GLAM and the Free World

Cory Doctorow, USA

Museums and the Web remarks

There’s a little apocryphal story about that may perhaps speak to you as museum-folk, and it goes like this:

* The state of Roman metallurgical science determined the maximum length of a chariot’s axle and hence its wheel-base

* The Roman-chariot’s wheel-base determined the width of the Roman roads

* The width of the Roman roads determined the width of modern carts

* The width of modern carts determined the width of modern roads

* The width of modern roads determined the width of wheel-bases for cars and lorries

* The width of lorries determined the width of containers and the parameters of rail-cars and container-ships

* And since the Space Shuttle’s reusable fuel-tanks had to be transported on these roads and railroads, they, too, were ultimately determined by the state of Roman metalurgy, thousands of years ago

This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but it is intended as parable and not as history

The reason to recount this parable here, now, at this early, liminal moment in the future history of the information age is that:

* We are presently building the electronic nervous system of the modern world, and

* We dwellers on the electronic frontier have it on our power to establish the norms, laws, and practices that will echo through the ages to come

They call this the information age

And it is

It may feel as thought we have been buffeted by change for these past twenty years

But it is just getting started

We live in a world that is increasingly made of computers

Computers we put inside our bodies

Computers we put our bodies into

And here is only one computer

“Turing Complete”: A computer that can execute all the instructions we can express in symbolic logic

So any policies that we create for computers redounds through the entirety of experience


So let’s talk about archiving, cultural dissemination, cultural preservation, and the information age

The information age has been attended by two parallel and contradictory shifts in the way we think about value:

* First, it has been attended by the rise of neoliberal globalisation, and this project says that everything must be viewed through a market lens

* Every one of our public institutions is being subjected to this lens, with great distorting effects

* Our schools, for example, have largely been recreated as factories whose products are educated children, whose employees are teachers, whose management is the school administration, whose board of directors are the government, and whose shareholders are the taxpayers

* And like any business, schools must produce quarterly reports that hold the management accountable to its shareholders

* It must quantify its production efforts and show that they are producing good value for money

* There are really only two things you can chart in the context of education: standardized test-scores and attendance

* And so these two factors have been reified in public education beyond all others

* Schools have been refactored to relentlessly focus on these two numbers at the expense of every other activity

* So if a student walks into her grade two classroom and picks up a book and starts reading it to herself, has her brain catch fire with the sheer, vertiginous joy of reading, the job of a modern teacher is to stop that activity when the bell rings and to move that student on to the next stage, lest her learning proceed unevenly and her standardized test-scores suffer as a result

* When I was seven years old, I plucked a copy of Alice in Wonderland from the class shelf and lay down on the carpet and read and read and read

* And my teacher saw what was happening and let it unfold—she recognized that the everyday extraordinariness of true learning was taking place, and she let her student kindle the spark of interest into a blaze of passion, a llfe-long love affair with books

* But the school-as-factory model has no room for this

* The indiscriminate application of market logic makes a nonsense out of activities that are, fundamentally, non-market, and these non-market activities necessarily include archiving, scholarship, cultural preservation, and communication

* To describe the “business” of museums in market logic is to apply a metaphor that is both highly suspect and highly susceptible to intellectually dishonest manipulation

* Think for a moment of digitization projects undertaken through public/private partnerships, like the digitization of the U.S. Department of Defense archives by T3 Media or the British Film Institute’s digitization with Siemens

* In these projects, a commercial operator is brought in to digitize these public collections and then put them behind a paywall in order to recoup their costs

* The market logic goes like this: a company like Siemens is making a sizable investment in the archiving of these public assets, so they have the right to recoup their investment: they’re assuming the risk, so they get the reward

* But this is a highly selective way of expressing the way capitalism works. Let’s take another look at it:

* In Silicon Valley and throughout the high-tech world, we have a grand tradition of startups that court investors with high-risk/high-reward propositions, from search engines to Bitcoin

* It’s virtually unheard of for a startup to be profitable from the get-go; a startup may run for years before it gets its first dollar in income, and years more before that income exceeds its outgo and becomes a profit: Amazon is *still* unprofitable, decades after its founding

* So entrepreneurs will seek out “angel investors”—individuals who put very early money into the business in return for a generous ownership stake in the business

