E-textbooks, Johnny Mnemonic, business and the Net
Finally I have watched a cyberpunk classic – Johnny Mnemonic. And, as usual, my mind wandered a bit and I spotted a pattern, which obviously is a great foundation for stories, but also lies at the bottom of many important, current problems.
- a serious problem of some kind exists;
- a good, complete solution, beneficial to all affected, is known and available;
- however, only a partial solution is implemented – hugely profitable to some group at the cost of the general public.
So, how does it look in practice?
- a global epidemic is raging;
- huge farmaceutical corporation posesses an effective drug that can cure it completely;
- the corporation, however, only sells (with huge profit) drugs that handle the symptoms.
And on to more important issues.
- education is crucial, but textbooks are expensive;
- it is possible to publish e-textbooks on permissive licences, which would save hundreds of zlotys for each Polish student;
- that would obviously be less profitable for the publishers, so we still get textbooks in the dead tree format – not only are those costly, but also much less practical than electronic ones could have been (oh, and my compliments to orthopaedists trying to cure kids’ spines, deformed by 6kg backpacks).
Culture in the Digital Era:
- culture, to strive and develop further, needs the possibility of citing, using, remixing and consuming works of art; these, however, are often in such a copyright lock that it’s impossible to use them, even if money is not the problem;
- it’s possible to digitalize and just release the works on permissive licenses (like Creative Commons), while artists would make their profits on donations, concerts and other events, or through licensing their works for commercial use (e.g. in pubs, cafes, etc.);
- of course that would mean much less money for the intermediaries (which, incidentally, are completely redundant in this day and age, in which each artist can get their work to the audience directly and almost hassle-free – through the Internet), so instead we get mangling the law, destroying the public domain and so on.
Some of those are black-and-white, unambiguous. Some show all kinds of gray in between. As long as e-textbooks are concerned we could estimate what’s more important to the society – existance of paper textbook publishers’ diversified market (also known as “the textbook market mess”) or our childrens’ effective and efficient education.
And then simply finance creation of e-textbooks from public funds (maybe through a grant or a competition) and put it out on a permissive free licence in the Net.
Similarily with the culture. Artists big and small publishing directly in the Internet (like Radiohead or Masala Soundsystem) and huge communities of artists and listeners (like Jamendo) show that the self-publishing openness model works. And not only in music – also in video production (vide Pioneer One) or videogame creation (huge success and reeditions of the Humble Indie Bundle).
Free market is not a value in its own right. It’s only means to an end.
Sometimes the means is not effective and not needed, as there’s a more important aim than what can be achieved with its help. Like education.
Sometimes the means is ineffective as its functioning is disrupted (here: by lobbying and seemingly unlimited resources at the disposal of the biggest players) and some definite actions, changes are needed for it to start working correctly again. As with culture on the Net.