There’s always a gatekeeper

It’s a lovely libertarian-sounding sentiment:

Amazon wants to do away with gatekeepers. It promises a world where books are cheap, where anyone can publish anything, where there are no editors or distributors saying this is not what is selling now, go away.[1]


In late 2005, I wrote an essay as part of my application to the Master’s program in Speech Communication at California State University, East Bay. I’ve long since lost it; I’ve been through too much upheaval, including technological upheaval, since then. But a point I made was that our view of what constitutes authoritative information is changing, from a model in which we trust academics, encyclopedias, and news organizations to one in which we trust blogs and Wikipedia. Rick Salutin makes a similar point but more broadly about authority and adds,

The power of authority diminishes when you can hear credible, contesting voices. Print tends to be monotonal and univocal, unlike the oral tradition that preceded it. But the Internet, though it often lacks actual speech, is oral in the sense of interactive, like a Socratic dialogue. In oral mode, less is often more because speech is so laden with gesture, tone etc.; even something as short as a tweet can suffice. That too diminishes normal authority, which likes to rumble on.[2]

It’s a process that’s now well under way. Which doesn’t make it any less fraught. And in some ways, it’s turned out surprisingly well. Wikipedia held up well in a comparison of the number of errors with Encyclopedia Britannica and the editors of Nature urged the journal’s readers to contribute, to make Wikipedia better.[3] Such studies undermine professors’ claims that Wikipedia is unreliable (although encyclopedias are always, at best, secondary sources, and academics prefer primary sources) and a risk appears that professors will seem to be protecting their own positions: A Ph.D., such as I seek, is in fact academic recognition that the holder is qualified and trusted to produce knowledge. And who bestows this recognition? Universities do. They themselves are bastions of centralized knowledge in a world where decentralization is increasingly the game and where anyone, with or without a Ph.D., may contribute.

At the heart of this argument is a question of quality. I taught my students that if they were going to use Wikipedia (this was a freshman-level class, so of course they did), that what they should do, because Wikipedia is good at citing sources, is follow the sources, make sure the sources say what the Wikipedia article claims they say, and then cite the sources rather than Wikipedia itself.

But there’s actually more to it. In one case, I noticed that a Wikipedia article made a claim about Eagle Scouts. I followed my own advice, and checked the source. It turns out the source made the claim about Boy Scouts generally, not about Eagle Scouts specifically. The author of the passage in the Wikipedia article had committed an ecological fallacy, that is, s/he had applied a general claim about a larger group to a subgroup. Generalized claims at one unit of analysis can not be assumed to be applicable to other units of analysis; there will be exceptions within a larger group and an individual or a subgroup of individuals within that larger group may not all follow the pattern of the larger group.

There is a discipline to knowledge and the production of knowledge that should be seen as a good thing. It is what helps us not only to avoid errors ourselves, but to critically analyze other people’s work and detect errors in it.

But that leads to a question of gatekeeping, that is, who controls what may get published. In a world of blogs and online encyclopedias, gatekeeping gets devalued. The point, even of this blog, my blog, is to avoid the hassle and expense. I say what I want, it gets lost among zillions of other blogs, and no one can tell me not to. I try to keep a certain level of quality here, but at the end of the day, it’s just me. There’s no peer review.

Hachette is holding fast to the traditional publishing system that underpins modern culture. It was a world where publishers bankrolled writers in return for a large cut of the proceeds, where editors improved prose and sharpened arguments, and where books were selected and presented rather than simply released. They cost more, too.[4]

One of the virtues of the traditional publishing environment is that there is at least an editor looking things over. Many of the essays I post on my research journal are written as part of my academic work towards that Ph.D.; these get reviewed by my professors, and in fact with the qualifying essays for Ph.D. candidacy, I expect to be defending them early this fall before my committee, a committee of three professors at my university.

But there’s also a dark side to peer review. For one thing, it doesn’t always work. Alan Sokal, a mathematical physicist, succeeded in publishing a hoax article—rapidly recognizable as such to people in his field—in the Duke University journal Social Text.[5] In one respect, this appears to have been a slap at post-modernism from a hard scientist, a comment that not even post-modernists, who are notorious for obscurantist writing, can understand the content of their own journals. A similar controversy arose recently with open access journals, which perhaps unfairly focused on open access journals when the problem seems to be with peer review generally.[6] In the latter case, an article which “should have been promptly rejected” by “[a]ny reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot” was accepted with minor variations and under a number of pseudonyms by several open access journals.[7] Another problem is that the peer review process may be subject to the whims of academics whose entire careers rest on research or even paradigms that a proposed article may challenge.[8]

In Amazon’s mission to remove all barriers between readers and writers, the biggest obstacle is the New York publishers, which for the most part still publish the writers whom people want to read. But Amazon controls the Kindle e-reader platform and sees no reason a publisher like Hachette should receive so much of the revenue from a digital book. That was where the negotiations failed.[9]

Amazon’s fine-sounding libertarian sentiment, quoted at the beginning of this post, is belied by their decision to withhold—or at least to delay—books published by at least two publishers, Hachette and Bonnier. In these cases, the dispute appears to be over a division of revenue on e-book sales.[10] But the dispute also highlights another concern I had in the essay I wrote back in 2005, specifically, that at the same time that sources of information might be proliferating, the means for finding them were consolidating. I remember I was specifically concerned about Google’s dominant role in web search. I almost certainly was also concerned about Amazon’s role in book sales.