* Almost every angel investment will come to nothing—money flushed down the drain—but there is no shortage of angel investors, because the reward for a successful bet is incredible: being the first investor in a business means that the business pays you a much larger dividend than it pays later-stage investors; you’ve assumed the risk, you get the reward

* Back to public archives: for decades, for centuries, the public has played the role of angel investor for these collections, paying and paying, year after year, to keep them afloat while they seek the path to profitability

* Now these archives have arrived at their moment: the world of digitization has unlocked untold value in their collections

* Through digitization, the whole world can now use these archives simultaneously, scholars everywhere can text-mine them, they can be used to start new businesses and create new curriculum

* This is the thing that every entrepreneur dreams of: the moment when their weird and unlikely idea is validated by the marketplace, when it arrives at its cultural moment: when the idea of a bare-bones search engine like Google suddenly rockets to ascendancy and leaves the bloated incumbents like Yahoo and Altavista in the dust

* At that moment, it is customary for the angels and the entrepreneurs to seek out some deeper pockets—venture capitalists—and sell them a very small slice of equity in exchange for a *lot* of money, to build out all the infrastructure you need to handle all the demand

* Importantly, though, the angels are not crowded out here. If the big investors tried, the management and the VCs would end up in court, faced with a minority shareholder suit that they would lose

* This is exactly the opposite of what happens with Siemens and the BFI or the T3 Media and the DoD

* We, the public, are the angels

* We built up all that value in our public assets

* The return on our investment comes from access to those assets: the right to see and use them

* And the johnny-come-lately digitization firms are the venture capitalists, latecomers to the party who only put their money in once *our* money had paid to bring the enterprise to profit.

* The risk they assume—the cost of digitization—is infinitesimal compared to our own

* And yet, they demand terms that result in the confiscation of our equity for accomplishing the relatively minor, low-risk task of taking pictures of *our stuff*

* And management—the governments of the neoliberal era—give it to them

* Even in the dubious enterprise of applying market logic to public enterprises, this is a titanic ripoff that no actual business would get away with in the real world


* But of course, this is a nonsense from start to finish

* The public don’t invest in cultural preservation because we perceive a profitable upside down the road

* We invest in cultural preservation, archiving, and access because these are *public goods*—they are not primarily market activities

* Using ROI to calculate the value of the museums sector is like adding up all the money you spend on raising your children and then handing them a bill for their upbringing when they graduate from high school—it’s the work of a sociopath

* Our cultural institutions exist to tell us who we are, where we have been, and where we are and where we’re going


* The information age is, in many ways, the beginning of history

* It’s a moment at which every person is swiftly becoming an archivist of her own life, a curator of billions of blips of ephemeral communications and ruminations and interactions

* As any archaeologist who’s ever rejoiced at finding a midden that reveals how normal people lived their lives in antiquity can tell you, this ephemera, so rare and badly preserved through most of our history, is of incalculable value

* Which would you rather see: an oil painting of a Victorian monarch, a ramrod stiff photo of your great-grandmother in her confirmation smock, or a hundred transcripts of the conversations she shared with her peers and her family?

* The tools by which we accomplish this archival business are, of course, computers

* Carried in our bags and pockets, worn in and on our bodies

* There is one group of people in the world who understand how archiving works, who understand the importance of the ephemeral en masse, who can steer us to personal and cultural practices of preservation, archiving, dissemination, and access—it’s you, the museum sector

* Just as librarians—who have toiled for centuries at the coalface of information and authority, systematizing the process of figuring out which sources to trust and why—are more needed than ever now, when we are all of us required to sort the credible from the non-credible every time we type a keyword into a search box

* So, too, are curators and archivists more needed than ever, now that we are all archiving and curating all the live-long day

* You can help us lay roads that lead us from our primitive information chariots, here at the dawn of history, to a future of information spaceships that carry us to the stars


* The stakes are high

* Because the self-serving application of market logic to information is even more absurd and harmful than its application to public institutions

* Since the 1970s, technologically illiterate politicians and economists have bandied about the idea of an “information economy,” based on buying and selling information piecemeal

* Their bizarre utopia is a world where you can buy and sell information in ever-thinner slices

* Selling the right to watch movies at home but not on vacation

* Selling the right to stream, but not save, a song

* Selling the right to use a program on the phone in your pocket today, but not the right to run it on your next phone

