Monday, August 16, 2010

Cell Phone Plans and Libraries

(Sidenote: This is my 500th post* and it's pretty long. For all 2 people who read this blog, I am grateful. )

In our efforts to participate in what I am sure is becoming an American tradition from the sheer amount of people that we encountered, my wife and I recently went to our cell phone carrier’s local storefront to renew (our) cell phone plan and to pick out new phones. Both of our phones were starting to decay where my wife’s phone’s front screen no longer displayed information and my phone’s right hinge was cracking, so that when then phone is flipped open an unenviable popping sound is resultant followed by a shift, not unlike popping shoulder back into joint of the screen into its proper place. We were due for an upgrade. I don’t pay particular attention to the cell phone industry during the two year interval that your plans other than to things like the iPhone or some of the discussions around reading e-books on cellular devices. I don’t track changes like rate plans adjustments or other related items. Thus, I was singularly unprepared for what is become more and more standard with any but the most basic cell phone/plans; the data plan. It’s not my problem is with the fact that the data plan is designed to engross the users deeply in their portable screens or allow a constant stream of entertainment to be transmuted from the ether into images/words/video/et al. It’s the model of expectation that is built into the use of these devices. This model has at least two different levels/aspects. 1) There’s the really nice phones, the smartphones (Blackberry, iPhone, PalmPre) that require the really big expensive data plans ($25 minimum up to $40). However you can tether your phone to your computer to surf the Web, get constant email and tweet out the wazoo. Then there’s the middle of the road phones, the standard messaging phones, that are designed for day to day use without needing to be plugged into business applications but still require a very basic data plan ($10 a month) or an unlimited messaging plan. Then there’s the third group, the go phones, that require no commitment or contract as well as no data plan.
Thus the carrier is building the expectation that to get a decent phone is to require a certain monthly data plan. I understand paying for a phone plan that allows me to communicate directly with friends/family. I have a much harder time with the idea of being required to pay for the privilege to stream data to my phone. Right now you can block the data aspect for the middle of the road phones so as to not have to use the phone. But, as the salesperson said to my wife, you can’t use 6 of the 12 apps on the phone. Which is fine for us. I’m wondering though when the point is going to be reached when the carrier pushes the data plan up to $20 and consumer will continue to pay it because of their level of expectation to access. Us as consumers are oddly comfortable paying a pretty solid amount of money per year for data we may not use and if we do stream data can’t save in any sort of permanent way. My fear is being tied into this model without the flexibility to have a decent phone and not have to pay for a data plan.
This situation has a direct correlation to the world within which I work, that of libraries and paying for electronic databases. The majority of the subscriptions to electronic databases and journals are on a rental basis because 1) for the company to sell access would be a great loss in profits and 2) selling that access would be incredibly expensive for the libraries to afford in one shot. So we rent. We rent the possibility of data trying to pick the databases students might/should use to get the best possible information to them. However if the price of that database goes too high or the library consortium fails to stay solvent the thousands of dollars that were invested into that subscription are gone with nothing tangible to show for the money spent. Perhaps one could argue students could not have accessed the information they did without this particular database and therefore would have failed to pass their class and not graduated on time but this is a difficult scenario for which to successfully argue. I think at the end of day the library is really left with nothing after how many years of renting this space. But this is the main model in which we operate. Granted there are some databases that have made themselves freely available or available for purchase at feasible prices but these are well in the minority. As library’s budgets continue to migrate towards supporting the electronic aspect and as ubiquitous access is both expected demanded, the physical items that provide a physical return on investment are abandoned. My difficulty is signing the PO and receiving a physical box of books that I can then catalog, label shelve and recommend to students as applicable. This versus signing the PO for a url that generates an interface that accepts Boolean phrase or keyword and generates more links that I can save and print in some cases and recommend to students but how many students using the databases does it take to make the payment worth it. How does the library measure the investment return on what it is paying for its databases especially for small schools that do not turn out, or at least expect to manufacture, especially rich students? Is this model of existence tenable? Since we have allowed this “culture of dominance” to determine our rules of existence it is now seemingly impossible to wrest control back into our own hands as we lack either the unified voice or the mass of power or even the desire to make this change.

*That number is slightly inflated because a bunch of posts from two years ago were just links to nyt articles. Which was very lame in retrospect.

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