Thursday, June 15, 2006

NYT traces horizons of electronic theology

What follows is an entry I wrote a week or so ago for the members of jm (jurgenmoltmann.com), an online discussion group. I'm posting it here to serve as a basis for further reflection.
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Dear jm members:

If you haven't read the May 14, 2006 New York Times article "Scan This Book!" by Kevin Kelley, you should. In it, Kelley paints a picture of the possible realization of the universal library through global initiatives in digital scanning--fascinating enough. Kelley discusses how search and retrieval technology will change the equation of value in knowledge and research--certainly interesting. What I'm interested in, however--what we're all interested in--is what all this means for jm; and it means a great deal.

A Change in Priority: No Books

The truth of the matter is that we are poised between the previous age, that of the book which culminated in the creation of the sacred "critical edition," and the next, where value is discovered in the verb rather than the noun. One reaches something akin to the academic sacredness of a critical edition in the new paradigm as one achieves a point at which your project garners the attention and involvement of everyone who is interested in that same topic on a global scale. Whereas before it was a solid, where density is value; now it is becoming gas, where expandability is key.

According to Kelley, "corporations and libraries around the world are now scanning about a million books a year." Google, Yahoo, and other private companies, such as Superstar in Beijing and EBSCO Publishing Inc. in New England, all using state-of-the-art robots and increasingly-good OCR technology, are scanning millions of books. Raj Reddy of Carnegie Mellon University is already clocking 100,000 pages a day from locations in China and India as part of his Million Book Project. Analogously, Kerry writes, "Nearly 100 percent of all contemporary recorded music has already been digitized." The result will be "the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available [potentially] to all people, all the time." The technology has been in existence already for over a decade.

Since jm's inception, I have hoped that the storage capabilities of this forum (some 25 megabytes) would serve as an initial archive for hope theology in the next digital age of theological development. In a sense, jm would be a resurrection point for the dead letter of works, speeches, papers, conference materials and other ephemera only available to those who have geographic and economic access. Here is a perfect synergy between method and subject: jm pushing out into the future and the wider horizon of the next unknown paradigm. And why does it do this--largely for scholars and readers laboring in the bookless developing world, exactly those for whom so much of the theology and philosophy of hope has been written. But the above causes an adjustment in the initial vision. There is no need or ability to compete with that kind of capital where books are concerned. The focus for acquisitions should be placed elsewhere. jm can and should still pursue a mission to archive non-book materials: white-papers, theses and dissertations, articles, blog posts, URL's, and other non-book materials, but in terms of the larger task--actually collecting the important print materials from established scholars, living or dead--this project is unnecessary.

jm as curator and think-tank

Kevin Kelly spends quite a bit of time discussing the transformation of information that will occur once a majority of books in print are digitized. In a sense, they become "one gigantic text." Linking of books by bibliographies, then by words, then by user-created tags creates new relationships that could not have existed before. Users begin to annotate and then swap out "playlists" of this universal text according to their interests and changing opinions. "Some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages." Amazon already allows you to assemble your own private library, eventually, says Kelly, "users will earn prestige and perhaps income for curating an excellent collection."

Frankly, we don't know what this means for god-talk as it is done today, but one thing is certain: the ability to sort out, to recommend, and to appropriately guide discussion in a sea of interrelated information will only become more valuable. The central value which jm will serve once this paradigm begins to become commonly available (it is already, in large part, commercially available) is as a curator of its subject. jm as a curator and guide to previous and subsequent research in Moltmannalia and in the theologies and philosophies of hope.

jm and the hegemony of the copy

The remainder of Kelley's article traces the hegemony of the copy, where "the copy" refers to the hegemonic "lock up" of copyright problems which have locked away cultural material, so that "almost everything created today will not return to the commons until the next century." By 1998's extension of copyright to seventy years beyond the life of a creator, "it was obvious to all that copyright now existed primarily to protect a threatened business model" and leaving "a vast collection of works that have been abandoned by publishers, a continent of books left permanently in the dark." As he says, "the bulk of our universal library is dark."

The problem where jm is concerned is that the theologies and philosophies of hope are largely out of print and yet under copyright, and therefore are part of this dark universe. Not that it is as simple as asking publishers or authors to release or extend their copyright to us, as "the publishing company [often] doesn't know whether it even owns the work, since author contracts in the past were not as explicit as they are now." Up until now, though, it was the only thing open to us, as above. But here comes Google.

In section five of his article, entitled "The Moral Imperative to Scan," Kevin Kelley details Google Book's 2004 initiative to begin scanning the 75 percent of the dead library, the out-of-print books that no one else would touch. I won't detail the details here, but the result would be to lift back into the light so many books, as now previously unknown or unavailable titles would come to the surface by way of user search. "for authors with books in the publisher program and for authors of books abandoned by a publisher, Google unleashed a chance that more people would at least read, and perhaps buy, the creation they had sweated for years to complete." "While a few best-selling authors fear piracy, every author fears obscurity."

Now many publishers aren't happy with Google. It doesn't matter to them whether they were never going to republish some little-bought 1960's era work in the theology of hope, they just don't want Google to do it. Admittedly, this is a complex issue--but only when you look through the eyes of the still-operating-in-the-era-of-copy-corporations. Publishers are not going to reprint what won't sell, and even what sells only has a six-month shelf life. "Publishers only care about these orphans now because Google has shifted the economic equation; because of [Google's] Book Search, these dark books may now have some sparks in them, and the publishers don't want this potential revenue stream to slip away from them."

From the perspective of jm, it is a win-win. Digital technology, and, indeed, modernity itself, has made the old business models obsolete and they are changing even if slowly. From our perspective, what is important is finding a way of capitalizing on the situation at hand so that the "history of hope" as an academic subject is made available in a world where "the value of any work is increased the more it is shared." The best insurance to see thought thrive around hope, in all its manifestations, is to open it up to the future. Therefore, jm must pursue authors and publishers who hold the copyright for out-of-print and unpublishable written works in the theology and philosophy of hope in order to get them to release copyright to Google. If Google is allowed to scan a work into Google search, then that work is instantly made available to the future. It becomes a "living" contributor again, even if its status in the old, copy-based economy of publishing has declared it dead.

One of the tools we can use is to empower authors themselves. Are you aware that an author, if they determine a publisher is no longer going to republish their work or pursue its interest in any way, may request that publisher release their rights back to the author? This transfer is actually written into most standard contracts, but how many authors are aware that they still have power where their own words are concerned? If authors will begin to see the value of making their work available again, then we could see some of the theologies and philosophies of hope now buried in obscurity come out of the tomb of unpublishability and step out into the future.


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