* Ultimately, selling the right to sell a novel to read on Wednesdays, but only between the hours of 5 and 7, while standing on one leg

* Once I was in a meeting at the DVB, where they make the standards for European digital TV, and there was this insane discussion about whether a TV program could be flagged so that you could only watch it in the room where the receiver was

* That is, you couldn’t run a wire or use a wireless transmitter to watch it in another room

* I asked, “Come on, what is this for? It’s not like there’s any law that lets a broadcaster dictate what room you’re allowed to watch a show in”

* And there was a rep from the MPA, the Hollywood movie industry association, there, and he said, “Look, watching a movie in one room that’s being received in a different room has value, and if it has value, we should be able to charge money for it”

* Siva Vaidyanthan calls this the “if value, then right” theory: if something has value, someone should have a right to earn money from it

* But I call it it urinary tract infection business model

* Instead of the right to use your stuff coming in a healthy, satisfying gush, every button on your remote has a price-tag attached to it, and the value flows in mean, painful drips

* This is that self-serving version of market logic again

* Even assuming that markets have any place in determining what you do in your house

* Why should the pseudoproperty right to determine how you watch TV trump the right to have your TV do as you tell it?

* There’s the crux of the matter, where it all comes together:

* The concept of an “information economy” predicated on selling you access to information piecemeal requires, necessarily, that your computers be designed to disobey you

* If you only have the right to watch a movie in your bathroom while you’re eating a ciabatta and whistling Dixie, your computer has to have the ability to refuse when you tell it to play the movie under any other circumstances

* This is an offensive idea whether or not you buy into the markets-are-all logic or not

* Let’s start with the market argument, since it’s pretty damned simple

* If you own something, it should do what you tell it to

* The dead hand of some remote authority should not weigh on your refrigerator door, controlling when you can snack; nor should it bar your closet if you want to change clothes

* This is what property *is*: stuff that’s yours

* Back before the 1970s, only a few nutcase extremists used the term “intellectual property” to describe copyright

* They called it “copyright” or used terms like “author’s monopoly”

* This acknowledged that copyright was a limited, temporary regulatory monopoly that primarily related to industrial entities

* The promulgation of the term “intellectual property” has been a conceptual disaster

* What is “intellectual property”? Foundationally, it’s the idea that if someone’s intellect is involved with something, it is forever their property

* The very idea of so-called “intellectual property” is incompatible with actual, real property

* The facade of your house, the gears on your bicycle, and the shirt on your back all have some intersection with someone’s intellect

* If your purchase of those objects does not terminate the others’ interests in what they made, then where does this idiocy end? Does the butcher get to tell you how to cook a steak? Can the cobbler tell you how to shine your shoes?

* If we’re not talking about specific things like “copyright”—a technical statute that regulates the entertainment industry—we are instead using a term like “intellectual property”—a term that means “Shut up and do as your told,” in the same way that “terrorist” means “Person doing anything I don’t like,” then we are talking nonsense


* But forget “property” arguments

* Your house is not the agora

* Knowledge isn’t property

* Peer-reviewed journals don’t determine the scholarly rigour of an article on the basis of a price-discovery mechanism of bids and puts

* These processes are non-market, and property relationships are only incidental to them—buying paper to print journals, paying for hosting for online versions


* Let’s talk about the history of the future instead

* The shape of the spaceships that are prefigured by the wheelbases of our primitive new informational chariots

* What does is mean to design a computer that disobeys you?

* Remember “Turing Complete”? There is only one way to design a computer, and that’s to make a computer that can run every valid program, that can execute any instruction that can be expressed in symbolic logic

* And yet every iPhone and iPad is designed to prevent you from running code that doesn’t come from the App Store, so that Apple can extract a 30 percent commission from all the software vendors trying to sell to you

* Your satellite receiver won’t connect to a PVR that lets you record shows and save them

* Your PS4 won’t run games that aren’t blessed by the politburo at Sony

* Your Kindle won’t let you load books you inherit from your parents’ estate onto your device


* How does this work? How is it possible that these valid programs won’t run on these devices?

* The answer is, they *will* run on those devices

* But the devices are designed to ship with spyware out of the box

* Hidden programs that lurk in the depths, watch everything that you do

* Waiting for you to do something forbidden

* And then they swim to the surface and say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.”


