PUB802 – final essay

Coming into PUB802, I was worried that I would have to have programing knowledge of some kind. It’s not like I don’t think practical knowledge of programming or coding is important, but very often that gets prioritized over actual discussion about the role of technology and I am glad this course gives preference to theory over application. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed the required reading for any other course like I did for this one. I felt like each reading of each class opened my mind to something I either did not know before or knew about but had not thought about it in a certain way. For instance, I knew that people’s internet activity was tracked. That’s the reason I have Ghostery on my browser. But I did not know the details about how it works, what it tracks and what implications that has on my personal information. The extent to which data is tracked these days, especially in light of the Cambridge Analytica case, is truly astounding and I am glad I got to study this.

I also did not know much about AI, beyond that yes, it exists! And so, to learn about AI and its various offshoots like Machine Learning, Deep Learning and Natural Language Processing, was extremely fascinating. Both tracking and AI have a huge role to play in the publishing industry. As someone who is about to enter the book industry, it was very useful to know the ways in which these technologies can impact and change the publishing landscape. I also really enjoyed annotating each article. I am glad that this was enforced. Sometimes just annotating an article required me to read more articles so that I could offer some meaningful food for thought, and there were times that this, no doubt, felt like a chore, but I am still glad this was enforced. It forced me to read carefully and not skim over the articles. It was also the first time ever that I was using Hypothes.is. It seemed intimidating to me at first. But I am amazed at how you can install it within minutes and start annotating. Like others, I have been tempted to annotate other articles I read on the web, just because Hypothes.is gives me the option to do so. I think the annotations played a huge part in creating a sense of community within our cohort. I liked reading what my class mates had written and responding to them. I also enjoyed the class discussions. Most of us – and I might be wrong here – don’t usually read the kind of articles that we did for this course. I had a lot of apprehension about writing an essay each week and compulsorily annotating 5-6 articles. The “contract” only heightened this apprehension. But the workload was doable because the articles were short and manageable reads. I thought the discussions in class were helpful and important. Writing the blog every week was tough at times, especially because some research was needed to be able to write a thought-provoking piece, but I think this was a worthwhile exercise. I had never written about technology before, so the blogs helped me expand my writing vocabulary.

PUB802 is a unique course in that it forces us as students to do nothing but immerse ourselves in thinking and philosophizing about technology. I feel like this is a luxury, one that when we start working, we will no longer have.

Reader engagement and publishing

Prompt: Studies show that reading online can cause skimming and a decrease in understanding and retention of content. Do publishers care? Should they? Whose responsibility is it if it’s not publishers?

I think publishers do care about decline in reading, because it’s not just that the quality of reading online that has deteriorated; reading in print has also taken a nosedive. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, the percentage of adults in the US who read a book in any format reduced from 76% in 2013 to 72% in 2015. “The decline in reading in 2015 occurred in books across all formats: print, digital, and audio,” the research found. The announcement, this year, by Penguin Random House India to release a digital imprint called Penguin Petite for mobile reading, which would “repackage sections of longer books as digital shorts” is indicative of that fact that publishers are cognizant of the decline in people’s reading habits and want to do something about it.

Most publishers today have multiple digital imprints, as most have embraced a “digital-first” or “digital-only” stance, when it comes to launching new imprints. Most of these imprints specialize in genres such as sci-fi, fantasy, YA, romance, mystery, and more. Some, like Little, Brown, even have a literary and non-fiction digital imprint called Blackfriars. Unlike self-publishing, where the onus is almost entirely on the author to the make their book work, when it comes to digital imprints, a lot is at stake on the publisher’s side too. In an interview with The Guardian, Ursula Doyle, founder of Blackfriars, speaks about how the production processes followed at Blackfriars mirror those of traditional print book publishing. Blackfriars’ e-books are carefully edited, designed and published and dedicated publicity and copyrights people work to promote and publish the books. With so much riding on the fate of e-books, it is obvious that the quality of online reading and reader engagement has a direct effect on the success of e-books and the sustenance of the publishing industry. And it’s not just the big publishers who are affected by this. Millions of up-and-coming writers and small publishers start publishing digitally, because it is a cost-effective way for them to get their content out in the public. If they don’t find readers, because we are too distracted by our cellphones and Facebook alerts to concentrate for an hour and read an e-book, it’s a huge blow to creativity, inclusivity and innovation. Then only the companies that have the financial wherewithal to spend advertising dollars to get our attention will have a chance to net any readers. The small and emerging publishers – who are often the ones experimenting – will fall by the wayside. And even if the big publishers manage to sell their books, if data shows that no one is really reading them – that their “bounce rate”, as it were, is high – then no one really gains from this. Poor quality of online reading affects both the big publisher and small.

