When it comes to technology, I often think companies with powerful new applications can fail to see the difference between ‘can we?’ and ‘should we?’. As private companies develop increasingly bottomless resources for storing our most personal information, we, their customers, should constantly be asking how much of this is really necessary, and how much are we giving away by letting it happen.
Back in 2010, Geekosystem reported that Facebook were introducing facial recognition software into their network’s functions. Combined with the tagging function that can be used on photos, this software could be used to ‘recognize’ all your friends in all your photos and tag them accordingly.
I found an article in ‘ The Guardian’ a while back that confirms it’s full steam ahead for the internet giant’s new facility. And an article in ‘PC World’ explains why this is a profoundly creepy development. Facebook have long shown that they can play fast and loose with their members’ privacy. Given that private communications with your friends is a big part of the service Facebook offers, this carelessness can result in deeply personal stuff you thought was treated as confidential, ending up on view to the world.
This type of software has been in use across the world in law-enforcement for some time, but Google, Apple, Sony, Microsoft and other private companies are putting it to use too.
For those who’ve never come across it before, facial recognition basically works like this:
Computer software analyzes the features of your face in a photo and breaks the information down into a mathematical algorithm. It can record the proportions of your face – the relative position, size, and/or shape of the eyes, nose, cheekbones, and jaw. It then simplifies the information in the image down to the bare basics needed for identification. Another version might identify you by the blemishes in the surface of your skin; or there are even approaches that record the physical shape of your face in a 3D model. What it boils down to, though, is your face can be recorded in systems of numbers that can be identified and cross-referenced much faster than an image can – just as law enforcers worldwide can already do with fingerprints.
Except you can’t fingerprint someone as they pass you on the street.
A writer on Zippycart discusses how, in the near future, this technology could be used to target you with advertising when you’re out and about, or perhaps even get you arrested in a police state because you were once photographed in the wrong place, or with the wrong people.
Facial recognition software is already being trialled for use in schools, to replace the roll call, including one school in Dublin. I have a major problem with this – not the technological monitoring of kids’ attendance as such, but the taking and storage of children’s biometric data by a private company. I went into some of the issues around this a while back, when I learned about new systems being used to fingerprint kids in school libraries.
I have always been curious about, and interested in, new technology. But my real interest is in our relationship with its functions, and the practical ways that this affects our lives.
This introduction of facial recognition into our everyday lives is just at the early stages, and at this level, it’s still a rather fumbling, benign presence. The success rate varies, but is often much less than 50%. It can be foiled by such minor things as sunglasses, long hair, low or unconventional lighting, poor resolution and even facial expressions. If you’re on camera, give it a big smile and it might not be able to read your face.
So it’s easy for calls of caution to be dismissed as paranoia. But I figure it’s better be cautious now, rather than frustrated and powerless later. And the fact this technology doesn’t work properly yet, but is already in widespread use, is a cause for concern in itself. If this it doesn’t do the job properly, why use it? Before we create massive honey-pots of information that can be lifted from a computer by anyone with the savvy to do it, misused through incompetence, or just mislaid by some eejit, let’s figure out if it’s the best way of doing things, and make sure the process doesn’t compromise our personal security.
I do harp on about this a bit, but there’s one fundamental principle I always keep in mind when I’m dealing with my information online:
Once you put something up on the web, it’s gone. Once the world has access to it, you can no longer consider it yours. And I don’t care who says what about the privacy they can guarantee online. Nobody can guarantee privacy online. Encryption can be extremely secure, but people aren’t. I always assume any online lock can be unlocked. And that’s working on the theory that the company supplying the web service to you, isn’t going to take it upon itself to do something dodgy with your information. There’s no guarantee of that either.
So when some big company tries to sell you a flash new service, but it involves using some of your most personal information – and biometric data is as personal and as important as it gets – ask not just what you could do with that technology, but what that technology could do to you.
This post is a tribute to my Power Mac G4, a machine with which I have had a long and tumultuous working relationship; a machine I have cursed almost as often as I’ve admired. Hold onto your hats, ‘cos this could get a bit nerdy.
