Rootkits and Controlled Vocabulary: An Unlikely Comparison

I’ve been following the Sony-BMG rootkit DRM issues with interest. There’s a series of themes to that scandal that reappear at regular intervals; one of the most compelling to me is the perceptions of the user that’s becoming increasingly obvious. The user as criminal, and as cash cow; the user as high-tech hacker, and then as dumb sheep who pay the ignorance premium.

Sony-BMG is clearly interested more in your wallet than your personal experience of their products. They seem to feel that they’re sitting on hot property and they want to make sure you pay for it, you dirty, dirty commoners. But even more than that, they want to mediate the user’s experience of their product. They want the user to pass through several levels of technology and difficulty (using a custom player, installing software on the your machine, etc.) in order to experience the product in the right way.

While there’s an argument to be made that the malware-inspired rootkit that Sony forced upon its paying users is a sign that technological evolution have had an impact on the way the music industry communicates with us (modelling themselves after crackers rather than the open source movement), on the whole, this whole mess is a testament to an industry that doesn’t want change, that distrusts technology and the people who know how to use it. Some homegrown folks worked out better ways to distribute information and got there first. The big guys are fighting back with traditional ways of thinking and the morality card rather than coming up with a better economic model. The conflict is a perfect description of an industry that is trying to stall technological evolution rather than allowing it to get under their skin and fundamentally change them.

Sony-BMG did not, I’m sure, mean to wreck their users computers and open up gaping security holes in the operating systems of the people who actually paid for their products. The fact that they did shows that they are (I would say) criminally negligent, and that the people making the decisions weren’t qualified to have an opinion about what constitutes fair DRM, and didn’t care enough about their users to ask the questions about the damaging installs. They will blame their tech guys for this. They will blame their own ignorance of things technical. But none of that is fair; the strategic directive behind this is to blame. What they wanted was a controlled product. They wanted to mediate the way we seek out and use their wares, and were not prepared to tolerate anything less.

Looking at all the discussion around the rootkit issue, I’m prompted to make an unlikely comparison to the way librarianship talks about controlled vocabularies. Bear with me on this one; a bit strange, but still revealing.

A controlled vocabulary is sort of like the rootkit of librarianship. In order to find the product (the information you want), you need to play by our predetermined, sometimes nonsensical rules. You can’t use your own language or your intuition, you can’t ask your question and get some answers. You can’t take the skills you’ve honed in your other forms of searching and apply them to the product we manage. No, you need to leave all that at the door and use our system. And in order to use it, you need to learn how we think, and find things by first framing them according to our values and perspective. You need to install the rootkit that we are offering you in order to get where you’re going.

Like the language around DRM, many librarians tut-tut at people who use search systems that don’t conform to the traditional values of librarianship, that reveal information in ways many librarians don’t approve of (see Michael Gorman on Google).

And this is not to say that I’m perfectly uncritical of keywords. I recognize the pros and cons of a controlled vocabulary and human ordering. I guess where this comes from is looking long and hard at what’s going on with Google, and being disappointed that it was them who came up with it. Sure, they have the money and the time and the skills, but still; it disappoints me that it’s Google that worked this one out, and that it’s still Google who’s on the forefront of information organization.

I’m frustrated by Michael Gorman, in his role as the president of the ALA, is telling the world that Google Print (now Google Book Search) is such a bad thing. I’m frustrated that it took someone other that librarians to stop and think that the scanning == indexing equation is a natural progression of subject headings; it’s what the first cataloguers would have done if they’d had the tools to do it. I know about the legal issues around Google’s project, and I’m hoping against hope that Google wins in the end. Because technology has presented us with a better means of getting at the content of books and articles, and it would be a crying shame to lose that. And no, it’s not just about bad keyword searching. (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone complain that Google’s algorithm is based entirely on how many times a word appears on a page, I’d be a rich woman.) I’m frustrated that so many librarians are willing to stay ignorant about what Google is actually doing and cling to this old trope about how a dumb search engine works. With a combination of human categorizing (tagging/metadata), authority control, and full text searching, we can help users arrive at a better search result that goes deeper than the cover of the book. We can help people find what they’re looking for, which is supposed to be the point. I’m frustrated that Google Book Search seems to mean e-books to people (even to some librarians). Is an index an e-book? Are subject headings giving away too much of the book? Are summaries and abstracts just small, abridged e-books? I’m disappointed by how much of the truly innovative thinking about cataloguing, metadata and searching isn’t coming from the library community, and how much resistance I’ve seen to those non-librarians by some of us on the inside. We should be inspired by these technological advances, not wringing our hands like Sony BMG.

This isn’t about bowing down to the gods of Google. Likewise, I’m not suggesting that the music industry roll over and accept that we’re all going to snag free copies of whatever we want, whenever we want it. What I’m hoping for from all angles is the openness to accept change, to be challenged and changed by it, and to create a better information environment because of it. I’d like to see the music industry stop hating its user base and start catering to it instead; I’d like to see librarians stop hating/fearing Google and start working in partnership with them for the benefit of their patrons.

Since a dear friend of mine has recently been offered a job with Google, I’ve had time to think about what it might mean to consider Google a partner rather than an enemy. There’s so much synergy between us and them, so many interesting ways our worlds intersect. Do we want to be DRM pushers like Song BMG, or do we want to be open source and user-friendly? Be at the forefront of change or in the courts trying to preserve the information landscape of the 1950s?

2 thoughts on “Rootkits and Controlled Vocabulary: An Unlikely Comparison”

  1. Well put. You know that I’m not anti-google, though I have a problem with ‘opt out’ for the same reason that you question Sony’s DRM and controlled vocabulary; the attitude towards the user. Of course this is why I oppose most forms of courseware that pretend to be learning tools and turn out to be user management tools, built for the ease of those who want to administer.

    The solution, as our new google employee points out in another context, it problematic. You may want something from a company with questionable practices. I will not buy sony products. I will not use courseware, will not use controlled vocabs… blaa blaa. I’m no evangelist. I just prefer less resistance. And I always seem to be able to find a way around a barrier faster than I can learn to work through it. Yes, I also have a philosophical opposition, but I’m wondering if the real thing is my proclivity to alinearity… there are multiple ways to any goal, and the one with the barriers is for me the road not taken.

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