“Frankly, I suspect the book isn’t even necessary”

OK, so I’m writing a blog post about a webcomic. *Hangs head in shame*

(shared under a CC-BY-NC 2.5 licence, from xkcd.com)

One of my internet guilty pleasures is xkcdsucks (probably not entirely SFW as will have swearing and internet memes in) – a small community dedicated both to lamenting the continued drop in quality in the published work of Randall Munroe and to disappearing into an onslaught of in-jokes and general nonsense. But I’ve never actually been annoyed enough by XKCD to write a response to it. Until now.

One of the ways XKCD polishes it’s geek cred (along with the whole “I worked for NASA once” thing – he had an internship and they ‘let him go’) is to publish everything under an open license to support sharing and open culture (not of course, free culture – Randall isn’t going to countenance someone that isn’t him making money from his stick-figure drawings of Richard Stallman. Oh dear me no.). Which make this particular strip a little embarrassing for him.

So anyway, stick figure A (characterisation, like lactation fetishism, is one of Randall’s weaknesses) is astonished to discover stick figure B has an entire bookshelf filled with blank books. On questioning B, A is met with a series of arguments drawn from… well where, exactly? The first panel sounds like it could be part of a course on creativity, the second seems more like a generalised big business conspiracy theory. Clearly we are expected to find these arguments risible because, as person A notes, person B has paid for blank books. Excuse me whilst I LOL, or indeed RO the FLM pert and beguiling AO.

Unfortunately both of the straw man arguments hold a lot of water. Like bowls. Large bowls made of straw. It is perfectly legitimate to argue that the rise of DRM and closed file formats have led internet culture to become a community of consumers rather than a community of producers and remixers. You hear this a lot around the growth of iOS and the closed-platform/app-store model replacing the open web, indeed – it’s an argument I’d expect Linux and Android fan Randall to make himself. Which he kind of does.

And it is easy to stereotype arguments about big business taking away our freedoms and manufacturing needs in order to sell products, but it is exactly what publishers do. Apart from exploiting authors, reviewers, and readers, which I guess is what they do in their spare time when they aren’t constraining and limiting the free flow of knowledge via introducing artificial ideas of scarcity. As Randall also has pointed out.

So – am I arguing that we should all buy books with blank pages? No. But stories and information doesn’t have to come, via a publisher, from a book. We can, do, and should write our own stories and share them with the world. And if that sounds jejune, well, we’re the grown-ups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.
My own opinions, not those of my employer. Available with a CC-BY license, excepting the cartoon which is available under a non-free CC-BY-NC license.

4 thoughts on ““Frankly, I suspect the book isn’t even necessary””

  1. David, the arguments make more sense when you read the mouse-over and realise that the cartoon is about alternative medicine, homeopathy in particular.

  2. Indeed – although, those are rubbish arguments to use about homeopathy too. The metaphor doesn’t actually work for the first one – for that, person A would be buying blank books with the expectation that some “memory of print” in the blank recycled paper would directly convey ideas to his brain through some hitherto undiscovered mechanism.Regarding the second – as Ben Goldacre rightly points out in “Bad Science” – the same criticisms also apply to the homeopathy industry as to the evidence-based medicine industry, indeed the medicines and the sugar dipped in almost certainly unflavoured water are often made by the same companies.As you can tell from the above, I’m no fan of alternative medicine. But there are better ways to make the argument than in this cartoon. Most notably, that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that homeopathy works.

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