* An iPhone isn’t a computer that *can’t* run non-App Store apps—it’s a computer that won’t *let its owner* run non-App Store apps

* It is designed from the ground up to have certain programs that you can’t terminate

* To have programs that hide from users, whose associated files are intentionally obscured by the operating system

* It is a computer whose operating system has a mote in its own eye, by design

* When the user asks the computer whether there’s a “don’t run unauthorized code” program running, the computer’s job is to say no

* When the user asks the computer to run a fake “don’t run unauthorized code” program, it refuses


* That’s the nature of a digital restriction in the age of universal computers

* Whether it’s a mandate that a self-driving car can’t drag race

* That a 3D printer can’t print a gun

* That an iPad can’t run unauthorized software

* The outcome is a computer that hides things from its owners

* In a world where computers are inside our bodies and our bodies are inside computers, this is an insane idea


* What happens when your computers betray you?

* If you’re the American retail giant Target, a computer that lets someone else run covert code means that 100 million peoples’ credit-card numbers leak

* If you’re Cassidy Wolf, the reigning Miss Teen USA, then a computer that lets someone else run covert code means profound betrayal: in September 2013, the FBI arrested a man called Jared James Abrahams who hijacked Wolf’s computer, took nude photos of her, and attempted to blackmail her into performing on-camera sex acts, as he had done with 150 other victims, including minor children

* If you’re one of the civilians wrongly murdered by a U.S. drone, the information leaking out of your computer about your location is a matter of life and death

* There is no way to design a computer that disobeys its owner when ordered to do so by the police, the government, or a corporation but doesn’t disobey its owner when a crook, a creep, or a spy uses that facility for his own purposes


* This is just the beginning

* In November 2012, the late security researcher Barnaby Jack demonstrated an attack that would allow him to exploit the wireless interface in implanted defibrillators and cause them to seek out and infect other defibrillators and then cause them to deliver lethal shocks to their owners

* There’s a reason former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney specifically had the wireless interface on his own defibrillator disabled when it was implanted


* We are at the beginning of history

* We have seen what happens when computers and networks are designed to betray their owners rather than protect them

* Edward Snowden has lifted the rock that the NSA and GCHQ were hiding beneath and shown us how deep their rot has spread

* They have undermined every email channel, every messaging channel, the undersea cables, and the chats in World of Warcraft

* The NSA theory of future history might be summed up as the “greater manure pile theory of crimefighting”

* They believe that if the pile of manure is deep enough, there *must* be a pony in it somewhere

* If they can only wiretap every conversation, they will eventually catch all the bad guys

* This method ignores the important contributions of Cardinal Richelieu to the theory of guilt and innocence: If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him

* That is to say, once you have a big and deep enough dossier on anyone, you can find something terminally destructive in there


* I have another theory of future history

* Technology that is designed to serve its users, rather than betray them, has the power to make a world that is better in every way

* Because the most significant effect of adding networked computers to your life is that it reduces the cost of collaborating with other people

* When I was an activist in the 1980s, 98 percent of my job was writing addresses on envelopes and putting stamps on them, and the remaining 2 percent was spent figuring out what to put in the envelopes

* Now we get the envelopes for free

* The cost of organizing ourselves is in free-fall

* Organizing work is the project that defines our species

* The thing we’ve been perfecting since the first primate said, “I’ll watch out for tigers, you take care of the kids, and he’s gonna go collect some fruit”

* The thing that lets us transcend the limitations of individual humans and approach something we can only call *super*human—the power to do more than a single human can do


* The Internet doesn’t have to serve as a force-multiplier for spies

* We have in our grasp ciphers that can encrypt messages so perfectly that even if all the hydrogen atoms in existence were made into computers that toiled until the heat-death of the universe on their decryption, they would still never attain it

* In some deep and mathematical sense, the universe wants us to have secrets

* This is why the NSA and GCHQ are so freaked out, why they’re spending $250 million a year on programs like BULLRUN and EDGEHILL, which exist to sabotage the implementations of cryptography

* Because they know that when the crypto is done right, they can’t get in

* Our networks can be tools that allow us to simultaneously link our efforts to make our world a better place AND keep the details of those arrangements secret from the forces of greed and reaction who would use our social graphs as a to-do list for midnight arrests, torture, and secret execution


* This is something we can only do if we liberate ourselves from the self-serving narratives of a market logic that confiscates the public domain and our public institutions and flogs them off like Vladimir Putin handing out state industries to his oligarch pals

