Sunday, February 3, 2013

Striphas - "E-books and the Digital Future"

In this chapter from The Late of Age Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (2009), Ted Striphas emphasizes the materiality of books and issues of control within the writing-publishing-distribution-reading life cycle of a book. His analysis shifts away from questions of authorship or the literary form of books and instead focuses on “the history and social function” of books and e-books (p. 22), most notably problems of ownership and circulation. Central to his study is the American commercial publishing industry, for whom books are commodity objects first and sources of knowledge or creativity only a distant second. He comes to the conclusion that what is changing most with the emergence of e-books and related digital technologies is “the social relations of commodity ownership,” which are today being dominated by new practices of “controlled consumption” (p. 45), wherein publishers micromanage the use and circulation of content through copyright law and technologies like digital rights management software. In other words, what is changing most in terms of printed books is not the content itself or the formal or experiential qualities of reading – those seem to be relatively consistent, even if the way that content is accessed is much different – but rather what the reader/consumer/user can do with that content after purchasing it. This equates to not just technological but also social control.

To make this argument, Striphas outlines trends in the sale, purchase, and display of books as they developed throughout the 20th century. He maps out a paradox that has emerged wherein publishers need to promote books and book ownership while also controlling the reproduction and circulation of book content following the initial sale. Much of his emphasis is placed on the cultural status of the book and how in the 1920s and 1930s books were turned into mass-market consumer items through endorsements of the importance of books by prominent public figures and, most notably, the promotion of bookshelves in the middle-class home. These trends encouraged the accumulation of books, but Striphas notes that what they really nurtured was a new type of professional middle-class identity defined through consumerism – it was the form of books that was being promoted (i.e. books as status objects), not their literariness (i.e. the content of books). Nevertheless, as book ownership spread, the publishing industry was faced with the problems of piracy and unauthorized sharing via photocopying, resale, library lending, or consumers simply circulating books among friends and family. Through a mix of government policy and legal actions, the industry began from the 1970s onward to change the definition of ownership from something that was unrestricted to something that afforded only specific uses and, more and more, lasted for a limited time and was confined to an individual consumer.

I find this chapter to be a compelling analysis of the cultural value and social function of books as a form of material culture. I particularly like the emphasis on conflict and contradiction. Through the central concepts of property and possession, though, the legal and economic factors can at times seem too deterministic. As much as Striphas emphasizes the importance of social elements and the key role of consumers in these processes, these consumers remain relatively ambiguous and lacking agency. I’d be curious to hear more about the ways in which consumers have resisted things like digital rights management technologies in an effort to retain fuller flexibility and control over the e-books they purchase. This includes consumer movements, such as that which got Apple to abandon DRM for its iTunes music store, as well as hacks to circumvent DRM. 

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