Text Transcript for Session 4: News, Politics and the Ownership of Information
New news media have been a hot topic in political analysis the past few years. This week we compare current news media’s growing pains to how news platforms and networks also transformed radically in the first centuries of print’s dissemination, especially the human social networks and agencies which strove to disseminate, control, and monetize news.
- Will Slauter (news in the early print period)
- Siva Vaidhyanathan (digital media & social networks)
- Plus series hosts Ada Palmer, Cory Doctorow, and Adrian Johns
[Ada Palmer] Welcome, all, to this session of Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions. So let’s start with introductions. How about if you go first, Will?
[Will Slauter] Sure, my name is Will Slauter. I’m a historian and I’m interested in the history of news publishing and the history of copyright, and I’ve just finished a book which tries combine those two histories and thinking about questions of ownership, of news over a long period of time.
[Ada Palmer] Siva, could you go next, please?
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Yeah, sure, hi, this is Siva Vaidhyanathan. I am a professor at the University of Virginia. I apologize for not being able to appear in person. I had planned to and just came down with a pretty nasty illness this week, so just could not make it. So I’m glad I have this opportunity. My early work was about copyright and that’s how I got to know Cory, and sort of got in this conversation early on. That was at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. More recently, I have published a book about Google in 2011 called The Googlization of Everything: And just this year, I published a book called Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. So that’s fun.
[Ada Palmer] Great, and Cory, could you remind our non-in-the-room viewers who just tuned in about who you are, please?
[Cory Doctorow] Sure, I’m Cory Doctorow, and I’m a science fiction novelist and an activist and a journalist. I work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I’m one of the owners of the website, Boing Boing, and I’m at the MIT Media Lab as a research affiliate and at UNC as a practice, visiting professor practice at the library school, and at the Open University as a visiting professor of computer science. My interest in this is both professional, and I’d guess you’d say ethical in that I’ve had this long association with trying to think through the social dimension of technology, but also as a science fiction novelist, the way that information, dissemination, and particularly copyright rules are structured has an enormous salience for me and really determines the extent to which I can pay my mortgage.
[Ada Palmer] Adrian?
[Adrian Johns] I’m Adrian Johns, I’m one of the two organizers with Ada of this. I’m in the history department here and I also chair a little graduate program called Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science. I do the history of science, the history of printing and publishing, especially in what Europeans call the early modern period, so from, I don’t know, 1450 to 1750. I wrote a big fat book called Piracy, which is about opposition to intellectual property from 200 years before intellectual property existed until about 10 years ago.
[Ada Palmer] And I’m Ada Palmer. I’m also here in the history department. I work on radical thought in the Renaissance, radical thought in the Enlightenment, somewhat on radical thought now, and I’m also a novelist like Cory, so I have an interest in the workings of copyright and publishing and information movement today in addition to in a scholarly sense. So Will, I hope you could kick us off a little bit, ’cause this morning, you and I talked about some of your work on the earlier discussions of news and whether news could be owned in comparison with the foundation of copyright laws about the ownership of other kinds of information. And I wonder if you could kick in with a little bit of that, and then I’m sure Siva and Cory and others will have corollaries to talk about with it.
[Will Slauter] Sure, well, one of the things, I worked on a book on the history of attempts to control news, and copyright is only one mechanism that you might use to try to control the flow of news. But what I found was that actually, the history of copyright for news publications is quite different, follows a different trajectory than the history of copyright for other kinds of works, including other kinds of informational works. And this has to do with changing attitudes towards what news is and how news functions. So from a fairly early date, there are debates about whether or not you can have a kind of literary property in accounts of recent events. And there are a number of kinds of opposition that developed to that in the early efforts to create a monopoly right in news. One argument that develops is that news is somehow different than other kinds of authorship, that it’s not only fact-based, but it’s supposed to be a kind of account of what happened. It’s not supposed to be creative or made up. It’s not supposed to have too much imagination. So you see that actually when people are developing, trying to develop a copyright for news, there are oppositions to it based on kind of aesthetic or cultural grounds. The other main argument that was often used against it was that news needs to circulate because journalism is important to democracy, and having knowledge about what’s happened in the world is absolutely fundamental. And so anything that might restrict the circulation of that information would be problematic. So in a way, you’ve got, that’s the history of sort of the ideas for and against, and I’ve tried to recount that in my book, but also to think about how news publishers actually work. But I think I’ll stop there so that people can react, and–
[Ada Palmer] Well, I was hoping you could add a tiny nugget, just ’cause I’d love to hear Siva and Cory’s reactions to this. You talked about local papers that would then be transmitted sometimes with the aid of the post office to have the material reused in other cities.
[Will Slauter] Right.
[Ada Palmer] If you could talk about that very briefly.
[Will Slauter] I think the basic point there is that news publications have always existed in relation to other news publications that are situated in time and space. So if you think about a local newspaper generating content locally, they might not have any problem with a newspaper in another town reproducing their information. In the end, actually, this is how news spread for a long time, through the post, and even later, through the telegraph was that information, not everybody can gather information from everywhere, so early forms of cooperation were basically exchanging news among publishers. And so that what happens is that over time, based on the introduction of new technologies, but also new practices, new ways of publishing, new things like press agencies, or the invention of evening papers which now compete with daily papers, the invention of weekly papers, which compete with, and so on. So these boundaries, the time-space relationship among publishers is constantly being reformulated. And it’s this larger kind of political economy of news that determines the extent to which copying might seem good or bad. In some cases, copying can seem very useful and can be justified as a way of spreading news and commentary. And in other cases, depending on the relationships among publishers, copying could seem like a threat.
[Ada Palmer] If early on, a New York paper actually actively wants its news to be republished by a Houston area paper, and there’s no subscription overlap between those two papers because they’re both consumed locally, then both of those papers have a vested interest in making sure news isn’t copyrighted. So that that reproduced news can happen and so that that cooperation can happen, which is very contrary to the interests of a book publisher, for example, who actively wants it to be limited.
[Adrian Johns] I think, from reading Will’s work, I think that one could put it actually stronger than that, if I remember right. That back in the days immediately after the Revolution, when a copyright act is passed, that’s only one half of, as it were, a new informational contract in the nascent United States. And the other half is the setting up of the post office.
[Ada Palmer] Yeah.
[Adrian Johns] And one of the clauses, if I remember right, from the post office is that it’s set up partly to facilitate exactly this. You build up a democratic republic by circulating information, by making it essentially free for newspapers to send copies to other newspapers so that they can copy it and the news can become a kind of shared resource on the basis of which a rational, sort of public democracy will emerge. I think that–
[Will Slauter] That’s absolutely right. I would pair the 1790 Copyright Act, which was the first U.S. statute of copyright, it was 1790. It explicitly protected books, charts, and maps. And the 1792 law setting up the post office, I would see those together. It wouldn’t have made any sense to anybody at the time to put a copyright on newspapers, for example. The kind of subsidy that made sense to them to ensure that information would spread were postal regulations that charged an extremely low rate for newspapers, making sure that they could spread to subscribers very easily. And then, as Adrian said, actually making it entirely free for newspaper publishers to exchange their newspapers with each other. Why would they exchange their newspapers with each other? Well, to get the local news from other areas. And not just news. I mean, other things that appear in newspapers, like literary pieces, like lists of information and prices of commodities, like poems, and other things, so this was definitely treating news as a shared resource in this period, and one that could be repackaged locally and framed locally for a local audience. And the postal policy was clearly subsidizing that.
[Adrian Johns] So it’s as though, you know, one often talks about intellectual property and copyright as forms of artificial scarcity. They create value by artificially creating scarcity of things. It’s almost like if at that foundational moment, you have artificial scarcity, but you also have artificial plenty, in a certain way.
[Will Slauter] Mm.
[Adrian Johns] The system is set up to override, as it were, what might be thought of as natural scarcity in the sense that these are quite large geographical distances that newspapers could be sent across. If you artificially make that free, then it really is a, it is, it’s a big deal.
[Will Slauter] I mean, they explicitly talked about the fact that this was an experiment. Having a democratically elected republic in an expanding geographic area, they really talked about, well, how do you get information across these vast distances. How do you make sure that people who are voting for a state legislature or national governments have the kind of information that they need. So postal policy and the way the post and the newspapers worked together was part of that.
[Cory Doctorow] I’d be interested in hearing some views on the extent to which the power of newspaper proprietors paid into that debate as well. One thing that we’re seeing in the EU where there’s still a fair bit of power accruing to those proprietors, especially in Germany where these very powerful newspaper families, is that copyright policy is being made often in defiance of any kind of good sense, but to the benefit of those proprietors. Specifically, there’s this new Article 11 rule that’s part of the new copyright directive that says that linking to the news will require a paid commercial license if you use one word or more from the article in the text of the link, which would often include, you know, just the link itself will often have more than one word from the article in it. And the way that it’s structured appears to also prohibit newspaper proprietors from waiving this right so that if you have a creative commons news site or what have you, you’re required to do this. And this seems pretty obviously structured to the benefit of a narrow subset of news proprietors and specifically to, like, half a dozen very powerful German families who are dictating policy for 480 million Europeans to tilt the board in their favor and transfer a few million euros from Facebook and Google to themselves.
