Barry Eisler

Friday, January 15, 2016

Because Nothing Says "Freedom of Expression" Like Dominance by the Big Five

Joe Konrath and I have some fun over at his blog with the notion that “Big Five” dominance is better for freedom of expression than any author being able to publish any book for any reader. My portion here; the whole thing over at Joe’s blog

* * * * *

I just learned about an event put on by an organization called New America (formerly The New America Foundation): Amazon’s Book Monopoly: A Threat to Freedom of Expression? Ordinarily, propaganda is something that concerns me, but when it veers this far off into parody, I sometimes welcome it as a comic diversion.

Because, come on, putting your tendentious conclusion right there in the title and disguising it as a question, while an impressively textbook instance of question-begging, in this context is also pretty funny. Because, “Hey, we’ve already established that Amazon is a monopoly; we’re just here to determine how much of a threat the company poses to Freedom and All That Is Good. Is it an existential threat, like Roger Cohen said about ISIS? Or merely an extremely threatening threat?”

And who knows, maybe they’ll answer the question, “No,” right? Maybe the panelists will decide that Amazon’s “book monopoly” is actually a benefit to freedom of expression, as monopolies often are. It’s not as though they’ve structured things so that the question answers itself, and I don’t know why anyone would suspect this panel might be anything other than a diverse collection of open-minded people honestly engaging in free inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge wherever the facts may lead!

Thanks to the efforts of serious-sounding organizations like New America (and if that vague but happy-sounding name didn’t cause your bullshit detector to at least tingle, it should—see also Americans for Prosperity and the Center for American Progress), this “Amazon is a Monopoly” silliness is so persistent that Joe and I dealt with it in our inaugural post on zombie memes—“arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence.” Half the purpose of the Zombie Meme series is to save Joe and me from having to repeat ourselves, so if you want to have a laugh about why, despite its persistence, “Amazon is a Monopoly” is so embarrassingly dumb and misguided, here’s your link.

But here’s the amazing part: “Amazon is a monopoly” is actually the clever half of the event’s title. The really funny part is what follows: that Amazon poses a threat to freedom of expression!

As I said in a previous Techdirt guest post called Authors Guilded, United, and Representing…Not:

Given that Amazon’s self-publishing platform enables all authors to publish whatever they like and leaves it to readers to decide what books they themselves find beneficial, while the New York Big Five (no concentrated market power in a group with a name like that!) has historically rejected probably 999 books for every one they deem worthy of reaching the public, a few questions present themselves. Such as:

                Who has really been “manipulating and supervising the sale of books and therefore affecting the exchange of ideas in America,” and who has really “established effective control of a medium of communication”—an entity that screens out 99.9% of books, or one that has enabled the publication of any book?

                Who has really been running an uncompetitive, controlled, supervised, distorted market for books—a company dedicated to lower prices, or a group calling itself the Big Five that has been found guilty of conspiracy and price fixing?

                Who is really restoring freedom of choice, competition, vitality, diversity, and free expression in the American book market—an entity that consigns to oblivion 999 books out of a thousand, or one that enables the publication of all of them?

                And who is really ensuring that the American people determine for themselves how to take advantage of the new technologies of the 21st Century—an entity responsible for zero innovation and dedicated to preserving the position of paper, or one that has popularized a new publishing and reading platform that for the first time offers readers an actual choice of formats?

Think about it. This “New America” organization has put together a panel dedicated to persuading you that there was more freedom of expression when an incestuous group of five Manhattan-based corporations held the power to disappear 999 books out every thousand written, and indeed performed that disappearance as the group’s core function (they call this “curation”). And that, now that Amazon’s KDP platform has enabled all authors to publish virtually anything they want, freedom of expression is being threatened.

 For an organization calling itself “New America,” these jokers sure seem wedded to the old version.

In fairness to New America, I should note that their worldview is hardly unprecedented. The notion that the traditional way of doing things is ipso facto the best way of doing things was lampooned by Voltaire over 150 years ago through his character Dr. Pangloss, who was convinced (before experience in the world introduced doubts) that “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” And Pangloss was himself based on the religious philosophy known as theodicy—a word coined over 300 years ago to describe a kind of faith that’s doubtless as old as the human race (and a word I admit I like because it sounds a bit like “idiocy”).

