A Day of Activism in Anna University

Anna University, a silent place where political issues rarely rise to the surface saw its own share of Student Activism for a political humanitarian issue on March 18th 2013. This is a recollection of what happened on the day as I know it.

Pre-Strike Activity

Loyola Student Hunger Strike started about a week ago in support of a referendum against the SriLankan Government for Genocide of Tamilians during the Last Eelam War with the LTTE and ended only to snowball the movement across all over Tamil Nadu. With the IITians joining the protest on 17th March, it was time Anna University students came out of their comfort cocoons and took to the streets.

I was sitting at a WiFi hut near the canteen talking about the extra-ordinary presence of a large group of police posted in the Saidapet Court. I have been reading that the student movement has come to a conclusion that sitting and protesting wouldn’t move things and has decided to take things to the real world by picketing the central government offices. Just then a student near me was talking over the phone about the presence of police in the campus. I let it slip through, since the Computer Science Department was hosting technical festival Abacus ’13, and police, usually, is the topic when people come in to university premises, since they were deployed about a week ago in response to the Loyola Strike.

Getting there

It was about 10.40AM when I was sitting in the Student Research Lab of Institute of Remote Sensing trying to learn time series analysis using the R Statistical Package for my Thesis. The friends who have tried to go out for refreshment came back and reported that students aren’t allowed outside the building. There has been a strike called on by the students by 10.30AM and all the buildings have been ordered to lock down to prevent other students from joining them. I began tweeting..

At about 11.00AM my friends went on a scouting party and found a open door unguarded and slipped out, when I received the tip and by the time I went there staff have figured it out and the door was closed shut right before me. Then I saw the watchman going to the loo and walked out of the front door just like that, collected my friends and joined other in front of the red building by 11.20AM.

The Sitting

The tar road in front of the Red building at 11.30 in a sunny day. There couldn’t be a bad choice for sitting all day in the shady green campus. But this is activism and it has to be done (it looked like that). So we sat there all day.

Amid all this, someone informed us that the university VC is on his way to the scene and a poster is on its way, we are supposed to hear him talk and sign on the poster and move away. This created a small outcry and I think plan was dropped. What actually happened was, the VC arrived, talked without a public address system and the staff members stood under the building watching over us. Which effectively meant nothing to a large section of us who didn’t hear a single word.

Co-ordination and Organization

Sitting there all day, almost every word I heard was about the number of holidays they would get, how the internals would be affected, whether they would be given attendance for the day and what the poor souls from the Computer Science Department will do as their technical events start today. Every now and then among the shouts about posing right for the media cameras I would hear about the Sri-Lankan issue. I shifted my place 3 to 4 times trying to locate myself into the core group, but to no success, for I couldn’t find the core group.

There wasn’t a visible set of students organizing, everything happened ad-hoc. Someone thought people needed water in the searing heat and brought a sack of water packets, someone figured out they needed money for refreshments and collected money on the spot among us and brought biscuit packets and more water. Someone, who I think the core group which started this went out and returned back with a poster stating “Anna University Students Support Eelam Student Strike”. When someone thought the final year Under-grads should lead, or whatever, they formed a human chain surrounding us sitting there, then dissipated away as they began to realize it was a bit useless at that place. It took a lot of roasting on the metaled road before someone brought a roof over our heads around 3.00 in the evening. People were holding the support ropes in hands and standing in place of the pegs. Finally someone (me) thought they could place a big stone and tie the rope. Someone wanted to tie the poster to two poles and hold it, then they realised they are better off letting it hang from the tent roof top.

So it was all that “someone” who did things, the people who just did it without wanting credits, I do not know who bought me the water and I do not for whom my money bought biscuits. Almost no one knows who brought that tent, and no one know how it stood. It was all left for “someone” to do.

The Girls Standoff

My last update in twitter was this ..