[Will Slauter] Yeah, well, sadly, a lot of the French publishers are in favor of it too, and I’m not sure that they all understand exactly what will happen because the information ecosystem is very complex. And despite the fact that this EU Article 11 proposal has been there for over two years, we still don’t have a single study that says it’s actually gonna generate a significant revenue. In fact, everything suggests otherwise. But there’s a kind of, the rhetoric is all about protecting the press and about giving a fair share of the revenue, the advertising revenue that’s captured by Google and Facebook and so on, giving some kind of way of returning some of that value to the news organizations that are so vital. But to return to Cory, to return to your question, in the early period, the publishers did argue back and forth about the best policy for the post and later for copyright. And the big publishers in New York, for example, wanted a different kind of postal policy that would be, for example, a universal rate, that would be, would cost the same amount to send a New York newspaper, regardless of the distance. Smaller publishers in smaller towns and so on said, well, this is no good. You have to have graduated postage, because if you have… Otherwise, if you have an extremely low rate, then publishers emanating from New York, and Philadelphia, and Boston are gonna control the entire news industry in the country. So every time postal policy came up, these kinds of questions of what would be the effects on democracy, what would be the effects on access to local information, what would be the effects on which publishers would get the most readership and so on. This was often come up, and I think sadly, with the EU Copyright Directive, we’re not getting enough discussion about that. About how it’s gonna affect the whole information ecosystem, how it’s gonna affect smaller publishers, smaller platforms, and so on.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] I was thinking about taking the story in a slightly different way and moving it into our current set of dilemmas. One of the things that we could track over the similar period of time is that for the last few centuries, we’ve seen the price of production and distribution of printed material, and thus let’s talk about news, fall at the same time, we’ve seen over the last few centuries, at least in Europe and North America, and then soon after in most of the world, the sort of ideological and commercial demand for knowledge and culture go up. So you have the price of production and distribution of material going down, the demand for material going up. These are two obviously interrelated phenomenon. One doesn’t necessarily cause the other in some simplistic way. It’s not the technology that drives literacy, it’s not literacy that drives technology. We are all embedded. Our demands are embedded in our machines, and our machines are embedded in our demands, et cetera, right? That’s a long story. But the story also takes place at different paces. So at first, the story of the drop in prices of production and distribution and the increase in demand for stuff happens slowly. So you can watch it over two or three centuries steadily getting there, and then about the mid-19th century and well through the end of the 20th century, this acceleration gets bigger. So everything gets faster. The price is dropping faster, the distance that content can travel gets farther, and the demand for this stuff gets more intense, and it gets more interesting, more complex. So that’s a long story, so you get that picture in your head, then think about that last decade of the 20th century, and you could even trace it from 1995 to 2005. In a really short period of time, much of the world goes from a condition or an assumption of scarcity. Scarcity of expression, scarcity of knowledge, to one of abundance, and abundance doesn’t even quite capture the situation now. This idea that all of a sudden, we are overwhelmed with a torrent of sounds, and images, and text, demands on our attention. We are asked, in fact, tempted to put more and more interface devices and systems in front of our eyes for more and more time of the day. Each of these devices has more, a bigger variety of influences. So again, imagine this is our condition. So these two trends are happening slowly for several centuries. For about a century and a half, it really speeds up. And then in a 10-year period, everything flips. We, not long ago, lived in a quiet and dark world. Human beings fumbled around in the dark and didn’t make a whole lot of noise, or the noise we made didn’t travel very far. Now we live in a loud and bright world, and one that we haven’t quite adjusted our ears, and our eyes, and our minds to, let alone adjusted our laws, and norms, and rhetorical practices. So one of the things I think about a lot when I think about the control of news, or censorship of news, or even issues like copyright is that the norms, and laws, and rhetorical support for what we generally call free speech or free press, they’re still anchored in the assumptions of that quiet world, or of the quiet world that is about to become faster, louder, and brighter. At least there’s some indication. We invoke this term, the enlightenment, right? The enlightenment is about bringing light. So we’ve been desperately trying to hook up lights into our lives for several centuries. We’ve had massive industries devoted to this practice, to this goal. We’ve put children through these institutions we call schools to push the idea of enlightenment, and it all makes sense and it all made sense. But we still view what we just went through in the same terms that John Stuart Mill wrote about. Where he’s writing in a world of printed and bound books that only a handful of people on earth can encounter. And he’s not necessarily thinking, and none of the people who thought about these issues in the 18th and 19th centuries could even start to imagine our information ecosystem, our media ecosystem, which is so radically different in just a short period of time. So what I’ve just outlined for you is something that I have been messing around with in my head just for the last few months. I spent a couple years writing about Google, and then I spent the last two years or so writing and talking about Facebook. As I said, that’s on the tail end of thinking about a lot of the same issues about how copyright changed over several centuries in much of the world. And the rapid acceleration of that flip that happened between 1995 and 2005 in various parts of the world still just boggles my mind. I’m pretty sure I’ve not gotten a hold of it. But the real key to me now is that we are as far from living in a quiet and dark world as we could possibly imagine, and we have a different problem. The problem is not necessarily that people can’t find ways to express themselves, can’t find platforms, can’t find audiences, or can’t find a means. That was a problem to be solved for several centuries. We have a new problem, and it is a function of cacophony. This is a flip side problem. Right now, the problem we should be trying to manage is the fact that we have too much noise and too much light, and we find it almost impossible to think, individually or collectively, in these circumstances. It doesn’t mean we can’t figure it out. But if we’re gonna figure it out, I’m pretty sure we can’t rely on the modes of thought that helped make the world brighter and louder. I think we might have to develop new ways of thinking through this problem. I think it’s a problem we never really anticipated having.
[Ada Palmer] So you’re making me very much newly regret that Ann Blair couldn’t join us for this series.
[Adrian Johns and Will Slauter] Ah.
[Ada Palmer] Ann Blair, who works on the feeling of having too much information in the late 16th century, and I think we’ll talk about that in a second, but there was a student question in the corner. Yes, that is exactly how people felt in the Industrial Revolution, that suddenly there was a cacophony. More, many, many more papers were being produced. It’s also how people feel in the second half of the 16th century when, as in Blair works on, for the first time, they feel there is too much to know. There, the perception is more books are now being produced than you can read. You can’t read all the books anymore.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Immanuel, yeah–
[Ada Palmer] Up until now, the system has been,
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Right.
[Ada Palmer] to be a learned person, you read every book that comes out because there’s not all that many.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] I mean, Immanuel Kant had the same anxieties. It’s one thing to feel it, and I think everybody in every age feels it. Once the acceleration starts, it’s a phenomenon that’s impossible to ignore because whatever day you’re thinking and writing about the situation is brighter and louder than the day before. So the very fact that we had that feeling only indicates the fact that there was a curve of loudness and brightness. I think we can empirically show that it did in fact happen. It goes beyond a feeling. The feeling is constant because the motion is constant, the growth is constant. But the fact of the matter is we live in a very different ecosystem now than we did even 20 years ago. And it has complicated our ability to think collectively, if we were ever were any good at that, which is another challenge. I don’t wanna be so ahistorical as to think that we had mastered that project of thinking together.
[Will Slauter] You know, I just wanted to say that, I mean, it’s nice to meet you virtually, Siva. I’ve been a fan of your work for a while and one of the things that reading your book, Antisocial Media, made me think about is that you could see Google and Facebook as tools that society relies on to try to manage all this information. And if you think about the parallels with the Renaissance and earlier periods where they had similar anxiety even though the scale was arguably very different. You think about the tools that they developed that Ann Blair talked about, title pages, indexes, compilations, library catalogs, all sorts of tools that were developed in the first ages of print to try to manage the information. In the 18th century, there were similar anxieties, but there were new forms of publication that were developed, like magazines and digests, and ways of trying to kind of manually aggregate and manually deal with all this stuff.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] That’s right.
[Will Slauter] And if you think about Google and Facebook as one way of trying to sort of manage the flux of information, and then you read Siva’s work and you realize, well, but it’s not a very good way of managing it. Or it creates all sorts of perverse effects. We’ve gotta have some other way of dealing with all this abundance than simply living in filter bubbles.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Absolutely, you should’ve written my book, thank you, I think you summed it up perfectly. We’ve bought into, or attentioned ourself into, I don’t know, attended ourself into these two systems that filter our attention and structure our stimuli, not exclusively, but significantly. And in Google’s case, I would argue almost necessarily. Once we decided to have this thing called the World Wide Web as a major part of our lives, we needed a Google to help us manage it, and the question for me back in 2011 is, is Google the right kind of agent to do this management? My conclusion was we should’ve built alternatives, just as librarians harnessed the cacophony of the print era rather effectively, we needed some sort of public human knowledge project to manage the growing cacophony of the digital era in a global sense, and that was an opportunity we were missing out on by relying on this private actor to make decisions in its own interest while it pretended to make decisions in our interest. So that was kinda my conclusion in that book, but at this point, I’m much more worried about the fact that we have a system of algorithmic amplification that chooses for us the material that sparks the strongest possible emotions among us. That has a very different effect than a simple Google search problem.
[Cory Doctorow] I wanted to relate this to a critical juncture in Google’s history. When Google started, they referred to search algorithms as though they were discovering mathematical truth about relevance, so people would go up to Google engineers and business development people and say, why isn’t my webpage about cats on the first page of the Google results for a search for cats. And Google would say, because it’s not a good enough page. If you want your page to show up on the first 10 results, make it a better page about cats. Because we’ve written math that figures out what the best cat pages are. It was really socially useful for them because it spared them a lot of genuinely awkward cocktail party conversations where you would have to explain to someone that you didn’t like them. And that’s why their page wasn’t in the top 10 results. That you just thought that they were doing things badly. And you would instead say, the math doesn’t lie. And then what happened was that governments woke up one day and started to say, if this is math, it’s not speech. That the top 10 results, if they have extremist content, copyright infringement, pornography, or any other class of speech that we believe we have an interest in regulating, we can do so without implicating free speech interests. Because it’s as though you had rolled a dice that was weighted to decided where the result would fall. You didn’t make an editorial choice to do this. And it’d have been really obvious to anyone who paid attention prior to that moment, that although the programmer might not decide, oh, this page goes first, this page goes second, the programmer, when they write an algorithm that ranks this page first, and this page second, and this page third, is making an aesthetic editorial judgment. The programmer looks at the results and goes, that looks right to me. And so this is an aesthetic editorial choice that has this strong speech interest. Google itself deliberately undertook a project to change it. They got Eugene Volokh, who’s a First Amendment scholar, to write essays, law review papers, about how this is not math, it’s a subjective speech-interested judgment, and therefore, governments should stop telling Google how to order their search results. That this was like a tactical thing they deployed as an anti-regulatory measure.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] In case people are interested, there’s a scholar at Harvard, Alex Csiszar, which is spelt C-S-I-S-Z-A-R, who’s been working on the history of things like peer review systems in the sciences. He’s found evidence at least concerned counter-strategies by journal editors, going back through probably the 1960s. Because they were worried that institutions, scientific research institutions, scientific researchers, would, as it were, game the system about citation indices in a similar way to that’s now happening to Google. So citation indices start out and quite quickly, in fact, it turns out that if you ever had a vision of them as being, as it were, an objective measure of scientific influence on policy, that’s qualified, and undermined, and shifted by forces that realize how they work. And they’re able to sort of manipulate them and get a higher citation index than they ever otherwise would have.
