailability of Radical Philosophy through the library – it’s online on their website for subscribers only. Actually, it occurs to me that maybe I could get the code for that access off a hard copy of the journal in the library.

    I was trying to read Laclau and Mouffe with that Google Books workaround as you suggested and it didn’t work; I’m glad to hear this isn’t just because of my technological incompetence.

    Google Books is great though because it really proves that the intellectual copyright is just serving as a brake on the dissemination of information. Given that academics hardly make money from book and journal publication, how long before they cut out the middle men and serve this stuff for free?

  2. I know, all the stuff is in the system now, hopefully bursting at the seams. It feels like music downloading pre-Napster… most stuff was there somewhere but getting it is tricky.

    From my experience quite a few academics will now send you the pdfs of their expensive books for free if you keep it quiet. I think the biggest barrier to free academic publication is not economics – as you know they don’t make much off their books – but the fact that the career structure requires official publications. From the publishers’ point of view the market is libraries whose demand is rather inelastic, I guess they figure the general market is limited even at a low price so they might as well charge heaps.

  3. Well, what Routledge told me is that the general academic book market has literally collapsed in the last five years. This is I am sure entirely due to the internet, although it’s not entirely clear by what mechanism. It’s certainly clear that students do a lot of internet research for essays these days, whereas presumably before the internet the easiest way to research a topic was to buy a book.

    The academic presses are important career-wise because they’re the closest thing to a peer-review mechanism for books, and we need that peer-review gatekeeper. But with electronic publication, there’s no reason why entire books can’t be published in peer-reviewed journals, say, or peer-reviewed online book collections. New measurements of ‘impact’ in relation to academic writing will certainly help electronic dissemination and discourage high-price publication, but that tends to throw out quality-control mechanisms with the bathwater – terrible nonsense can have more impact than well-researched stuff.

  4. I totally agree. Peer review is important, but there’s no reason why it has to be connected to intellectual property. The university system is in a unique economic position in having the capacity to sustain its intangible output without intellectual property, since the producers’ income is not dependent on sales of the work.

  5. Damn straight. Moreover, there’s a perfectly good conservative argument for the elision of copyright in this case: academics are funded by the public purse, so their products should be publicly available.

  6. Capital & Class? Common Sense? Even old Telos? So much excellent material unavailable, or at least unavailable to me, especially since I don’t have easy access to a university library account at the moment.

    I remember UTS’ short-lived placing of guards at the doors of its library so it could sell access to individuals and institutions. Since then, of course, with unis requiring codes for computer access and such, other ways have been found to enforce the boundaries of control and use which make possible commodification.

  7. Ha. Yeah that sucks. I think anyone can still wander into the Sydney Uni library and access stuff from the terminals there without a password. But it’s not exactly convenient.

  8. Well, most of the terminals now require some kind of password access. I’m not exactly overjoyed by the lack of security guards at Sydney Uni library either, because the rate of theft is horrendous, and this not infrequently denies me the book I need.

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