My wife had just given birth to our third child. On the morning of the child’s third day, doctors were worried about jaundice. By the evening, the child had fallen into a state of severe lethargy. We called the doctor. He wanted a report in two hours. If she did not improve, he wanted her taken to the emergency room. By midnight she had not improved, and so I bundled her into the car seat and raced to nearby Children’s Hospital.
As I sat waiting for the doctor, I began reading an article I had found through Google about jaundice and its dangers. Fortunately, the piece was published by the American Family Physician, which makes its articles available freely on the Internet. And so with an increasing feeling of panic, I read about the condition–hyperbilirubinemia–that the doctor feared our child had developed.
I reached a critical part of the article. It referred to a table. I turned the page to see the table. The table was missing. In its place was a notice: “The rightsholder did not grant rights to reproduce this item in electronic media.” No one had licensed the table for free distribution. Distribution was thus blocked. “Have your lawyer call my lawyer,” the article seemingly urged. “We’ll work something out.”
I sat in that waiting room chair staring in disbelief. It was a relief of sorts, to fear for the future of our culture rather than the future of my daughter. But I was astonished. I could not believe that we were this far down the path to insanity already. And that experience spurs me to ask some urgent questions. (The kid is fine, by the way.) Before we continue any further down this culturally asphyxiating road, can we think about it a little more? Before we release a gaggle of lawyers to police every quotation appearing in any book, can we stop for a moment to consider whether this way of organizing access to culture makes sense? Does this complexity get us something we would not get under the older system? Does this innovation in obsessive control produce any new understanding? Is it really progress?