Ockham’s Eraser

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”   Albert Einstein

Last week, I opened an e-mail from our public library, inviting me to access e-books through an app sponsored by 3M.  I gave it a try, but was annoyed by the requirement that I disable security on my computer in order to load the app.  After installing and opening, there were only about twenty books available.  Unimpressed; deleted the 3M app, cleared cookies, history, secure-emptied trash…

Then, I started asking the library questions about the actual cost of e-books vs. print books.  Basically, the adoption of e-books appears to be a foregone conclusion (reason be damned).  So far, haven’t received a definitive answer on cost (I doubt that they have one).  I did receive and read this:


“…the use of e-books is evolving so rapidly, our predictions must be treated as subject to considerable uncertainty. Moreover, it should be noted that factors such as social equity, community welfare, and intellectual freedom are necessarily outside the scope of the paper.”

I tried looking up definitions for Social Equity, didn’t find anything that I wanted to nail to the wall, so I went to the source, Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary.  Equity and Equality come from the same Latin root.  Apply Ockham’s Eraser* it’s one concept, not two.

According to Skeat, Equity is Justice, synonymous with Equality. Roman Law held that most customary practices had at their source deep-rooted local knowledge, combined with “Natural Reason”, or a kind of basic “Common Law”. Unspoken yet general agreement, confirmed through long-standing practice within a large social group, gave these customs legal force and a status equivalent to written law. That was the practice of the Saxon communities native to Albion prior to the Conquest. English Law was the result of the gradual usurpation of Common Law by Norman nobles and their lawyers. American Law, based as it is on English Law, is rarely capable of delivering Justice, because it’s fundamental assumption is that society is hierarchical, rather than egalitarian.

(Inclined to disagree with that last statement?  Please refer to recent seminal decisions by the United States Supreme Court:  Nobleman vs. American Savings, Citizens United…) One might infer that the current notion of social equity is synonymous with credit rating.  In fact, it will be difficult to prove that e-books actually cost less than print books.  While the initial cost of the e-book may be lower (and the publisher’s profit margin higher), subsequent license renewals and the hidden cost of consumer electronics must eventually be accounted.

“Fayetteville Public Library’s mission is to strengthen our community and empower our citizens with free and public access to knowledge.”  Printed and bound books, properly cared for, endure for centuries.  E-books are designed to expire.  In most cases it is illegal to print, copy, or distribute content from an e-book.  Over time, as e-books become a larger proportion of the available reading material, access to information will be controlled by a handful of publishers.

Remember this: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  For anyone who followed the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or Barrett Brown, the issue of who owns and has the right to disseminate digitized information was crucial to both cases.

One of the arguments for e-books assumes that the patron will not have to visit the library to check out the e-book.  This patron will have to own an electronic device with an internet connection, which means that the patron is paying at least $50/month for the service, probably more.  Patrons who either do not own computers or do not have internet access, but wish to use the library’s computers, will visit the library.  Thus, the e-book is of limited value to the second patron, but offers a convenience to the first.

Recently, the library was given 10 USB wireless devices that provide 4G-LTE access for a computer, available on a two-week checkout basis.  The cost: $720 per device/yr.= $7200.  When I looked, all the devices were checked out.  A generous donation, a worthy idea.  Is it scaleable?  Of some 3,200 households in Fayetteville, one-fourth live below poverty according to the census figures.  Unless internet service is a higher priority than rent, groceries, and electricity, it is unlikely that those 800 households will be reading e-books.

Cost:  about the same, when we factor in license renewal, technical support, consumer electronics and data service.  Convenience: more for some than others; book-length documents are difficult to read on small devices.  Control:  ISP’s control internet access, library controls access to books, publishers control the market.

*”entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”

About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
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6 Responses to Ockham’s Eraser

  1. Greg Merritt says:

    I believe the e-book will be the demise of the Public Library. At some point the powers-that-be will decide that running a server to distribute e-books is cheaper than maintaining a building proper. At that point the original concept of the library will cease to exist.


  2. D.B. Laney says:

    Your observation about English Common Law is quite telling. In the US, we are taught, from the time we are in diapers, that individual rights are paramount (a wonderful opiate for the masses). Ask anyone trained in English or American law and they’ll tell you that the foundation of those systems is the protection of property, first, last and foremost. The profit potential from ebooks and the necessary support paraphernalia is only now being understood (and engineered). Obviously, it’s much cheaper to “cut a disc”. But their retail prices would surely indicate that somewhere along the line there is some huge profit taking going on. The notion of the return of the dark ages is not that far fetched. Remember, that period was one in which only a handful of people had access to and controlled information. Frightening! Also remember, history has this strange way of repeating itself, over and over and over.

    • “Too big to fail” may yet collapse under it’s own weight. Machiavelli spoke of “…forms of government giving preponderance to the one, the few and the many; each breaking down through the excess of its own peculiar qualities and giving rise to its successor…”

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