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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Somebody, and I can’t remember who (so treat this as a straw argument if you want), argued with me a while back that there was a problem with open access because it was driven by technological possibility. That I wanted people to be able to read things without paying because technology made it possible was apparently a bad thing because, ya know, technology.

Now, I’m not actually averse to thinking critically about technology. My first book was on the novelist Thomas Pynchon, whose works are a careful meditation on the problems of technology (the V2 rocket, space rockets, the internet) and our belief that it might be neutral. Indeed, I am far from unversed this in space.

What has stuck with me, though, is the erroneous belief here that technology refers only to new digital incursions into publishing practices. As though the existing technologies of the printing press, the codex, paper, ink, print on demand, postal systems, photocopying, ballpoint pens, pencils, humidity-conditioned preservation systems, cataloging mechanisms, index cards, indexes, bibliographies, and a host of other aspects of contemporary publishing were not technologies, already pre-conditioning practice. Remember, it’s only the technologies that you are afraid of that should be counted as “technologies”.

So while I am not afraid to say that we should not follow technology blindly and that we should be critical, we should also not believe that we have not already adopted a set of practices utterly conditioned by technology.

Indeed, the word ‘technology’, as it occurs in contemporary English, is derived from the Latinized form of the Greek term τέχνη (techne) along with the suffix λόγια (-logia). While the latter part of the derivation pertains to communication and speech (and can be compared to the related form logos), τέχνη is concerned with art, skill, and craft but also refers to methods and systems of action. Of course, in the twenty-first century, we are most accustomed to thinking of ‘technology’ as an electronic phenomenon. The ‘latest tech’ usually means consumer luxury gadgets, fuelled by that underlying animating force of electricity, the monetized output products of applied scientific research. Yet, this was not historically always the case. Prehistoric cave tools, the scroll and codex, weaving looms, pen and ink, wheelbarrows, bookshelves, and plumbing are all, in their own way, technologies. They each are associated with methods and systems of doing things, with arts, crafts, and making. It is only within a relatively recent time period that our notions of technology have shifted to a far narrower definition.

A wider view of technology, and what it does to our publishing processes, will get us beyond a fear of technology conditioning our publishing behavior. The horse has bolted on that one already. Instead, if we want to think critically about this, then specifics of the introduction of non-rivalrous exchange must be voiced. As far as I’m concerned, in fact, non-rivalrous exchange aligns far more closely how knowledge and ideas naturally work. Ideas, stories, music, knowledge, and other forms of non-rivalrous objects are so called because once released, they can be shared infinitely without a rivalry (a contest) for ownership. You and I can both very well know the ‘same’ things, which differs to the conditions under which I might give you an item of my property. In other words, there are many forms of extant non-rivalrous objects: knowledge, music, writing, and stories. But so long as these were too complex for most human memories to record or for individuals to reproduce, we have sought throughout human history to inscribe these forms within rivalrous objects: books, sheets, journals, and records/CDs.

In my view, digital media bring with them a property form that seems, at last, to match the transmission of the underlying form with the property mode within which it is recorded; non-rivalrous forms can be disseminated in abundant, non-rivalrous fashions.