The option is not to bemoan people’s reading habits, but to do something about it. In an article for The Bookseller, Roger Warner, a digital consultant, maintains that “reading a book is best done in solitude without a zillion bits and bytes of digital distraction nibbling in from the sidelines – be it from friends, advertisers, or other forms of ‘native’ content.” To counteract this “digital distraction”, Warner says “publishers [need] to focus their digital innovation efforts on activities that support the core act of reading.” That can be done, he feels, if publishers focus on how their readers discover books. If publishers understand what topics their readers are interested in and how they find their content, then they can devise “new content-driven reader engagement strategies” that actually work. All this can be done if all publishers embrace digital and web analytics tools at their disposal, Warner feels. Reader engagement is key to the success of any publishing enterprise. That is why we have companies like Jellybooks that are dedicated to tracking it, via specialized software. This software is meant to inform publishers and marketers about whether what they are doing is right and how they can augment their efforts to promote their books and keep the readers interested in reading them. That people are reading poorly is an established fact, and it is one of the many issues plaguing the publishing industry. But it is what publishers will do with this information and the steps they will take to address it will in some ways determine the sustenance of the industry and potentially change/improve the way we read.

Due diligence and transparency in the age of digital tracking

It’s true that digital tracking is pervasive; but comparing the tracking and use of people’s data without their consent (which is what Cambridge Analytica did) to tracking people’s reading behaviour with their consent (which is what a company like Jellybooks does) is not entirely fair. One is a serious breach of trust and violation of privacy for political uses and the other, a tool to develop ways in which we can market books better to sustain a precarious industry. The only way I see these two forms of tracking intersecting is if we assume that digital tracking of any sort is a risky venture, which, true, is not an entirely unreasonable apprehension to have. The Cambridge Analytica incident has especially forced us to revaluate digital tracking and its ethical implications.

What Cambridge Analytica did was manipulate Facebook users by way of an innocuous personality quiz. They dangled the carrot of money in front of people in exchange for access to their Facebook data. The participants knew their data was vulnerable, because they had agreed to the ‘Terms and Conditions’ of the test, but few must have wondered what harm would come from someone knowing what they had “liked” in the past year. Fewer would have realized that they were endangering not just their own privacy but their friends’ privacy as well, because by agreeing to the T&C’s of this test, they automatically enabled Cambridge Analytica to access their friends’ data, thanks to Facebook’s default terms that allowed their friends’ data to be used as well. None of the participants were made privy to the reason their data was being collected. Had they known the reasons, one hopes that most would have declined. Even Facebook – at least from what the reports say – did not know the nefarious ends to which user data was being collected. They thought it was only for academic purposes. Even if we assume Facebook was in on the charade, the people who participated in this quiz and by extension, millions of other people connected to them, definitely did not know that their data was being manipulated for sophisticated “psychological operations”, with the end goal to “microtarget” the British and American electorate to vote in a way that aligned with the political ideology of Cambridge Analytica’s funders.

