Tribeca Film Festival: Out of Print

Out of Print: The digitization of books and its ramifications. This is a hard documentary to evaluate.  It’s not innovative in format, but the juxtapositions of talking heads saying diametrically opposite things is well-done; this film chose articulate interviewees who effectively convey their passion as well as their point of view.  But it’s not an entry-level documentary at all.

Judging from the after-film panel, the general public still doesn’t understand the bare basics of why digital print technology is creating so many problems (sharing e-copies means you can keep your copy and give away an identical copy, whereas lending hard copies means you lose your copy).  The film doesn’t explain this, but instead jumps straight into the industry’s struggles to adapt–and for that matter, the general public doesn’t understand the economics either and the film basically assumes you know at least that authors get royalties per copy.

As a documentary for insiders, I have some issues with the selective point of view.*  No documentary is ever going be totally free of bias, and in fact, I think the best documentaries are the ones who are up-front about their perspective, yet allow in opposing views.  Then you have the context for why the filmmaker chooses to display the subject the way he does.  I never quite got the sense of that this film was fully committed to its direction, nor did I have the sense that it was vacillating because it was trying to be “balanced.” It was more that the film seemed to get lost in certain side-streets and then not quite meander back to the main street.  Granted, the digitization of books is such a huge, huge subject, with so many subissues, that you could do a year-long series and not run out of material.  But I think this film missed the mark on where it chose to simplify, to exclude, and to expand.  Nobody from Google was included; perhaps that’s Google deciding not to participate, but there are plenty of public Google statements, press releases, etc. to cite without need for Google authorization.  Nobody from the major traditional publishers like HarperCollins weighed (the panel totally ducked when asked directly why that was so).  And so much of this film was devoted to whether digital content destroys our children’s minds.

I kid you not.  Minutes and minutes about how the Internet makes children spaced out and ruins their ability to think analytically and be able to pull together snippets of information, how they’re all going to grow up and operate by copying Wikimedia excerpts.  I think the Internet makes it easy to be a shallow, copy-and-regurgitate type, but I’m always puzzled by the fact that this is essentially the same environment in which a lot of scientists work–you have to search through tons of online info and then you pull the pieces together into an understandable whole.  And how life has always worked; nobody gets their news from a novel; they got it from AP wires, telegrams, town criers feeding it to you in pieces.  I will give the film credit for interviewing real, actual, high school teachers who point out it’s not the Internet, it’s how you use it, and how you use it depends on how you teach people to use it.  Which is always what people have been dealing with, pre-Internet or not. Your kid might not want to read Crime and Punishment but he or she might be perfectly willing to wade through thousands of online words (essays, blog posts, fanfiction, tweets, messageboards) to learn in detail the life, times, and morality of characters in Lost.  Same skill. But the interviewee in opposition to these teachers was so strident, leaning into the camera, almost yelling, that this portion came off as one of those local news “Do You Know What Your Children Are Doing?” scare-posés.

And so much in the film about how the long-form novel is critical to civilization.  I’m a life-long devout reader whose idea of fun as a preteen was reading David Copperfield.  But claiming that one category of written form is better than all others strikes me as elitist and ignorant of history; for better or worse, much of really recent modern history has been shaped by memoirs (the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution) or nonfiction (everything that undergirded the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights).  Give me a break.  Civilization is more complex than a novel; without novels, it’d be different but I think it’s ridiculous to make a judgment call now about whether it’d be poorer overall.

This documentary is a survey, is what my general conclusion is, and it’s a survey that documents people’s emotional and intellectual arguments about how digitization is changing a specific traditional subculture of reading and writing, namely, the reading of novels and the browsing of them in bookstores.  It goes no deeper than that, but it does very well at its chosen depth.

*Prominent topics not mentioned, just off the top of my head: Copyright as an idea has only existed in the Western world for four hundred years (for example, Dante’s Inferno, mentioned a lot in this film, wasn’t written under a copyright regime) and that idea has constantly evolved over that period.  Tons of non-Western regions have developed rich literature without copyright.  Some regions, Western and non-Western, have developed at least partial alternative incentive regimes to copyright that, while they have their own pros and cons, prove (U.S.-style) copyright isn’t the only possible economic/legal structure.  Copyright often interferes with the ability of the disabled, such as the blind or the deaf, to get access to versions of writings and other media that they can understand.  Google and Amazon (who got a nice platform in the film for its version) are competitors in the digital books world who may not necessarily have the same commercial goals, which would lead to them having different business/legal strategies.  The problem with orphan works.  Project Gutenberg-like initiatives for public domain works.  Copyright covering lots of other things, like software, so if you change the laws because of something in the book industry, you need to watch out for what it might do in some other industry.  The simple fact that copyright is based on laws that can be changed so then the economic incentives change and the business model changes.

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