[Ada Palmer] I’m very interested in two overlapping issues that Siva’s comments touched on here. One is the reality of being in a period of exponential growth of information. Being in a period of the exponential increase in how quickly information moves and how much of it we have access to. I would say that that begins at the point of print, or possibly a couple decades before print when there was a big push in increasing the pace at which manuscripts were being produced in Europe, and that from then till now, every decade you are having an exponential increase in the speed in which information moves. And it’s continuing to increase, and the increase is, as he said, is getting faster. I sometimes like to refer to the era from the printing press through now as the exponential age. Defined in part by the fact that information is moving exponentially faster so that not only each generation, but each person living as a generation experiences the movement of information being consciously faster in the second half of your life than in the first. But the reality of living in an exponential age is not identical with the consciousness of feeling that you’re living in an exponential age. The fact that information is moving in new ways being something that you’re aware of, and that you think about a lot. So for example, I can certainly remember when I was younger coming home from school and my parents would watch the news on television, and there was only one the news because we only got one channel. And later, we had three channels, and then my parents would discuss which of the three versions of the news to watch on television. And to me, that was a change. But I didn’t think very consciously about the fact that that’s a significant and world-shifting change. But I think right now, even middle schoolers coming home from school are very conscious of the fact that social media is changing information, that search engines are changing information. This is the saturate conversation and a self-identity issue about how we feel about our own era. One of its defining characteristics is that it is in a state of exponential informational growth. Which is not only represented by the fact that this middle schooler has already seen the news through Twitter and Facebook and social media, through the intercessions between classes even while at school because news is inescapable. But also just because there are conversations about that very fact very ubiquitously. And there have been, I think, no period since the printing press that haven’t seen exponential increase in the speed with which information moved, partly because the printing press itself took time to disseminate, and it itself disseminates exponentially. At first, Gutenberg has a press, and he has one press, and then he teaches some people to make presses and they have four presses, and they teach people to make presses, and they have eight presses. And it’s like the puzzle where you have a penny on the first square of a chessboard, and then you have two, and then you have four, and then you have eight. And by the time you get to the far end of the chessboard, you have trillions of dollars. But by the time you’re a third of the way across the chessboard, there have been a bunch of exponential increases, but it isn’t at saturation yet. You can look at the dissemination of the printing press in that exponential space. It’s invented in 1450, but it increases in increasing degrees of saturation steadily over the next several hundred years, each of which trigger major revolutions. So for example, it’s around 1700, the dawn of the Enlightenment, when there are finally enough printing presses and a large enough buying public of books that authors, for the first time, start seriously living on book sales instead of living on dedicating the book to the duke of such and such and getting a bag of gold being the primary business model for being an author. You see lots of changes in what gets written and how it gets published triggered largely by there being one order of magnitude more printing presses than there had been a half-generation earlier. Even though no new specific technology was developed, but new ways to aggregate, new ways to share information, new ways to digest the news from daily into weekly into monthly saturate. All of these thing increased and shifted how much information was there. But so all of these decades, all of these generations experienced this exponential growth, but there were particular moments that you saw people talk about it more. The late 16th century, people are really talking about it. The very late 15th century, when printing is brand new, people are really talking about it. Now we’re really talking about it. It was certainly happening when I was younger, but we weren’t talking about it quite at the same level and I think that that distinction, is it exponential and are you conscious of the fact that it’s exponential is an important factor.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] What do you think the factors are that bring the phenomenon to public consciousness? If that’s even a 16th century idea, public conscious, but let’s just say something people talk, and write, and feel about. What are the conditions? Why does it happen at some moments and not others?
[Ada Palmer] Good question. Adrian, do you wanna?
[Adrian Johns] Well, there’s no one–
[Ada Palmer] Or you could disagree and say you think that it doesn’t not happen in some…
[Adrian Johns] I guess, I… I mean, the obvious one is just advents of technological changes. We could go through the invention of printing, the development of steam presses in the early to mid-19th century, radio broadcasting, TV broadcasting in the 20th century, internet, now these–
[Ada Palmer] Telegraph.
[Adrian Johns] Telegraph in the 19th century. These things both actually do increase the speed with which you can transfer at least small bits of information back and forth in the case of the telegraph. And they focus people’s minds. The other thing that they do, I think, just a, this is another bell that was ringing in my mind is that they also repeatedly have had this weird effect of focusing attention inwards on almost something like subjectivity or psychology because with each one, there’s a rich set of, I hesitate to call them metaphors ’cause I don’t like the term, metaphor, I think it’s too sort of weak, but they’re metaphors, figurations where one decides that the very practice of thinking itself is like a telegraph. In the 19th century, there’s a very rich literature of people saying that thinking is, the nervous system, the human body, is basically an internal telegraphy system. The same thing happens with telephony in the late 19th century. In the mid-20th century, it’s decided that memory is basically like a tape recorder, then it becomes like a video recorder. And there’s a moment when if you have startling memories, those are called flashbulb memories because they’re what happens when you set off a flash, like a Polaroid.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Right, now it’s an Instagram Story. My memory is an Instagram Story.
[Adrian Johns] So there’s something where, I think one of the, I guess one of the things, the reason why I say this is I think that if one focuses attention on the story of exponential increase, there’s a kind of risk that one tacitly assumes that, as it were, the human subject remains the same through this and that’s like the common calibration point. The act of reading, say, is the common calibration point. And I don’t think it’s quite clear that that’s so because at each juncture, these exponential increases have led people, in some ways, to reconceive what the very act of confronting, and appropriating, and taking in information is. What it is to read, or view, or listen. Arguably actually itself changes. Because we think that what it is is different because we live in a differently saturated media world.
[Ada Palmer] Will?
[Will Slauter] Yeah, I just wanted to say, I mean, certainly moments of very visible technological change bring out a lot of this discussion. But you can also take periods like the 18th century where there was no technological improvement in the way printing worked or anything like that, but there were massive changes in the number and kinds of publications that were produced. And so in the 18th century, you find a lot of discussions of a mania or a kind of obsession with reading, and you find anxieties about the kinds of reading that people are doing. There’s a German scholar named Rolf Engelsing who’s talked about the reading revolution in the 18th century. And he said that there was a general shift from intensive reading of one or a few texts, and usually these were the Bible and prayer books, to extensive reading of a very wide range of material. Scholars have since called into question this and said, well, actually, the same reader can read the Bible or a novel very intensively and then read the newspaper and pamphlets in a much more of a skimming way. And clearly, any individual reader could have multiple strategies. But the very fact that there’s this discussion and this anxiety about the proliferation of texts and the kind of lack of control over it is, in that case, not a technological change at all, but simply the invention of new forms of publication and the proliferation of all sorts of periodicals that get a kind of ephemeral, have a kind of ephemerality attached to them and people sort of worry about that there’s sort of too much to manage, but also that there’s just kind of something frivolous and not serious about it, and it creates faction, it creates controversy between religious or political parties that are playing out in these periodicals and so on. So sometimes it’s not technology, and it’s actually the larger economy of media at the time.
[Ada Palmer] Or if it is a technology, it isn’t a technology like printing press or telegraph, it’s a technology like footnote, like index, like compilation, like magazine compiling the week’s reviews that… A technological innovation of how to organize and how to think about information, which then changes what reading means and how reading is viewed in the culture. I remember one point sitting with a couple of other press historians and thinking, we can date Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to probably within a decade of the year 1600 because the poor provincial town has a bookshop, but nobody in the town thinks of it as a political act for Belle to be reading. So it has to have enough printing presses for a small town to have a bookshop but Voltaire’s letters on England haven’t come out yet. And that’s a pretty tight window. Now, this is, of course, an imaginary space, but thinking about the fact that the act of reading might mean a different thing in a different decade from what it meant earlier.
[Cory Doctorow] So I wanna propose a way to square the circle, maybe, which is that the quote-unquote normal order of an exponentially growing communications technology is that at its inception, you can consume all of it. So when the first bulletin board systems appear, you dial your local bulletin board system and you read every message everyone in your city with a computer and a modem wants to transmit. And then as the growth occurs, you have to shift from a deterministic exhaustive model to a selective model where you choose a few forums or bulletin board systems you’re going to dial into, and then exponential growth outstrips that and you have to move to a probabilistic model where you just skim all of it. You dip into it like it was a river. And you count on signal amplification of significant things for people to retweet, or retumble, or repost, or argue about the things that are important enough so that wherever you dip into the river, you are statistically likely to find the important news of the moment. And that model is very uncomfortable at each of these phase transitions, but comfortable once you’ve accomplished them. And if there’s not enough refractory time between those that each of those comfort moments and the emergence of a new technology, there’s just never any moment in which you feel comfortable. So it’s not that people of antiquity were not struggling with information overload because everybody had made up an epic poem and wanted them to listen to it. It was that there was enough time between the manias that you could normalize them, and we can’t normalize them anymore.
[Adrian Johns] There’s a, there was a question there. There’s an interesting linguistic practical indicator of this to some extent that, so in the early years of printing, there was an aspiration to create a universal library. French historian Roger Chartier has pointed to this. There’s an aspiration to create a universal library, which in the first thoughts of it, would be an actual building which would hold all the books. And that dream doesn’t quite go away. It’s there in Borges later and so forth. But quite quickly it becomes clear that you couldn’t actually build a building that’s gonna create all the books ’cause there are more books being produced so fast that you’d have to expand it and it would fill the whole planet. Though then the universal library becomes a book, so it’s a bibliography produced, actually, by Gessner, who was a zoologist in Switzerland. And it attempts to just list all of the books. You could look it up in the list and then you could go off and find the book. That, after about two supplements, it becomes clear that the universal library can’t be a book, and what it then becomes is a periodical, a journal. So it becomes essentially one of the first review journals, Bibliotheque Universelle, and it goes on, so the idea is that the universal library is intrinsically open-ended. Then it kinda dissolves completely in the 18th century and you start getting these things almost like libraries of libraries. But that’s an interesting transition, from building, to book, to periodical.
[Ada Palmer] So the question is how the Cold War, with two factions strongly trying to restrict information and it keep it out of the hands of the other affected the public consciousness of the simultaneously exponentially increasing amount of information.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Wow, that’s a really good question. I think it’s the sort of question that could generate a nice PhD thesis, in fact. Because it tracks along with a really interesting set of debates in the 1960s and ’70s about the sincerity of the virtues of the free flow of information, the notion of whether the free flow of information is in fact a mask for northern and western imperialistic media companies, the Disneys of the world, the Dow Jones of the world, and whether in fact the free flow of information would overwhelm the developing world with a set of images that are irresistible to the public and thus would crowd out any sort of indigenous knowledge or local concerns, or local literature, or local film. Media policy in the 1970s across most of the world reflects these anxieties. So there’s a sense in the parts of the world that are not under Soviet control and yet not signed up to the explicit mission of the United States. By the way, that would include France and Canada. There developed a set of resistive policies to the principle of free flow, a radical free flow so that every Canadian radio station would play X number of Canadian artists per hour so that it would not all be American and British artists on pop music in Canada. And in France, there would be X number of films in any city at any given time, X number of screens in any city at any time, playing French and/or European-funded films so that Disney and Woody Allen would not overwhelm every screen through the power, the commercial power of the producers. Not to mention that sort of cultural attractiveness in some ways, of the sort of made-for-the-world films. So it’s a really fascinating set of debates that goes on in the Cold War about this concept of free flow. And the real concern that U.S. imperialism will come dressed as Mickey Mouse rather than as MacArthur or Patton. That theme, that sense of concern remains a bit vestigial after 1995, after the notion that digital networks might actually change the whole formula. Because the assumption about the digitization of cultural production is that it will open up more voices and more channels, and there might be something closer to a level playing field. Of course, we found that not to be true in the least. We found a very weird playing field than what we had before, a completely different playing field. But I think that that’s, I mean, that’s a fascinating question. The role of the Soviet Union in these debates is something that’s almost a little bit too simple, I think, in my own my mind, and deserves deeper examination than anything I’m prepared to talk about at this point.
