Last Bastions of Read Only Culture?

“RO culture speaks of profesionalism. Its tokens of culture demand a certain respect. They offer themselves as authority. They teach, but not by inviting questions.” (Lessig 84)

Like Michael has already pointed out on his blog post, the dichotomy between Read Only and Read/Write culture Lawrence Lessig portrays in Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in a Hybrid Economy is a flawed one.

For me, the final breakdown of Lessig’s definitions of RO and R/W occur when he mounts an apologia for some places in our society that necessitate Read Only content. RO culture, Lessig writes, “is critically important, both to the spread of culture and to the spread of knowledge. There are places where authority is required” (85).

So what are his ironclad examples?

Congressional laws.

Guidelines for administering medicines.

Flight plans on commercial jetliners.

Um. All of those examples, while content created by “professionals” or “authorities” in their field (84), quickly reveal the very collaborative remix qualities from which Lessig tries to protect them.

For example, what texts carry more power than legislative documents? Very few. But legislators draw up laws with input from other elected officials, advocacy/lobbyists/special interest groups, lawyers, and political constituents. Congressional law does not live “on a wiki,” but it also does not appear on stone tablets from a higher authority. Frequently it mashes up pieces of other laws piecemeal. This (often frustrating) process requires several hundred elected officials to make laws, but hardly ever original material from scratch.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The example of writing guidelines for medicine dosing seems less Read Only than Congressional law, but not for people who see the underbelly of pharmaceutical research and development. We trust the dosing information on the Tylenol bottle we give our children, but even so we must take into account what we know about our own child’s health, weight, and previous history with the drug. Additionally, the research that goes into such guidelines changes over time and medicines are frequently pulled from the market when we know more. Hardly a great example of unwavering authority.

Finally, flight plans, like Congressional laws, take into account a tremendous amount of data in order to plot an ideal route. But ultimately, pilots and flight crew can and should have the power to improvise and respond to new information. It may be tough to make that argument with the ongoing mystery of Malaysia Air Flight 370, but it doesn’t change the fact that Lessig’s three supposed best examples of firm RO culture are neither as authoritative nor as unremixed/remixable as he indicates in his book.

In short, traditional content providers and artists are already complicit in remix culture.

By Ryan Shaw

A more compelling argument Lessig makes in Remix: we must reimagine our relationship to R/W cultural practices and habits because the change has already come. College-aged students and their younger siblings have never experienced a world without highly visible remixes. If companies and lawmakers cannot figure out how to benefit from and encourage the current and continuing trend of remix/collaboration/R/W creation, the future is indeed dire. But not for the reasons they say it is.

Dawn Endico on Flickr

5 thoughts on “Last Bastions of Read Only Culture?”

  1. Janel– I completely agree with your assessment of RO culture. Your post reminds me of the conversation that we had in class re: scientific facts. And, more specifically, how scientists are constantly questioning their own findings rather than sending down “facts” chipped in stone.

    I also wonder how internet culture is further chipping away at any RO remnants. I’m thinking specifically of the “We the People” petitions that allow people to bring any issue they would like before the current administration. While I am unsure as to how successful these petitions are—and if any of them have had an actual effect on policy—I think they nonetheless support your point that RO culture is dying (or already extinct).

  2. Part of what I posit, rather vaguely in my post, is that RO culture never actually really existed. So naturally, I’m 100% with you on “none of these examples are really RO” and add: if there’s a last bastion for RO culture, it’s that even Lessig’s been tricked into thinking it was ever real. Kind of like the romantic lone author, it’s one of those nice images that just didn’t happen. That’s what I think you articulate here so clearly–look at all these dang arrows! People are always rewriting or interacting or remixing text!

    It strikes me that Lessig probably knows this, but might be dumbing it down for the readership. His prior work seems to contain a more solid “this is not revolutionary–this is how it’s always been!” tendency. I’m not sure why he felt he needed to change his tune in this moment in the book to suit an idea that there really is an essentially RO culture that’s purely non-RW in nature.

  3. Janel,

    Re-reading your post has me fixated on trying to reconcile the two terms “collaboration” and “RO,” because it seems as if Lessig has omitted collaboration from what he defines as the scope/nature of RO texts. But how can we call a text “read only” if it wasn’t composed/created by just one person?

    I believe this picks up on a thread that Kylie talked about in her post re: academic writing. So much of what we do is collaboration, even if it only amounts to sharing a link through Facebook or Twitter. Are there a handful of pages or articles that I, to take Lessig’s term literally, “read only”? Sure—I don’t think anyone needs to know I just took a Buzzfeed quiz to figure out “Which Kylie Minogue Are You?” (although I honestly think I may have actually decided to share that with some people). But even though I may not share them, there are almost always comments at the bottom of these quizzes wherein people share their own results, so in a sense I’m not reading only one thing.

    Anyway, I feel like the whole function of sharing totally renders the idea of RO-culture obsolete.

  4. Janel,

    We chatted a bit about this today, but I wanted to throw my response up here as well. I definitely agree that the RO/RW binary is problematic (and I think Michael’s point that this may be purposefully reductive on Lessig’s part for this particular text). I think, though, that the RO/RW separation has less to do with collaborative authorship and more to do with use. Most texts are collaborative – including the above examples of RO culture, to television, film, and so on. But the difference I think Lessig sees with music or video, for instance, is that users can (and should) manipulate content to create a new work for a new, or adjusted, purpose.

    I see that happening less with things like Congressional law or medication directions. As a whole, users can’t manipulate the purpose. They can change the dosage for various reasons, but the use of the drug remains the same.

    This would be similar for Congressional law. There – could – be a new purpose made. For instance, someone could likely craft an interesting textual art piece about current/former laws. It could make a point about law, but it wouldn’t change the laws in any way (no matter how many times Nicholas Cage steals the Declaration of Independence). They would become art as opposed to legal documents. With art, however, the purpose can be manipulated in such a way that something is still art, but it is new art for an adapted purpose.

    I love throwing collaboration into this discussion!

  5. Janel,
    Your post and also Michael’s post reminded my of Reader-response theory flourished in 1960s and 1970s to re-evaluate the role of the reader as an active agent in the process of receiving and also re-creating the author’s text. This theory tends to authorize readers instead of writers by focusing on each single reader’s active participation in the process of reading . I do not read Lessig’s approach to RO culture as an absolute denial of reader-response theory; I think RO can exist, a culture in which the majority of readers, or audience, do not have any opportunities to publish their reactions or responses to the author’s work. In RO culture the original work is always recorded but the readers’ responses are not, so they will be lost one way or the other. In RO culture readers ARE constantly reacting, as in RW, but they do not publicize their reactions in the form of comments, responses or remixes to compete with the original work, because of that Lessig calls it a Read Only culture.

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