Peter Suber’s “Green”, “Gold”, “Gratis”, and “Libre” open access taxonomy points to how the emancipatory upside of technology continues to break down the proprietary barriers of the Ancien Régime’s enclosures. While the startup world and the world of mergers and acquisitions continue to monetize the latest convergences of technology sectors from the top, parallel convergences emerge from the bottom up as increasingly interdependent communities of workers construct transparent knowledge stacks of open access layers built over free and open source software (including open-source hardware). Suber’s impressive efforts dovetail with a long list of precedents in technology including Richard Stallman (Free Software Foundation), Linus Torvalds (Open Source Software), and even perhaps counter-intuitively Phil Zimmermann (Pretty Good Privacy encryption). There are, however, a variety of often conflicting ideologies reflected throughout the subversive knowledge stack. Stallman’s strict legalism and communitarian framing of the “freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software” contrast with the libertarian and civil libertarian ideas of figures such as Eric Raymond (author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar) and John Gilmore (Electronic Frontier Foundation).
Suber’s advocacy of free and open repositories for “libre” knowledge would seem to serve as an effective and practical agenda for the humanities and the larger world of education. Suber states that “the ultimate promise of OA is not to provide free online texts for human reading, even if that is the highest-value end use. The ultimate promise of OA is to provide free online data for software acting as the antennae, prosthetic eyeballs, research assistants, and personal librarians of all serious researchers” (122). While Suber’s vision has the ring of science fiction, especially given the chaotic plethora of siloed databases, changes driven by pragmatic needs for integration and more human centered search tools are year-by-year blurring the lines between reality and imagination. To the extent Suber’s vision is a premonition of things to come, it offers opportunities for re-imagining the role of publishers and their business models. What stands in the way of the convergence of business models for digital goods and services with the interests of the public domain?
In contrast to Suber’s optimism for an OA future and its associated technologies, Johanna Drucker’s cautionary rendering of the “shiny red object” syndrome and the “innovation bandwagon” offers an important tonic and reminder of the human in the digital humanities. Yet Drucker’s nostalgia for the goodwill of wealth hoarding tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie leave today’s generation waiting for Jeff Besos, Tim Cook, and the absurd appearance of Beckett’s Godot. Drucker incisively argues that, despite so many hopes and efforts to the contrary, technology is not the “panacea” for resolving the crises of digital publishing, whether academic or trade. In advocating for alternatives to Google, such as the Digital Public Library of America, Drucker also points toward non-proprietary, free, gratis, and libre applications such as LibreOffice, Gimp, and Audacity.
Given Drucker’s sobering criticisms, the options offered seem underwhelming. Much of the highest managerial strata of the publishing and media industries are still stuck in an older pre-digital world, preferring to kick the proverbial can down the road. New approaches are likely to be considered as the MP3 generation takes over. A fundamental problem would seem to lie in what Walter Benjamin intimated in 1936 in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, namely that “[t]o an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility” (225). Monetization can no longer be based on physical irreproducibility and scarcity. Moreover, “[f]ascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate” (241).
In the meantime perhaps some of the most important digital repositories will continue to be sites such as the Internet Archive (archive.org) and The Wayback Machine (waybackmachine.org), which as the number of broken links explodes increasingly becomes the recovery mechanism for a broken public memory.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.
Suber, Peter. 2012. Open Access. Cambridge: The MIT Press.