[Ada Palmer] I think on that another factor is that the… The amount of censorship and control of information and oppression that was going on in the U.S.S.R. was vast and historically unprecedented and enormous. But that also allows the opponents of that system to propagandistically self-identify as the free world. And as the world where there must be free information flowing and where there isn’t restriction. Which builds up a lot of America’s own self-identity as the country without censorship, which is in no way true, and was in no way true then, but is nonetheless sort of how America gets us to imagine it in its own self-presentation, I think, to a degree that is greater during and after the Cold War, even than before in terms of how much America felt that its freedom of speech was a part of its signature identity and something that it wanted to spread with the rest of the world by making the world free through the dissemination of information. That leads me, and I know we had another question in a moment, but I’d love to hear others weigh in on the question of geography of it more directly. Because we have, at several different points in this, touched on how the way movement of information, and especially in particular the movement of news, but also this cultural stuff, is affected by local communities and then gradually the isolation of the local becoming less and less over time. So that if early on, it was a great boon to all of these newspapers to be able to let other newspapers freely copy their news in another city so that they can do the same, because there was no competition in their market ’cause they’re all selling primarily locally. That’s certainly not true of news right now where news is consumed on a vast national or, in many ways, language block format, where something that’s put out in English language news is gonna be consumed and consumable in most of the English language-speaking world. Same for the French material in the francophone world, same for Portuguese material in the Portuguese-speaking world, making us have geography change its meaning. So the geography still matters because what laws affect you, what government changes affect you, what language you’re speaking, what local artists you are trying to communicate with are still strongly affected by geography, and we still have policies like what Siva was talking about in the Cold War where Italy legislates that only X percentage of movie theaters may screen English language films. Other movie theaters, the vast majority of movie theaters, must screen films in Italian. They may be foreign films, but they must be dubbed into Italian to preserve the Italian language. We see this kind of geographically-based concern. But newspapers today cannot function the way the newspapers that Will was looking at functioned because their market is so different. Or perhaps they can a little bit. So could we hear a little more about geography? Thoughts on geography?
[Will Slauter] Well, I think there’s another missing piece here, which I will come back to geography, but it’s related to that, and that’s how you fund this production of news. Historically, advertising was so important in the funding of the newspaper. Whether it was the local newspaper, or a more regionally distributed newspaper, or a more nationally distributed newspaper, advertising became increasingly important. You can see it already in the 18th century that it was the majority of profits of newspapers and by, I think, it peaked around 2000 at 80% of the revenue of United States newspapers was advertising. And since 2000, it has plummeted. And you can actually, it actually started declining in around 1980 or so, the total amount of advertising money. But what happened then is that not only can you access news from any point in the world based on your linguistic skills, but the whole local advertising market drops out so that now you have to look for how to fund this news. It started with early things like Craigslist, which made it possible for you to find a house to rent, or a bike to buy, or whatever, by going online. That immediately affected newspaper’s ability to run the classified ads. It used to be that’s where you’d go to look for a job, or a bicycle, or whatever would be in the newspaper. And then the general buying cars, and watches, and all of that too, so the shift of advertising online and the way in which the local newspaper has been unable to control that revenue stream is just absolutely massive, and it explains why things like struggling to have some kind of new intellectual property for news or have any other way to increase funding is on the minds of publishers.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Yeah, and I would say that that is a problem that changing copyright does not solve, right? Changing copyright might shift, I think we’ve gone through this a bit. Might shift the visibility of articles in certain frames marginally, but it doesn’t move the money in the way that actually regulating the advertising industry might. Or regulating the, as Europe has been, and I think in some successful experiments, regulating the ways in which data is collected, data are collected and used for the placement and targeting of advertisements. It’s the data that makes Facebook and Google better at doing advertising than any media form ever created by anybody, anywhere, it’s the data collection that makes Facebook and Google superior to and less expensive than purchasing an ad through the Wall Street Journal, purchasing an ad through The Guardian, purchasing an add through Le Monde. Those things are not as effective, from an advertiser’s point of view, than purchasing a, betting on a keyword on Google search or purchasing a set of interests as a targeted audience on Facebook. This has resulted in a massive flow of advertising money away from all of the different forms of content that have long depended on advertising, magazines, newspapers, television, or radio, to these two companies, Facebook and Google. And at the same time, in order to demand, in order to summon the audience that one needs to even survive, a publisher must pander to the algorithmic demands of Facebook and Google. So there’s a constant anxiety. Are we reading Facebook and Google properly so that our content shows up in front of people’s eyes at the right moments, and therefore what must we do to make ourselves more attractive to Facebook and Google’s algorithms. At the same time, Facebook and Google are taking away all the advertising they would’ve earned anyway, so it’s like these publications are constantly making design and editorial decisions to feed the very beasts that are starving them. And it’s a really vicious cycle, one that no one has yet come up with a bold enough response to. I think it’s a pretty serious emergency, and all we have seen so far are some fairly weak and marginal responses, like this copyright change in Europe, which is, at best, useless, at most, harmful.
[Will Slauter] Yeah, I would agree with that, and I think it’s, I mean, one way to look at the Article 11 and Article 13, is to see the way the rhetoric is all crystallized around a kind of, a fear of a kind of American control of media. So much of it is reminding me of your question. So much of it is about we’ve got these big American technology firms that increasingly shape the information, and the content, and how we experience it, and we need to find some way. Europe is now trying with, has tried with privacy, and now they’re gonna try another way with copyright. The real thing that’s the elephant in the room is fiscal policy, it’s actually taxing their corporate profits, which might be a way of then redistributing that as a subsidy for artistic creation in Europe. But fiscal policy is hard to debate. It’s hard to deal with on the European-wide level ’cause each state is sovereign and so on. But clearly, it’s something about this advertising revenue that needs to be the focus of figuring out how you could potentially harness some of that to redistribute, but copyright, I agree. It’s not gonna do it.
[Cory Doctorow] Yeah, I wanna jump in with a few notes on newspaper history and then the post-war era in which different countries had anxiety about particularly American media crushing them. So Clay Shirky has written a bit about the so-called golden age of the newspaper after the partisan era when you had this idea of non-partisan local news. And he says that it was a function of this patrician newspaper proprietor who would own the local paper and feel some civic duty. The paper’s customers were primarily people who wanted to find out about sports scores, and the paper’s advertisers were primarily people who wanted to sell white goods. And the news was a kind of a, it was like a civic duty that was peeled off from the profits of selling white goods to sports fans in order to send someone down to city hall. This was the quid pro quo of being a great family in the town and publishing the town’s newspaper. That’s really kind of what’s broken, and when you think about it, it’s actually a fairly recondite and weird way for us to have run this essential democratic institution, and it’s kind of strange that it lasted as long as it did. Now, in Canada, there has been, as you heard, this Canadian content rule, and not just for TV, but for magazines and so on. This was, in fact, a very sharply debated rule in the most recent renegotiation of NAFTA that just concluded a few weeks ago. And one of the things that Canadian publishers have historically been really worried about is what was called the split run, which was when magazine like Sports Illustrated would pay reporters in America to generate news and they would recoup the costs of all of that reportage in America and then they would come to Canada and they would reprint the magazine, but they would approach Canadian advertisers and offer them rates that reflected the fact that they’d already paid for all of the variable costs associated with the production except the printing. All the reporting had already been paid for, and so they could undersell Canadian competitors. And this split run where the advertising was separated from the reportage was at the heart of multiple rounds of trade negotiations, including the first NAFTA and the current NAFTA between the U.S. and Canada because it is such a powerful thing in advertising-driven media to separate the production of the content from the targeting of the advertising.
[Ada Palmer] Fascinating.
[Adrian Johns] Those are good, so about geography, there’s a couple of other things that I’d raise. This is completely different from the issue about advertising. One is that… I don’t know this, in fact, Will will know this. My sense is that if you think back sort of 50 years, at least in the U.K., to a more heroic age of newspaper journalism, major British newspapers like The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, had correspondents who were placed in other parts of the world, and they lived there for long periods. And so the reporting that you got back was sort of informed by awareness of the local culture. The Telegraph still does that, and The Guardian still does it to some extent. The Times I don’t know because it’s behind a paywall, so I haven’t looked at it for, like, a decade. But often I think that that culture of sort of rather Edwardian world of correspondents has dissolved. And in place of it, what we have is something that is portrayed as being like crowdsourcing. So when events happen, what you get is either that the, or actually, both, that the newspaper flies somebody in and they land, they parachute into somewhere, they report on, as it were, the surface developments. And then they’re airlifted out again and they go back to London or New York. And that’s supplemented by essentially a request that local citizens send stuff in by Twitter, or cell phones, or whatever. It’s explicit on the BBC News website where if something happens like an earthquake, at the foot of the report, there will be a thing, are you there, can you please send us a paragraph. I think there are very complicated things to do with ethics and credibility, responsibility for stories being accurate or not that come with that shift. Honestly, I don’t know to what degree it’s real. My subjective experience is that it feels real to me, that something like that has gone on. And it’s very much a geographical thing. The Telegraph or something will certainly have its reporters in Westminster, but it won’t necessarily have reporters now in New Delhi, or Port Moresby, or somewhere. The other thing is that since this is partly about censorship, it’s worthy remembering that if the information networks are transnational, they’re still geographical, but they’re not bounded by national boundaries. Policing is jurisdictional, typically, so the police may have enormous powers within one jurisdiction, but they then hit a big problem if, say, that the pirate TV signal is routed through some other jurisdictional place, different country or something, and it’s actually hit a different level. A few years back, I found myself talking to a police person from Hong Kong who’d been engaged with policing pirate TV, which is why that example comes to mind. And he made the point that it’s no longer the case even that the digital files that they’re trying to police are definitively in some other country. They’re in no country, they’re sort of split up in different sectors that are in different jurisdictions completely. So there’s no, it’s not like he can go to the, his corresponding person in the Philippines, say, and say, can you go and raid this plant, because there is no such place. You find yourself having to deal with something that is simply incommensurable with the world of jurisdictional policing.
[Ada Palmer] Will, did you wanna…
[Will Slauter] Sure, I mean, absolutely, the foreign reporting is one of the first things to go. It’s extremely expensive and in the reduction of staffs of even these successful newspapers, that is certainly one of the things that we’re seeing less, sustained use of foreign correspondents, people who are there on the ground. Some of the big papers can still afford it, and it’s a prestige thing, and they keep it, but it certainly was something that, in the older model, that is kind of a strange model, but was a model in which the sports scores and people’s interest in sports paid for the foreign reporting. On the border thing, I mean, there’s just even everyday banal examples of that. In France, for example, you’re not allowed to, journalists are not allowed to report estimates of exit polls during elections, and even the broadcasters have to wait until precisely 8:00 p.m. to announce any kind of estimate of the day’s vote. But if you’re a journalist based in Belgium or in London, and you have people on the ground, so you get, it’s almost a kind of pirate radio thing where people are tuning in to other sources on other sides of borders, but in the same language, and able to sort of, so, yeah, the state can’t police that as easily as they might like to.