Now, if we think of the ways in which digital tracking is done in publishing – and if we take the case of Jellybooks – they encode ebooks with software that tracks a reader’s engagement with that book. The software “records the reader interactions across a range of 3rd party apps such as iBooks and Adobe Digital Editions (ADE)”. The data is used to market books more efficiently. Software such as Jellybooks, OptiQly, and machine-learning programs that have the ability to predict bestsellers are useful because they are injecting some much-needed innovation into the publishing industry in a way that helps marketers position books better and readers to discover them easily. The problems occur when tests are conducted on users who are not entirely made aware of what they are getting into. In an interview with The Guardian, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie talks about the lack of “due diligence” on the part of Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL. I think this due diligence is crucial. It is incumbent upon Jellybooks to be transparent to its ebook testers about its intentions and its end goal. It is also incumbent upon them to ensure that their software is encoded only into the ebook the reader has agreed to test for and not all the ebooks on their devices. If there is gray area, they should provide users information on ways to disable, delete or uninstall their software and ensure their reading behavior does not continue to be tracked by Jellybooks’s third-party affiliates. This sort of due diligence should extend even to organizations we don’t typically associate with participating in the publishing process, like Facebook. We’ve all “liked” posts about ostensibly generic and harmless things like Barack Obama auto-tune singing Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, shared information about our favourite films and participated in quizzes like “Which Pride and Prejudice character are you?” When we partake in social media activity, we think we are participating in the extended community of our friends. We don’t think our data is going to be harvested for ulterior motives. I am not sure whether the solution – although some have already done it – is to absolutely stop digital tracking or social media activity. My social media averse family would seem to think so.  But I, personally, think the solution is for organizations to promise complete and absolute transparency and “privacy settings” that, by default, are not checked to allow access to personal data. The solution is also, as Wylie puts it, for users to participate in any digital endeavour with “a healthy dose of skepticism”.  Beats hearing “I told you so” from your siblings.

Discoverability problem: the Bookish case

To answer the question regarding what data I would want to collect about readers’ impressions of the books I publish in future, I would say that it would have to deal with how they discover and buy their books. I think book discoverability is still a huge problem and I would want to know from where the majority of my readers purchase their books so that I can better my marketing efforts on the other avenues, while still prioritizing sales via the main point of purchase. The failure – or rather the ineffectiveness – of a site like Bookish demonstrates that discoverability is still a blind spot with publishers. Bookish was launched in 2013 by Penguin (before it merged with Random House), Simon & Schuster and Hachette as a site that can expand discoverability, connect with readers and generate prepublication buzz for books. The site’s mission – as stated on its ‘About’ page – is to ‘Help readers discover their next favorite book’. It was meant to foster a “direct digital customer relationship” and connect readers with books and authors with proprietary content and exclusive deals. Had Bookish served its purpose, we would, probably, be bemoaning the decline of the sales of books a little less and not mulling over why discoverability is still a thorn in the publisher’s side. Instead of building a community of book readers, Bookish is a marketing tool for publishers. The list of publishers participating in Bookish might have increased, but it’s still a one-way street, with content and information mainly coming from the operators of the site and not from the people using it. Book recommendation, currently, seems to be its main raison d’être with listicles upon listicles curated by Bookish for their readers. There is no option for a reader to recommend books or make their own listicle. What’s worse, there is a no “social” aspect to the site at all. Nowhere where the reader can make their account and build a virtual shelf à la Goodreads. If a reader wants to avail of any social features, they need to visit Bookish’s sister-site Bookish First. The conceit of Bookish First is that readers get to read a book before it is published. For this, they need to sign up, participate in contests and stand a chance to win a book. But to stand a better chance to win, the reader has to promote the offered book on their social media. I’m not sure whether the chance of getting to read a book before it’s pub date is incentive enough for a reader to basically do marketing for Bookish and its publishers. Not all books are met with the same fan anticipation that we witnessed before the launch of every Harry Potter. Getting the next Harry Potter in hand before its launch could have given you legit bragging rights. But, before the launch of the next book by Kelly Loy Gilbert or K J. Howe? Um, not so much. We might perhaps witness it again just before the launch of George R. R. Martin’s highly anticipated The Winds of Winter but publishing phenomena like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones are the exception and not the rule. For Bookish to dedicate an entire site just for contests by dangling the carrot of free pre-pub-date books, while making the readers do some legwork (figuratively speaking) for it, seems like a rather ill-conceived idea. They do not have a large user base: only 45K Facebook users, for instance, as opposed to Goodreads’s 1.25 million.

