Sunday, June 28, 2009

Free Isn't Free

I know I sound downright curmudgeonly when I admit to some feeling of smug satisfaction at hearing the news about Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson getting busted for lifting copy out of Wikipedia in his new book, Free: The Future of a  Radical Price.  It seems Mr. Anderson was rushing through some final edits, after settling a disagreement with his editor about how to properly cite Wikipedia and other digital sources. In his rush, errors were made. He explains himself here.

Why am I feeling a bit smug about this error? A couple of reasons.

As someone who worries we're moving far too quickly into the digital age without giving proper thought to it, led almost blindly by the supposed invisible hand of the market, I greatly admire that the old literary institution, in print since 1925, known as the Virginia Quarterly Review caught this error in Anderson's book.  Well done! This catch reminds us of the importance of institutions - often supported by universities or even, dare I say, the government - who thoroughly review products for public safety. I'm thrilled that such an institution managed to call out this error.

In addition, I feel this error, occurring in a rush to get a book into production, serves to remind us of how easy it is for errors to occur when we're all doing everything online and expecting it all to be done so much faster because of technology. Yes you can reach people easier and yes you can edit quicker without shipping manuscripts and yes you can fix errors later than ever. But it is important for those in publishing to remember to catch details, and that can mean slowing down in this manic hyperdigital world and READING what you're PUBLISHING. 

It's curious that techno-lovers are dismissing this errors. BoingBoing was particularly unconcerned with this "web tempest":

All the web loves a blogtroversy and a public takedown, and many sites covering the matter invoked the p-word: plagiarism.

In my opinion, Anderson handled the situation honorably: he responded directly, candidly, and immediately. He publicly took responsibility for the "screwup" first, and explained what had happened in more detail later, without backtracking on the failure(s) and why they matter.

 No bigs. Just a bunch of bloggers getting all up and arms about nothing, just the p-word. 

Look, I understand this isn't George Bush declaring "Mission Accomplished" a month after a war started, a war that has now gone on almost a decade, or some Bush official dismissing the thousands of people stranded and starving in New Orleans after Katrina. Fine. But "the p-word" is kind of a huge deal to p-people - publishing folks like me and readers of this blog who know that the written word is all we got. If you denigrate that with the mentality that it can be fixed later, no big deal, we got some trouble coming down the line.

And this is a future that might slam BAM! right in our face if we keep moving at the current speed with such little regard for details and the integrity of publishers. And this goes back to something that occurs to me regularly: just because it's easy, doesn't mean we should do it. I can call you from the top of the Empire State Building! Please don't. I can access email even while on vacation in Athens! Don't bother. Look, this hotel room on Machu Picchu has Mtv! Turn it off.

I can have errors in my book - I can just fix them later! Um...

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