Amazon is now throwing its weight around. And whether this really is because it needs the money,[11] or perhaps, in the future, about content that Amazon, a corporation now notorious for abusive employment practices,[12] should disapprove of, we are now being reminded of the danger of allowing corporations to control access to ideas, in essence allowing them to determine which ideas we will be permitted to consider.

The trouble is that the traditional model hasn’t been working so well either. As the presumably future holder of a Ph.D., I’m not only concerned about peer review for journal articles, but about book publishing. I’ve been hearing not-so-good things about this. Unless I’m going to self-publish, meaning I’ll need marketing and layout skills I do not possess, I’ll need an agent who has entre to the publishers. Even getting an agent, it seems, is something of a racket, and this still seems to be a matter of who I know, rather than a matter of my merit (or lack of).

I can’t say I’m comfortable with that.

  1. [1]David Streitfeld, “Hachette and Amazon Dig In for a Long Fight Over Contract Terms,” New York Times, May 28, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/technology/amazon-hachette-book-publisher-dispute.html
  2. [2]Rick Salutin, “The decline of deference,” Toronto Star, December 29, 2011, http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1108611–salutin-the-decline-of-deference
  3. [3]Nature, “Wiki’s wild world,” 438 (December 14, 2005): 890, doi: 10.1038/438890a
  4. [4]David Streitfeld, “Hachette and Amazon Dig In for a Long Fight Over Contract Terms,” New York Times, May 28, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/technology/amazon-hachette-book-publisher-dispute.html
  5. [5]Abhishek Roy, “The Sokal Affair,” University of California, Berkeley, February 23, 2004, http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~abhishek/sokal.html; Steven Weinberg, “Sokal’s Hoax,” New York University, August 8, 1996, http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/weinberg.html; Eugene Wolters, “Read Derrida’s Response to the Sokal Affair,” Critical Theory, April 27, 2013, http://www.critical-theory.com/read-derridas-response-sokal-affair/
  6. [6]Paul Basken, “Critics Say Sting on Open-Access Journals Misses Larger Point,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 4, 2013, https://chronicle.com/blogs/percolator/critics-say-sting-on-open-access-journals-misses-larger-point/33559; Martin Eve, “Flawed sting operation singles out open access journals,” Conversation, October 4, 2013, http://theconversation.com/flawed-sting-operation-singles-out-open-access-journals-18846; Ernesto Priego, “Who’s Afraid of Open Access?” Comics Grid, October 4, 2013, http://blog.comicsgrid.com/2013/10/whos-afraid-open-access/; Curt Rice, “Open access publishing hoax: what Science magazine got wrong,” Guardian, October 4, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/oct/04/science-hoax-peer-review-open-access
  7. [7]John Bohannon, “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” Science 342, no. 6154 (2013): 60-65, doi: 10.1126/science.342.6154.60, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/60.full
  8. [8]Donaldo Macedo, Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed To Know (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2006).
  9. [9]David Streitfeld, “Hachette and Amazon Dig In for a Long Fight Over Contract Terms,” New York Times, May 28, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/technology/amazon-hachette-book-publisher-dispute.html
  10. [10]David Streitfeld, “Writers Feel an Amazon-Hachette Spat,” New York Times, May 9, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/10/technology/writers-feel-an-amazon-hachette-spat.html; David Streitfeld, “Hachette Says Amazon Is Delaying Delivery of Some Books,” New York Times, May 8, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/09/technology/hachette-says-amazon-is-delaying-delivery-of-some-books.html; David Streitfeld, “Hachette and Amazon Dig In for a Long Fight Over Contract Terms,” New York Times, May 28, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/technology/amazon-hachette-book-publisher-dispute.html; David Streitfeld and Melissa Eddy, “Why Is Amazon Squeezing Hachette? Maybe It Really Needs the Money,” New York Times, May 30, 2014, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/why-is-amazon-squeezing-hachette-maybe-it-really-needs-the-money/
  11. [11]David Streitfeld and Melissa Eddy, “Why Is Amazon Squeezing Hachette? Maybe It Really Needs the Money,” New York Times, May 30, 2014, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/why-is-amazon-squeezing-hachette-maybe-it-really-needs-the-money/
  12. [12]Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/how_amazon_is_worse_than_wal_mart/; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014, http://www.alternet.org/labor/amazon-keeps-unions-out-keeping-workers-fear-says-organizer; Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/23/worse_than_wal_mart_amazons_sick_brutality_and_secret_history_of_ruthlessly_intimidating_workers/; Hamilton Nolan, “What Is Life Like For an Amazon Worker?” Gawker, July 29, 2013, http://gawker.com/what-is-life-like-for-an-amazon-worker-949664345; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011, http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat

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