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Digital Convergence and the Interchangeability of Bits

As information central to our lives and culture is either created or converted to digital formats, our assumptions about how we interact with it may take unanticipated turns. We have been able to keep books, for example, for a lifetime. Increasingly, however, bit-based information is becoming time-bound. Software licensing is moving toward lease and pay-per-use models. Digital books are being licensed to a particular reader device. Even when you can keep a digital representation, will the march of technology permit you to play it in five years?

Geo-Location and Territorial Rights Management

Information, prior to its digital transformation, was territorially bound. Books, audio content, and video content were effectively limited to one geographical area. DVDs, for example, have country codes that must match the player they are shown on. The boundary-less nature of the Internet is le monde sans frontiers (a world without borders). Yet e-book publishers are forging ahead with “territorial rights management systems,” so that digital books can be limited by geographic locale. What’s the problem here? Like most things, it depends on context and usage. If you’re lost and you have a cell phone with built-in GPS, it might not be bad to call local authorities to find your way back to the hotel. Writing your ideas might represent a threat dangerous to contrary-minded folks. If e-books become commonplace reading appliances, they could be built to reflect geographical sensitivities—and national censorship policies.

Books are Different

To the extent that these geographical constraints are built into digital media research libraries, efforts to create and maintain specialized collections of cultural and literary works are threatened. Nationalism is alive and well, and not something that governments will give up easily—becoming a way to control the use of digital information and facilitating national censorship policies.

Books capture knowledge, cultural heritage, and the discourse of our times. Books are important. As Cliff Lynch reminds us, people die for writing books and believing in what is written in books. They hold our laws, define our communities, and codify our societies. Software that restricts sharing of books restricts communicating ideas. That is why libraries are so important. Preserving books and other texts guarantees the persistence of our ideas. Geo-location technology and rights management could be turned on their head. Instead of just stopping the distribution of a text, books as bit streams could be located, seized, and destroyed wherever they are. Further, their permanence is set only by policy. Just as the ease with which revisions can be electronically made and distributed can enable value and benefit, it likewise provides a mechanism to re-write the record at will.

As is typically the case, the technology per se is less the issue than the policies and laws that guide its use. Bits can represent text and ideas as analogues of the printed page. The same attention and concern to restricting the flow of ideas and the preservation of thought on paper applies to electronic representations. Bits can also represent new genres of expression, of teaching and creative communication. The evolution of the post-modern digital book should be encouraged and protected. It may take us to unexpected places—places worth going.

About the Author

Phil Long, Ph.D. is senior strategist for the Academic Computing Enterprise at MIT. He is also a senior associate for the TLT Group of the AAHE.
View more articles by Phillip Long.

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