Those Gosh-Darned Pirates!
Darnton shifts the way we consider books as objects in his essay on “What is the History of Books?” He shifts the attention away from the content, or the book as representation, and towards the book as an object that networked dozens of different professions and propelled an entire economy (kind to some and brutal to others). He charts the book as it travels from place to place, changes hands, and dictates business models. If we examine the contemporary market, the same anxieties still exist when it comes to the economy of disseminating valuable cultural information.
This past week, “The New York Times” ran a lengthy piece entitled “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work.” In it, David Barboza, Peter Lattman and Catherine Rampell chart the reasons why the United States has not only taken a backseat to China in the manufacturing of iPads, iPhones, and anything else in the iWorld, but will also never re-acquire those lost jobs. The following two quotes from the article sound eerily similar to issues faced by the heroically capitalist bookseller Rigaud that Darnton champions in his essay:
“In part, Asia was attractive because the semiskilled workers there were cheaper. But that wasn’t driving Apple. For technology companies, the cost of labor is minimal compared with the expense of buying parts and managing supply chains that bring together components and services from hundreds of companies.”
“‘Our customers are in Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China,’ said James B. Flaws, Corning’s vice chairman and chief financial officer. ‘We could make the glass here, and then ship it by boat, but that takes 35 days. Or, we could ship it by air, but that’s 10 times as expensive. So we build our glass factories next door to assembly factories, and those are overseas.’”
For the same reasons that it has become implausible to view a book as simply a story in a vacuum that was read and passed along, we cannot view the iPad, the new gatekeeper of knowledge, as simply a gatekeeper of knowledge. The ways in which the object has been created, the jobs and the economy that it produces, the competitors and alternatives that it squeezes out, all factor into the way we consume and disseminate our cultural information. The constant shuffling of middlemen, winners and losers, and a revolving door of laws and tariffs to encourage the shifting of the marketplace from one location to another make the separation of then and now impossible.
As a quick aside, what to say about that cultural information’s consumption? Just as Rigaud seemed to seek out pirated editions of texts that would behoove him financially, just as some artists embraced the pirated world and other’s abhorred it, it seems that the running commentary on authorship aligns nicely with our contemporary debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act. As Bill Maher says, “Americans love free shit.” Apparently, as Rigaud illustrates, so did 18th Century Frenchman.