Despite the numerous break-ups (and one or two break-downs) this Mac and I have endured, I have listened with bemusement to other people who have bought PCs and found themselves replacing them a year or two later. It’s hard to fathom anyone tolerating a situation like that. Whatever faults this stubborn git of a computer might have had, quitting wasn’t one of them.
For anyone who recognizes this model and is gaping at its venerable age, yes, I bought it new, and have been using it constantly as my main computer ever since. Yes, it is the Quicksilver model (the 733 MHz one). Yes, that model was released in 2001. And yes, it was getting painfully slow towards the end.
After nigh on ten years, I’ve finally given in and retired it from active service.
I’m sorry to say that I’ve met another machine – the inevitable newer model (not completely new; refurbished and upgraded, but new to me) one that can offer me some mystery, some excitement and . . . dare I say it . . . a smoother ride. I’m writing this post on that new Mac, as my old workmate sits disconnected in the corner of the room, awaiting a new life as a back-up drive.
There were times when I wanted to take a hammer to the old ****er, but when it comes down to it, it has served me well. It’s taken me from a career in freelance illustration and design, into one as a writer-illustrator of more than twenty books. We’ve done a lot of late nights together, moved house/studio four times, worked on painted artwork, digital art, websites, speeches, online teaching courses, workshop materials, research, books and any number of other tasks. We never played games together (except for the psychological ones) – it was always strictly business. But then, this is a passionate business.
I handle the minor maintenance stuff myself. The G4 has failed me completely only once (the result of a power surge I failed to guard against), and I’ve had the RAM and hard drive upgraded just the once too. On both those occasions – and when it came time to transfer everything on the hard drive onto the new computer – I went to the lads in Back From The Future, on Aungier Street in Dublin. Combining just the right mix of expertise, friendly service and character, they sell a great range of new, refurbished and end-of-line technology. And best of all, they don’t just fix computers, they fix Macs – and with a minimum of fuss. A rare breed. They’ve been a main street business for nine years, they now have a second shop open in Dun Laoghaire, and Colin, one of the owners, does technology reviews on TV3. So despite competing with big-name retail branding power, they’ve well and truly staked out a place for themselves in the market. And as the publishing world goes increasingly digital, we’re going to need down-to-earth people to make sense of the ever-increasing mass of technology that our industry will depend on. If you have a computer problem, if nobody else can help . . . sorry, that’s the wrong eighties screen phenomenon. Anyway, Back From The Future – they’re good.
Which is just as well, because when you have to disconnect the machine your whole business is running on and leave it in someone else’s hands, it can be a bit unnerving. Backing stuff off is all very well, but not having my work computer just leaves me feeling so exposed. Maedhbh warned the kids to tread carefully around me for those few days. But now I’m back! And I still have all my books and files and everything.
On a rather fitting note, the first TED talk I checked out on the new Mac was this one, about using Google’s reservoir of millions of digitized books – an unprecedented historical record – to look at the changing trends to be found in that ocean of text. Some are profoundly important, like proof of rising sea levels and a demonstration of the effects of censorship in Nazi Germany. And then some are downright silly, like the levels of frustration demonstrated by the word ‘argh’, from those with just one ‘a’ to those with eight. Intriguing statistical information, delivered with comedic timing.
To recap from Part 1 (of my ambitious and epic blog trilogy) what a publisher traditionally does for a writer is: first, they take that story on. That approval is, in itself, a recognition that the story is of a reasonable quality. Then they hone it into something they can sell, produce the printed matter and distribute it to reviewers and the shops. Shops treat books from well-known publishers far more seriously than they do self-published books.
You write stories on your own, you publish them with a team, but you sell them with a community. Contrary to popular belief, writing is not a solitary occupation.
The single biggest change to the world of publishing is the fact that anybody with a web connection can now publish text online, and it is increasingly easy to get an ebook accepted by mainstream outlets such as Amazon. In fact, why bother with an ebook? Just stick it on a website, or in a blog, or in an email, on your Facebook page . . . hell, just slap it in a text on your mobile. What’s the difference, when you get down to it?
So publishers no longer control distribution – access to the market. Desktop publishing and design software offer anyone the ability to put a book together themselves. And with people reading more and more online and onscreen, printing is becoming less important, so publishers no longer control the means of production.
