Dragged into the Future, kicking and screaming

Well, I’ve finally done it. I’ve finally resolved myself to the 21st century, an age where your content isn’t really yours, it’s only borrowed. For a historian of my generation, I’ve been an early adopter regarding digital research, but it’s only just this past week that I’ve accepted what many others already have in their life more generally – a connected world where you pay based on a subscription plan.

Perhaps the disconnect between my professional and personal life is best illustrated by the fact that I still haven’t bitten the bullet and purchased a smartphone. It’s not for lack of desire – ten years ago I was the proud owner of an Axim PDA. For the past six years or so I have made use of the poor-man’s equivalent of the iPhone, an iPod Touch. But what has held me back is the philosophical principle – I loathe being forced to pay $X for an iPhone and then have to sign up for a two-year data plan that will quintuple the purchase price, every two years. But I fear it’s inevitable – I would in fact already have one if they sold the 64 GB iPhone in stores (a failed emergency purchase attempt the morning of our flight to London). So in the past week, I’ve almost completely thrown in the towel, admitted defeat, and learned to (almost) love my new overlord masters – subscription services.

A week ago I broke down and subscribed for a year to Evernote’s Premium service, so I can download all my notes and use them offline when I don’t have Internet access. This was a real problem in England, since the cheap hotels rarely had reliable wifi, and the international 3G plans were expensive and exhausted rapidly. It’s also an issue at work, where it is taking forever for the entire campus to acquire a wifi signal. Plus, I’ve been thinking more and more of using Evernote for my research journal, thought notebook and draft snippet container, even as I keep my primary sources and bibliographic database in MS Access – the freeform nature of Evernote makes it easy to postpone worrying about where exactly to file your content. Portability is also key: I have ideas in all sorts of places, and since I usually have an iPad at hand, it makes sense to use an iPad app that syncs automatically with the desktop client, as well as being accessible anywhere through a Web interface. Fortunately you are not totally locked into Evernote: I had already gotten in the habit of performing occasional backups of my notes by selecting them all, exporting them as html, and then converting them into a PDF so they would be searchable on my iPad’s GoodReader and elsewhere. But even though that only takes a few minutes, I’m not going to do that each time I make changes, and exporting to PDF eliminates all of the other features of Evernote. So I guess I’m stuck with Evernote, for now at least. [Side note: for those who use Evernote, be sure to learn some of the search syntax to search by tags, in note titles, etc., and make saved searches so you can combine notes from different notebooks – it’s made life a lot easier since I actually decided to look up tips on how to use it. You can also use Ctrl-Shift-V to paste text into a note with the default Evernote formatting, something that I was constantly having to fiddle with.]

But Evernote Premium wasn’t the end of it. I also just subscribed to Dropbox’s 100 GB per year plan – up from the free 5 GB or so I had already filled up. The desire to easily transfer files from device to device, combined with the desire for an offsite, online-accessible backup, forced my hand. Dropbox has the advantage of replacing the USB drives with which I shifted files between home and work, especially class handouts and ever-growing numbers of PowerPoint presentations (more than twenty 2-10MB presentations for each of the eight courses I regularly teach over a three-year cycle). I’ve already lost three USB drives over the past eight years, which might be a blessing in disguise, since I have an old USB thumb drive that can carry a whopping 250 MB! With Dropbox and other cloud storage companies you can also access your files from the desktop, the iPad (iPhone…) as well as from any Web-accessible device; most iPad apps also include Dropbox as a default import source, which helps. At the same time, my school encouraged me to take the plunge, since it provides a piddly 2.5 GB of storage for faculty, and I would need to go through a cumbersome remote desktop to access that data from home in any case.  (I’ve also decided to scan in the textbooks I use regularly, so I can have them wherever I want to prep, and just use the iPad in class.) Dropbox is also the main way in which I transfer PDFs from the desktop to the iPad’s GoodReader, which I do 100+ files (a gig or so) at a time. Plus, I can now quickly backup whatever changes I make to my folders. For example, I’m in the process of dividing up each of my archive PDFs (i.e. PDFs of images of archival volumes) by year, so I can have all the materials on the year 1702 in a single folder: published and archival, primary and secondary, text and image, full-text and merely scanned. Considering all the work that entails (find what page of the PDF each year starts and ends on and then save to a separate PDF file, repeat ad nauseum), I want to back up after I’ve parsed each volume. Plus, I now have a more secure backup than what I have at home (a 2 TB external drive) and at my office at school (100+ DVDs piled in my office, 4.7 GB at a time). I should have done this a long time ago, for the offsite backup alone. But I guess I’ve been cheap principled up till now. It’s still not enough storage space for all my needs, but I can prioritize much better with 100 GB than with 5 GB.