[Ada Palmer] So there were two separate questions. I’m gonna repeat them, and then we’re gonna have our break because it is break time, and I believe the coffee is outside, and then we can talk about them afterward. The second was a question about the difference between elite news consumption and non-elite news consumption, which is certainly something I work on a lot in the Renaissance where we think of printed materials as being only for elites. And so the consumption of literature by illiterate audiences is a really fascinating field in which news is a central factor. So elite versus non-elite news consumption. And then other ways of dividing up news into different categories, and the three proposed categories, though we can play around with others, were news that is sustained by generating advertising revenue and that is written in order to appeal to the people who will make advertising revenue cost-effective, versus news that is produced and marketed in order to advance a particular agenda. So that the particular paper, let’s say a communist youth organization paper may be much more concerned about spreading its message than it is about advertising revenue and may be getting all of its revenue from people donating to a cause. That is another revenue stream. And then the third being subscription revenue streams for people who are willing to pay for a particular thing, which, in particular, sustains specialist publications such as, the example given was trade journals. I would use the example of Locus Magazine, the trade journal of the science fiction world. Where if you desperately want to have tedious black and white pages which meticulously list exactly what has been licensed by every science fiction and fantasy publisher in that month even though they won’t be out for three years, you pay money for this magazine. But very few people in this room will pay money for this magazine, but nonetheless, it’s a sustainable model because of the subscription system. So subscription versus advertising versus support through the cause itself for something that supports a cause. So let’s talk about that, and also elite and non-elite news consumption and other things when we come back after our break. Thank you. All right, welcome back, all. We have several speakers who are going to be filtering out at different points over the course of the next hour as we wrap us, so we’re gonna let Siva take first crack at our questions residue from first half, one of which was about elite versus non-elite consumption of news, and the other was about different ways that news has been monetized or funded.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Right, okay, yeah. I mean, different models for… Of political economy for news. I mean, I think the only responsible response is a little bit of everything. I think we’re gonna have successful advertising-based, or advertising-funded news organizations for at least a few more decades. They won’t be prolific, they won’t be anything close to universal. But there will be a handful. NBC still pays for itself through Ford trucks, and Coca-Cola, and Budweiser, and Procter & Gamble, and that’s unlikely to change very soon. The bottom’s not gonna fall out of that. At the same time, The New York Times finds that harder and harder to do every month. And so it is steadily shifting its sources of revenues to more subscription-based practices, people signing up for conferences, or for elite levels of membership, or paying for full web access, having tiered membership. Those are two different models right there. Then there’s the ProPublica or Texas Tribune experiment of having memberships and philanthropic organizations, foundations support the effort along the way. They run big conferences that bring in a lot of money from sponsors and that way, they’re not fully dependent on the whims of advertising. Then there’s just gonna be a big shakeout, so there’re gonna be a lot of journalistic organizations that just won’t exist. Those are likely to be the local and the niche, although some niches have enough buying power behind them that they could, they could start charging quite a bit. But the thing is, none of this is particularly profound or controversial. I think we’re gonna see everybody try everything and then see what works, but I don’t see a long-term prospect for advertising. What that means, of course, is a concentration of primary access to those who can afford to pay for the publication. That brings us back to a sort of pre-penny press potential readership, so where more of the better journalism comes from the Wall Street Journals of the world. What I haven’t mentioned is, of course, things like state support or political party support, which are also pre… Well, at least political party support, those are pre-penny press models. I think that’s under-explored. I mean, we certainly see massive subsidies in France. And we see revival of party-based media in some rather ugly forms in certain parts of the world. But the thing we’re not gonna have is this weird blip in history that we had since 1945, like basically 1945 to 2005 when we were able to have a professionalized news flow that had global reach and ran a surplus, and we could pretend that we were actually paying for the Moscow Bureau rather than the coverage of the White Sox game. And so we’re probably gonna have to step down from what was a very unusual time of heavily funded professionalized journalism in a global sense. I think we had an interesting run with that. But I think we’re reverting to the mean at this point.
[Ada Palmer] Do any of our historians wanna weigh in on
[Will Slauter] Sure.
[Ada Palmer] feeling the exceptionalism of that period or not?
[Will Slauter] Sure, yeah, I think it is true, that it’s increasingly evident that this advertising-funded, bundled product of the newspaper where sports cross-subsidizes foreign reporting is problematic now. And I think it’s time for us to think about what journalism is and what its role is, and to start thinking about possibilities that have been anathema for a long time. In this country, there’s a tradition of avoiding the discussion of state funding because somehow, state-funded journalism would be somehow in contradiction with the First Amendment, or it would somehow, the state could not be trusted to police itself and so on. So that’s unlikely. We’re unlikely to have state-funded journalism. But there are other areas where, in fact, there are, in history, you can look at all the subsidies that went to newspapers in the earlier period that I’ve studied, like the post office subsidy. And in Britain, of course, you have the tradition of the BBC. So we can’t ignore that possibility. But one thing we were talking about this morning is think about the university. Think about the university as a model for a place that can be a fabulously rich institution built on private money, but also depends on a lot of tax exemptions and the things that go along with having a nonprofit status and access to federal funds and so on. And the university, one of the functions that it has, is to support the kinds of research that would not have funding on the private market. So we could, if we really valued journalism, see the university as one place where we could have journalism departments, not just to train future journalists, but to actually produce journalism. Because if the university can pay chemists, or anthropologists, or so on, to do research, they could also pay for journalism. There are some examples of that. I mean, there are journalism schools that produce journalism. There’s the Poynter Institute that has a relationship with, I think it’s the Tampa Bay Times. And you have examples of this. Another one that Siva mentioned is foundations, and we could think about big benefactors, the sort of Jeff Bezoses of the world saving newspapers. But I think that’s not a sustainable answer to the question either. It may help in the short term and so on, but there may be other kinds of foundations that could be set up. They could have more wider participation. There’s a French scholar-economist named Julia Cage who’s written a book in French. I would translate it sort of Saving the Media or Saving Journalism, and she proposes different kinds of funding structures. And one of them is a kind of foundation structure where there would be crowdfunding participation. But not just I’m gonna give donations like I occasionally do to Wikipedia. But by giving donations, I’m also gonna be, have a voting right in this organization. And that you could actually, she’s an economist, so she talks about the different ways that you could set this up so that the largest donors don’t automatically have the most control as they would in a shareholding corporation. But it would be a kind of not for profit, not for profit foundation that would be funded through a larger participation and could have a way to perpetuate itself and not be interested in generating dividends for shareholders.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] And I would point out there’s a Dutch news site called De Correspondent that uses that exact model. It seems to be quite successful. There’s a lot of energy behind it right now, so we’ll see how it turns out in the long term. I’m really glad you brought up the idea of universities sponsoring, making, fostering journalism. I run a center at the University of Virginia called the Center for Media and Citizenship, and it has two purposes. One is to do that very thing, to sponsor journalism in the best possible way. So we are about to launch a statewide, student-run state news service, deploying student journalists at all of the public universities in Virginia to do the local reporting that contributes to a weekly magazine that’ll run on the public television stations here in Virginia. So again, commercial-free, subsidized entirely by these universities, but lightly subsidized. And I also run a magazine called the Virginia Quarterly Review, run out of my center. It is heavily subsidized by the university. Although it makes subscription revenue on top of that, it does not sell any ads, and it’s quite successful. It runs in the black every year, wins national magazine awards regularly, competes for writers and readers with the likes of The New Yorker and National Geographic, and it has Pulitzer Prize winners contributing to it regularly. So that’s the sort of thing that can happen and should happen more. But we should start, perhaps, looking at that model on a local basis so that given the fact that there are college towns all around America in places that are losing their local news outlets, colleges and universities can pick up the slack in a lot of those ways, and that’s just in this country. I would also say that, the other thing my center does is it flips the challenge. Instead of asking, like a journalism school would, how do we save journalism as it has been practiced and funded for 100 years or 200 years, we ask what do citizens need to operate in an informed and responsible way going forward? What sort of norms, and regulations, and platforms, and technologies, habits of mind, and sources of information do citizens need to engage? That’s a question that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would’ve asked rather than asking how to save or how to build a business model. The idea of a business model follows from that. But first, we have to figure out what we as citizens need to be able to behave and act in a way that retains some sort of power and influence over what is at least, for a little while longer, a democratic republic.
[Ada Palmer] Abstracting out from what we all know universities to be to what problem universities are fundamentally trying to solve, they’re trying to solve the problem of how do we make sure research occurs that is valuable to society that isn’t sustainable under capitalism. That isn’t self-funding under capitalism. How do we make that operate. And simultaneously, how do we protect research that gives us answers that people don’t wanna hear. How do we protect the researcher who comes back with a finding that is against the interests of industry, against the interests of government, against the interests of advertisers. And so the systems–
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] That’s, yeah, I’m sorry.
[Ada Palmer] The systems that we have in place in a university, including the tenure system, fundamentally abstracting that away from what universities generally study and what they produce, that they produce academic monographs and articles. The system is you have a researcher, the researcher produces a bunch of good material, some funding body judges, yes, this person is producing good material. The person says, I wanna continue producing this material, the funding body says, okay, we’ll give you tenure and a permanent line of funding, go forth into the world and produce this material.
[Ada Palmer] And you can imagine that existing for journalists. That there would be a body that says, you’ve done some great journalism. We want to give you a stipend. Go forth into the world and fill it with good journalism. This is fundamentally trying to solve the same problem that universities solved.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Well, I’d say we’re constantly trying to resolve it because the assault is steady. So, yeah, but at least we have a language, a tradition, a set of values, and some cultural status, although that is as well eroding. But, yeah, we operate from an assumption that disinterested pursuit of knowledge is a good, in and of itself, and we rarely have to re-argue that. Most of what we do most days takes that for granted, and that’s the lovely thing about our jobs. I’m a former journalist, and as a journalist, we constantly have to re-argue that. We constantly have to reassert the disinterested pursuit of knowledge as a core value. You would think it would be a given in the world of journalism, and it is only in the most romantic visions of journalism. But in the real world of journalism, it is not at all. Journalism was only liberated by its economic surplus for about 75 years, or liberated to the extent to which it was. So that a journalist at The Cincinnati Enquirer could actually investigate Chiquita, one of the biggest employers in Cincinnati for all sorts of abuses in Central America because for a long time, that paper ran a surplus. The moment when that paper is in danger, as it has been, that kind of reporting becomes basically impossible to do, and that’s what we’ve seen with newspapers all over America, and that’s why so much of the bolder work is relegated to institutions like ProPublica, which their defining mission is to challenge the status quo and produce disinterested knowledge.