And given that most books do not benefit from any major promotional work from the publisher (the bulk of the marketing money and effort is reserved for the top 5% of authors), this is normally left to the creators of the work – the writer and/or illustrator. Particularly nowadays, when a children’s writer is expected to also be a children’s entertainer if they want any chance of a career – see my last post. So publishers do not, for the most part, control the promotion of a book.
In fact, much of what a modern publisher does control – or contribute – can often be sub-contracted out to freelance professionals. Publishers long ago stopped printing their own books, even though this is how the oldest companies started off. Publishers used to be printers. That work is now farmed out to printing firms – it is no longer where the publisher can add the greatest value, and therefore make the most money in the publishing process.
But editors, designers, marketing and PR people are also increasingly working for themselves or smaller, specialized companies. More and more full-time publishing employees work from home. If you really wanted, you could bypass the ‘publishers’ altogether and hire what freelancers you need directly, and then keep all the money your books earn for yourself. That’s one theory. However, as I said before, with the technology available, it’s possible to do the whole shebang by yourself. Writer, John Scalzi, takes a dramatic look at these propositions on his blog.
There is a point in the future where my name – my ‘brand’ – might become recognizable enough for me to say: ‘Why bother with a publisher and distribution system that takes 80-90% of the money from the sale of book, when I can do it all online myself and cut them out of the picture? With print-on-demand, including marvels such as the Espresso Book Machine, I can even send people printed versions of the books if they want them.’ If my publishers seem to be dragging their heels when it comes the seizing this new means of production, why don’t I just do it myself? If I made enough money, I could pay a few experts to do the tricky bits for me, and then manage the whole thing and take most of the money for myself.
As an author, I already have far more direct contact with readers than my publishers do. I also have this blog and this website as an online means of contact, but other authors go further, giving out email addresses, having Facebook pages and tweeting regularly on Twitter. The line between linear stories and more interactive formats such as online role-playing-games is starting to blur – as is the divide between author and reader. I’m no programmer, but I am an illustrator and designer. I can handle much of the production of an ordinary book myself and I have people around me who can do most of the rest of it. So why not?
To be blunt, even in the digital world, self-publishing is incredibly hard to do properly. Publishing your own work requires a wide range of skills to do effectively, is ravenously time-consuming (leaving you little time to write) and can be hideously expensive once high-end production for printing becomes involved. I know – I’ve tried it. It actually went okay; I published the first issue of a comic entitled ‘Twisted’ (go find that one, you comic fanatics!), but then started getting real illustration work and that was that. I managed to get the cost of printing covered by a business partner and selling advertising. But I never made enough money on the sales to cover the cost of the time I spent writing and illustrating the comic. Mainly because, back then, I didn’t understand a thing about marketing or distribution.
That said, I find normal publishing isn’t very different – you get published, and then do a lot of the selling work yourself. Despite all the difficulties, self-publishing does work for some people. And now there is an astounding number of people taking up the challenge. Many aren’t interested in making a living from it at all – they just want to get their work out there. Sometimes it couldn’t even be called work. They just want to throw their voice, their text, out into the wilderness and see if anyone answers. We’re becoming addicted to this random, stream-of-consciousness stuff. It feels raw and immediate, and is often entertaining. But like watching MTV, it never quite satisfies. You’re always hanging on to see one more bit, in case that has what you’re looking for.
And there is still the issue of quality. I believe there is a serious risk that, if we fail to adjust to the new modes of reading that come with all these changes, the measures of quality that are accepted across the publishing world will become irrelevant to young readers who are effectively starting from scratch in a new medium. This is already happening in the world of news – look at how commentary has already taken over from investigation. The old media are making less money, so they have less to spend on digging up facts – and anyway, it takes too damn long. It’s easier to read the press releases from those in power and pass them on with a bit of commentary – or indeed, getting a group of journalists together to discuss them at length. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Charles Stross talks about this and other points in his blog.
And I hate the idea that the fantastic developments in production and distribution could lead to the discarding of much of what is still good in publishing. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Except, in this case, it’s the baby who’s throwing us.
