January 31, 2007

Ontario Library Association Conference Day 1: Cory Doctorow Opening Plenary

I just got home from the first day of the OLA Super Conference. I registered, hung out a bit in the speaker's lounge, went to the opening plenary and they hung around a bit at the opening reception for a bit of free food and booze (Dewar's -- Yay!). And bought a book in the OLA Store. I'm a sucker for books, which should come as no surprise, being a librarian and all.

Anyways, to the topic at hand. Cory Doctorow's plenary. I'm not usually much of a conference plenary kind of person. They're usually just an excuse to get all the attendees in front of the sponsor's logos for an hour or so, usually just hired guns, from outside the library field. Well, Doctorow was something different. Famous sf novelist, BoingBoinger, Craphound, activist. I was a little wary that he'd be a bit too strident, but he was great. The title of the talk was "Bits Will Never Get Harder to Copy" and his focus was on copyright issues and protecting the free flow of information from those that would unduly restrict and prohibit, mostly avarous corporations and their government cronies.

Doctorow began by recounting his days as a library page at the North York Central library, remembering in those days that librarians were doing fairly basic things like recommending books to patrons. Now, however, he praises librarians for striving to place information in context, for being the "war heroes of the information wars." As networks get faster and storage cheaper and more plentiful, he imagined a world where all of human creative output could fit in a sugar-cube sized device.

In fact, search is already solved in our world. Finding good stuff to click on or read is hardly the problem anymore, the problem is finding time to read all the incredibly great stuff that you can find with no effort at all. The idea of the Long Tail means that no matter how specific your desires and preferences, you can easily find the good stuff.

The other great thing that's happened recently is that the barriers to collaboration have all but disappeared. He gave the example of Project Guttenberg, where people all over the world can collaborate on proofreading an etext, one page, 10 minutes at a time. How Flicker can create virtual coffee table books using photos from countless people all over the world. How Google uses simple links that everyone creates on their web pages to basically catalogue the web.

On the other hand, some bad news too. Organizations like WIPO and laws like the DCMA conspire to prevent people from taking advantage of the vast cultural resources at their disposal; the music and film industries are at war with their most ardent fans. The American Association of Publishers is fighting Google Book Search when they should realize that the publishers worst enemy isn't piracy, but obscurity. Laws must adapt to meet new technology and circumstances, the genie can't be put back in the bottle, but the incumbents, those that favour laws based on status quo technology, never favour progress and evolution. As well, the legal process must happen in the open, with due process, with no filtering or hidden censorship. Doctorow's closing words were quite inspirational, that librarians must be the moral authorities to stand up for fairness in access to information.

Phew. Enough summary. Did I drink the Kool Aid? Mostly. There were some things I didn't really agree with. For example, the idea that search is solved. It's easy to find stuff if you're just looking aimlessly, eager for diversion or amusement. It's still not easy necessarily to find exactly some piece of information or some particular document, the deep web still has many mysteries and dark recesses. It's also not easy to understand and evaluate the social context of the information. Saying "Search is solved" is too simple. As well, Doctorow more or less dismisses any complaints by rights holders that they should be the ones that decide what uses their works should be put to. It's a bit too facile to just day that obscurity is a bigger problem than piracy, that 90% of stuff is out of print or not available for sale. If you're a rights holder and your work is readily available, there may be a part of your career path where piracy is just a bigger concern that obscurity.

But in the end, quibbles aside, I really enjoyed Doctorow's speech. It was fast & funny and thought provoking and very, very entertaining.


Stewart C. Russell said...

You mean someone actually likes Dewar's? Ack, bleah!de

John Dupuis said...

Hey, Stewart, no such thing as bad scotch in my books, especially when it's free. But seriously, to me it's all relative -- I'd love to see Glenmorangie or Talisker at the bar at a party like this but it just ain't going to happen. If I can't have a single malt, then a blend is, to me at least, still better than most of the other choices, like plonk wine, commericial big-brewery beer or run of the mill CC or what not.

But, I'm open to suggestions...what do you have at an open bar party where the choices are somewhat limited? And, while we on the subject, what's your favourite blended scotch?