[Cory Doctorow] I wanted to propose a slightly different account of how we got here, which really involves that, at the end of the 30 years following the war, we elected politicians who stopped enforcing antitrust law. And so one of the things that happened was that newsrooms became horribly weakened, monotonically, year after year, regardless of what was happening in technology. It wasn’t Google who caused all of the little family-owned newspapers to become giant chains, who consolidated all of their news gathering in centralized newsrooms with centralized ad sales departments. It was Google who moved into that weakened environment where those firms had already been harmed and started to take those weak entities and to kill them off. But the reason they were weak is because of lax antitrust enforcement. And the reason Google got so strong is because of lax antitrust enforcement, and the reason that market ideology is commanding so much of our public discourse and requiring academics to argue over and over again for the value of pursuing knowledge that is not of immediate corporate use is also lax antitrust enforcement. And that we have these three things that are effects, and we spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one of them is the cause.
[Ada Palmer] You’re reminding me of bookstores and publishers, and in particular, the process where right now, we’re in a situation where we’re watching the giant Amazon beat up the various book publishers like Macmillan that we work with. Whereas a little while ago, the narrative was Macmillan the giant which was beating up the small independent publishers that it parasitically dismantled in order for the big five publishers to assemble themselves up to the scale that they are. But then Amazon is of an order of magnitude larger than those things, so that our battles between giants and dwarfs, the dwarfs are the giants of the earlier iteration of battles because we have allowed the lax enforcement of antitrust to let things grow in such vast orders of magnitude and so quickly.
[Cory Doctorow] Well, and not only that, but of course, and Macmillan’s the smallest of the big five. Bertelsmann, on the other hand, is the largest publisher in the world. They were allowed to buy Penguin even though they already owned Random House. Their publishing arm is just a wing of a much larger business entity that mostly makes munitions, but also owns a bunch of newspapers in Germany and commands a lot of German domestic policy, and thus EU policy, and is one of the prime movers behind Article 11 and the European Copyright Directive. Each of these firms is very happy to see antitrust dismantled while they’re merging and becoming very large. And then each of them becomes very alarmed at the enormity of the other sectors that come and eat their lunches. The thing that Jeff Bezos said when he started Amazon, he said to the publishers, I consider your margin to be my opportunity. You could put that on the tombstone for the first two decades of the 21st century.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] I’m sorry, may I just issue a farewell. I’m sorry, I have to go pick up my child. My wife is also sick today, so I’m having to relieve her of some duty she might’ve taken had I been able to be in Chicago. So again, I’m terribly sorry, but I wanna thank you for giving me this opportunity. This was one of my favorite discussions I think I’ve ever had with a great group of people. The questions from the audience have been amazing, really good, really helpful, I’d love to hear more. Please don’t hesitate to find me on email and get in contact with me if you wanna go any farther with any of the issues that we’ve talked about. And again, thank you, Ada, for this opportunity. This was really helpful, thank you.
[Adrian Johns] I wanted to raise the question about credibility. With all the talk about the political economy of news organizations and the structuring of newspapers and the possible alignments between things like universities and news organizations, I think there’s, it’s almost as though one talks about this as though the reception, the quality, as it were. The quality, not in the sense of quality, but the character of the news as news is commodified to the extent that it’s independent of these structures, like the rhetoric of news isn’t dependent on the structures. And I think historically that hasn’t really been true. I think there’s a very interesting history of how news attained, and sustained, and has competed for credibility with other versions of narratives about the world. This is partly to get back to something that Ada mentioned at the break about the non-elite consumption of news. And if you remember on the reading list, one of the things that you were supposed to look at this week was a piece by Danton about the, I think it was this week, right? On the Information
[Ada Palmer] Mm-hmm.
[Adrian Johns] Society in Paris. If I remember right, that’s the one that starts with a tree.
[Ada Palmer] Yes.
[Adrian Johns] And he talks about all, in 18th century Paris, if you were consuming news from newspapers, that’s one way in which you get something. But you’re also getting things from ballots, and sermons, and libels that are pinned up to trees or doorsteps and things like that.
[Ada Palmer] Well, and we’ve got, in our History of Censorship and Information Control Exhibit, we’ve got a photograph from, I think it’s the 1940s or ’50s from UChicago Campus of a tree that was used that way here on campus. And people would pin things to the tree, and some of them were political speech, and some of them were, I have a beanbag chair, does anyone wanna buy it, come to my door at this. But that the practice of having a collaborative social bulletin board, whether it’s for satires and pasquinades, or whether it’s for please buy my beanbag chair is something that persisted until very, very recently, and persist in some spaces.
[Adrian Johns] Yeah, and what I wanted to point to in a kind of halting way is that we tend to look back at the preserved records which have come down to us, which are very selective. We look back and we see from the 18th century a record of, say, runs of newspapers. Or runs of proclamations or something like that. And so we tend to sort of assume that the credibility is adequate in the documents themselves by themselves. But if you lived in that world, that’s certainly not the case. You’d be cross-correlating, as it were, the reports that you would come up with on the page to all of these other things that have left almost no trace unless you’re very fortunate. In the case of ballots, we do have printed ballots. But a lot of the stuff, like gossip, you can only get at very indirectly and often through jaundiced representations of them. This is not that different from now. I think if you go outside of where somebody referred to living in New York or Washington, D.C. or something where you only read the posh magazines. If you go outside of that world, maybe even inside that world, much of what you read and how you appropriate it and what you attribute credit to and how you put it to use, what you think carries plausibility and what doesn’t is arrived at through a complex, kind of never-ending negotiation between different things that we might call media, so gossip, conventional wisdom, television, radio, cinema, books, journals, newspapers. All of those things operate–
[Ada Palmer] Graffiti.
[Adrian Johns] Graffiti, yeah. I actually happen to live in a house that was next to one of the only permitted graffiti walls in the city.
[Ada Palmer] Oh.
[Adrian Johns] Until the university bulldozed the wall.
[Ada Palmer] Oh, no.
[Adrian Johns] About five years ago to build that horrible tower block down on 53rd Street. But it was great, the artists were terrific. Actually, it was interesting, since you My daughter actually did a school project on the graffiti artists down there. She went and interviewed them. And though the story that they told was probably not true, it was interesting that what they told her was actually quite a long historical story about where graffiti came from that went back hundreds of years. And I thought that was kind of an interesting thing about the constitutive role of the stories that we tell about the history of media in, when we think about what media are worth pursuing and worth reading. But anyway, so what I wanted to say was that there’s a sort of constructedness about the credibility of facts, stories and things that we miss when we only look at the preserved paper textual records. It behooves us to have a kind of imaginative leap and to try to get back into that world where you’re constantly judging everything against everything else. Concrediting, 17th century word for this.
[Ada Palmer] Concrediting?
[Adrian Johns] Concrediting, it comes from, so in the 17th century, there’s this… There’s a civil war in England in the 17th century. Several civil wars. And they’re accompanied by the growth of the first periodical newspapers. And the problem with this for people writing quite soon after the civil wars have calmed down, say 30 years later, is that the records that they have are typically these newspapers. But the newspapers are hopelessly jaundiced, and they make up battles. This is like Orwell. They make up battles, they make up monstrous births and prodigies, and comets that are preceding the victory or defeat of one side or another. So what you have is something that you know took place in broad terms. You know that there was such-and-such a battle on such-and-such a date, but trying to reconstruct what actually happened on those dates is fatally compromised by the textual nature of the records that you have. And the one-time clerk of Parliament, his name was John Rushworth, compiled the first documentary history of this period in about 1680 or so. It’s called Rushworth’s Collections. He has a preface where he explicitly says this is a major epistemological problem. How can we figure out what the news was when every single news source is interested, biased, fictitious in one way or another. And what he says you should do is this thing called concrediting, where you basically sit there with every newspaper you can find covering a certain, they’re usually weekly, so you cover a week. And you basically cross-correlate the claims. So if you find that, say, one newspaper claims that Prince Rupert had a dog that would charge into battle with him, and it was black and its name was… What’s the name of Prince Rupert’s dog? I’ve actually forgotten the name of Prince Rupert’s dog. But anyway, so-and-so. Then if one newspaper reports this, it’s probably just because they were trying to insinuate that Prince Rupert was a witch. If four or five report this, then it’s probably, then its credibility is four or five times as great because they probably come from semi-independent sources. So it’s cross-correlating it. So he calls it concrediting. And something like that is a sort of, there’s a sociology in the history of practices like that that explain… That link the production of news to the reception of news, and the way that news operates in society.
[Ada Palmer] You’re reminding me of the book, Evening News, by Eileen Reeve, who is another, Eileen Reeves, who’s another scholar I thought about trying to bring in if we had had even more reach to do this in, who was looking at the dissemination of news right before 1600 when you would, they were starting to set up what you could call the first news networks, which are people who go to a big town, collect all the copies of letters and whatever rumors and so on they can get, and then get on a horse and ride to a different town, and then either read it aloud in a pub or present it at a court if there’s a local count who has a court. Or sometimes if there’s a printing press there, printed as a pamphlet and it gets moved on. So the very first news networks are just a guy on a horse who makes a career of going back and forth between two cities as a disseminator of the collected materials so that the process of collecting it and then once you’re collecting it, if you have more than one source, cross-comparing, is a problem that they’re already struggling with before 1600, but much more after.
[Adrian Johns] I actually have to go in a second, but there’s another interesting thing. So this last week in a different class that I was teaching, we read a book by historian Peter Lake called Bad Queen Bess, which is about various things, but largely it’s about Catholic representations of the nature of politics under Queen Elizabeth I in England. So this is a Protestant regime. It’s oppositional Catholics writing tracts that are sort of critical of political policies in this era. And one of the things about it is that there’s a common representation among these Catholics that the Tudor state is operating at a really Orwellian, sort of thought police regime. Where not only do you have to go through licensing or something like that, but you’re really not allowed to think certain ways. And they’re incredibly effective, they say, the Catholics. And one of the weird effects of that is that it changes how you read, as it were, the unlicensed tracts. Everybody knows that licensed newspapers are the voices of the times, as Francis Bacon says. That they’re just gonna get orthodox stuff. But there’s also unlicensed tracts. If you’re a Catholic and you believe that the government has a kind of Orwellian, totalitarian control over everything and there are still unlicensed tracts, you read the unlicensed tracts as in some way coded parts of government discourse, which is very odd. So you start looking in them for signs about maybe factions within the state, or signs for what does the state want you to think by impersonating oppositional figures. And you get into this very sort of strange spiral, interpret kind of hermeneutic spiral about it.
[Ada Palmer] Interesting.
– Sorry, Ada.
[Ada Palmer] Oh, the… The question is how one can do concrediting, the risk with concrediting is what if one newspaper, which made the story about the prince’s dog and all the others are copying it from the one that made the story about the prince’s dog. Which is exactly what you, Will, work on, the fact that newspapers do exactly this, repeating news from others. And we had David Copeland here last week who gave us a long talk in the morning about a fake news article about Lunarians from the 19th century that The Sun ran a article, astronomer had gotten detailed images of people living on the moon. And here they are and here are pictures of them, and here’s their society, and they have a utopian society, and they have these laws, and they have these weird animals, and there are unicorns there. And The Sun is the only source of this ’cause they made it up, but every newspaper in the world ran it, and it ran in Italy, and it ran everywhere, and nobody could deny that they had copied it from The Sun ’cause it later turned out to be a complete hoax. But nonetheless, if you were trying to concredit in that way, you would have to do a lot of meticulous work to trace it back and realize, oh, this is pinpoint one source, not multiple sources. So that’s just a constant challenge with the question of concreditation and you have to look into where the sources come from in effect.
