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ongoing web column   by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

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Lessons learned from the defeat of Google Authorship and catalogues' contests

About the furore of data fundamentalists against digital copyright

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2014). Lessons learned from the defeat of Google Authorship and catalogues' contests. About the furore of data fundamentalists against digital copyright. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 3.12 (December).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2014). Lessons learned from the defeat of Google Authorship and catalogues' contests. About the furore of data fundamentalists against digital copyright. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 3.12 (December).

You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.
Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget, 2010

30 December 2014 - Google Authorship was a project I looked at with favour. It seemed converging towards the need for a fairer treatment of creators, inventors, writers of all disciplines and sectors in digital markets.

And yet, Google Authorship was decommissioned last autumn without receiving almost any attention by neither the media nor the academic community.

Everybody wants free contents after all.

It seems that few really care about the name of the authors and their identities - unless they are celebrities whose names are actually brands.

In spite of a constant legislative attention in the last twenty years, poked by publishers, libraries, professional associations and collecting societies, the need to reform and innovate copyright has gradually become a dull and boring subject even the most strenuous supporters started to doubt about.

Members of the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society have been recently told that revenues for professional writers have fallen by 29% in real terms over the last 8 years.

But in the written and published copy of the speech given by its Chair to the last ALCS’s AGM, Adam Singer gave a very good, non ambiguous, straight talk in which he turned towards a more diplomatic “generational divide” argument, saying the problem of fallen revenues from copyright affects mainly the older generations of authors, whereas the youngest are keen on adopting, sharing and developing new business models.

I have some doubts.

What Adam Singer’s speech did not say is that, assuming it is true that digital creators generally access new forms of wealth and are not exploited by big media and advertisers, causing also social risks and challenging the welfare system, such view implicitly gives up the expectation that moral and material rights of authors are recognised per se, because copyright - as democracy - is a principle conquered through centuries of western battles for civilisation.

In fact, moral and material rights of authors are rights connected to other fundamental human rights - like freedom of speech and freedom from slavery.

The fundamentalists furore for open data against copyright

In 2012 the UK Gov launched a consultation about copyright matters in respect of a number of new types of contents (and technologies) that pose copyright opportunities and risks for knowledge dissemination and also demand fairness and equality of treatment for their creators. Everybody understands the expectation that authors’ work is remunerated.

There was an idea of building a “digital copyright exchange” that seemed to me an ambitious but perfectly sensible collective endeavour, considering the evidence that revenues from the digital economy have now reached or surpassed those of many brick & mortar or traditional businesses (particularly in media, advertising, retailing, financial services).

I answered the consultation focussing on data and text mining for research - an apparently “just technical” subject pertaining the accessibility of academic research and the openness of government data and statistics but that, in my opinion, constitutes the battlefield for innumerable areas of innovations, from privacy to advertising, from industrial production to policing. My response to the consultation was also documented with an article published by the Aslib magazine ’Managing information’ (Is there any Digital Copyright Exchange in your future?. In ‘Managing information’, 19 (2012), n. 3, p. 28-30 - self archived manuscript unedited version published here).

Almost everybody (publishers, academic and other large organisations), but the BBC and myself, dismissed the case for the creation of a digital copyright exchange, leaving the fundamental point of how we manage wealth generated from intellectual work as an irrelevant argument.

It seems the social and political risks of transforming intellectual work in a commodity is a difficult subject for academics, politicians, researchers, marketers.

What does it mean reducing differences to insignificant variations of what tends to be inevitably the same digital stuff, once we remove the human responsibility and the original intellectual contributions provided by different authors?

Lessons learned from catalogues contests

In one of my former digital endeavours, when I was still living in Italy, between 1999 and 2002, I designed and commercialised training courses about online information search technologies and services aimed at librarians, researchers, media executives, teachers, small business entrepreneurs, journalists and other categories - that was the first generation of internet professional and business users.

One of the most successful exercises I designed for such courses was all about acquiring confidence with the subtle process of assessing the quality of sources of data and information we find online, keeping a critical distance from whatever trusted intermediary.

The exercise’s title was “Contest among generalist catalogues”. Participants were required to perform a certain search and nominate the “best catalogue” among up to nine different online catalogues or directories.