With these two purchases I have finally bought into the future of capitalism, renting in perpetuity rather than owning outright. It’s been a long time coming I suppose. I vaguely recall a few moments of weakness related to the Columbia Music House and History Book-of-the-Month clubs, experiences which probably first clued me in to the evils of subscription services, especially when you don’t even need to mail the card back to get the Pick of the Month! (Bastards.) Perhaps these early experiences soured me to cable, not to mention that at least there was still free broadcast TV and no-commitment Blockbuster video rentals. (My wife and I only got cable in 2003 after I caved, twelve years into our marriage.) Then it morphed in the 1990s into talk of Web-based software and thin clients. The practice was enabled by the commercialization of the Web, and popularized by services like Netflix, and more importantly by iTunes and expanded by Amazon Kindle, now made practical with the near-ubiquity of wifi and data plans conjuring up visions of “the Cloud” that is everywhere and nowhere all at once. The difference between 1970s-era music/book clubs and the modern version, however, lies in what purely-digital content allows: end-user agreements, contracts which increasingly specify that you literally do not own your digital “purchases,” instead you simply rent the right to access them. The reality of constant Internet access also allows companies to revoke previously-acquired access at a moment’s notice (read the EULAs, search Kindle’s Orwellian treatment of 1984, as well as Netflix’s struggle with content provider Starz). I eventually sucked it up for cable, but for some reason, music and smartphones are my tipping point: I have been extremely hesitant towards a service that locks customers into perpetual subscription-tude. Libraries have already been force to cave, as they now rent access to journal databases that can be taken away whenever Elsevier et al deem fit (search the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Education for examples where libraries suddenly lose access to journals, including back issues they had already paid for but turns out never really owned). And textbook companies not surprisingly want a similar model, where students rent e-textbooks rather than purchase cheaper used copies (no additional royalties to the publisher) that the students can then resell (assuming the publishers don’t release a new edition every year to combat this). Digital serfdom one could say, with unending fees and no guarantee of future price scales, much less future service.

But, to quote Trent Reznor, maybe there is Happiness in Slavery. There are certainly advantages to the subscription model (easier upgrading and trouble-shooting among them), and the amazing possibilities of digital data over the Web make the idea bearable. Yet I still find myself pining for the good old days when you actually owned what you bought, and companies didn’t force you to sign up for a never-ending ponying up of cash. I’ve already had to repurchase a dozen MP3s that I’d previously purchased from Napster (legally), but now am unable to “acquire the license” when I try to play them – I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much, though, since I fortunately never had a large vinyl collection to replace on CD (just a bunch of relatively-inexpensive mix tapes).

That being said, the individual costs of such subscription services usually aren’t outrageous for a single year (especially now that you can purchase digital items in small chunks, for just a little cash) – but of course that’s the beauty of subscription services, they make themselves useful and don’t remind you of how much you end up paying over the long term. Whether this is worth it or not depends on what companies decide to do with your data, how much they decide to raise the price next year, and how accessible it will all be at some indistinct point in the future. For that we’ll need to wait and see. In the meantime, I guess I just need to forget that consumption wasn’t always a (potentially) life-long commitment to a particular brand, and ignore as well the little counter in my head that keep toting up how much my Dropbox, Evernote and webhosting services cost me over a five year period.

Back up! Make your own copies – don’t assume anything you find online (e.g. Google Books) will be available a year from now!

So, are you analog, digital, or a reluctant hybrid? Any can’t-live-without subscription services that make it all worthwhile?

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4 responses to “Dragged into the Future, kicking and screaming”

  1. Erik Lund says :

    I tend to be on the trailing edge of technology, so my iPhone 4 purchase of last year was my first serious effort to use technology as a research aid. I bought Pages and Genius Scan for it, but they proved a little disappointing, You really can’t type on a phone.

    Now, I wouldn’t even have tried if I weren’t so tired of lugging my laptop into the stacks every time I went to grab a book. More importantly, the 4’s camera resolution was so weak that the PDFs were turning out unreadable.

    This week, I had a chance to try out my new iPad in the same role. It’s still not a very good typing tool, but the PDFs are lovely, and I’m sure will get better as I get more practice with them. iCloud/DropBox storage means that they’re conveniently available from my workstation, although Genius Scan is overrun with so many alternative methods for inter-device sharing that I might even be able to figure them out. (Can you tweet a PDF? Post them on Facebook?)

    So now I have the entire MIT Radar Handbook series chapter on Selsyns on my iPad, and my laptop, as soon as I decide how to summon it, Now all I have to do now is turn it into readable history. It’s nice that that’s now the hard part.

    • jostwald says :

      I’m at the stage where I have 1000s of PDFs, but most of the primary source PDFs aren’t OCRable. But apparently a group at Texas A&M just received a grant to crowd-source early modern transcriptions in order to develop an OCR engine for 17C-18C fonts. That would be a god-send, since so few military titles have been transcribed in the EEBO and ECCO Text Creation Partnership program.

      • Björn Thegeby says :

        Abbyy Reader (I have version11) can OCR older pages provided the print quality is reasonable. I have photographed older books and after OCR ended up with a text searchable pdf, which I prefer as a medium. Abbyy also claims to have an online OCR that can read fraktur, but that has never worked for me. Now if Amazon could come out with a modern large screen version of Kindle at a reasonable price….

      • jostwald says :

        Way back in the day (we’re talking late 1990s) I had an early version of Abbyy FineReader and used it a lot, mostly for primary sources published in the 19C-early 20C. More recently, I’ve been using Adobe’s built-in OCR and exporting secondary sources to a Word doc if I need the text separate (e.g. for textual analysis). I think I tried some late 17C-early 18C documents in FineReader a few years back, but it was pretty worthless for most texts – random giant characters, bizarre columns, none of which were easy to fix. And unfortunately a lot of the manuals, contemporary histories, pamphlets, and newspapers have pretty poor print quality. But I haven’t taken the time to try and train the OCR for a specific font. Much easier to complain about it.

        The iPad is really useful for zooming in on those hard-to-read, small-print PDFs of The Daily Courant, etc. And it’s good for other things too. Cheapness, not so much.

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