Last week I found myself with a few hours of downtime between a doctor’s appointment and a dinner meeting, in the distinctly strange position of having nothing required of me. I could have worked on my novel, I suppose, but wasn’t really able to generate too much enthusiasm for it (not sure why I find this chapter so hard to push through, but am back at it today). So instead, I stopped at a bookstore, bought a book and sat down and read for two straight hours. The only other opportunities I’ve had for extended reading time in the past five years have been during flights somewhere, so it was a rare treat indeed.
And true to past history, I didn’t pick up a book of fiction. I chose Compass by Alan Gurney, which traces the history of that instrument’s development. I’m not exactly sure why I have more interest in nonfiction than fiction when it comes to purely recreational reading–a part of it is that I’m always reading fiction for craft as well as content, and so it’s more work. It becomes harder to enter the “vivid and continuous dream” of the story, but there’s always a part of me reading for craft in any writing, so that can’t be all of it. I think in most cases I just find it hard to get to the point of investing the energy fiction requires to engage with the characters, which may be a byproduct of the energy invested in dealing with a group of characters I’ve created.
In my reading background then, I think I am atypical of most writers. I have not studied literature extensively (BAin Liberal Arts and MFA in Creative Writing). I of course took some literature classes along the way, and have read my share of fiction, but I’ve certainly read more nonfiction—John McPhee, Tracy Kidder, histories of mapmaking, exploration–and I can certainly see how it informs my writing. The novel itself is framed in nonfictional events around the construction of a dam, although the characters and events are all invented (and not particularly autobiographical, which is another difference I see between myself and most writers I’ve known–I tend to write somewhat further from my own experience than most.) And I’ve certainly borrowed some techniques from nonfiction writers to convey some of the technical details of the story. I’m feeling, though, like I ought to make the effort to read a bit more fiction, though, if only because I really do learn quite a bit from reading good writing, and I’d like to be thinking more about fictional craft.
I found myself trying to articulate the mission of the OpenFiction Project today, while drafting a call for submissions for the anthology. So far, I’ve come up with:
The mission of the OpenFiction Project is to provide educators and learners worldwide free web access to high-quality resources for teaching and learning fiction; and to further the cause of openly sharing educational materials by demonstrating low-cost open sharing methods and fostering discussion of the value of open educational resources.
Having thus articulated a mission, I now reflexively evaluate my progress toward fulfilling it:
“Provid[ing] free web access to high-quality resources”: I’m not going to be the judge of the “high-quality” issue–I’ll let site traffic be a proxy for that.
“Demonstrating low-cost open sharing methods”: For the record, the total cost of the project so far, at least in dollars spent: $24.00. It was $10.00 to set up the site, and it’s $7.00 a month to host it ($5.00 for basic hosting and $2.00 for the wiki). In terms of hours spent–and here I mean hours beyond the time it took to create the materials for teaching–I’d say somewhere in the neighborhood of about 30 since mid-May. So the site clearly demonstrates open sharing can be accomplished cheaply.
I guess the biggest open question is “What’s the value of doing this?” Has it been worth the $24.00? Many instructors post their materials in institutionally supported web spaces, and many of these spaces are not password protected–so in that sense “open.” What’s the difference between that and tOFP or another opencourseware? The easy answer is that there is no explicit commitment to openness on the part of the instructors who just leave their web spaces open–there is no license explicitly permitting open use and there is no assurance that the third-party materials included are legally safe to use. I can imagine a not-to-distant future in which a single lawsuit by a journal publisher over a PDF of a copyrighted article in a faculty web folder causes institutions across the country to begin policing access to servers more rigidly. At that point, only intentionally open resources will remain open.
But there is a level of commitment to openness beyond this that I am interested in exploring. I’m interested in finding an opportunity to use tOFP as it is currently constituted as a platform for teaching a course that crosses the boundaries of private and open instruction. How does a commitment to openness on the part of the instructors and students in a class affect the educational experience? If, for instance, instead of having students in a class create an online but restricted craftbook, what happens if they are asked to contribute to an open craftbook? How does student production–that is, learning a craft such as fiction writing–change in a producer culture environment in which their work becomes instantly and widely available? How does the apprenticeship model that fiction instruction relies on change in an open environment?
I’m really fascinated in the interplay between learning for certification versus learning for personal enrichment and development. Learning for certification is the revenue-generating model, but how can it be employed to further other modes of learning, and how can these other modes of learning enrich and inform certified learning?