I tried to update from mobile phone but a feature phone with a flaky GPRS connection wouldn’t suffice. So I rushed to my department where I have left my belongings, brought my laptop found a spot where I could get WiFi and posted those tweets. While I posted the last tweet I was really hoping there would be some sort of standoff by 5 and maybe we will leave by 8-9PM. To my surprise as I was posting my last tweet I could see people standing up and dissipating. When I rushed to the spot people were talking about dispersing as the time was over. I found that a group of 6 have obtained permission for the protest from the Dean and they have promised to wind up by 5PM and it has been given in written signed by the six. So that was what being explained to others, but the girls weren’t satisfied. They wanted the protest to continue, they said winding up at 4.30PM is kind of dumb and loked like as if we are office workers. They wanted to stay. While even the boys who wanted to stay were up on their feats and looking around hoping to get in touch with someone with the same idea, the girls didn’t even get get up, they just sat saying it was their right to express. They aren’t saying anything against the college or the government, they just wanted to show their support for the SriLankan Tamils. They wanted the government to understand. But the organizers clearly had their own plans, they informed people might be arrested or even worse lathi charged if they stay there beyond 5PM. Luckily there were a set of protest-aware girls who explained the difference between the arrest and detention and the police are here to give protection not beat them. Those who initiated the protest and their supporters clearly wanted their way out before anything could go amess, hence it was informed that, it was planned to be here until 5 and they will leave by 5 and anyone staying here beyond that is their own wish. With that girls chose to stay and some boys like me who thought protest should go beyond the office hours stayed.

The End

Those who wished to go were informed to shout a slogan and disperse. And so it happened. What was left behind were a group of Post-Grads with a handful Under-Grads. The police were consulted and they informed us we can do whatsoever silent protest as long as we are inside our house, that is our Anna University but the head of the house clearly wanted us out by 5PM. Then there was a lot of discussion and it was finally decided to create a group email, inform people, plan and organize a protest if necessary on the day the college reopens. For once we are out today, we cannot come in until it reopens, so there is no way Anna University is going to protest. What ever protest we want to do shall remain as a protest by the Citizen of India by coordinating with others organizing things outside. The protest of the day shall end there.

E-Books & DRM for the Simple Man

What are these E-Books?

E-Books, in short for Electronic Books, are digital forms of Books. These were created, so that we all could read books in our personal computers, cellphones, tablet computers, or even dedicated devices like Kindle.

What is this DRM?

DRM, in short for Digital Rights Management, is a technology used by companies producing digital content in the form of music, ebooks, games, software ..etc., to restrict the misuse of the content. For example, you buy a software for your personal computer, but you want to install the same software in your friend’s computer, DRM helps in preventing you from doing it. Because, it is you who has paid and your friend cannot have it for free.

So what is it with pricing and DRM?

In a game situation, it is a all gain or all lose stance for the publisher because, if the game is good, more people want to play it, if it is bad, no one wants to play. The pricing and the DRM has to be perfect for the content creator-cum-publisher to make money. If the game is great and has no DRM, then it can be distributed over the internet and still end up as loss for the publisher.

In a book situation, it is a complex thing. Making it simple, the writer gets a amount of money to cover his bread if he gets a publisher to publish his book. The publisher gets to pay his bills if the retailer could sell more number of books than a threshold level, and finally the retailer gets to feed his family by taking a profit selling all kinds of books. So where does DRM and Pricing come into picture? Pricing comes into picture with the publisher, he has to set the correct price, so that all the three could benefit.

And DRM …

As you can see that it is publisher’s head ache to tune the pricing to sell more number of copies, so one would assume it is his work to set right the DRM as well. But that doesn’t apply to ebooks. The people who actually do it in case of e-books are the retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Flipkart.

Why is that?

It is because a publisher is NOT needed anymore. A publisher was need in the 20th century to get the manual work done, like proofreading, typesetting, sourcing paper, printing and selling. Perhaps a century or two back, there wasn’t any publisher. There were writers and printers, that’s all. It was the writer’s headache to sell his books. Coming back to the 21st century, in the digital era, there is no typesetting, no papers, no printing. The author proofreads and the retailer sells. Now all we have left in digital book scenario is the content creator and the retailer. And retailer decides the pricing, hence the DRM.

To give a real life example, the cost of Hunger Games Part 2 was $6.78 the moment after I bought Part 1 in Amazon, but dropped to $3.75 when I bought a month later. Now Amazon is trying to sell me Part 3 for some $9.45. (sigh) This is how retailers manipulate prices for gains.

