Another way in which our notions of authorship seem to return to a preindustrial state in the digital age is through the re-emergence of a folk art mentality, as described by Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks:
People have always created their own culture. Popular music did not begin with Elvis. There has always been a folk culture—of music, storytelling, and theatre. What happened over the course of the twentieth century in advanced economies, and to a lesser extent but still substantially around the globe, as the displacement of folk culture by commercially mass produced popular culture. The role of individuals and communities vis-à-vis cultural artifacts changed, from coproducers and replicators to passive consumers. The time frame where elders might tell stories, children might put on a show for the adults, or those gathered might sing songs came to be occupied by background music, from the radio or phonograph, or by television. We came to assume a certain level of “production values”—quality of sound and image, quality of rendering and staging—that are unattainable with our crude means and our relatively untrained voiced or use of instruments. Not only time for local popular creation was displaced, therefore, but also our sense of what counted as engaging, delightful articulation of culture.
This is far more easily seen in the performing arts than in the written ones, as writing moved into the realm of commercial production via the printing press much earlier than music or other performance did via radio, television and the movies.
Benkler emphasizes the power of folk art to critique cultural messages and suggest alternatives, to point to the damage Barbie does to girls (and boys) in their developing understanding of gender and femininity, and to provide alternate models and conceptions. I’d push a step beyond this to say the act of authorship, creative engagement with an art or craft, can provide more than an important platform for the disputation of cultural message, but can also fundamentally alter what is possible for us, individually and as a culture, to perceive and discuss in the first place. One goal for the OADA project is to develop this theory of authorship further.
Finally, I do think it’s worth calling out an important difference between traditional and digital folk art—reach. Traditionally, folk art reached a small number of people in the immediate environment of the artist. Wider projection was a function of influence—lyrics and musical styles were passed from performer to performer, and the widest possible reach depended on the widest possible adoption of influence. The focus was on the performance, the act, rather than the “product” in the sense of a recording or a lyric attributed to (and copyrighted by) any individual.
In the digital environment, “folk art” can have the same reach as mass media. Nonetheless, digital folk art, at least at present, seems to have similar temporal and influence-based underpinnings as did traditional folk art, but with the possibility for influence and interplay on a global rather than local or regional scale. This interplay is affected significantly, however, by the ownership regimes developed to support the industrial information economy—in particular by copyright.
Definitely not good for my productivity.
Modern copyright is often traced back to the formation of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, or the Stationers’ Guild, in England in 1557. This is a moment variously described as the birth of the modern notion of authorship, as Corynne McSherry suggests in Who Owns Academic Work?, and as an early example of how the mass media can be used to control political discourse, as Yochai Benkler explains in The Wealth of Networks.
It’s sometimes difficult to understand the artifice that has been built up around our current notions of both authorship and intellectual property, so completely have they been naturalized over time, but the granting of the Stationer’s monopoly brings us back to a moment when these concepts were very much in flux. Here’s Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite (Information Feudalism) on the basics:
Copyright begins life in England in the form of printing privileges granted by Queen Mary in 1557 to a craft guild known as the Stationers. Like all craft guilds, the Stationers had a serious interest in monopoly profits and a commensurate fear of competition. In particular, the London-based guild did not want competition from regional printers or from across the border in Scotland. Queen Mary, like all monarchs, feared ideas that questioned her legitimacy… Mary…struck a deal with the Stationers: in exchange for a charter granting them monopoly over printing, the Stationers would ensure that no “seditious and heretical books, rhymes and treatises” would see the light of day.
The way in which this monopoly was constructed helped create the modern notion of an author. McSherry now:
Discourse was not originally seen as a thing, an object of property, but as an action. Writings were seen as political performances, statements of loyalty, faith, or sedition, rather than objects of legal ownership, and the Stationers’ monopoly facilitated the management of these statements. Printers were legally obliged to gain an author’s consent to any publication, and to identify the author on the title page, so that any unlawful “actions” might be punished. Printers who failed to do so would be considered the authors themselves, and therefore responsible for any libelous or seditious content… Thus texts began to have authors, in the modern sense of individual human creators, “when authors became subject to punishment” (Foucault, 1977). In this sense, copyright was born at the intersection between censorship and the regulation of piracy…
One of the ways that–to borrow Benkler’s term–the networked information economy (or Web 2.0) appears to destabilize the notion of ownership is by returning the notion of writing to the premodern, pre-copyright conception of writing as an act. Note how well McSherry’s description also applies to blog postings: “political performances, statements of faith, loyalty, or sedition.” Few bloggers that I am aware of are interested in asserting copyright over their postings (and I suspect CC-licensed blogs like this one are in fact a large part of the explosion in openly licensed content on the web). While some blogs do exist as simple diary, many blog postings are a participation in dialogue, active, time-based and community-focused. Acts rather than objects, given importance only in their relation to other elements of the larger discourse. The Stationers’ monopoly and the cultural shifts required to accomplish it point back to an understanding of writing with new relevance.
…they appear to be going after other commercial vendors for license fees. They have no concerns about the open source competition. Can you hear the nonchalant whistling as they look the other way?
I’ve said before I thought Web 2.0 tools may supplant Learning Management Systems before too long, but I never thought that LMS providers were going to be the driving force. In a stunningly stupid strategic move, Blackboard—after basically becoming the only commercial game in LMS-town—has decided to attack the remaining competition with an absurdly broad patent claim. It looks to me like they’re hoping other LMS providers and users of those products will feel they don’t have pockets deep enough to go toe-to-toe with them on the issue.
While “use our product or we’ll sue you” may seem on its face to be a sound business strategy, it does feel like they’ve missed the point that wikis, blogs and other Web 2.0 tools are fast becoming familiar to educators and are already widely adopted by students. I’d already be willing to give up the LMS for a suite of Web 2.0 tools, and now I have a compelling argument for why it’s in my institution’s interests to allow me to do so. I’m not sure this is the situation Blackboard was trying to create. I’m also not entirely sad they’ve decided to do so…
For MIT OCW, July has always been the annual low-water mark for traffic, so I’m not surprised to see somewhat of a dip in visits to tOFP. Still a strong month though, with the second-highest visit total so far at 3330.
Items of note:
- The MIT OCW 05 Final Evaluation report was downloaded 594 times, a really striking number for a document I assume few people actually read. Not clear how much of this is indexing.
- 23 downloads of tOFP [ Print ], which I think is great (though with the indexing caveat as above)
- 117 views of Tom’s story, which either means he’s a better writer (which he is) or there are a lot of people out there interested in tickle torture (which there are), or both.
- 22 visitors came to the site off of Google searches for “narrative arc,” which is fast becoming the most frequent search term by a wide margin.
More details: July 2006 (PDF)
Wow. So I’m finally back after the GSBI program, which was an intense two weeks. I really have a ton of respect for the people from the other projects who participated, as they are accomplishing amazing things in really difficult circumstances. One of my roommates had, with his business partner, doubled the amount of fresh drinking water available in Madagascar. That’s an accomplishment to be proud of.
Anyway, the point of my going was to develop sustainability ideas for OCW, and I come away feeling that I have at least a few good ones. Now to road-test them here and see which ones actually have some traction. A couple, hopefully.