In fact, it was as recent as, say, the 1950s that a group of tweed-jacketed, straight white male college professors were genuinely convinced that the collection of books they deemed the most intrinsically worthy—all, coincidentally, written by other straight white males—represented the maximally possible amount of valuable expression, information, and ideas. They even called their collection the “canon,” which I admit did tend to make their subjective choices sound important and even divinely ordained. As people came to question the absence of women and minority writers from this collection selected exclusively by straight white males, I imagine the straight white males genuinely believed that broadening the “canon” to include women and minorities was a threat to freedom of expression and all that. This is just the way a lot of people are wired, especially when status and privilege are part of the mix.

And really, you do have to take a moment to applaud the mental gymnastics required of otherwise presumably intelligent people to say shit like “more authors writing more books reaching more readers is threatening freedom of expression, the flow of information, and the marketplace of ideas.” It’s War is Peace/Ignorance is Strength/Freedom is Slavery level doublethink. On the one hand, it’s sad, but on the other hand, in all the universe could there be a race as capable as humans of clinging so resolutely to faith in the face of so many contrary facts? Seen in this light, there’s something tragically beautiful about it.

And while I admit that New America’s “day is night, black is white” bizarro worldview isn’t easy to parody, I can’t resist trying. So…

Coming up next from New America: The Internet’s Dictatorial Grip: Impeding Access to Information? And The Tyranny of the Cell Phone: Shutting Down Communication? And Our Addiction to Paved Roads: A Threat to Freedom of Movement?

One more thing about this event that’s unintentionally hilarious, and then I need to get back to something worthwhile (AKA, the new manuscript). Take a look at the guest list. If you hired a team of NASA scientists to design the most rabidly, incestuously anti-Amazon panel possible, this is pretty much the group the team would propose. Though I doubt even the scientists (assuming they had a little dignity) would have gone to far as to bring in Douglas Preston and his literary agent, Eric Simonoff. I mean, this is getting pretty close to just adding clones of existing panelists and eliminating the last fluttering fig leaf of diversity.

They also have the dean of the Amazon Derangement crowd, Scott Turow. And Franklin Foer, who in fairness should be disqualified from even being on this panel because of his claim—in his much-derided “Let us kneel down before Amazon” screed—that “That term [monopoly] doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should”!

By the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if Foer makes the same cringe-worthy claim again, on this very “Amazon is a Monopoly” panel. The anti-Amazon crowd has never been particularly educable.

Also present will be Mark Coker, the head of Smashwords, an Amazon competitor. And author Susan Cheever, a member of Authors United, an organization that represents pretty much the platonic ideal of Amazon Derangement Syndrome. A couple of anti-trust lawyers to provide a veneer of legal gravitas (and to troll for clients, no doubt). And a second-year law student named Lina Khan who has argued that Amazon “should alarm us.”

And that’s it. That’s as diverse and wide-ranging as the lineup gets. The full gamut of viewpoints, from A…all the way to B.

Although really, even that feels a little generous.

Oh, by the way, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, another Amazon competitor, is the chairman of New America’s board of directors, too. No conflict of interest there. Nothing to disclose to anyone who might think this is some sort of disinterested, scholarly event.

So yeah, it’s really that much of a hive-mind lineup. But that’s not even the best part. The best part is, this remarkably insular and incestuous exercise in groupthink has been assembled to speak out against a purported threat to…freedom of expression! The flow of information! And the marketplace of ideas!

