Who speaks, and what gets said
A point of connection between the Internet (in particular the open sharing it allows) and fiction that I hope to explore in this space is the political, but I find myself a bit resistant because apart from a few graduate-level classes in literary theory, what I’ve picked up in discussions among both open sharers and composition instructors, and reading cranky old men like Richard Ohmann, I have not a lot of experience that recommends me. But that’s part of the rough democracy that (for the moment) the Internet allows–even the untutored and unwashed have a voice. So very briefly, let me lay out the broad picture of the connection I see, and then start off with a bit of self-critique.
To put it as simply as I can, both open sharing and fiction are political in that each reinforces or disrupts social channels of power that are self-concealing. Without getting too down the road of this idea, I think it’s worth pointing out that most effective modes of social and economic control are self-concealing, and only where these have failed do the more overt methods come into play. With both fiction and Internet, one way this plays out is in the control of who is speaking and what gets said.
The self-concealing nature of realist fiction I describe in the coursework operates by presenting a socially constructed artifact as somehow “natural” or as the way the world is, rather than something shaped by a person with allegiances to social and economic power structures, ideologies that they may or may not even be aware of. For the works that are make it through to publication (especially mass market publication), through levels of editorial review and investment decisions, they must hold significantly true to the popular imagination, with characters that act in socially accepted ways and hold socially accepted views. They can challenge these to a certain extent, but the more they do, the more they get shunted off into markets for “literary” fiction, where in some respects they fulfill the same function of reinforcing the accepted modes of thought and action for these smaller audiences. (This again is realist fiction under discussion. Experimental and “metafiction” is a whole different discussion.)
The Internet, as it interacts with copyright law, also controls (or not) who speaks and what gets said. In some ways it is more explicit, in that much is controlled–as Lessig has made a career of explaining–by the code. If you understand the code, you understand where much of the control comes from, and how that control may change over time. The most obvious example is that in the enormous explosion of communication and voices that has grown on the Internet lately, only the wired world gets heard. The chorus of voices online has become so loud that offline channels of communication are overwhelmed, and the vast majorities who cannot speak through the Internet are drowned out. The hardware controls. A step further though, and the various channels of communication on the web control what gets said. The modes vary from the one-way communication of static web pages, where only those who can write web pages and find hosting for them can speak (a low barrier to entry, admittedly), to blogs, where one voice speaks the loudest and others join in, to communities like Wikipedia and Slashdot, where the code supports the prevalence of social norms. The short story is that right now the code allows for a rich array of freedoms in communication (for those with the hardware and software), but the law may change this soon, either directly or through the code.
Ok, so I’m going to hold off on the aforementioned self-critique for the moment, and leave off with this admittedly nebulous description, with the ambition of exploring this connection more rigorously and in more depth later.