Like Charlie Stross, Eoin Purcell talks about the race to the bottom in the world of digital publishing. He questions whether there could ever be ‘an iTunes for books’ and asserts that the demand for quality writing could force internet service providers to start paying people to produce good stuff – to keep people clicking through those all-important ads. Such desperate measures could be called for, since the ‘all-information-should-be-free’ philosophy extolled by some will ensure that few good writers will be able to spare the time to produce that good stuff on a regular basis. They’ll all be off finding other ways to pay the rent.
Eoin has subscribed, tentatively, to the belief that, to keep consumers glued to their screens, ISP’s will have to start investing in talent. That would be nice (and overdue). I think there’s a lot to be said for the concept, but I’m not sure if that’s how it’ll come about – at least the bit about the ISP’s doing the paying.
Some of the people who once preached the virtues of the ‘all-information-should-be-free’ philosophy have started to change their minds. Probably because they are having to face up to the fact that they need to make a living too, and now that the idea is no longer a revolutionary one, there is less demand for it on the lucrative lecture circuit.
So, we know who needs the money in order to keep producing decent quality work: the creators of the content and those who help them produce it: everyone from investigative journalists to literary novelists and the organizations who support them. If we look beyond the traditional market to the digital one, we have to look at where that money is going to come from.
The consumers, obviously, but we already know that digital tip jars and PayPal accounts are not the answer. If people can get something as easily for free as they can while paying for it, most will take it for free, or won’t pay enough. Even if you can convince people to pay you enough to make a living from it, your success could mean you become more desirable to the pirates, and there goes your income again.
Some authors have tried getting sponsorship, or even investors, a kind of ‘crowdfunding’ to help them cover the expense of the time it takes to write a book. There have been suggestions that writers start releasing stuff in a drip-feed fashion, waiting for a certain number of subscriptions to their site before releasing the next episode. But it’s a shaky way to do it, and demands that you write serials with constant cliffhangers. It’s a tough way to go about writing a book.
Everybody is trying to figure out how they’re going to make their money in this scary new digital future. Newspapers have tried the subscription model, failed, and now seem to be giving it another go in a slightly different form. Even iTunes is starting to steer in that direction. Rock bands have tried releasing their new albums online and asking their fans to pay what they think the music is worth, but this only seems to work at all if the band is already huge, and makes plenty of money from performances anyway.
As an author of children’s and young adult fiction, I do a large number of events every year. If I was a musician or a storyteller, I would be trying to make my living from these, but that’s not my goal. I am having to learn the skills of an oral storyteller, but I’m trying to promote books.
Except I’m not. Not any more. In fact, I never really did. I sold stories, each of which I wrote in the format of a book to be printed, to be marketed in a certain category, for a certain market. But I was happy for those stories to be sold in other formats, even though I rarely got much say in how subsequent formats were produced. Why didn’t I get much say? Because the people who bought the rights all took the printed book, not the story in my head, as their starting point.
My books have been published as audio-books and ebooks. I have sold film rights for one of them, and would be delighted to sell more. The same goes for other kinds of broadcasting, including console or online computer games. I will soon be releasing my first ebook novella free online. I have read, performed, my stories for audiences of children. Excerpts from one of my novels have been performed as drama presentations. As ebooks, my stories can be read out loud by text-to-voice software for the visually impaired.
Do I want to even attempt to self-publish into all of these formats? Not bloody likely. So I need a publisher. Not a company that bases its business on printed matter, but one that can help me hone and adapt my stories for different formats, either for different audiences, or the same audience that wants to be able to enjoy my stories in different ways. Kids in particular, expect their favourite brands to stretch across different media. The story they sat up all night reading on paper by the light of a lamp, they want to continue reading on their phone while being driven to school in the morning. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have it, except that the publishing industry has so far baulked at making it possible.
In an article for the Computerworld website, Michael Elgan puts forward the idea that publishing must change its very shape. He suggests that when a book is sold, it could be offered at each outlet in any format the reader wants, or indeed, as a bundle. So instead of having to buy the ebook, the audio-book and the printed version individually, they could be bought as one package. And if you’re talking just about digital files, this would be easy, and makes complete sense. That’s what makes digital stuff so great. You can keep it all together in the same place, but use it in different ways.
