My favorite podcast, The Critical Lede, just reviewed my recent piece appearing in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.” Check out the broadcast here — and thanks to the show’s great hosts, Benjamin Myers and Desiree Rowe of the University of South Carolina Upstate.
I’ve just published a short essay called “E-books — No Friends of Free Expression” in the National Communication Association’s online magazine, Communication Currents. It was commissioned in anticipation of National Freedom of Speech Week, which will be recognized from October 18th to 24th, 2010. Here’s a short excerpt from the piece, in case you’re interested:
It may seem odd to suggest that reading has something to do with freedom of expression. It’s one thing to read a book, after all, but a different matter to write one. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that reading is an expressive activity in its own right, resulting in notes, dog-eared pages, highlights, and other forms of communicative fallout. Even more to the point, as Georgetown Law Professor Julie E. Cohen observes, “Freedom of speech is an empty guarantee unless one has something—anything—to say…[T]he content of one’s speech is shaped by one’s response to all prior speech, both oral and written, to which one has been exposed.” Reading is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression, because it forms a basis upon which our future communications are built. Anything that impinges upon our ability to read freely is liable to short-circuit this connection.
I then go on to explore the surveillance activities that are quite common among commercially available e-readers; I also question how the erosion of private reading may affect not only what we choose to read but also what we may then choose to say.
The Comm Currents piece is actually a precis of a much longer essay of mine just out in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7(3) (September 2010), pp. 297 – 317, as part of a special issue on rights. The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.” Here’s the abstract:
This paper focuses on the Amazon Kindle e-reader’s two-way communications capabilities on the one hand and on its parent company’s recent forays into data services on the other. I argue that however convenient a means Kindle may be for acquiring e-books and other types of digital content, the device nevertheless disposes reading to serve a host of inconvenient—indeed, illiberal—ends. Consequently, the technology underscores the growing importance of a new and fundamental right to counterbalance the illiberal tendencies that it embodies—a “right to read,” which would complement the existing right to free expression.
Keywords: Kindle; Amazon.com; Digital Rights; Reading; Privacy
Feel free to email me if you’d like a copy of “The Abuses of Literacy.” I’d be happy to share one with you.
The title of the journal article, incidentally, pays homage to Richard Hoggart’s famous book The Uses of Literacy, which is widely recognized as one of the founding texts of the field of cultural studies. It’s less well known that he also published a follow-up piece many years later called “The Abuses of Literacy,” which, as it turns out, he’d intended to be the title of Uses before the publisher insisted on a change.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the work. Feedback is always welcome and appreciated.
Wow! I’m happy to report that my home discipline, communication, is finally making some strides in terms of bringing its book and journal publishing policies into the 21st century.
Last week, the International Communication Association (ICA), in Conjunction with American University’s Center for Social Media, released its Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research in Communication. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies devised a similar statement of best practices way back in 1993 (it updated the document in 2009), so needless to say I’m pleased to see ICA catching up at long last.
These types of policy statements are vitally important for media and communication scholars, and indeed for scholars more generally. As more and more of our work engages words, sounds, images, and other artifacts drawn from the popular media, we need to be reasonably assured that we can criticize and, where necessary, reproduce content protected by copyright, trademark, and other forms of intellectual property law. That’s exactly what these best practices statements do, in part by identifying a “community of practice” and carefully defining its — in this case, scholarly — customs. But it’s not only about “show and tell.” Reproducing copyrighted content in academic work is important to the scholarly process. How else would reviewers, other scholars, and anyone else who may happen to read our work assess the validity of our claims?
Academics routinely — and often unnecessarily, I might add — self-censor our work, for instance by opting to exclude images we’re analyzing for fear we’ll get sued by some deep-pocketed media giant. Heck, I’ve even done it myself. And that’s why I’m such a champion of these best practices statements. They may not give us carte blanche to use intellectual properties in our work however we may see fit. They do give us a useful set of guidelines for making informed judgments about how best to proceed in these matters, though, plus they underscore how our own practices are in solidarity with others.
The other bit of good news is that Boston College’s Charles (Chuck) E. Morris III has drafted a resolution calling on the National Communication Association (NCA) to revise its fees for licensing NCA-copyrighted material. In a preamble to the document, Chuck writes:
The resolution seeks to regulate the prohibitively expense copyright fees charged by Taylor & Francis [publisher of NCA journals] in conjunction with NCA. Particularly alarming is that while for more than a decade NCA Executive Directors, who contractually have the prerogative to waive or reduce fees, intervened to make reprinted NCA journal materials affordable for high quality anthologies/readers of pedagogical and scholarly value, the current NCA Executive Director, Nancy Kidd, has prioritized profit and is allowing a dramatically higher fee.
Basically, NCA jacked up its licensing fees about a year ago, a move that will price smaller publishers out of the business of republishing top-quality communication research. The change not only promises to whittle down the competition (leaving only giants like Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, and Sage standing), but it’s also inimical to the larger cause of scholarly communication. When Chuck writes that NCA is putting profits ahead of publishing, he’s exactly right.
If you’re an NCA member, you have until Tuesday, June 29th the add your name to the document. You can do so by contacting Chuck via email: email@example.com. And hey — if you’re not an NCA member but you believe in the spirit of the resolution, why not go ahead drop Chuck a line anyway? I don’t know if he can add your name to the formal list of signatories, but it can’t hurt for him to be able to attest to support coming from beyond NCA.
Now, if only we could get NCA to adopt a best practices for fair use statement of its own. It’s an embarrassment, frankly, for the oldest and largest professional association for communication scholars in the United States to lag so far behind its peer organizations.