Going into the industry, it is worrisome to me if a project launched by 3 of the Big 5 as its discoverability platform is not living up to its potential. It perpetuates the idea that publishers live in a closed ecosystem, where communication is one way, where they think they know what the readers want without actually listening to them. Publishers seem to be disjointed from what’s happening today, where everyone is mining user data to create and curate the exact products and content people want. With a platform like Bookish, publishers had the opportunity for a direct, two-way communication platform to establish connection with the reader. Which is why, when five years since its launch that is not the case, I am really surprised, especially since the publishers participating in Bookish ostensibly set out to establish a “direct digital customer relationship”  with the reader. As an aspiring publisher I hope I can make a dent in the problems concerning discoverability. I’d hope that my impression of what the reader wanted mirrored the readers impressions and expectations.

Predictive Analytics and publishing

Artificial intelligence and its various applications like Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Deep Learning, etc. have made inroads into almost every area of human interest. And publishing is no exception. One doesn’t haven to imagine the ways in which AI will be integrated into publishing, because it’s already happening. Predictive analytics, evolution in the search and discovery of books, targeted advertising, and dynamic pricing are just some of the ways in which AI is impacting the publishing industry. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on predictive analytics, a branch of machine learning.

People have been predicting the success of books practically ever since trade publishing began.  Years of experience in the industry and observing the performance of books over seasons has no doubt given some insiders the ability to gauge the market value and potential of a book. Lately, however, machines have been drafted for these very purposes. In 2016, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers wrote a book called The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of The Blockbuster Novel, in which they posited that an algorithm they had created could examine literary elements in a book and assess its bestseller potential. They claimed that their algorithm could – with 97% certainty – predict a New York Times bestseller in fiction. But publishing industry guru Mike Shatzkin is doubtful of technologies like these. He feels that bestsellers are made up of several complex moving parts and analyzing just the content (or text) of a book to predict its success is reductive and plain wrong as it does not consider the “consumer analysis, branding, or the marketing effort” required to make a book successful. As comparison, Shatzkin talks about how Google uses search algorithms to predict the success or failure of movies. While doing so, Google’s algorithm takes into account various parameters like “search volume for the movie, YouTube views, genre, seasonality, franchise status, star power, competition”, etc. Nowhere does the algorithm read scripts of movies to predict their success, because that alone would not be enough to guarantee success of a movie. Shatzkin is not entirely dismissive of the application of algorithms in publishing. He has helped develop OptiQly, an application that uses algorithms to generate scores that can help publishers optimize a book for discovery and sale and guide them regarding “the extent to which author-focused marketing [can] contribute to discovery and sale.”

Neil Balthaser, founder of SaaS platform Intellogo that analyzes content for its clients, believes machine learning can predict a bestseller. According to him, machine learning can “identify similar tones, moods, topics and writing styles to books that are topping bestseller lists … and, in this way, better understand the reading audiences’ desires.” It is possible that if a machine was fed data and programmed to analyze bestsellers that were indicative of audience interests, it could analyze a book and recommend certain areas where that publisher could “focus its marketing efforts”. In this way, “machine learning can remove the gut feeling or personal bias inherent in business decision making.” Balthaser sees machine learning as an indispensable tool for publishers because he thinks it can provide publishers  “real-time information about their readers, figure out what is working in the marketplace, and, perhaps, make the bestseller lists more of an accurate depiction of what readers want to read, not simply what is available.” Market research is extremely important for publishers, but very soon, instead of solely relying on focus groups, ARCs and opinion polls, machine learning can study much larger and more complex data which would include audience research, social media and market trends and popular searches to forecast the reaction a certain book will have.

The advantages of AI and machine learning in publishing are enormous but the people making this technology and offering it are not from the publishing industry. It’s companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon that are investing heavily in machine learning and exploiting its capabilities. Bar a startup like OptiQly, which was created by people in the industry, publishers have pretty much been the spectators and not the participants in AI. And that’s something to think about. Cliff Guren, founder of Syntopical, a publishing consultancy company, feels that machine learning can quickly evolve from become a forecasting tool to an authoring tool, in that it can formulate “machine-authored responses that synthesize information from a wide variety of sources.” Publishers then need to decide the extent to which they’re okay with third-party systems making crucial decisions for them. One way to mitigate this issue, according to Guren, would be for publishers to make their own investment into AI so that they use it to develop and not dictate the industry.