None of this is an accident, by the way. It isn’t just stupidity and incompetence. There’s a reason organizations will try to take a narrow outlook and propagate it through multiple mouthpieces: doing so can create the impression that a rare and radical notion is in fact widely held—held even by ostensibly disparate groups—and therefore more trustworthy. Indeed, this form of propaganda is a favorite of some of the same reactionary groups New America is showcasing on its panel. As I said recently about the supposedly “unprecedented joint action” of some booksellers, authors, and agents complaining together about Amazon:

Which brings us to the second revealing aspect of this “propaganda masquerading as an interview” drill. You see, in the standard “blow-job masquerading as interview” gambit, it’s generally enough to hope the reader will just assume the interviewer and interviewee are working at arms-length. Making the point explicitly isn’t really the done thing. Here, however, perhaps not trusting readers to be sufficiently gulled, the ABA and AG are at pains to describe the “unprecedented joint action” of the AG, Authors United, the ABA, and the Association of Authors’ Representatives in going after Amazon for monopolizing the marketplace of ideas, devaluing books, and generally crushing dissent, democracy, and all that is good. The impression they’re trying to create is, “Wow, if so many separate organizations hate Amazon, Amazon must be doing something bad.”

But what’s critical to understand is that the most fundamental purpose of the Authors Guild, Authors United, the American Booksellers Association, and the Association of Authors is to preserve the publishing industry in its current incarnation. Whatever marginal differences they might have (I’ve never actually seen any, but am happy to acknowledge the theoretical possibility) are eclipsed by this commonality of purpose. Under the circumstances, the fact that these four legacy publisher lobbyists agree on something is entirely unremarkable (indeed, what would be remarkable would be some evidence of division). But if people recognize the exercise as a version of “No really, I read it somewhere…okay, I wrote it down first,” the propaganda fizzles. And that’s why these propagandists have to nudge readers with the bullshit about the “unprecedented joint action.” Otherwise, when Authors Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger cites Authors United pitchman Doug Preston as though Preston were a separate, credible source, people might roll their eyes instead of nodding at the seriousness of it all. They might even giggle at the realization that all those “When did Amazon stop beating its wife?” questions were functionally being put by Rasenberger to herself.

So no, this wasn’t remotely a cross-examination, or even a cross pollination (indeed, publisher lobbyists are expert at fleeing anything that offers even the slightest whiff of actual debate—which does make their alleged devotion to the Free Flow of Ideas and Information as the Engine of Democracy worthy of a smile, at least, if nothing else). It was just a stump speech lovingly hosted by someone else’s blog. The sole reason for the exercise was to create the misleading appearance of multiple, arms-length actors when functionally there is only one.

In fairness to the aforementioned Unprecedentedly Joint Actors, there is a rich heritage behind this form of propaganda. For example, in the run-up to America’s second Iraq war, Dick Cheney would have someone from his office phone up a couple of pet New York Times reporters, who would then dutifully report that anonymous administration officials believed Saddam Hussein had acquired aluminum tubes as part of his nuclear weapons efforts…and then Cheney would go on all the Sunday morning talk shows and get to say, “Don’t take my word for the aluminum tube stuff—even the New York Times is reporting it!”

So leave aside the fact that the “joint action” in question is anything but unprecedented—that it is in fact publishing establishment SOP. Anyone familiar with the record of these organizations will instantly realize that the “unprecedented joint action” in question is a lot like the “joint action” of all four fingers—plus the thumb!—of someone throwing back a shot of tequila. Like that of a little boy pleasuring himself—with both hands!—and trying to convince anyone who will listen that the Unprecedented Left and Right Action is proof that “Everybody loves me!”

Okay, I apologize for the multiple excerpts from previous posts. But what are you going to do? These bloviators keep vomiting up the same tired bullshit, no matter how many times it’s debunked. It just saves time to refer to the previous debunkings rather than typing it all out again.

My advice to New America? If you’re more than just a propaganda operation—if you really do care about freedom of expression, and the flow of information, and the marketplace of ideas—you might want to add at least a token panelist with a viewpoint that differs even just a tiny bit from that of the nine Borg you’ve assembled to intone that Amazon Is Evil and Will Destroy All That Is Good. Otherwise, your event is going to feel more like a circle jerk and less like sex. And, doubtless, with similarly productive results.

Read the rest over at Joe’s blog.
Bookmark and Share


Blogger Nathaniel Hoffelder said...

I don't think it's accurate to say Coker is an Amazon competitor; all too often he sounds like a Big Five apologist or lackey.

I expect him to take that position at this event.

Saturday, January 16, 2016 4:18:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home