[Siva Vaidhyanathan] Yeah, it’s about, it becomes a kind of forensic skill. But this is Will’s world, of the–
[Will Slauter] Well, no, I mean, I think, just to react a little bit to what’s being said, I mean, I think absolutely. Just knowing that a newspaper was published or how many copies were printed doesn’t tell us much. We need to know how people interacted with them and how the different forms of media were weighed against each other. And for almost every period, we see evidence of this, that people do read skeptically, that they do compare sources and so on, and it’s not always easy, but the fact that they are engaging in the process. So people do this today too, right? And the question is are there certain built-in features of the media system that make this harder or easier to do, are there certain new inertias that form that even if people are skeptical, they have to work harder to compare the different sources and to get out of their filter bubbles. So I think absolutely. The history of news is the history of the way people interact with each other ’cause news doesn’t mean much outside of the interactions that generated and the discussions that follow from it. So we absolutely need to have the history of reception at the center of this, and we need to think about the way people interact with news today and whether or not there are certain modifications that we could make that would–
[Ada Palmer] Facilitate concreditation.
– Facilitate other forms of critical thinking.
[Cory Doctorow] One of the elements there that’s come up that maybe we can connect is the way that concreditation cuts against paywalls and also exclusive rights to control links that, and I had this debate once on stage with a very high-ranking member of the Democratic Party, a politician, who was arguing for the public good of The New York Times and why therefore they should have a paywall so they can sustain themselves. And I reminded this politician that The Times had also lied about the cause of going into Iraq, and that if The Times controlled our ability to link to it, then our ability to criticize it the next time it did something so unworthy would be compromised by our ability to pay to see what was behind there in the archive and that this goes several levels deep. It would also be compromised by our right to make an archival copy and display it, and compromised by our right to link to them in this European Copyright Directive perspective. And if we expect people to do truth investigations, but in the service of maintaining truth-seeking organizations, we limit their ability to do those truth investigations, then we arrive at an impasse.
[Will Slauter] Yeah, I think, I mean, I think one of the most troubling things about Article 11 that you’re referring to is that it… The publishers know that if they stayed in the realm of normal copyright law, they would not be able to get internet platforms to pay them. They would not be able to use the law to get internet platforms to pay for the use of short snippets or headlines of news. There’s too many exceptions that have grown up, and for good reasons. And often it’s been cases involving news that have created these distinctions and exceptions. But for example, the Berne Convention that most countries are members of has a quotation right, so there’s an exception to copyright that you can quote from works, and in particular, there’s the quotation in the form of press summaries. And this is very important for a pluralistic press for people to be able to report what other news organizations are reporting, and to perform a kind of aggregation so that we can see what the different versions of the story are and so on. And the other thing is the exception for short phrases and titles, which have almost always been excluded from copyright. It would be very difficult to, if you want to claim a copyright on a title, that means nobody can cite the title in exchange, in an investigation and a critical commentary. So they know this. And they also know that under European law, a lot of short phrases wouldn’t rise to the level of intellectual effort of an author in order to generate copyright. So they’re creating this separate right, which is a neighboring right, based on the investment of publishers. And aside from the fact that we don’t think it’s actually going to work, it does indeed pose this danger that it cuts against the important exceptions that we need to be able to cite other people’s work, to be able to link to it, to be able to use short extracts and so on to be able to search for things that we need and comment on them.
[Ada Palmer] You’re reminding me of some of the discussions we had about fair use and the trickiness of fair use as a metric. There is fair use policy and fair use country by country, but within the U.S., there are circumstances where just reproducing this without modification would violate copyright, but reproducing this work of art and discussing it is fair use, and so you’re allowed to have the image, maybe. But the edges of what is fair use and what isn’t are very fuzzy, how long a quotation are you allowed to have before it stops being fair use or not is very fuzzy. And often the practical reality is that it depends entirely on the litigiousness of the copyright holder. Whether they will come after you and sue you for doing the thing or not, which is actually what usually determines whether you practically can do this, buffered to some extent by your own financial position and power and whether you are part of a group that affords to have a lawyer on staff whose job it is to defend you from a litigious company versus whether you’re an individual. But it’s very well-known among people who do reporting, who do the making of fan music videos, who do all sorts of things, which companies are and aren’t pushier and more litigious, and therefore difficult to work it. So for example, anime music videos are a large fan-produced thing. Fans take footage out of their favorite anime, they set it to a piece of music, and they make a new thing. And some producers and licensors of anime consider this an excellent practice ’cause it’s basically free advertising. Instead of them putting together a trailer, someone else has put together a trailer, and it circulates, and it makes people interested in the success of the show. And there have been series that have been made into bestsellers, Princess Tutu, for example, which contrary to what the title, Princess Tutu, might imply, is an incredibly dark, gritty, grim fantasy, and was an absolute flop when it first came out in the U.S. because it was called Princess Tutu. But then a major fan-made video circulated, and it became a success as a result. But there are other companies, notably Disney, which holds the licenses for the Miyazaki movies, which will come after you in an instant if you circulate any fan-made material that features them. To the degree that at one point, when I was working with Anime Boston, an anime convention in Boston, we had an event called the Anime Dating Game where people dressed up as anime characters would do the Dating Game and it was funny, and people filmed it and put it on YouTube. And they got a cease or desist order whenever the person was doing a costume from something that Disney had the rights to. Now, this is absolutely fair use, and if there had been a lawsuit, the person who made the costume would almost certainly have won. But there is no way that this 15-year-old cosplayer who enthusiastically hand-stitched her beautiful Ursula outfit would be able to spend the man hours and money on a lawsuit to defend this video, so the video goes down simply because of the litigiousness of the rights holder, having nothing to do with whether it falls under fair use or doesn’t fall under fair use. So when that happens, you have a situation where fair use is more robustly useful for someone who works for a larger company that has a team of lawyers ready to defend you, again privileging the ability to speak of larger organizations against individuals in smaller organizations.
[Will Slauter] Yeah, I mean, the strength and the weakness of fair use is the flexibility and the fact that it has to be interpreted, so if you don’t, if you aren’t sure, chances are, you won’t do it. You’ll self-censor, and that’s the problem. There was a study about, oh, about six or seven years ago of journalists and whether or not journalists understood fair use and the extent to which they used it to do their work, because journalists have to all the time be reproducing text or images that belongs to a rights holder, but there are certain exceptions that they can use for the purposes of reporting a current event. But it turned out in this survey that journalists weren’t fully aware of what the limits of what they could do, and in fact, the way they did their job was mostly based on whatever in-house traditions had been set up, what were things we need to avoid, what are things that we should and should not do. And based on this survey, Peter Jaszi and Patricia Aufderheide, who’ve worked a lot on creating codes of best practices for fair use, they’ve done this with documentary filmmakers, they’ve done it with educators, they’ve done it with journalists, and so on, trying to actually educate people and show them what they can and cannot do with fair use. Because otherwise, people will indeed self-censor and not take advantage of it.
[Ada Palmer] ‘Cause you want to err on the side of protecting yourself from a life-destroying legal problem most of the time.
[Cory Doctorow] Yeah, as Larry Lessig says, fair use is the right to hire a lawyer.
[Ada Palmer] Yeah.
[Cory Doctorow] Guys, I have to go as well. It’s my 10th wedding anniversary. Thank you. All credit to my wife. But I have to go get ready.
[Ada Palmer] All right, thank you for joining us.
[Cory Doctorow] We’re going to Disneyland. All right, talk to you later.
[Ada Palmer] Do we have other questions? I’m sure we do. Are there questions people would like, yes? So the question is about benefactor funding models, when you have a wealthy person who gives money to fund a chunk of journalism or a university or an equivalent, and whether, how that is affected by, or affect the degree to which there’ll be an agenda, or a particular bias, or a particular focus, whether it’s a political one or serving the economic interests of that benefactor, et cetera, and how those feature in.
[Will Slauter] I mean, the problem with this as a model is it all depends on how benign or how committed the person is to the product. So at the moment, this has sort of given a new lease on life to the Washington Post, and everything seems to be going okay, and they’ve got access to greater funds, and so on. But is that sustainable, I mean, what happens afterwards? That’s why I think something like a foundation model is sort of more interesting as a long-term, something where the community that’s invested in it can actually sustain it and you’re not dependent on the whims of a single person. So the whims of a single person can end up with a very positive product, but it could also end up with something quite toxic. I mean, that’s sort of the problem with that. And I certainly agree that the old advertising model was not perfect either, and that we need to sort of think beyond that.
[Ada Palmer] To expand on that, I think one of the big differences, there are different ways that benefactor-based funding of anything can happen. And one is the relationship with the benefactor continues. The benefactor writes a new check every year. The benefactor continues to be involved. The other is the benefactor sets it up and steps away.
[Will Slauter] As a trust, or something, yeah.