Artificial Intelligence is a complex field and there is bound to be some friction when this 21st century technology meets a 500-year-old industry like publishing. That AI is here to stay is clear; publishers just need to be cognizant of its capabilities and neither entirely dismiss it nor blindly embrace it.

“Innovation-first” should be the publisher’s business model

In a post titled Why There’s No Innovation In The Publishing Industry, Nate Hoffelder, founder of digital publishing news blog, The Digital Reader, speaks about “the general level of arch-conservatism that infests book publishing.” The industry, says Hoffelder, “never met a new idea that it didn’t try to smother at birth.” Ouch! While that may be a tad too harsh, that the book publishing industry needs to do some soul-searching and innovate is an accepted fact. ‘Adapt or die’ has been the mantra whenever new ideas have threatened the old guard, and it’s this response that the industry needs to have when faced with the threat from consumer-centric apps like Wattpad and Tablo.

Like magazine publishing, which has increasingly transitioned to a digital-first or social-first business model to stay afloat, book publishers need to not just go digital, but also find innovative ways in which to do so. Print book publishers did go digital, in that they started offering ebooks, but there has been very little innovation beyond that. In an interview just last month, the CEO of Hachette, Arnaud Nourry said, “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience. We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched ebooks – didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, websites with our content – we have one or two successes among a hundred failures. I’m talking about the entire industry. We’ve not done very well.” The rise and popularity of apps like Wattpad, Tablo, Draft2Digital, Bookfunnel, etc. can be attributed to such circumstances: the inability of the print book publishing to innovate and the limitations of the ebook format. It would be easy to vilify “consumer-facing” apps as sounding the death knell for traditional publishing, but if one thinks about it, these apps were born out of a deficit the old industry could not fulfill. I see them as an evolution of the print book industry, rather than a detriment. Indeed, even these newfangled applications are not invincible. One need only read Harrison Kitteridge’s lengthy spiel to know about that. While he concedes that “author-services is a burgeoning and incredibly lucrative consequence of the self-publishing movement,” he also maintains that “no one has really managed to scale the model.” According to him, it’s when someone finds a way to marry and scale Wattpad and Kindle Direct Publishing that the traditional book publishing industry will truly be on shaky ground.

Instead of waiting for the inevitable, which may or may not (but likely will) happen, book publishers need to pursue collaborative innovation with the people that are into the “consumer-facing” and author-services digital businesses. These companies – by virtue of being outside the print publishing setup – can think out of the box and explore ways of sustaining the business. Another way the book industry can do this, many think, is by “embracing a startup mindset”. This would involve having a dedicated team that, instead of being overwhelmed by the daily demands of book production, does nothing but research and development, an aspect many traditional book publishers don’t invest in, but which can actually find ways to take the industry into newer, fresher directions. Bestselling author James Patterson tinkered with the novel by coming up with “bookshots”: 150-paged shorter novels. Similarly, cookbooks have been reinvented by having electronic versions which feature grocery lists, timers and videos. Of course, social media is a behemoth publishers can’t afford to ignore. Until and unless they generate content that is interactive and participatory, publishers are going to have a tough time riding the crest of digital publishing. To that end, may be publishers ought to think about accepting and integrating not just the Ubers of publishing but also potentially develop a Facebook for publishing too.

Back to the future: brick and mortar stores are an evolution of online retail

It’s 2018 and we’re seeing more e-commerce retailers opening physical stories than ever before. Companies doing this include Indochino, Warby Parker, Bonobos, Boll & Branch, Untuckit, Tictail, Amazon and many more. At first the decision to transition from “clicks to bricks” might seem counterintuitive, especially considering the shuttering of malls and the closure of nearly 7,000 retail stores in the US in 2017. But companies that are going against conventional wisdom and opening physical stores are doing so with great deliberation and after-thought. This leads me to believe that this is the evolution of retail rather than a devolution.