Off and on throughout the years I’ve been reporting on instances in which academic authors were prohibited from doing their jobs as a result of unreasonable intellectual property regulations — or the perception thereof. Here’s the latest case: composer and Bard College Music professor Kyle Gann, whose latest book, about the music of the avant-garde art group Fluxus, will be without some important material. Gann reports:
Apparently I’ve just broken copyright law. I can’t believe what’s holding up my Cage book: you are no longer allowed to quote texts that are entire pieces of art. This means I’ve been trying to get permission simply to refer to Fluxus pieces like La Monte Young’s “This piece is little whirlpools in the middle of the ocean,” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen to the sound of the earth turning.” And of course, Yoko (whom I used to know) isn’t responding, and La Monte is imposing so many requirements and restrictions that I would have to add a new chapter to the book, and so in frustration well past the eleventh hour, I’ve excised the pieces from the text.
Odd, isn’t it, how you can pay a relatively small fee to license the rights to cover an entire song, yet you can’t get permission to do the same thing in a different medium for academic purposes? Something’s gotta give. Really. This is getting ridiculous, and it is an affront to academic freedom.
…a primer, courtesy of the good folks at the Center for Social Media at American University.
New to the blog roll is Catherine Grant’s Film Studies for Free. Catherine is “a full-time researcher and writer on film and culture, affiliated with the School of Film and Media at the University of Sussex [England] as a Visiting Research Fellow.” What’s great about her site, beyond all the Film Studies resources and smart commentary she provides, is her steadfast commitment to open access. The tag line of Film Studies for Free reads, “commentary on and links to online open-access film studies resources of note.” Catherine is one of a growing contingent of humanities scholars who have recognized that scholarship is only as good as its instruments of production, exchange, and propagation.
Her latest post is about Daniel Frampton’s book Filmosophy (Columbia University Press, 2007), which I blogged about back in March 2007. There I expressed concern about a disclaimer that accompanied the book’s advertising. It indicated that the term “filmosophy” was a registered trademark of Valentin Stoilov. At the time I wondered how the literal ownership of ideas would affect the production of scholarly knowledge and critique. Catherine’s blog shows us a better way in its embodiment of the principles of open access.
Courtesy of Gil Rodman, here’s a link to the landmark United States Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). It demonstrates quite clearly that the University of Illinois’ decision to bar faculty and staff from engaging in campaign speech on campus–including displaying buttons on their shirts and bumper stickers on their cars–is a violation of Constitutional principles. I’ve excerpted one of the more relevant passages below for those of you who’d prefer the Cliff’s Notes version.
…As we have discussed, the record does not demonstrate any facts which might reasonably have led school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities, and no disturbances or disorders on the school premises in fact occurred. These petitioners merely went about their ordained rounds in school. Their deviation consisted only in wearing on their sleeve a band of black cloth, not more than two inches wide. They wore it to exhibit their disapproval of the Vietnam hostilities and their advocacy of a truce, to make their views known, and, by their example, to influence others to adopt them. They neither interrupted school activities nor sought to intrude in the school affairs or the lives of others. They caused discussion outside of the classrooms, but no interference with work and no disorder. In the circumstances, our Constitution does not permit officials of the State to deny their form of expression.
It’s always a pleasure to begin the week on a positive note. Case in point: I learned today that the National Communication Association (NCA), the United States’ largest professional organization representing communication researchers and teachers, issued the following statement condemning the University of Illinois’ policy against campaign speech.
I’m very proud of and impressed by NCA for taking this stand. As a professional organization, it’s rarely a trend-setter in the vein of, say, the Modern Language Association.
Here is a link to the statement on the NCA website, which contains additional links to the organization’s stance on free expression, as well as to information about the U of I controversy. I’ve also appended the statement below for those of you who are more scroll-inclined.
For now, well done, NCA. Well done.
The National Communication Association believes that freedom of speech and assembly must hold a central position among American’s Constitutional principles, and we express our determined support for the right of peaceful expression.
As such, NCA opposes the University of Illinois’s decision to ban staff members from vocalizing their political affiliation or support for particular political candidates. By not allowing faculty and staff to display buttons, pins, or bumper stickers or attend political rallies of any kind, the University of Illinois is sending the message that faculty should not engage in discussions of a political and/or controversial nature. Not only does this suggestion limit their right to free expression, it seeks to suppress their ability to think and act critically in response to significant contemporary concerns. College campuses are places for faculty and staff to actively express their views and opinions on a variety of topics, including politics.
There is a risk to a free society when responsible advocacy is treated as a danger to be suppressed. Much good and little harm can ensue if we err on the side of freedom, whereas much harm and little good may follow if we err on the side of suppression.
By restricting individual forms of political expression, the University of Illinois system is depriving its faculty of an open and honest academic environment, one wherein learning occurs both inside and outside of the classroom.
From yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed:
Sporting an Obama or McCain button? Driving a car with one of the campaigns’ bumper stickers? You might need to be careful on University of Illinois campuses.
The university system’s ethics office sent a notice to all employees, including faculty members, telling them that they could not wear political buttons on campus or feature bumper stickers on cars parked in campus lots unless the messages on those buttons and stickers were strictly nonpartisan. In addition, professors were told that they could not attend political rallies on campuses if those rallies express support for a candidate or political party.
Whoa. Talk about chilling–and, as far as I can tell, a pretty poorly conceived policy. Evidently it’s not a problem if a U of I employee wears apparel to work emblazoned with a “Nike” logo, despite the company’s well-documented exploitation of laborers in developing countries. How is that not a political endorsement, albeit of a somewhat indirect kind? And were I a professor not at Indiana but at Illinois, what if I wanted to teach students about rhetorics of political expression and propaganda using campaign stickers and bumper stickers? Would that be an acceptable use of these materials? And would I need to bring them onto campus appropriately shrouded so as not to suggest any partisanship?
Sigh. You get the point. The complete story is available here.