Assessing online information resources requires to exercise both our intuitive thinking and our analytic mind in a sequence of actions and events that involves emotions, cognition and above all to pause and reformulate our thoughts interactively, while we acquire new bits of data from the various sources and recognise our own thinking, feeling and judging on their features (Stanovich, Kaneman and other psychologists have named these stages as the two ways of thinking, or system 1 and system 2 - and this column’s title is a tribute to such immensely useful notion).

The “Contest among generalist catalogues” seemed quite a dull exercise at first, being the objective apparently so simple: participants were required to select the best available catalogue pertaining a certain subject. They should consider that the user was an adult, non specialist, who wanted to explore the availability of information and discover new sources at his or her own pace on that specific subject.

To make the exercise lesson unforgettable and reusable from an appreciative point of view, I decided that the search subject should be enough controversial to show a certain degree of complexity and the intricacies of dealing with our own perceptions, intuitions, reflections, analysis, procedures and sentiments during the evaluation process.

The exercise’s subject should also be authoritative enough to prevent the class from being paralysed by excruciating or trivialised debates that would distract everybody from the learning objectives (this is, by the way, the very educational limit I see in the current learning experiments through social media).

So, I ended up choosing the subject of “bioethics”.

It sounded easy stuff and quite interesting for all the partecipants. However, almost inevitably, after reading some key questions that were provided as guidance, everybody found the simple counting and comparison of the number of resources comprised by each of the five up to nine catalogues more demanding than they were expecting. The main cause of dizziness was that not all the catalogues were transparent on the number of items or records they had included nor about the criteria they used to select and classify the selected resources.

It was not just the quantitative dimension of the catalogues to cause such confusion in respect of the given goal.

To transform what many had imagined as an enjoyable learning exercise in a sort of pilgrimage was the evidence of a complete diverse categorisation of the subject within catalogues that were expected to have the same structure, so that a true comparison was actually impossible.

Even the more experienced participants, and particularly librarians who are in general very familiar with the Dewey Decimal Classification in which any subject can be legitimately and consistently scattered among diverse disciplines that deal with it, were puzzled by the apparent randomness of attribution: the same resources about bioethics appeared to be treated by some catalogues as a matter of science (biology, genetics, sexology) by others as philosophy (ethics) and religion, or medicine (organ transplants), or art and education.

Nobody expected catalogues to expose such fuzziness! Imagine you wake up, you have your usual ten minutes to prepare breakfast and a packed lunch and suddenly you find …flour in the coffee jar, nothing in the fridge, and all the pottery in the house has changed contents without any rationale!

Each catalogue or directory showed the subject ‘bioethics’ within a certain particular structure and organization of knowledge. And within each catalogue, the same identical resources could be classified under various labels and classes, accordingly to different editorial criteria and degrees of Christian bias.

Many participants jumped quite soon to the consideration (and the complaint against the exercise designer!) that choosing the “best catalogue” was actually impossible since we had not established any critical success factor or policy to avoid an inevitably chaotic level of subjectivity and discretionary choices.

Comparisons among diverse languages and countries added further evidence of an enormous variety of treatment in spite of the evidence the catalogues included the same identical sources.

As soon as participants shared some comments on the procedural challenges encountered (with a little help from the tutors as that was in the design of the exercise too), the class was prompted to recognise that “the best” catalogue did not actually exist but in our own perception of this or that characteristic.

For about five years during which I commercialised and run various edition of the same training course, this exercise was always successful because of its effectiveness in teaching an underestimated or unknown process. We tend not to see and not to recognise diversity unless either we are thought how to do it or we experience the dreadful evidence of its absence.

Various tutors that facilitated the classes, besides myself, found relatively easy to wrap up the conclusions of the exercise as the participants had reached themselves the interesting considerations we wanted to point out - and they always added something new for us to learn as well.

The debate showed that the same resources on an identical subject can be approached from different perspectives, contexts and disciplines to the extent that complementarity and integration results often more convenient than exclusion or substitution. That is true in the common interest of sharing and progressing knowledge.

The violence of moving the goalposts in other people games

But then something changed.