In our PUB802 class on February 19, Juan asked us to think about why Amazon has opened two physical stores: Amazon Books and Amazon Go. And Rachel Taylor guessed it was to get consumer “data”. As Juan said, e-commerce retailers like Amazon are opening physical stores to collect data and track consumer behaviour that they may not necessarily be able to do as well online. The 21st century digital “arms race” (figuratively speaking) is about gathering data on consumers that can then be monetized, either by advertising or by creating greater brand recognition that can help the company earn more revenue. Amazon’s decision to have a physical bookstore, to me appears to be counterintuitive, but I understand that it aligns with their agenda to introduce a new kind of concept-bookstore, where things are curated for customers based on certain algorithms and the store helps the company to mine user-behaviour for information.

Many e-commerce retailers who are also opening physical stores sometimes to do so because they feel that in an increasingly saturated online space, it’s difficult for companies to stand out and be noticed. Online a customer’s attention is dispersed and interrupted. Whereas by entering a store, for those few minutes, the brand has that customer’s undivided attention. In an article on Forbes, the founder of a DIY e-commerce platform named Tictail, Carl Waldekranz, talks about how for his company, opening a physical store is not even about making money. After successfully being online, Tictail opened a physical store in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and they did so “to understand, promote, and bring together our community… For any data driven organization, the benefits of capturing consumer insights from an in-store experience are endless.” For a brand like Tictail, their store helps them take “a potential shopper on a journey through [their] brand’s world.” And interestingly, stores help the brand formulate a “brand story”. When Shannon Emmerson and Lauren Cheal from Echo Storytelling came to our PUB600 class last term, they spoke about how important “content advertising” is for brands these days. After having researched on the reasons why e-commerce retailers prefer to also have a physical presence, I do believe it’s because having a store aligns with their content marketing efforts. Waldekranz talks about the opportunity a store provides to “witness [the customer’s] entire shopping journey”.  Noticing customer behavior and engaging with their customers helps brands build their brand personas and brand stories and think of ways in which the brand can evolve. It doesn’t hurt that having a store also helps a brand have in-person events, social media activity, press briefings and coverage in local media.

To sum up, I’d like to quote Brian Cornell, the CEO of Target, who—while talking about the need for brands to have great stores besides an online presence—said, “The winning retailers of the future are going to combine great physical assets with the ease that comes along with that digital interaction.” The marketplace today isn’t what it used to be. There was a time when brands could just have a store or just an e-commerce portal. But today, people’s attention online is scattered across various entertainment, social media, news and retail sites. So just having a digital presence is no longer going to cut the mustard. To compete and sustain in a complex retail environment, companies have realized that their brands need to diversify. And a physical store that’s a manifestation of their online avatar helps brands study their customers better and devise ways to improve and sustain their brand loyalty.

The need to preserve and protect oral histories and traditional knowledge

In my previous jobs working on a travel magazine, a design magazine and a film production house, part of my work entailed interviewing people and then writing a story, interspersing it with excerpts from the interviews. Interviewing became such an essential requirement of my job that I invested in a Dictaphone, which assured better audio quality than the voice recording app on my phone, which tended to capture too much ambient sound. In all those years of interviewing people, my focus was on researching for the interview, scheduling it, ensuring my interviewee was comfortable, that there were no technical hiccups, transcribing the interview (the longest and most painful part of the process), and then actually writing the story. Often, one story required me to interview as many as four people and that meant repeating the process four times. As you can imagine, my mental bandwidth was stretched thin and most often, I was just glad when it was done and I had submitted the story for publication. Not once did either I or the publication think of obtaining a signed consent from the interviewees and not once did the publishing firm or the film production house I was working for insist that I hand over the recordings of the interview and the entire transcription to them. Granted we weren’t involved in some major, earth-shaking scientific research, but what we were engaged in was still the recording, interpretation and sharing of oral histories. If there was one thing I would enforce with regards to copyright, it’s that people ensure oral histories and traditional knowledge gets protected and is treated with the same respect that is granted written knowledge.