[Ada Palmer] And has no future power over that thing. And those two are very, very different from each other, because you can have a person who sets it up, provides the endowment or whatever it is, and says, you are the people I wanna put in charge, go, and then steps back and has no future capacity to interfere with that process. And that creates a much freer and opener space than when there is a continued relationship, whether that continued relationship is a check every year or even when that continued relationship is the hope of another check from that donor. And if you talk, for example, to the fundraising branches of this university and other universities, they’ve observed over time that when they’re dealing with donors, donors are getting much less willing to just give a chunk of money, and much more desirous of giving a bit, and then a bit more, and then a bit more, and earmarking exactly what the donations are gonna be for. This donation is gonna be specifically for financial aid, specifically in this field, specifically for this type of student. That it becomes nearly impossible to get people to just give money and say, I trust you to decide how to use this money. And if Cory were here, he talks delightfully about something he called a Ulysses compact. So the reference is in the Odyssey, there’s the moment where Ulysses wants to hear the song of the sirens. And so he tells his men, tie me to the mast, and no matter what you do, don’t untie me from the mast. And his men tie him to the mast, and as they’re going past the sirens, he’s begging them, untie me, untie me, untie me, but he made that compact and they won’t, and so he can’t. And in the Odyssey, it saves his life. Cory uses this to talk about code and making code open access because you’ll develop a thing and you’ll support the principles of open access and you’ll support the principles of making this available to everyone. And then at some point, someone will come and say, we will give you a life-changing amount of money if you let us license the thing. And it’s very different at that moment to look at that life-changing amount of money and look at what it would mean for you, and what it’d mean for your power to help your friends, to help political movements, you support to help dozens of different things that you realize you could do good at if you didn’t release that thing. But if when you first made it you released it and it’s out there, you’re tied to the mast. You can’t change it. And it creates a situation in which you have armored your current principles against your future self, against your future self’s weakness, and your future self’s capacity to be swayed by perceiving how much you could do if you changed your mind. So in that sense, when we’re talking about creating a foundation to support the news, if it’s a foundation where the donor is gonna come back every year and at any moment they could decide they didn’t like what that news foundation was doing and stop, then you’re gonna have, even if that person never actually demands a particular bias, you’re gonna have the fear on the part of the journalist of wanting to please the interests of that figure. But if it were done with a Ulysses compact, if it were here is the money, select a board, I cannot affect this further, I am stepping aside, that’s how you can have a foundation that nonetheless is armored against bias based on at least the funding source as a threat. But the other thing I would wanna say on that topic is just every funding source is hackable, just as every way of setting up a government is hackable. And they all have failure modes, and democracy is hackable and has a failure mode. And monarchy is hackable and has a failure mode. And aristocracy is hackable and has a failure mode. And the insane Florentine Renaissance system of picking citizens at random out of a bag and making them be in charge of the state for two to three months at a time arbitrarily while locked in a tower, I kid you not, was hackable. All systems are hackable. But if you diversify the number of different things, they aren’t all hackable by the same failing condition. So if you have your journalism all be funded by advertising, then something that makes the advertising revenue be undermined will undermine your whole journal. But if your journal has subscribers and advertising, and people who pay a dollar a week to have the crossword puzzle one day in advance, and sells anthologies of the cartoons that it runs and gets some of the money from that, and has two or three other funding models, and has a donor who makes it be a foundation, then even when the donor becomes corrupt and terrible, the other revenue streams are still there. So following the same principle that the founders of the American experiment took from Montesquieu’s spirit of the laws of the idea of having division of government so that there are different branches, and the different branches have different hackabilities, different failure modes. So similarly as we think about funding something important, whether that thing is a university, or whether that thing is journalism, if we can diversify the funding streams, it becomes buffered against the different historical circumstances and political pressures that can trigger the failure mode of any one of those funding streams. So the question is about sponsored content, when the show, Orange is the New Black, funds, pays for a newspaper to run a series on prisons, it’s journalism, it’s also advertising, what is it, how does it mesh with news and news history.
[Will Slauter] There’s a long history of this. You look at the rise of advertising agencies in the 19th century, this is one thing that they figured out very early on. They had a power very early on. They said, we’ll give you X number of advertisements and we’ll pay for them, but you’ve also gotta run it next to a story which drops references to this product, or more discreetly, as you’re suggesting, is on a topic that is related to a thing. So newspapers have had to deal with this for a long time. It’s always been there, and I think that is one of the problems of the advertising model.
[Ada Palmer] Who wrote that great work on bread? There was a great book on sliced bread, which we have this expression, the greatest thing since sliced bread, which really means it’s the greatest thing since 1912. But it’s a book on the dissemination of the practice of buying your bread in a grocery store as opposed to buying your bread, baking your bread at home. And that up until, through the 1910s, something like 70 or 80% of America’s bread was baked in the home. And by 1925 or so, it had reversed, and 80% of it is being bought in stores, and one of the things that happened in that transition is that huge marketing campaigns for store-bought bread, for scientific bread with pictures of men in white lab coats producing bread which looks like a rocket ship, or at least it’s long and thin and it’s next to a picture of a rocket ship. The idea that it was carefully balanced by scientists who knew more than you about what was healthy for your family, et cetera. And the advertisements for the bread were run alongside these exposes that the bread companies paid for about the bad hygiene of bakeries. And part of it was a xenophobia thing, these bakeries being run by immigrants, and you don’t know what they’re allowing to be near the bread. That was using sponsorship of articles in conjunction with sponsorship of advertisements to create a market for a product that had not been a marketed product before. So this is a very old problem within advertising-oriented journalism.
[Will Slauter] Could I change the subject a little bit?
[Ada Palmer] Yeah, please do.
[Will Slauter] Because this class is about the history of censorship and information control, and this week is particularly about copyright and news, so I wanted to just maybe make explicit some of the connections here. And I know that in one of the earlier sessions, Adrian Johns talked about how copyright has its origins in state censorship practices. That, in fact, the licensing regimes, or the privileged regimes of early modern Europe were you give permission to a printer to print a particular book, so you’re authorizing it as a censor, and you give them that exclusively so that they are the only person who can print that particular book. And you can also do it with different kinds of works, so that’s where that comes from. The crucial distinction is when the censorship and copyright are separated in the 18th century, and that’s when you start to get thinking about there’s gonna be some other purpose to it besides just controlling who does what. And as early as the 18th century, people were starting to worry about the idea that copyright could be used as a tool of censorship. So there was a debate at the end of the 18th century and the example that was given was, well, what if a political figure does something corrupt or something dangerous, and somebody writes a pamphlet about it, and then that political figure, administer of state, or whatever, buys up the whole print run and buys the copyright so that nobody can produce it anymore. He would therefore restrict and use censorship, you use copyright as a means of censorship. In other words, using the monopoly right to not allow information or whatever to circulate.
[Ada Palmer] Well, and this is certainly done–
[Will Slauter] Seems like something that we’ve moved beyond, but I just wanted to say that just yesterday, I read that in Germany, there’s a case going through the courts where there was a leak of documents. So every week, the German military produces a report of what the military is doing. And this is given to certain members of the legislature, it’s given to certain members of the government. Some of them decided to leak this to the media. A newspaper ran with it, started printing excerpts from these military reports and commenting on them. And the German government decided, well, if we try to censor this, if we try to say this is about state national security, we’re gonna be acting in a censorship way, and this is gonna create a backlash and a public outcry. So we’re not gonna do this. Instead, we’re gonna sue them for copyright infringement because they didn’t have the right to reproduce these military reports. So this is now in the courts, and the German court has asked the European Court of Justice to determine a point of a law. Two points, actually. Can a military report of just brute facts be subject to copyright? And two, if it can, can a government use copyright to limit reporting on current events? And we don’t know what the European Court of Justice is gonna say, but yesterday, the advocate general, who is an independent lawyer who’s appointed to give an opinion to the Court of Justice, in other words, I have studied the issue and I think this is how the point of law should be decided, said that first of all, he doesn’t think that a military report, which is just times and places, and names, and dates, and movements, can be copyrighted ’cause it doesn’t arise to the level of intellectual effort. And secondly, even if it could be, that would be a restriction on freedom of expression, and freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and although it has to be subject to other rights like property right and copyright, a state can’t use its property right in a text to limit discussion and expression, of freedom of expression. So this tension between censorship and copyright is playing out right now even though we don’t think a state would do that. It’s surprising that they ran this way, but they were doing it again ’cause they didn’t wanna look like they were censoring. And yet, the copyright can be used that way.
[Ada Palmer] Well, it’s very parallel to what I talked about with New Zealand’s early enforcement of obscenity law through the postal system. That New Zealand didn’t have a censor’s office in the 1890s yet, but they did have a postal system, and so they could empower their postal system to open all packages arriving in New Zealand and to confiscate
[Will Slauter] Sure.
[Ada Palmer] goods that they considered to be against a particular law. It’s a government using a different branch that was developed for a different reason to attempt to circumscribe the movement of information. And that’s why this project always tries to use the phrase censorship and information control together. Because they can’t ever be separated from each other. Because things such as copyright, which we think of as, yes, it’s information control, but it doesn’t aim to silence, can always be used to silence, or at least attempt to be used to silence in different circumstances. And it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to create any system of information control, which cannot be reused to silence strategically by someone who’s sitting down in a clever way to figure that out. So just as we looked at the 1951 case where the budgeting of school clubs here at the University of Chicago was used to shut down The Maroon because they had a communist editor, the budgeting system for school clubs is in no way designed to be a mode of censorship. But it could operate as one. And because systems of information control are indeed oriented around information and about circumscribing the movement of information, it’s even easier for those to be repurposed for purposes of silencing and censoring than most other parallel structures which have and can be repurposed for this end. I don’t think we touched quite as much as I’d hoped, so I’ll use our remaining minutes to poke at this a little bit, about the importance of thinking about elite versus non-elite consumption of these kinds of materials, particularly for the pre-modern world, and this is a funny thing to say. But over and over, I see us underestimating the literacy of illiterate people. Because we look at these numbers about earlier centuries, and we see it has a 30% literacy rate or it’s a 50% literacy rate, et cetera, and we sort of act as if that means there’s this large slice of the population that is unaffected by what’s happening in print. That doesn’t hear about and doesn’t care about the debates that are happening in print. So there’s a scene in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in which a balladmonger comes to the rural farm. And there are the farmers who gather around, and this is a balladmonger and he’s an itinerant peddler, the kind who goes around selling little ribbons, and little icons of saints, and little things, and part of what he’s selling are little printed pamphlets that are a ballad, and it’ll have a new tune, and it’ll have lyrics, or it’ll have lyrics to sing to an old tune, and some of them will be political and will be news. It’ll be about the marriage of the prince, or it’ll be about the siege that just happened somewhere. And others will be a love story or a scandal rag, but these ballads are a form of news dissemination and in this scene in Shakespeare’s play, the shepherds all gather around him and say, tell me what this one says, tell me what this one says, what are they about, asking the balladmonger to tell them, who cannot read, what the ballads are about, and they then buy all of his ballads. Because there is this large market among illiterate consumers for buying literary material because they’re going to take it to a literate friend, often to the pastor, or the local priest, and have it read aloud to them, and memorize it, and have it and have access to it through that secondary medium. And there’s a practice of people going to pubs and reading aloud the news in those public spaces. And a number that always blows people’s minds, book historians who’ve looked at quantitative material, looking at the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which is this formative, inflammatory pamphlet that is a big part of the intellectual discourse around the American Revolution. More copies of Common Sense were printed than there were people living in the colonies, and yet the literacy rate is well below 50%. So what does this mean, it means the market for Common Sense isn’t about reading it. The market for Common Sense is about having it, about participating, about feeling that you’re part of this community. So these illiterate people care very deeply about elite debates over whether John Locke or Thomas Hobbes is correct about their readings of human nature, which, filtered through Thomas Paine, turn into the political foundations of the U.S. So there’s a vast participation in what we would think of as the unlearned slice of the population in what we think of as the most learned things that are going on in a society through these interpenetrations. And I think we tend to exclude that from the way we imagine the consumption of information in the past, and thus I think we probably also do so in the present. And when we’re talking about the graffiti wall next to Adrian Johns’ house, we’re talking about an indispensable component of what transmits and shapes our ideas just as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense did in the 1770s. And then the comment, we have a librarian in the audience, and it’s always valuable to call on librarians in any circumstance, but the general observation that lack of formal education doesn’t mean that a person is stupid, nor in the broader sense does it mean that the person is disengaged from major debates. People are deeply engaged in major debates and access them through innumerable channels, which are all part of this network we call news. And on that front, we will see you next week for more. Thank you, all.