Confessions of an E-Book Developer
Whenever he approaches his breaking point, Akashic Books’ Production Manager Aaron Petrovich attempts to come to terms with his complicity in the proliferation of e-books, e-book technologies, device dependence, manifest digital destiny, diminishing curation, and the disintegration of thinking.
I would no sooner suggest that technology is neutral than that evil is natural, so when I find myself populating an expanding embarrassment of pre-ONIX metadata templates representing a variety of vendors carrying an effectively infinite inventory of digital products occupying every station on the content continuum from poorly written e-only, self-published personal manifestos (such as this) to finely crafted, agented, vetted, acquired, edited, and traditionally published instances of literary genius—none of which, in their electronic forms, can be truly owned, but some of which can, by the efforts of the likes of me, become discoverable—I try not to think about it.
Technology is neutral? Evil is natural? OK, then denial is inherited. Just ask my mother.
When I began to work on e-books I knew nothing about e-books but now that I construct, maintain, distribute, market and enjoy our success with e-books more than I care to admit, I can fairly say I know a little bit more about e-books than I once did. A person who knows nothing about e-books knows a little bit less about e-books than I do. I’m a little bit more advanced in e-book evolution than a tadpole on the path to humanity. You’re not a good person, my ethics professor used to instruct, if you’re only slightly better than an asshole. All discussions, he used to say, are moral. Morality, he used to say, is wholly learned.
What little I have learned of e-books is presently confined to the language I use to engage with them. I’ve been introduced to a new language and though I routinely use this new language, I can’t say I fully understand it. In order to properly convey my comprehension of and attitude towards such key digital market talking points as Digital Rights Management or the redundancy of dot NCX forms or the importance of the survival of independent bookstores or the moral imperative of a library’s ability to physically archive its culture’s legacy or the influence of the technology on the nature of storytelling, I would need to not only use this language, but comprehend it.
Any visitor to a foreign country will know what I’m talking about. Any visitor to a foreign country who has learned a single phrase in the country’s tongue well enough to confidently present it to a native speaker will know what I’m talking about when, upon performing the phrase with an authenticity conveying an implicit comprehension of the whole, he is met with an indistinguishable sequence of vowels, consonants, and inflections within which he is only able to properly identify a single noun while reluctantly accepting the possibility of the rumor of a verb, and is left in the exact location beyond humiliation, isolation, and despair that my father would describe as the human condition (precisely because our visitor is circumstantially stripped of the ability to communicate).
And it’s not so much that the language is new to me, but that a language I once thought I knew is being attributed new meaning, following the models of imperialism, colonialism, manifest destiny, the Stockholm Syndrome, Titoism or Johnny Templeism, Scientology, post-truth Republicanism, and the Tea Party, resulting in a subculture that is no more capable of communicating its notions of morality to the culture-at-large than our visitor to anyone other than himself, except perhaps on the further model of viral infection.
I learned, for example, the word workflow. I learned that the word workflow is a word and then I began to use it. If my coworkers took a shot of whiskey every time I use the word workflow, they would be much more agreeable in the early afternoon. When I use the word workflow even though the word workflow is a) not a word and b) rarely appropriate to the context in which I am using it, I can begin to measure the manner in which e-books are impacting a) my consciousness and b) my manner.
When I incorporate the word metadata into my use of the word workflow, my manner begins to change. This is a nasty word, this word metadata. The words ass-sweat, ballsack, sharting, teabagging, and moist can’t hold a candle to metadata. In any lexicon that includes the word metadata, the word fuck is an adorable little word. If the population had been routinely exposed to metadata, the #1 New York Times best-selling runaway hit Go the Fuck to Sleep would have sold three units, I’d still be employed in the restaurant industry, and I’d never have had the occasion to use the word metadata in the first place. Hm.
Metadata is also the primary agent in the digital market’s revision of the meaning of “discovery” and its mutation into the related word (not a word) discoverability. Discovery was once a lovely word, a key word fueling the advancement of human knowledge, an involuntary exclamation of joy accompanying the revelation of truths not yet known. The earth is round! The sun is the center! The galaxy is small! The particles composing us are smaller! The universe is expanding! God is dead! The particles composing us are sometimes not even particles! Or are they!? Even as new discoveries routinely refine or disprove the discoveries of previous generations, they are bound by the basic feature that, until the instant of their unveiling, they were not yet known by anyone. (Well, unless you believe in the existence of god.)
In the parlance of the e-book subculture, however, we use the word discoverability to describe the process by which we make a thing already known evident. How banal! We take a known thing—a book—and we attribute qualities to our known book that will make our known book discoverable. We populate the cells of metadata forms with discoverable qualities and upload them into the platforms of our vendors, which ingest them. That’s right, e-book platforms ingest! We must be more careful with our language! Ingestion is not an innocent metaphor. Metaphors are no more benign than technology. When we attribute platforms the quality of ingestion, we are taking platforms and making platforms fully-evolved monsters with enhanced digestive tracts conveying the implicit presence of a complex neurological system, an inherited feature previously only attributed to humanity, dolphins, and cuttlefish; and the primary system driving post-enlightenment humanity: The urge to discover! But now our exclamations are insipid! Here’s a thing that already exists! You should buy it! If you don’t want to pay full price for it, that’s OK! I’ll discount it! All this bores me! It includes bonus materials that also already exist! I think I just fell asleep! If you like this one thing you should also buy this other thing! I have moved outside a position of humility, isolation, and despair to one of despondency! Look, here’s a whole list of things! Organized by your own interests! I discovered them! For you!
In this context, e-book vendors are directly equatable to god, I, a metadata fulfiller, am directly equatable to a street-corner preacher, and you should be grateful that I’m willing to make all of your decisions and discoveries for you.
Oh shit. In the “you’re not good if you’re slightly better than” ethic, I think that I’m the asshole.
Aaron Petrovich’s novella The Session is only available in print form, but only because he hasn’t had a chance to convert it.
Posted: Mar 19, 2013
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