Another tOFP upgrade. This time mostly just “rebranding,” to use the OCW lingo. Actually, truth be told, I got logo envy looking at another of David Wiley’s nicely branded (not to mention informative and useful) sites. Did the design myself, so probably not in David’s league, but at least better than before. Looks best if you have the American Typewriter font installed.
The New York Times launched their online subscription service, TimesSelect, today, and I’ve just switched my home page on Firefox over to the NPR news page. Times Select will be an interesting test of my ideas on producer culture. Basically, the Times is locking up access to the top columnists on the paper and offering online readers access to what they read for free yesterday at the bargain subscription price of $49.95 today.
Now I’m not such a zealot of open sharing that I think that the NYTimes shouldn’t have the right to charge for this “premium content,” but in an age where there is so much good opinion available for free, I think it’s just really dumb of the Times to head down this road. Of course they are correct to think the columnists are their most valuable content–Friedman and Krugman especially. What they don’t get is that the columnists are the differentiating content that brings me to their site and not another news source. Their news coverage is good, but let’s face it, at the level of just keeping up on the headlines, news coverage is somewhat of a commodity item. The only other reason I have for coming to the NYTimes site is to hear the whining about the Yankees season from the Yankee perspective. And with Friedman, I can wait for the book, too, because he beats the same drum quite a bit.
So with the differentiating content now unavailable (’cause I ain’t paying 50 bucks) I have little incentive to come to the site at all. Blog reading will certainly replace much of the op-ed reading time, and I can get good opinion columns elsewhere. I don’t get why the columnists themselves have gone along with this, unless they were promised a cut of the subscriptions. Their views go from being global to being provincial in a hurry this way, plus they end up being restricted to only those with $50 to spare. Anyway producer culture theory would predict that–given the wide availability of content–the NYTimes is going to drive down their traffic and hence their advertising revenue faster than they can make it up on subscriptions. Plus, as I’m just discovering, NPR has got some really top-notch podcasts now available.
Had lunch today with a friend from another open sharing project. Talking to him reinforces what I believe about opencourseware’s place in the larger world of open sharing. Opencourseware has a number of advantages over many of the other open sharing movements; I previously mentioned how there was no strong monopoly interest opposing open educational resources, whereas open journal publication and open sharing of patentable research compete with strong commercial interests. A few minutes’ discussion about some of these other open sharing initiatives is enough to illustrate the more complex technical and legal issues that arise when you step into these other realms and–especially–as you move away from copyright and into patentable intellectual property.
In any of these movements, however, one clear way forward is to create a larger culture of open sharing. This culture of open sharing means different things for different organizations–for foundations, it means insisting on open sharing of funded research; for academic institutions, it means sharing educational materials openly; for higher ed tech transfer offices, introducing ethical considerations into licensing agreements. I’ve thought for some time that opencourseware projects, because of their appeal to wide audiences within and outside the academic community, and the relative simplicity of the idea itself, are well positioned to lay the groundwork for more difficult discussions of open sharing. Schools where large numbers of faculty and students participate in opencourseware sharing are environments where discussions of ethical licensing standards, open journal publication, and other more complicated open sharing ideas can gain traction. Opencourseware can be, for many institutions, a relatively straightforward way to demonstrate commitment to openness, and take concrete steps that introduce open sharing into the institutional culture.
Here’s a great example of how cheap production and distribution are coming togehter to threaten the film industy. Parallels in other industries are easy to draw.
My mother recently retuned from a trip to China, a two-week tour guided–remarkably enough–by one of the student leaders of the Tiananmen Square uprising. He’d fled the country after the uprising was crushed, but had returned to care for his ailing mother, and was supporting himself by guiding tours. When she returned, she sent along a box of souvenirs including my children’s name in traditional Chinese characters, t-shirts with pandas and the great wall, and other knick-knacks, along with an opinion piece from the English-language Shanghai Daily by economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. Stiglitz’s four-column piece describes the damage that is being done to innovation and developing countries by the IP regime put in place by the TRIPS agreements in the early 1990’s, which he says was enacted to suit pharmaceutical and entertainment industry interests. Braithwaite and Drahos back this assertion up convincingly. I can only hope this argument begins to be made more strongly and from more quarters here in the States.
