Monday, March 10, 2008


Last weekend I got up early to go to a huge book sale held at a local high school cafeteria. I picked up some neat computer books and magazines. What disturbed me, though, was something I had never seen at a book sale before.

I might be out of the loop on this, but I was boggled to find that 5 or 6 people were scanning mass amounts of books using bar code readers hooked up to PDA's. My first thought was that they were associated with the book sale, but then I realized something sleazy was going on. They were playing the middleman by sifting through as many books as possible to find valuable ones they could mark up online. In other words, they were flipping books at a high school book sale.

One guy asked a scanner, "Hey, are you scanning those to mark them up?" The scanner ignored him and quickly moved on. I occasionally took a moment from my browsing to watch the scanners. They looked up at me nervously. The guilt I thought I saw on their faces could have just as easily been the addled state of mind brought on by hours of fast-paced scanning. One guy even had a cell earpiece on for additional connectivity.

This phenomenon disgusts me for a few reasons. First, flipping in any setting is an unnecessary and dismal step in commerce. It's no better than ticket scalping.

Second, the scanners are a leech on the community event of a book sale. They are there solely to rip people off. There is pleasure of searching and finding books with knowledge value in mind, not market value. Scanners destroy the aesthetics and mechanics that allow this search to happen.

Instead of being found by someone at the book sale, the books end up in an online marketplace where discovering a book is about as exciting as executing a Google search. All the scanners are interested in is jacking up the price, so the people actually interested in books get screwed. When all transactions migrate online, the "magical find" of the physical marketplace is replaced by credit cards and flashy Web2.0 interfaces.

There have always been people who have drawn on their knowledge of books to find the ones with high market value. Technology, as it often does, has scaled this situation to the extreme and created WiFi Vultures that skeletize book sales with unprecedented efficiency.

On my way out, I asked one of the cashiers "Do you have a policy on the cyborgs with the scanners?"

"They get here at 6:30AM," he shrugged.


madame said...

ok, i respectfully disagree with you on this issue for a couple of different reasons. i am going to think about this for a while and get back to you.

Ross said...

i look forward to your response.

r@d@r said...

it's one of those things that may seem tasteless, rather sleazy and possibly even immoral to you and i, but since it's technically not illegal and a perfect demonstration of "free market capitalism", there's little recourse except public shaming.

however, also valid under the rules of "free market capitalism" is the slogan, "we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone". that's right, anyone! there are certain REASONS you don't have the right to refuse service to anyone of course, such as the color of a person's skin - if that can be proved to be the reason. however, there is no particular law protecting these scavengers from being ejected from the sale should the management deem it necessary. also, if this sale were in fact occurring on the grounds of a high school campus, those holding the sale would, i imagine, have even more leverage to restrict who is and who is not allowed onto the property.

i also look forward to reading the counter-argument on this issue. while i can't deny my own visceral reaction to this scenario, i am willing to accept the idea that i may be biased. wow, what a great conversation-starter of a post!

Ross said...

The typical free market argument might go along these lines:

"The 'scanners', like efficient librarians, are doing a service by making the books easily accessible to a larger audience. Capitalism naturally spurs information organization.

They are enlarging the marketplace beyond physical space, which is how all information exchange works these days, anyways."

A basic assumption being that nothing is lost when methods of information aggregation generally associated with the Internet are applied to EVERYTHING.

One could argue that I am "looking for the wrong thing" in a sale - it is a capitalist exchange, what do I expect? - and I should just go to the library. In response to this I would say that I want to peruse and purchase media in a variety of ways, not just online.

The important point being: the Scanners are a homogenizing force in media, moving mass amounts of transactions online. I think that there is value in having a diversity of media access available, including the "old fashioned" physical marketplace.

Another line of questioning is that if this activity offends me, does a computer interface for book search at the library offend me as well? Why?

A counter to this would be that although there is a heavy computer presence in modern libraries, their presence does not change what is held in that space as dramatically as Scanners do. Allocation of finances towards computers over books is an issue, but it's not as uncontrolled as the Scanner situation. It is slower, because the library is a public resource.

Ross said...

but i know madame levy does not go by typical arguments, so i'm excited to hear her response!