We started having participants showing a surprising, unexpected and yet very direct, distinctive racist or fascist attitude towards the various catalogues, the resources and even the communities cited by the various websites the exercise prompted to browse. It seemed these attendees were disturbed at first but soon a pattern emerged as they were actually acting quite systematically as agent provocateurs with the only purpose to verbally attack tutors and other participants. They were using instrumental and inconsistent motivations, they declared to be offended by this or that, accused the rest of the class of wasting time, turned aggressively towards the tutors and those participants who simply expressed and shared pros and cons of their own evaluations, as the exercise required.

The “catalogues contest” exercise became a target for propaganda of Lega Nord and Comunione and Liberazione moviments and other politically oriented views. These fundamentalists’ expressed their furore with paradoxical and puzzling text messages, using powerful, populistic and simplistic arguments: concepts like authoritativeness, convenience and efficiency were distorted or stretched to reinforce the (easy) point they wanted to make, that the best catalogue actually existed if only we wanted to see it and use it without useless comparisons, that was a matter of trust and collaboration to choose and to agree the one that should be considered the best one and above all end users of online resources and catalogues had the right of using the best catalogue and not waste their time with benchmarking exercises and comparisons.

My customers, my tutors and myself struggled to contrast the concerted propaganda that abused of our own spaces, methods, instructional materials and tools to clearly gather consensus around a propaganda objective: the idea that the true goal of collaboration and discussion was to conform to the choice of “one best option” instead of allowing comparisons among diverse, sometimes complementary, sometimes competitive resources, was powerful and seductive after all because simplified the task and reduced the cognitive load.

It was an act of terror and violence we were not prepared and I had never imagined could happen in a democratic Country after the turn of the Century.

Ideas and behaviours of the agent provocateurs’ relied on simple procedural tricks, such ignoring or diminishing, ridiculing or falsifying data about personal and collective authors, exaggerating the easiness or sophistication of technical features of this or that catalogue, summarily accusing specific editorial choices of being partisan or outdated, without any sound reasoning or evidence in support of their judgement.

I felt all my bravery in designing effective exercises to teach procedural skills that have been considered at the heart of best practices in information management, librarianships and other information sciences for decades had been simply crushed without any rationale.

Some time later, I wrote a sarcastic blog headline alluding to such behaviours saying “if there is just one of something, everybody wants it”.

I was accused of having “language problems”

After the attacks to the contents of my very own learning services, the aggression spread towards my own company, intellectual property rights and trademarks. Contents of my courses and my consultancy projects and feasibility studies, covered by confidentiality and non disclosure agreement, were published without my permission under other names or with mocking references to myself and my business.

The totality of my customers from the private sector as well as from the academic and the public sectors disappeared in a matter of less than two years between 2005 and 2007, with pathetic excuses (perhaps the most ridicule was the one offered by Regione Toscana, saying that since as a provider of e-learning courses I had no competitors at the moment, they could not make any further public procurement exercise in this area because I would result …as the only possible winner!).

I had only an option left, that I embraced initially with a sense of gratitude and honour: to work for the Library of the Universita’ Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan that, quite miraculously, came to help with a very interesting project and option of continuity but for the weird requirement that as a condition in exchange for a temporary contract for services I should close down my own training and consultancy business as that was said to be allegedly incompatible with the University’s policies (utterly nonsense from any legal and business perspective of course).

From the perspective of the business owner let down by public sector clients at a time in which these represented almost the totality of the company turnover, it seemed a convenient bargain at first. It turned out instead as the devil’s ultimatum, and a definitive betrayal of a professional community: the idea of a permanent contract or employment ended in nothing few months after the successful handover of a first round of services, with the motivation that I would be “too free” to represent the University as an employee in spite of the overall appreciation and success of my contributions and collaboration.

Conclusions

The workplace is always full of hidden, silent acts of psychological violence, pressure, unduly influence or perfectly legitimate editorial directions, and all such different levels of interference and social conditioning are often engineered in increasingly sophisticated ways.

That is why, I believe, to fight the concerted actions of scammers, extremists and the activities of fundamentalists' and cyber criminals we need to reinforce - not to reduce or water down or hide or dismiss - the recognised moral and material role of authors for the digital economy.

If Google does not do that, perhaps there is a good reason: recognising the moral and material rights of digital authors is everybody’s business and a social, cultural and political goal, not just a corporate, and possible conflictual, commitment.