Creativity, Innovation, and Change

January 10, 2016

OITP Director Alan Inouye introduces law professor Jonathan Zittrain
OITP Director Alan Inouye introduces law professor Jonathan Zittrain

“Let’s start not with technology but with values.” That was the opening remark from Jonathan Zittrain, professor of law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School and cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who gave a lively talk January 10 at the 2016 Midwinter Meeting in Boston.

Zittrain addressed those gathered for “Creativity, Innovation, and Change: Libraries Transform in the Digital Age,” asking them what libraries’ core purpose is. “Why do we have the books to begin with?” he asked.

He noted four goals that he said were nothing new, radical, or subversive:

  1. Freeing the world’s knowledge. This includes digitizing records. For example, at Harvard law library, staff members have digitized 16,187 out of approximately 43,000 volumes. That comes out to about 14.5 million pages.
  2. Catalyzing contributions. If 95% of content in law books is part of the public domain, then why does each book cost $200? Zittrain suggested that professors create a sort of iTunes playlist with the items they need to share with students.
  3. Cultivating scholarly skills. Zittrain said it’s important to distinguish between scholarly articles. He gave an example of SCIgen, a piece of software created by MIT researchers that generated fake computer-generated papers to show how easy it is to publish in scholarly journals by merely paying a fee.
  4. Contributing actively and fiercely to the development of free information platforms, such as the internet. The beauty of the internet, said Zittrain, is that there is no CEO. If you want to post something or create a website, “you don’t have to run it by anyone,” he said.

But technology is being developed without the values of the library, Zittrain said. He cited the example of Amazon’s Kindle, which began unwittingly selling George Orwell’s 1984 even though it did not have the rights to the novel. When the company discovered this, it “reached into every Kindle,” said Zittrain, and remotely deleted customers’ copies.

Similarly, within Barnes and Noble’s Nook e-reader, Zittrain said he noticed that in a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace he had downloaded, the word “Nookd” appeared confusingly throughout the book. He later discovered that it had been substituted for the word “kindle,” the competing e-reader owned by Amazon.

Zittrain challenged the audience by asking, “For how long are we going to have books? The book as we know it, as an artifact … is on its way out.”