TOC Thresholds versus ceilings Your Turn

January 4, 2011

Only drunks and children tell the truth. While not fool proof, this old adage has its kernel of truth. When, by nature or artifice, stakes are perceived to be low, who likes to load one's mind with lies? Aren't the best historical sources contemporary records written for the most mundane purposes?

As it happens, I was enjoying a rare week off with "Just My Type", a book which its dust jacket justly proclaims to be "about fonts" (*). How much farther could I have fled from the debates about eprivacy and the Information Age?

It does not mean I have no reservations with this survey of modern typography. While Lucida is duly included, at the very least its designers, Charles Bigelow (1) and Kris Holmes (2), should have been mentioned as memorable pioneers of digital font design (3).

But who will disagree when Simon Garfield defines "the ultimate tribute, that point when you know your typeface has really joined the pantheon of the greats. This is the point where people decide not to pay for it." En passant, the author of the highly topical "Just My Type" uncovers a general truth about our entire Information Age, however inconvenient it may be to many.

With information so easy to distribute and copy, the threshold of authorial fame corresponds to a ceiling on proprietary claims.

On the right are those for whom no ceiling will ever be high enough. If it must accommodate human greed, can it be otherwise? On the left are those for whom no author should be allowed to claim any right on his or her creation. If society must not be kept waiting, can it be otherwise? This is self-defeating. One position amounts to public taxation without representation, the other, to author's starvation through spoliation.

Pronaocratic reality depends on the case at hand. "Court cases ha[ve] rarely decided in the favour of the [type] designer" is an understatement attributed to Hermann Zapf (4). Compare this to the music industry whose extensive legal rights are fully backed by the US Supreme Court (5).

The situation is not much different in France. Simon Garfield ironically reports how the HADOPI, the very agency created at the insistent request of President Nicolas Sarkozy to punish downloading music for a song, started its activity by pirating a font exclusively designed for France Telecom.

In an attempt to reach a middle ground, I used the very truth highlighted by Simon Garfield. Were protection inversely proportional to fame, would piracy be such a universal problem? Following Matthew Carter (6), Simon Garfield suggests "the very successful can afford [to be magnanimous]".

But the viability of the rules I proposed is not today's focus. What I stress is that retuning the two stroke engine of human progress, i.e. personal greed and social solidarity, is a fundamental challenge which this new Age must meet sooner or later, current fundamentalists notwithstanding.

Lately there have been loud cries against what their critics called "walled gardens", i.e. attempts by Internet content providers to protect their property from web zealots. Steven Johnson for example complains "there is no standardised way to link to a page of a digital book" (**).

His solution would be to ask for all information to be mirrored on the web in a linkable format, while admitting "[this] web version can be behind a pay wall or some other kind of barrier if the publisher chooses". But a link which shoves interested users head first into a wall is but a frustrating form of advertising based on the false promise of free, instant access (7). Unless words are meaningless, selling is not the same as sharing.

What Steven Johnson is right to fear is that today's conditions unnecessarily inflate retrofit costs. If current architectures natively supported data rights, the latter would be manageable independently of the content itself. Instead content is often modified in order to better enforce property rights.

In theory if not in practice, a true solution exists for personal confidential information. Unfortunately and despite my previous optimism, writing for the paying public is a thornier case. If a module could present hyperlinks to a user by justly discriminating between free fair use and forbidden abuse, Steven Johnson and Rupert Murdoch would enjoy each other's company in a stunning messianic scene. Yet, such a module is not programmable.

The purposes of my rules is to relax the need to collect every cent so that one can restate: a magnanimous module has not been programmed, yet.

Could the same principle, the recognition that the involvement of crowds limit individual financial rewards, be applicable to a quite different, but no less inevitable challenge of our Age, what Gillian Tett calls the "cliff effect" (***)?

Speaking of the influence of credit rating agencies on sovereign debt, she observes how "small shifts in a rating can prompt an avalanche of sales, worsening a bad situation". The business model of these agencies is corrupt. They operate an oligopoly while refusing to be held responsible. But even on a well organized recommendation market, independent, correctly informed participants can suddenly agree that a reputation has been lost and make it a fact. To be sensible, any proposal "to create a viable alternative to judge credit risk" must deal with inevitable reputation bubbles.

One can and should find a way to avoid having to suddenly lower the boom on a country. Yet, however light, the last straw will always break the camel back. I once suggested an intermediate resolution mechanism akin to chapter 13 reorganizations in the face of bankruptcy. The idea is to trigger a freeze on bets and underlying debts as soon as crowding occurs to gain enough time for reputation bubbles to deflate without bursting.

This may be woolly thinking by an unqualified outsider. But is it far off the mark to try capping the financial rewards of those investors who profit from being first to suspect a "fire" and eliminating the need for all to rush to the exit to shouts of "fire"? The former may become reluctant to fan the flames, crowds easier to break up and those whose task is to signal the "fires" better focused on observing the facts rather than their consequences..

If we accept that thresholds may determine ceilings, is it so surprising to ask for doors to go through walls and staircases to climb down cliffs?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ..... Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield (Profile Books) - 2010
  • (**) ... Everyone must have access to the e-book revolution, by Steven Johnson (Financial Times) - December 28, 2010
  • (***) . Ratings agencies stuck in a bind as eurozone pressures mount, by Gillian Tett (Financial Times) - December 17, 2010
  • (1) see the entry for Charles Bigelow in the Wikipedia
  • (1) see the entry for Kris Holmes in the Wikipedia
  • (3) see more details on Lucida's design
  • (4) see the entry for Hermann Zapf in the Wikipedia
  • (5) see the Grokster case in my lecture on Copying
  • (6) see the entry for Matthew Carter in the Wikipedia
  • (7) this is the reason references to commercial sources used in these fillips have no links to their online versions.
January 2011
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