Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2010/ Staying Out of the Way

Staying Out of the Way

I was checking my e-mail this afternoon at the public library when I observed somebody in distress. Our library has an agreement to distribute e-books. To prevent redistribution and other unauthorized uses of these e-books, the e-books are encumbered with digital rights/restrictions management (DRM) software, which means you need to jump through hoops in order to read them.

There is a workstation at the library that allows you to download these e-books, and a fellow was feeling frustrated by the process. I was not eavesdropping very closely, but from what I overheard I think that he was having problems using his USB key in the machine, and that this was the second such key he had purchased. The poor reference librarians could not help him much. I think they made a call to their technical support, which I think was also not useful.

I finished reading my e-mail and left before the situation was resolved, so for all I know the frustrated downloader went away happy. However, that's not the point. My day job involves understanding and debugging computer problems, and there is a fair chance that if I had stepped away from my e-mail for a few minutes I could have at least deciphered the error message the fellow was getting. But I didn't. I kept to my business and kept reading my e-mail.

Just like always, I made up excuses. I don't like DRM, and I especially do not like DRM-encumbered books. As far as I am concerned the music and movie companies are welcome to collapse and die. In the meantime I am happy to refrain from downloading their material against their wishes. I am not perfect (YouTube is a particular problem) but overall I do not think my life would be poorer if Big Music and Big Movies did not exist.

However, books are another story. I have mixed feelings about e-books overall, but I definitely know that DRM is a great way to prohibit reading these e-books on open devices, and I know that DRM means that these materials can be locked away from us arbitrarily. So in some sense I would be happy if the public library's strategy of distributing DRM e-books fails, and I told myself that it is in my best interests to feel frustrated when they try to access those books.

Of course, that is nonsense reasoning. I am not driven by high-faluting ideals. I just don't want to get involved, just as I avoid saying "hello" to people on the street, just as I avoid dramatics, just as I shy away from people's suffering. Letting an innocent library patron suffer when I might have been able to help is just another example of this.

Assume for a minute that I was not a total jerk, and that I had the courage to get involved. Given my feelings for DRM, would it have been better to try and solve his problem, or would it have been better to refrain? I do not have a good answer to this question. Maybe the best action would have been to get involved, but explain how DRM was causing his frustration.

This is the point of the entry where I am supposed to vow to do better next time. But what's the point? Every single time I get into one of these dilemmas I weasel out of my responsibilities to reduce suffering, and I know my patterns well enough to pretend that it's going to be different next time. Unless I find the resolve to change, I am going to keep screwing these situations up until I die. In the process I will be helping to create the very standoffish, unfriendly societies I complain about.