Most historical knowledge from where I come, which is India, is in the form of either traditional knowledge or oral histories. Considering this knowledge dates back thousands of years, most of it is undocumented and not protected under any kind of intellectual property laws. Traditional Knowledge (or ‘TK’ as it is abbreviated) exists in India in the form of thousands of medicinal recipes and yoga asanas, and oral histories exist in the country in the form of folk songs, legends, and folklore and, more recently, in the form of stories of those who suffered India’s Partition in 1947 and the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971. It is only recently that there has been a concerted effort to document and preserve these forms of indigenous knowledge. The government of India set up the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) to undertake the mammoth task of documenting nearly 2,260,000 medicinal formulations in multiple languages and 1500 yoga asanas. This happened in response to applications filed in the Europe and US that attempted to patent what were actually traditional Indian medicinal formulations. To safeguard India’s oral history, various projects – such as those undertaken by the Oral History Association of India (OHAI), the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the Amritsar Partition Museum and the 1947 Partition Archive – are involved in the painstaking recording, transcription and preservation of histories from the mouth of those that witnessed and experienced it. These histories, indeed, challenge history itself, as most do not conform to the textbook or government-sanctioned version of events as we know them. And as commendable as these projects are, one needs to think whether enough measures are being taken to ensure that these efforts are being protected against misuse.

In the Indian media industry – I use the term broadly to encompass television, film, and literature – there’s a certain laissez-faire attitude when it comes to following protocol. On a documentary film I worked on, I interviewed survivors of an oil-rig disaster, considered at the time to be one among the 10 worst oil-rig disasters in the world. The stories I recorded – from ship captains, divers, mechanics and other rig personnel – recounted events that did not necessarily corroborate with information that was disseminated by the oil company and were hence, highly sensitive in nature. In spite of this, we were not required to get any consent forms signed by the interviewees. Nor were the tapes and audio files of those interviews archived in any library or institution. And this practice continues across various forms of media. The ephemeral nature of magazine publishing makes it easy for the people involved to ignore documentation, especially when it is not enforced. Due diligence is an inconvenience when there are narrow timelines and tight deadlines to be met. But when what is presented – either via film, a story or a web post – is an extraction of a longer piece of oral history, the same needs to be assiduously protected and preserved for posterity and future knowledge. As a society we need to acknowledge that there are other forms of knowledge as legitimate as those which have been documented and when we participate in the recording of unconventional forms of history, we need to ensure certain steps are taken to protect them from misuse and appropriation.

Upsetting the Apple cart

Technology has so entrenched our lives that it seems impossible to imagine living in a world without the conveniences it offers. Until and unless one builds a cabin in the woods and consciously escapes civilization à la Thoreau in Walden, it’s near impossible to live a life unaffected by the influence of technology and the companies that offer it to us. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple – or GAFA – now yield more power and have more information on people than any other corporations in the past. Of course, technology is responsive to the people it affects and from where I come from, which is India, things are a bit different. While Google, Facebook and Amazon are big players in India and have offices in the country, Apple has yet to make a significant dent in the Indian market. Instead, Microsoft – with its operating system, software and phones – is a major player, having made inroads into rural parts of the country. This leads me to imagine a world without Apple. I’m not sure about the time it would take for Apple’s influence to start waning. The reason I hazard a guess that Apple would decline is because beyond North America, I don’t think Apple is that omnipresent.

To imagine a world without Apple, it would be worth acknowledging the major contributions of the company. Smartphones existed before the iPhone, but Apple consolidated all the features that one wanted from a must-have smartphone into one attractive, easy-to-use package. They changed the PC industry with the iMac, which did away with the clutter of multiple components and offered just a single, sleek machine that did everything you wanted a PC to do and then some more. With the iPod and iTunes, they revolutionized the music industry by offering a convenient way to legally download music and enjoy it on a single device. With the iPad, they made personal computing portable and keyboard-free. And all this is not even keeping in mind the design, which, with its simplicity, minimalism, elegance and ease of use, was unparalleled. When they launched the App Store, they launched an entire industry dedicated to creating apps that could be sold in one virtual marketplace. So dependent are we on apps today that Apple’s interpretation of the apocalypse is a world without apps. Leading up to 2017’s WWDC – Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference – the company released a video envisioning the end of the world, where humanity does not know how to act in the absence of apps and dissolves into chaos.