Who benefits from this DRM?

Obviously the Writer and the Retailer.

Who is affected by DRM?

You and me. The people who read books.

How?

In order to understand how, first we need to see what a idle digital book could offer us.

To put simply, it offers seamless usage in all things digital. An idle ebook, could be read in any device you choose, can be annotated anywhere you want, can have any number of bookmarks, highlights, notes attached to any place in the book. You could buy a book and your whole family could read it at the same time, instead of waiting for turns. Instead of photocopying pages of your interest, you could take clean printouts with custom typeset and paste in your bedroom walls. You can read one page at home computer, next in phone as you commute and the next perhaps in your school/office tablet. And the possibilities are endless. Content sharing would be intertwined with our lives so much that we wouldn’t really be talking about books as objects as we see it today. Think about it, the entire collection of books in the state library accessible from anywhere by anyone and still be able to use it as his personal book. It is a book lover’s paradise. But mind it, all for a price and not free.

But DRM, in its present state, takes away your liberty to use the book the way you want completely and makes you use it how the retailer tells you to do it. All the fantastic things in the above paragraph will remain a fantasy with DRM. Moving a step down, the DRM that now exists removes whatever liberty that even printed books provided.

Here are the pain points:

  • Sharing: Physical books could easily be shared between family members, friends, co-workers, teachers and students. No longer. Either you will have swap the device itself that contains the book or buy buy separate copies. What we see as a convenience, the writers and publishers seem to see it as a nuisance. They have found a way to stop this sharing and increasing their sales through DRM. What we see as savings, they see it as potential losses. Which means, what the freedom that digital era brought, was usurped by the same digital tech called DRM. Now people cannot share the books they buy even with their kids.
  • Walled gardens: Multiple device sharing being a very important advantage of digital content, retailers are rolling out applications for all major platforms, so that the same book could be shared between multiple devices seamlessly. But the catch is, they will dictate how wee do it. For example, you cannot buy a book to be read from Amazon and read on a device other than one supported by Amazon. Which means, Amazon dictates how I use my book where. If you are going to buy books from multiple retailers, you are going to end up in multiple islands with a character and climate of their own; unlike a physical book which remains the same irrespective of the retailer.
  • Content: Using the content the way we want is one best thing digital technology gives us. You could use the same text in umpteen different ways in umpteen different contexts with very little physical effort. You could quote complete paragraphs effortlessly, print your favourite versus or even make posters of famous quotations typesetting as per your like. But it is all a no go with DRM. No copying content anywhere. One could of course make posters and small passage print outs with a bit of workarounds. But they again are based on the whims and fancies of the retailers. For example Flipkart doesn’t allow you to share more than 140 characters.
  • File Formats: Almost all the weapons of DRM are wielded by the hand called file format. The same book is sold in different formats by each retailer that can only be read by his software or device, which means, you cannot open a Flipkart book in Amazon device. Even in your phone you need to install two different software for books from different retailers and save any notes you make in two different software. All of which makes one wonder, whether technology is making our lives simpler or more complex. The worst of this multiple format nightmare is they cannot be converted from one to another easily bring more pain than ease.

With the above restrictions imposed by the retailers, the e-books actually look like a step back in the technology that a step forward in the life of books. It is not technology that is at fault here, open formats like EPUB exist solely for e-books, which could be used by any retailer. But retailers choose DRM over open standards, and that creates the mess for common people like us.

What does the future hold?

I am unsure how the future will unfold. There has to be a perspective change in the publishing industry for openness to occur and all the benefits of digital books to be harnessed. The view of seeing ebooks just like conventional books and fixing costs per unit sales and restricting their usage has to change. Just like software, books with better features could be sold for different prices, say a open format book would cost a dollar more than a retailer specific format. Provide additional formats, content copying abilities, multiple device support, etc., could be added at an additional cost. And that could create a new dynamics in book pricing. Or may be someone creates a open store where an author could publish his book and is free from all the retailer and DRM mess.

And I am hoping for such a day.