Pando

In praise of things that just work, revisited: San Francisco Public Library

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on July 27, 2017

From The Disruption Desk

Having successfully removed myself from the cloud, and my data from the servers of Amazon, Google, Apple et al, I’ve spent the past couple of months learning new habits.

Without Google, for example, I’ve had to find new ways to navigate unfamiliar cities -- either good old fashioned luck, or enchanting non-profit maps alternatives like OpenStreetMap. Without Amazon I’ve had to re-learn where best to buy books, electronics and other essentials. I’ve had to reacquaint myself with malls and the horror of - gasp - five or six day delivery times Then there’s extra-mile stuff like leaving Comcast for Sonic and trying to find ways to reassert control over my news diet - largely by re-subscribing to a bunch of print magazines and unsubscribing from social media in all its forms. From what I gather about the drama of the past few days, the decision to go Slow News couldn’t have come at a better time.

Still, to give you an idea of how hard it is to uninstall decades of tech immersion, consider the fact that I spent three full hours on Sunday mulling a seemingly insoluble problem: How to find a DRM-free, Amazon-free, Apple-free source of ebooks and audiobooks to replace my former Kindle and Audible subscriptions. I may be done with Silicon Valley but I’m not a luddite: There are still plenty of occasions when the convenience of a dowload still trumps the hassle of trying to track down a particular out of print title. Until book stores come to their senses and remain open 24 hours a day, it will be ever thus.

For audio books, Downpour is a good bet, offering most (if not all) of the same audio titles as Audible but with none of the unsettling “You Are Being Watched-ness” of Amazon. As Bezos and co continue their quest to put a listening device in every home - while Bezos himself remains a proud Trump adviser -  it’s hard to imagine anyone who I’m less comfortable might be monitoring my reading habits.

Non-Amazon ebooks are a more complicated proposition: Barnes and Noble has the breadth of stock, but hardly feels like a clean break from data-grabbing corporates. Then there’s the fact that no force in heaven or earth could compel me to buy a “Nook.”

There are plenty of individual, independent publishers who offer their own books for download, but trial and error shows confirms the inconvenience of building a decent sized library that way.

And so this past Sunday I found myself playing the favourite game of recovering tech (and publishing) entrepreneurs: Whiteboarding my fantasy tech/book startup. A company that, like Amazon, offered print books, ebooks and audiobooks in one place, ideally at a significant discount. But without the data grabbing and/or a behemoth corporation behind it.

I wasted at least an hour on the thought experiment: My own remix of the booklover holy grail of “Netflix for books”. There would be multi-formats, including print, all for a flat fee. Books would be sold, yes, but also loaned: Again in print and electronic formats. There would be recommendations made by the community, and also by topic experts. Shit, maybe it’d be a non profit.

And on and on I went. Getting increasingly excited about my idea, until finally it dawned on me. What  I was actually doing, of course, was mentally inventing the public library system. Only crappier, and more expensive.

After I finished mentally kicking myself, I took solace in the fact that I’m in good company here in Silicon Valley. From Lyft Line to the disruption of public education, some of the tech industry’s most celebrated innovations have come about precisely because some 20-something-year-old genius considered a problem -- urban transportation, educating the young - and came up with an expensive and complicated solution, blissfully unaware that an even better, cheaper solution already existed, often one already paid for by the taxpayer. It’s the same “everything is better with an app” mentality that brought us The Melt and Juicero.

(Of course, fortunately for said young genius, there exists a seemingly limitless pool of potential users who are equally unaware that such free alternatives already exist, thus ensuring that even the most redundant “disruptive” service will find an enthusiastic customer base. This fact tells you just how bad Juicero had to be to make headlines for its redundancy.)

So, yes, I’ve been in Silicon Valley too long. And I’m an idiot.

To pay penance to the civic gods, I then took a walk to my local branch of the SF public library in the Mission, preparing myself for what I was sure would be a deeply disappointing experience. After all, we know that the library system has been under attack for years -- from technology, but also from chronic underfunding. Having not set foot in a public library for the best part of a decade, I was anticipating a crumbling edifice, filled with damp and torn 70s airport paperbacks and a couple of tattered National Geographics. Maybe an ancient 486 cranking out pornography for those without the benefit of home Internet.

Of course, if you know anything about the San Francisco public library, you’re already rolling your eyes at yet another example of my idiocy. Fro one thing, thanks to a series of ballot measure passed over the past couple of decades, SFPL is one of the better funded public library systems in the country. Similarly, for all they’ve had to deal with underfunding and technology replacing literacy, our nation’s librarians still run a tight ship. I found cause to kick myself anew as, having registered for my new library card and taken a moment to admire the stunning architecture of the Mission Branch library,  I browsed the shelf of new titles and totted up how much I would have saved had I registered for a library card even six months sooner.

Such is life. Lesson learned. Additional penance paid.

I mention all of this for three reasons. First, because I suspect there are many, many Pando readers who - like me - had half forgotten that libraries remain, and remain one of the cultural wonders of the world. If that’s you, then I urge you to head to your nearest branch and find out what you’ve been missing. Even if it’s just for the fun cognitive experience of realizing that there’s truly no catch: They really will let you borrow books - including new ones - for free.  I imagine Americans experience something similar if they have cause to visit a British hospital. What do you mean I don’t have to pay you for this xray? Nothing?

And it gets better: While in the library I downloaded Overdrive, a public library app that allows library card holders to rent ebooks and audiobooks, again including new titles, again for free. Again, the cognitive dissonance is a fucking trip: This. Is. Like. Amazon. But. Free?

Second, because a visit to your local public library will furnish you with all the argument you need next time you find yourself in an argument with an insufferable libertarian tech bro who wants to replace taxpayer funded services with the free market. Amazon is the free market -- it uses its power to squeeze publishers, its CEO sits on Trump’s advisory board, and it is currently investing billions to put a listening device in every home. The public libraries are taxpayer funded, totally free at the point of service, and will also shelter you from the rain.  No contest.

And thirdly because the last few weeks have given me fresh hope that not all is lost in the world. Yes, the tech takeover feels almost complete -- but if you force yourself to look for alternatives to the so-called “Frightful Five”, you’ll find there are actually plenty. There remains a vibrant independent media, even in print. There are ISPs who won’t gladly pass your data to the government or advertisers. There are public funded amusement parks and transportation methods and places to get the latest books, movies and even video games. The fact that most of these things are almost invisible to tech bros only makes them all the finer.

One last thing: I’m thinking about starting some kind of small book group for tech people who want to reclaim an hour or so a week of their offline time. If you’re interested, I’m sending some info to my mailing list later this week or early next.