Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Harry Potter...stolen!

I wasn't planning on writing for another week or so, but this one's too good to pass up. I just caught this article in The New York Times about the final installment of the Harry Potter book series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, having made its way onto the internet. Someone got their hands on a copy of the book sometime before this Saturday's highly-anticipated release, photographed a good chunk of the pages, and then posted them online. I've checked around and, sure enough, there they are--at least, that is, until Potter's publishers get their act together and the takedown notices start flying!

Now, to all you Potter fans out there, you can rest assured that I'm not going to spoil any of the secrets. I like the books myself and respect your love of the series too much to do that. And to those of you who are hoping I'll spill the beans, sorry. You'll have to go elsewhere for that. My point in writing is to comment a bit on the Harry Potter security phenomenon. I talk about this at length in my upcoming book, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, which includes a chapter called "Harry Potter and the Culture of the Copy." Here I'll make just a few offhanded observations.

First, I take this security meltdown, and those preceding the release of the previous two Potter installments, as an effect of what in The Late Age of Print I call "the mass production of scarcity." Think about it: 12 million copies of Deathly Hallows have been printed in the U.S. alone. By now they're in bookstores all over the country, doing absolutely nothing as they sit locked away in stock rooms...other than generating hype.

Since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the boy wizard's publishers have been enforcing what the book industry calls "global lay-down dates," which, the publishers say, ensure that the books' surprises remain sacrosanct. Clearly, they don't. Even so, global lay-down dates do perform a kind of magic: they make Harry Potter, a mass-produced commodity if there ever was one, disappear despite his sheer ubiquity. And as anyone who's taken Business 101 will tell you, scarcity tends to augment demand.

My second observation pertains to the fact that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows made its way online in the form of digital photographs rather than, say, scans. The folks over at PC World have noted that, in doing so, the culprit may well have inadvertently revealed her or his identity:
In an interesting development it appears that the person who took the pictures of the book left his camera meta info attached to the image files. This is significant because with the camera meta data you can extrapolate the serial number of the camera. And with that information and time authorities could track down who took the pictures.
Little did I--someone who studies digital culture--know that digital photos contain this kind of personal information. I suppose it's naive of me not to have realized this, since privacy is nothing if not compromised online. In the end, what a cautionary tale it will be if the pernicious Potter pilferer is apprehended because of the digital trace she or he has left behind.

And finally, despite most, if not all, of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' secrets already having been revealed, I have nothing but confidence that all 12 million copies of the book will eventually sell--and then some.

Monday, July 16, 2007

An informed citizenry

As you can see from my recent post about summer reading, I've been spending a good deal of time these past few weeks getting caught up on all sorts of good books. One that didn't make it onto the previous list, which I just finished, is Lawrence Lessig's Code v2.0 (Basic Books, 2006). Like Kittler's Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, it's one of those books I should have read ages ago (in its original edition [1999]) but never quite managed to. It's smart, accessible, and, honestly, something that everybody living at the dawn of the 21st century ought to read.

The book, in a nutshell, is about two types of "code": what Lessig calls "East Coast code," or law, and "West Coast code," or the algorithms that make computers and other digital technologies work. There's too much depth and subtlety for me to do justice to the argument, but suffice it to say that Lessig's interested in the ways in which both types of code are (or can be) used to regulate digital environments. He seems most anxious about the increasing use of "West Coast code," since it tends to be private/proprietary and therefore exists significantly outside of democratic process. (And here, there's an obvious resonance with my own rants about digital rights management [DRM] technology.)

It occurred to me in reading Code v2.0 just how ill-equipped the American citizenry (myself included) is when it comes to living in the world Lessig describes. I gather that the vast majority of computer classes taught these days are geared toward basic "computer literacy." This I take to mean general instruction in how to run major commercial applications such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and others. More advanced training in actual programming tends to occur in the realm of post-secondary education, and only then with a small, largely self-selected group.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think learning how to run major commercial applications is a problem per se. What is a problem, though, is that most of us knows next to nothing about what goes on "behind" the windows we see. Really, these windows are also screens, because they hide at least as much as they reveal. Put differently, most of us at best have only a basic working knowledge of West Coast code. And given all the ways in which, as Lessig shows, this type of code is coming to regulate our lives--quietly in the background, as it were--we need to know much, much more about how it works, and about how to manipulate it, in order to become a better informed citizenry.

I'm not saying that all we need to do is to become computer programmers in order to be better citizens. I don't buy the "netizen" argument, and I haven't fallen under the spell of The Matrix trilogy that much. I am saying that computer programming ought to be a primary subject taught in our schools, just like math, science, foreign languages, and social studies. It's not just a practical skill anymore. Increasingly, it's a matter of civic responsibility.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Michael Moore's Sicko

This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Moore's latest documentary, Sicko. If you're living in the United States, or if you're living elsewhere and are mystified by the U.S. health care system, you ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE IT! It's moving, powerful, funny, informative, and revealing--everything you'd expect from a Michael Moore documentary.

A couple of parts stood out most to me. The first revolved around a young man who, after receiving a cancer diagnosis, returned to his native France for treatment after living for a decade or so in the United States. Upon completing chemotherapy, the man's doctor asked him how much time he wanted off from work. This type of leave is customary in France, I gather, and it's 100% paid (65% by the government, 35% by one's employer). The young man decided to spend his time convalescing on the beaches in the South of France.

Now, the story itself wasn't what jumped out at me per se (though it's always profound when someone shares a story about her or his struggle with cancer). What did jump out was my own reaction; initially, I felt myself scoffing at the man's decision to spend three subsidized months relaxing in the South of France. Shouldn't he just get back to work, I wondered? Wasn't that an abuse of the system? It was at that moment that I realized just how engrained American health care ideology and moralism have become, even in me--someone who bends Left and who therefore ought to know better. I mean, c'mon...isn't it sensible to give someone a little bit of time off to gather strength and regroup, especially after having to fight the fight of one's life?

What also struck me most about Sicko was one particular line. I don't recall now who uttered it, but basically, it went something like this: "In the United States, the people are afraid of the government. Elsewhere, the government is afraid of the people." Now, I realize this must be something of an over-statement. Yet, it does cut right to the heart of why (a) people in the U.S. feel so disempowered politically, and (b) why the government can get away with so many abuses of civil liberties and the like. This is especially true under the current administration.

In the spirit of Sicko, I'll share one health care "horror" story of my own. Thankfully it didn't affect me directly, but it's shameful nonetheless. A dispute involving doctors at my local hospital and my insurance company resulted in the latter refusing to cover hospitalizations here in Bloomington, albeit with some exceptions (e.g., pregnancy). Their dispute dragged on and on for months. The bottom line was that each party's greed resulted in people like me essentially losing coverage at our local hospital. I can't imagine what I would have had to do in the event of an emergency, or if I had become ill. I suppose I would have had to drive 40 miles to the next closest "in-network" hospital.

All that to say, those of us living in the United States not only need to see Sicko, but more importantly, we need to change this broken health care system of ours. It can work more or less well, sometimes, but too often it's a disgrace.