Elgan goes on to talk about being able to borrow or rent audio-books (a service some libraries already offer) and books that can download the updated version on a regular basis – not just your newspapers, but books, particularly useful for things like academic texts, manuals, law books etc. He argues for ‘social books’, where a book has its own website for discussion about it, although I think online book groups serve this purpose better and cheaper. But the book could still be used to take you to a relevant online world to enrich the reading experience. He questions why ebooks are released at the same time as printed books, when they are obviously much quicker to produce.
But books are no longer solid, static things. Soon, they may no longer have a single size, and could have multiple layers. How do you pay once for something that comes in different forms, or is constantly changing, renewing itself? Well, you don’t pay for that one thing.
Google are pushing for a model where we stop downloading stuff altogether, that we stop storing everything on our own computers and just access everything online. You don’t pay for individual bits of software, or for the products you use online, you just pay a subscription for the whole service.
All right, as a human being who likes his privacy and independence, the ‘putting my whole life online’ idea does give me the shivers. And I certainly don’t want Google becoming the purveyor of all media – or indeed, all knowledge, as they claim their ambition has always been.
But it brings me back to the idea of subscription. The idea that we no longer seek to own a version of story, we just pay for the right to read, listen, watch as much as we like in a given time, and put up with having to look at a few ads along the way (If you do absolutely have to own it, you can still buy a printed version). We use this license or subscription model already, every day of our lives, and it has produced some of the best (and worst) writing in any media. It’s called television.
And even though television programmes and fims are ripped off and distributed widely on the web, most of us still sit down and watch the box, rather than trying to download free stuff on the computer. Why? Because it’s easier. And our televisions are becoming so versatile, so multi-functional, that even the free means of downloading individual files isn’t enough to draw us away from the box that we can work from our armchair with a simple remote control. We don’t want to know what’s on the world-wide web each evening when we come home from work. That’s too much hassle. We want a fairly restricted menu of options that suits our tastes, which won’t demand too much thought. And I’d still rather rent a box-set of DVD’s than try and download them off the web. I am happy to pay for that convenience, for something that gives me pleasure.
Now think about how much easier and cheaper it is to produce text, or even illustration and design, compared with your average television show.
It’s not just about the service. In terms of a means of accessing stories, text and any related files, we don’t need a wide array of gadgets for reading in different forms. We need one that can manage all kinds of text in a simple way. I had high hopes for the iPad, but I think it’s fallen short (I’ll cover that in another post). But we’re coming close. The key is the combination of the reading device and the service. Perhaps Kindle will crack it, perhaps Google will get there first. Maybe Apple will even come up on the inside and steal the prize. Hopefully they’ll all produce different types and we’ll actually have a choice of what to use. But these companies create formats, devices. Not content.
I believe that the publishing industry needs to get together, from the likes of giants such as Random House to small independent firms like the O’Brien Press or Barrington Stoke, and figure out how to move our industry online in a unified, forward-looking, strategic way. We must seize the means of production before it is foisted upon us, and we end up having to figure out how to work within an alien system, while we lose our increasingly more tech-literate young readers to those who have mastered the medium, but not the content.
If publishers are to remain in business, and maintain the standards that excite such devotion, intensity and passion in a bizarrely untenable industry, they must become what most creators of content cannot and do not want to be. They must act as hubs of expertise in all kinds of formats and media, helping the creator adapt their story, their book, to each one. They must ensure that the outlets they choose to work through are so easy to use and access, and offer such opportunities to become more involved with each book, that pirate material– which will always exist – cannot become mainstream.
As a writer, I want to make a living from my work, so I can spend my time doing it and so I can remain productive throughout my life. But I also take a keen interest in how stories are told and spread and how they mutate and take new forms – along with the information and inspiration that they carry. I believe it is vital that we meet the developing needs of our readers, so that they do not see our industry as becoming increasingly irrelevant as they are led away by forms of reading that offer more fashionable, eye-catching snatches of entertainment, but less technique, less investigation, less thought, less depth and perspective.
For the sake of our industry and our audience, we must stay relevant in their eyes. I appeal to the publishing world to seize these new means of production, and stop being afraid of them. These are merely tools we need to learn how to use. Painting is not restricted to those who can manufacture canvas or brushes. Let’s not get left behind.