I came to Boston–and to graduate school at Emerson–in part to study the history of a building, and of a monopoly built by Edward Albee (grandfather of the playwright). Albee, along with his business partner Benjamin Franklin Keith, had built a vaudeville empire that controlled the east coast and much of the middle of the country. The circuit was named for Keith, and the “K” lives on as the middle letter in RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum). In 1923, as tribute to his then-deceased business partner, Albee broke ground on an elaborate flagship theater for the chain, richly decorated in marble and gold. By 1925, when the theater opened, the empire had fallen to the onslaught of motion pictures, and the chain had been bought by one of the greatest monopolists of the early 20th century, Joseph Kennedy. Kennedy would–after making his fortune–help write the laws that would break the remaining monopolies of the era. I came to Boston, to explore this compelling story, but it was too expansive to complete as a thesis, and I set it aside for the novel. I hope to come back to the project as my next book.
I had followed the history of monopoly industry to that point, when the Sherman Act was signed, at which point it seemed to diverge from the project at hand. Eight years later, in pursuing open sharing, I’ve come back to the story of industrial monopolies at exactly the place I left off. Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite, in Information Feudalism do a wonderful job of tracing how, when the Sherman Act deprived industries of the old tools of monopoly control, they turned to copyright and patent to control markets. Copyright, in fact, is the tool the motion picture industry–which eclipsed vaudeville–has used to great effect. Lessig’s Free Culture shows that not only has this had direct anticompetitive effects, but has produced a tremendous amount of collateral damage, locking up intellectual property no-one wanted locked up to begin with.
I am beginning to recognize there is a great deal of similarity between the current moment and 1923 (Lessig points to some of this in broader scope). Radio and movies were rapidly supplanting the old forms of entertainment, and the legal ground controlling industry was shifting. I’m interested to go back to some of my readings from that project with an eye toward how the changes in that era might inform the open sharing movements underway today. It’s clear, though, that many of open sharing movements come into direct conflict with powerful monopoly interests. Open access journal publishing is a direct challenge to commercial journal publication, and open scientific sharing threatens the ability of many industries to control research and development done in higher education institutions. Clearly, P2P threatens the recording and film industries–less I think from the piracy angle and more because is allow for low-cost distribution. One of the reasons sharing open educational resources may gain traction faster than these other movements is that it does not threaten a well-established monopoly interest. Regardless, across the board as modes of production shift and decentralize due to new technologies, patent and especially copyright may lose some of their power to control markets.
As with 1923, it may be that these new technologies will naturally supplant the old, but one lesson from that era is that new methods for controlling new markets are likely to emerge. It’s probably not unreasonable that–left alone–industries will reorganize and find new levers of control, and it will be important to pay attention to these. Regardless, I think an important antidote for the lobbying of some of the forces opposing open sharing is to call their use of intellectual property law what it is–anticompetitive and market-controlling behavior. Yes, some extremes of open sharing lead to piracy, but extremes of copyright and patent law in the service of a few powerful monopolies also have their costs. I’m no economist, but I’m willing to venture the costs to consumers of monopoly control are quite a bit higher than the lost revenue to industries with ip-supported locks on markets.
Writing–at least for me–involves a depressingly large amount of failure. I’ve reached one of those points at which I feel like my writing on the novel just isn’t sharp. It’s passable–and I’m making my way through the redrafts of the existing chapters–but I don’t have that sense of being really “on.” I can tell that there’s a fair amount I’m going to end up trashing at some point, and knowing that creates a significant amount of drag on my energy for the work. I also feel like some of the more recent posts here haven’t been my best, which adds to the resistance.
Good news is I’ve reached a point with writing where I’d rather write every day and write crap than stop writing when I get discouraged. I’ve thought about taking down or editing posts here I don’t like, but the point of this space is really for me to write every day, to touch base with a different level of thinking about both writing and open sharing of educational tools. (Writing every day in this context means writing every relatively normal work day–the recent week’s gap in postings was due to business travel, not discouragement.) And so far as the novel goes, I’ve gotten used to throwing out sections large and small, so the question of whether I should toss the chapter I’ve just rewritten for the eight or ninth time isn’t as depressing as it might have been in the past. I’m also beginning to see that points of failure also usually represent new opportunities for moving forward, and so they are not necessarily dead ends. Still it would be nice to have a few really good days of writing…