Coping with Unlimited

‘Unlimited’ is a funny thing.

It’s something that can be harmful — say, if we have the ability to produce an unlimited number of paper cups…where would they all go after they’ve been used? — but generally it’s something we try to pursue, especially in situations where we have the option of unlimited without the trash-heap downside that can come tandem (I’m looking at you, Industrial Revolution).

If you consider information and the way it’s stored, transmitted and consumed today, you’ll realize that we are able to create and distribute a nearly unlimited amount of knowledge to every part of the globe. There are still some choke points that require more hardware-muscle, but in general, if the knowledge exists, it can be made available and consumed for the price of nearly nothing.

That is our capability, anyway. The reality is something far different due to the artificial limitations put on information by ‘old guard gatekeepers;’ that is, companies and individuals who are accustomed to the limitations of atoms and have treasured business models based around those limitations.

These people can’t really be blamed for pining after the days where one required a Xerox machine and a lot of time to copy a book they owned the rights to. I imagine this new world — where pixels are free and books are 1’s and 0’s, easily duplicated and distributed to millions around the world — is terribly frightening to them and their models, so different it is from the way things used to be.

But just because something ‘used to be,’ doesn’t mean it ‘ought to be.’

One of the more tragic things I’ve read about recently is that libraries have a limited stock of ebooks.

Say you go into a library with your ebook reader of choice and browse their online list of books available, finding one that you’d love to read. You click to download it and are told that all available copies are checked out.

‘All available copies.’ What the what?

The big six publishers defend the decision to place artificial limits on ebooks in libraries as such:

“Our business model,” they say, “requires that individuals and libraries purchase books from us, and books are limited resources, based on the number of copies we choose to print.

“Because we can no longer control the printing process, we must control the legal process that determines how ebooks are distributed and managed, which means we must clamp down on unauthorized use of our products.

“Also, while we’re talking about it, hard copy books purchased by libraries are worn out by repeated use, which leads to more sales for us down the line. Ebooks don’t do this, so we’re going to have to raise the prices. Kthxbai.”

In my mind, this attitude toward information is criminal for two reasons.

First, it limits the flow of information out of laziness, not necessity.

Second, it’s not only dumb, it’s ineffective, and in fact counter-productive.

Covering the latter-point first, locking down ebooks with DRM and legalities that say “Now don’t you go reading this without my permission, okay?” is a ridiculous move, made all the more ridiculous by the industry’s inability to enforce their lockdown.

If I want to read a book, there are any number of ways for me to get my hands on it. I could download it from a torrent site, I could find a file on a Usenet group, I could be emailed a PDF from a friend, I could download a preview copy and strip away the DRM using free, Open Source software.

Hell, if I wanted to, I could buy a physical copy of the book, scan it into my computer, use text-recognition software (also free) to turn it into an ebook, and then distribute the thing myself (returning the book to the store afterward).

The point is not that I want to do these things — I would much rather pay a reasonable fee through Amazon or some other online service than pirate a book — but that I CAN, and that there’s nothing the publishing industry can do to stop me.

As for the former point mentioned above, trying to limit the flow of information these days is not just an exercise in futility, but also a philosophical anachronism. Why, when we have the ability to make knowledge available to everyone on the planet, would we limit access to that knowledge, using the same amount — or more — energy and resources to do it?

This tactic makes sense from the standpoint of someone who thinks of themselves as above the human race in some way, but come on, we all suffer or succeed together. The net benefits of having a universally educated and successful world population would greatly outweigh the benefits of being one of a few successful and educated people upon a planet filled with ignorant individuals.

I don’t have all the answers, but we’ll need some if the large publishers of the world are going to be convinced that they need a new business model. If I (and people like me) aren’t fast enough in convincing them, these publishers will die off, and, despite their lack of imagination, I think that would be a net-loss for everyone, as they still have a lot of value to give to the world, should they choose to.

What we need, though, are new solutions; new business models and ways of thinking that will help the old guard come down from their ivory towers and share the wealth, benefitting themselves as a result of benefitting others.

Until then, all I can do is quietly curse their hoarding of knowledge and hope for a better future where that isn’t the case.

This is an excerpt from Exiles, my twice-monthly collection of tales and thoughts from the road. Interested in learning more?