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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. On the undervaluing of writing and information

Information wants to be free. Information deserves to be free.

So sayeth the Hacker's Code. And yet, when one tries to apply this in practice, complications ensue.

Today's rumination was inspired by helping my daughter with a term paper a few days ago. She attends an excellent but small liberal arts college. Small means limited access to journals in the library. Numerous scientific papers she would have perused lay behind firewalls.

During college, grad school, post doc, and first faculty position, I was spoiled by nearly unfettered access to any journal I needed. Interlibrary loan was limited to truly obscure references, generally things for which I could wait a few days. Then I landed at a third-tier regional college. I found keeping up with the literature near-impossible. Who would have even imagined I'd be depending upon a private subscription to view Nature or Science? To be fair, this college almost failed to pass accreditation due to its crummy library, but now, only having access to a community college library, even it seems luxurious.

Open Access journals have begun to deal with this issue. Indeed, I once published in an Open Access journal back in my scientist days, and back issues of most of the journals published by scientific societies are now open access. But that's not everything. Not even most of the important science.

So, students and teachers are inconvenienced. Education suffers. America yawns.

Of somewhat more concern is the pathetic state of science journalism. With so many critical issues facing our future being in part technical, science literacy among the public being abysmal, and science journalism often being awful, it would certainly be nice if those science journalists who can understand the literature could access it.

So, it is the public who is hurting in this instance. However, every other stakeholder comes out okay. Scientists have jobs in industry/academia/government, so even if journals expect free labor in terms of peer review of articles, this pro bono work is not impoverishing them. The journals, even for-profit ones, can expect the scientists' grants to pay publication costs, so the professional staff of these journals also live at least middle class existences. Library staff is paid from university budgets.

Great Britain has gone further than the US in pushing for open access. Certain classes of scientists are now required to publish solely in open access journals. And the British government will foot the bill for the publication costs. Everybody wins. An excellent model; hopefully, it will prevail in the future, and the scholar, the journalist, the scientist in the developing world, the average Joe who is just curious, will have broad access to science. The world is getting there.

Freedom of information has not worked so well with fiction. The Internet has dropped publication costs to zero for indie published books. Get on Lulu, format your book, choose your cover, upload to, and you're selling! Or not selling, the average indie-published book sells no copies at all. But if you're willing to invest heavily in marketing, you can get your story out there, right? Well, not so much. There is so much stuff out there for free that much if it is ignored. Rightly, because much of it is unedited crap.

But a lot of great writers have put a lot of great fiction out on the Internet for free. No human being could possibly read it all or even a small part of what is out there in their favorite subgenre. What could be wrong with this?

Well, for one thing, it serves as a disincentive to buy fiction. Few people buying means most authors don't get paid much. A writer I met at a conference, an award-winning author who deserved his award in that his writing is terrific, told me a Big-Five NY publishing firm recently offered him a contract to write three books for them. The author advance, the only thing the writer can count on being paid, was $9000. Total. To write these books well would take the better part of two years, full-time. What other professional would even consider a salary of $9000 for two years work? makes out big time when you buy books. Local specialty booksellers can also often eke out a decent living. Agents, editors, employees of the Big Five firms--sure--they are all making a living. But not the writer.

One problem is in what we value as a society. For the average person, the scientific literature holds no value; they can't understand it. Fiction is deemed to be of marginal value--few read, and those that do want their reading material as cheap as possible.

And on the last point, can you blame them? Information wants to be free, right?

Isn't the answer merely to educate for appreciation of culture? If children can be taught to value opera or impressionist paintings, certainly they can learn to appreciate the value of a book? And that will raise the demand for books?

Maybe. But not in a world where kids are taught in third grade to avoid reading books. The teachers say to skim the content, underlining what sounds important, because that is likely to be part of the answer of multiple choice questions. Third grade has become the time when love of reading dies in American children today. As for science, kids in elementary school are fascinated. After several years of spiral curriculum which doesn't really spiral, each time, the answer to the question of what one calls the "powerhouse" of the cell being (d) mitochondria, this enthusiasm dies.

So how does popular fiction, that written by folks who don't hold tenured positions in literature departments in elite universities, thrive if the best writers can't make a living from writing? It doesn't.

So, how to solve this problem: Facebook memes circulated by writers ask readers to buy copies of things they can get far more cheaply or sometimes for free. These appeal to the noble instinct of fairness. To the ideal of supporting culture. To the equally antiquated notions that value has something to do with either the labor put into a product or the price the average dunderhead is willing to pay.

These appeals haven't propelled too many writers into the upper tax brackets.

Here's an alternative idea. When I was in my twenties, I backpacked through Europe, staying for a week in Amsterdam. I was thrilled by the quality and quantity of buskers performing in the city center. I was told that if they (or any other artist) earned $5000 in a year, the government subsidized them up to a quite decent middle class existence. How wonderful an idea! The public gets culture, the artist gets to engage in their art. However, that was the 80s. Draconian cuts in the budget for the arts in Holland have occurred more recently. In 2015, busking was banned in the city center. Much has suffered in Europe since the Great Recession.

So, it appears three things are required to properly support writers and other artists: (a) an education system inculcating values that can't be manifested on a scantron; (b) public support for any artist who can prove himself/herself serious; (c) an economy wrested from the one-percenters, big banks, scam artists, and general no-goodniks.

I'm not holding my breath.

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