A Loss of Sovereignty?

Over the course of the weekend, rummaging through old boxes of books as part of a loft clearout, I came across more than a few OU textbooks and course books. Way back when, OU course materials were largely distributed in the form of print items and hard media – audio and video cassettes, CD- and DVD-ROMs and so on. Copies of the course materials could be found in college and university libraries that acted as OU study centres, via the second hand market, or in some cases purchased from the OU via OU Worldwide.

Via an OU press release out today, I notice that “[c]ourse books from The Open University (OU) have been donated to an educational sponsorship charity in Kenya, giving old course books a new use for the local communities.” Good stuff…

..but it highlights an issue about the accessibility of our materials as they increasingly move to digital form. More and more courses deliver more and more content to students via the VLE. Students retain access to online course materials and course environments for a period of time after a module finishes, but open access is not available.

True, many courses now release some content onto OpenLearn, the OU’s free open learning platform. And the OU also offers courses on the FutureLearn platform (an Open University owned company that made some share allotments earlier this year).

But access to the electronic form is not tangible – the materials are not persistent, the course materials not tradeable. They can’t really be owned.

I’m reminded of a noticing I had earlier this week about our Now TV box that lets us watch BBC iPlayer, 4oD, youTube and so on via the telly. The UI is based around a “My subscriptions” model which shows the channels (or apps) you subscribe to. Only, there are some channels in their that I didn’t subscribe to, and that – unlike the channels I did subscribe to – I can’t delete from my subscriptions. Sky – I’m looking at you. (Now TV is a Sky/BSkyB product.)

In a similar vein, Apple and U2 recently teamed together to dump a version of U2’s latest album into folks’ iTunes accounts, “giving away music before it can flop, in an effort to stay huge” as Iggy Pop put it in his John Peel Lecture [on BBC iPlayer], and demonstrating once again that our “personal” areas on these commercial services are no such thing. We do not have sovereignty over them. Apple is no Sir Gawain. We do not own the things that are in our collections on these services and nor do we own the collection: I doubt you hold a database right in any collection you curate on youtube or in iTunes, even if you do expend considerable time, effort and skill in putting that collection together; and I fully imagine that the value of those collections as databases are exploited by the recommendation engine mining tools the platform services operate.

And just as platform operators can add things to out collections, so too can they take them away. Take Amazon, for example, who complement their model of selling books with one of renting you limited access to ebooks via their Kindle platform. As history shows – Amazon wipes customer’s Kindle and deletes account with no explanation or The original Big Brother is watching you on Amazon Kindle – Amazon is often well within its rights, and it is well within its capacity, to remove books from your device whenever it likes.

In the same way that corporate IT can remotely manage “your” work devices using enterprise mobile device management (Blackberry: MDM and beyond, Goole apps: mobile management overview, Apple: iOS and the new IT, for example), so too can platform operators of devices – and services – reach into your devices – or service clients – and poke around inside them. Unless we’ve reclaimed it as our own, we’re all users of enterprise technology masked as consumer offerings and have ceded control over our services and devices to the providers of them.

The loss of sovereignty also extends to the way in which devices and services are packaged so that we can’t look inside them, need special tools to access them, can’t take ownership of them in order to appropriate them for other purposes. We are users in a pejorative sense; and we are used by service and platform providers as part of their business models.

4 comments

  1. benthamfish

    I fear that you are right. This loss of sovereignty pretty much certainly also extends to Fulfillment by Amazon, whereby they fulfill orders for you, but they have access to all the data about orders made and the customers that make them, even if the products are not sold by Amazon. In this particular case, companies are paying Amazon to fulfill orders made directly (not via Amazon), and are paying Amazon, even though Amazon can exploit the data obtained.

    It’s also quite easy to slip into selling via Amazon, thereby paying them even more, and strengthening their online offering. It always looks like people are buying *from* Amazon, even if you’re actually buying *via* Amazon.

    Alan
    alan@alanpaull.co.uk

  2. Brian L.

    There are a lot of loathsome things about that U2 album… the grave-robbing of “punk” icons and values to serve shameless corporate branding comes to mind. But given the hubbub around the album being “forced” on people, I think U2 might have been doing casual users a favour. It’s an obvious proof that “we’re all users of enterprise technology masked as consumer offerings and have ceded control over our services and devices to the providers of them”… It’s the “Amazon deleting 1984 off of people’s devices” exemplar of the current moment. Music collections are precious, intimate personal things to a lot of people, and seeing an album you don’t want in there makes the point visceral in ways that more esoteric (though more important) issues like data storage or location metadata cannot.

    I’d thank U2, but I never did run that special program to remove the album, and even though I never “downloaded” it either the songs pop up in “shuffle” mode occasionally. And it really is a shitty album, its sound as cynical as its business model.