While Apple’s contributions are undeniable, it is possible to imagine a world without it. While the company makes highly covetable products, it is not the world-leader in them. Apple’s most anticipated product is the iPhone. Every new version of the phone is met with a lot of media buzz and excitement. But, globally, Apple does not dominate the smartphone business. The largest smartphone brand in the world is Samsung, followed by Huawei, and then Apple. China is the biggest smartphone market in the world and although Apple has a massive presence in the country, it faces stiff competition from Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo. India, the world’s second largest smartphone market, is a battleground between two giants: Xiaomi and Samsung; Apple is nowhere nearly as powerful in the country. Samsung, besides manufacturing phones, is also a leading maker of semiconductors, the chips that go into smartphones. Among Samsung’s clients is none other than Apple; they do business with and compete with the American tech giant. In the personal computing market, Apple is behind HP, Lenovo and Dell in terms of worldwide sales of PCs. For Apple’s influence to wane, its competitors would just have to continue doing what they are good at, and edge Apple over the main criticisms levelled against it, some of which include being anti-competitive and fostering a closed-ecosystem. For decades, Apple has stubbornly adopted an “our way or the highway” stance. The apps on its system cannot be replaced, many apps which are free on Android and Windows devices are charged on Apple’s; Apple enforces changes to apps without notice and restricts the loading of apps it does not approve of. Experts have long criticized Apple’s tactics that go against a free and open marketplace. If this continues, they maintain, “we may never see the technological future we are being promised” (Loggia, Rob, 2016) and the market will be small and monopolistic.

For things to change, not only should the lawmakers of the tech industry enforce a level-playing field, but we as consumers should demand an open marketplace. The tech industry has only benefitted when small start-ups – probably run out of someone’s garage – have experimented and innovated and offered their end product to the world. If we stifle such efforts, innovation as a whole takes a beating. Apple might be the biggest tech company in terms of its profits, but it cannot take its influence for granted. Apple lost respect when it recently admitted to slowing down the battery of older iPhones  so that people would buy newer ones. Apple’s planned obsolescence has not gone down well even among many of its staunch loyalists.  The company has stiff competition and if its rivals continue to offer the same products at better prices and often, with better features, and if consumers demand the enforcement of a free and open marketplace and transperancy, it’s not inconceivable to think of a world in which Apple does not rule the roost.

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The newest media monopoly

Back in 2001, I was a wide-eyed journalism student. Our professor was an award-winning journalist who kept us hanging onto his every word for the entire duration of his hour-long lectures. He introduced the concept of media monopoly to us, through the work of author Ben Bagdikian who wrote about it in a book by the same name. (And later an updated version called ‘The New Media Monopoly’). The media, Bagdikian maintained, was controlled by just five corporations: Disney, News Corporation, Time Warner, Viacom, and Bertelsmann. And because “media power [was] political power”, these companies were basically ruling the world. The world suddenly seemed a dreary place to us. And then 9/11 happened. It wasn’t difficult at the time to think that the world was on the brink of a collapse and perhaps we would all be the better for it rather than face what was coming.

The world, of course, didn’t collapse (or did it?), but it was perhaps that experience that cemented me as a Better-Never-Ever-Waser. I do believe that there’s a cyclical nature to the way things happen. The five giants of Bagdikian’s time have been replaced by the five of ours: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. These are our media now and they have exerted enough power to topple governments and establish dubious ones. It’s monopoly 101, just that, whereas the previous companies threatened our freedom of expression, their counterparts today offer it to us on a platter, albeit with disclaimers and privacy agreements no one reads. Who wants to read the fine print and miss out on the party, eh? Indeed, for Apple and their ilk it has never been better; never have people had these many avenues to express themselves; never before have people been able to connect with others from far-flung corners of the world. Through the rose-tinted glasses all the tech giants want us to wear, the world is a wondrous place full of fluffy cats and one-pot dinners. Perhaps we deserve the imperialism that we live under, because it is we that have accorded so much more power to the companies that rule us now. We have become so used to the conveniences, we don’t want to extend ourselves, even if to protect our privacy and our right to lead a life on our own terms. But even as I say this, I’m not sure what the solution is. Should I, like my siblings, consciously refuse to be on any social media platform? Should I stubbornly stick to buying printed books from local bookstores as opposed to Amazon? Should I, like my mother, believe in face-time instead of FaceTime? I’m not sure whether these are the answers. But, perhaps, we need a lot of such small acts of rebellion. They might not stem the tide, but they might keep it in check.