* And from the technologically bankrupt idea that we can fix social programs by breaking the computers, a colossally bad idea on the lines of putting cameras in all our living rooms to make sure we’re not planning terrorist atrocities during the commercial breaks

* And then acting surprised when it turns out that some of your own agents are freelancing, selling surveillance footage out the back door; or that the cameras are being watched by people other than the legitimate authorities, or that the spymasters have been politicized and are looking at the government’s critics in order to find ways to discredit them


* I want you to help me avert this future history and find a better one

* You, whose mission is to preserve our culture and to communicate it

* Stop telling your patrons to put their cameras away

* If the only way to get something for your collection is to promise that you will prohibit non-flash photography of the item, then that item is not a fit candidate for your collection

* You can’t convey the mission of cultural preservation and communication to an audience whom you are prohibiting from preserving and communicating their interactions with culture

* It’s like telling your kids not to start smoking while you put a light a fresh cigarette from the one you’ve just smoked to the filter

* Refuse the dishonest market logic that says public archives should pay for digitization by allowing paywalls to be erected between the public and the archives they already own

* Place your scholarly works with open-access journals that hew to the Enlightenment ethic that says the difference between rigorous science and superstitious alchemy is whether your researches are widely circulated for criticism, replication, and debate

* Above all, do not, under any circumstances, allow the digitized artifacts from your collections to be locked up with digital rights management—that “I can’t let you do that, Dave” stuff that tries to control how files are used once they’re on someone else’s computer

* This is not only ineffective—if the piracy wars taught us nothing, they’ve taught us that it also betrays the mission of the museum as an institution conceived for the public good

* What is the point of an institution that exacts such a terrible price? How can you square the mission of cultural preservation with tactics that require your patrons to allow for hidden programmes that surveil and control them?

* And if that’s not persuasive enough, consider the future history of a museum in a world where all the digital artifacts you wish to preserve and communicate are locked up with technology that is illegal to remove, whose sole purpose is to *prevent* the long-term diffusion of their payloads?

* Archives and DRM go together like rare book collections and flamethrowers

* Every time you use DRM, you legitimize, promote, and promulgate technology whose sole purpose is to prevent the preservation and communication that is the very purpose of museums


* Look, it’s not that I reject the very idea of rules for how we use cultural artifacts

* I’m all for them!

* But let’s have those rules determined by an approach that begins with the idea that cultural rules should serve free expression, not censorship

* That public institutions should serve the public first and foremost

* That the nervous system of the information age should be designed and regulated with the care and gravitas due to something that we place our lives, our freedom, and our destiny in, not as a political football


* In two thousand years, our descendants will arrange cases full of our artifacts from this dawn of digital history

* They will wonder about the curators and historians and archivists who were their progenitors

* The professionals who, more than anyone else, had it in their power to understand what it was meant for, what potential it had

* You can choose how history remembers you

* Whether you served a future history in which our informational roads were used to conquer and control us

* Or to give us the freedom to communicate and collaborate to our enduring and universal benefit


* There are people who caricature this whole position

* Who say that this a mere naive belief that “information wants to be free”

* But I’ve had a long talk with information about this

* We went away for a weekend in the country, drank white wine, cried and hugged

* And when it was over, information whispered in my ear that it doesn’t want to be free

* The only thing it wants is for us to stop anthropomorphizing it

* Because information doesn’t WANT anything

* It’s a mere abstraction

* However, PEOPLE want to be free

* And when the world is made up of networked information-processing devices, that human freedom can only be attained through a free, open, and fair informational infrastructure

* Help us create it

Cite as:
C. Doctorow, GLAM and the Free World. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 19, 2014. Consulted .

3 thoughts on “GLAM and the Free World

  1. Can I get an ‘amen’ already? Mr Doctorow, this is great. But to everyone out there getting glammed up and sitting on the fence now*, we really need to stand up and make these arguments for ourselves as well. It’s time to fight the good fight.

    [* Yeah… totally the Ting Tings.]

  2. Brilliant essay. You will probably be speaking to the converted, however. It’s the museums that still feel whatever content they push at the public, in whatever format, is right for everyone. Seeing a thing in a glass box with a little piece of paper (which often has the most information about provenance) is antithetical to sharing information that is both interesting and worth spending time on.

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