The Mythical Read-Only Culture

While I was reading Lessig’s Remix, I realized something.

I have never seriously imagined myself to have inhabited an RO environment. In the same way, I’ve never even considered a desire for privacy, at least not as Lessig describes it (or RO media).

When it comes to privacy, perhaps the reasoning behind this is obvious: I’ve used Amazon forever, and so I’m not super creeped out (technical term) for its fairly on-point suggestions for my buying choices. I’ve never imagined that I wasn’t being monitored. Perhaps, in addition to my (apparent) digital nativity, my years at Catholic School panopticon and SEC-compliant businesses, my urban residence and only-child status created this.

I don't see any citation here.
Shakespeare’s estate did not get paid for this.

When it comes to content creation and consumption, then, it should not be surprising that I’ve tended (on some fundamental level) to view all content as “public.” When I started writing fiction as a kid, it started out (as Lessig notes on 81, via Jenkins) as an “apprenticeship” of remixing–not in the literal fanfiction sense, but in the archetypical sense. I copied works’ conventions in order to enact their genres, only gradually moving away from this obvious forms of appropriation to the more abstracted forms: the practice of genre and audience awareness, of rhetoric, of convention employment. All writing (and all creativity) is always remix, even if the remix is marked (as many are) by the refusal to pull content from the expected sources.

I first wrote fiction because I found the fiction I liked to be insufficient, and sought to practice creation in order to fill these gaps. I became a Literature Academic because it appeared, to me, that literature scholarship *really* needed my help. As egotistical as that sounds, I doubt anyone reading this isn’t nodding right now (if you’re the nodding type), or gesticulating in some way. You finish your BA in English out of a love of books, but what carries you through the apprenticeship of graduate programs (MA, MFA, PhD, whatever) is knowing that you need to fill a gap you’ve found.

Our greatest fear.
Our greatest fear.

I’m not really sure RO culture really exists outside the minds of a few people at the RIAA. I’m not even sure Lessig thinks it exists (or at least, in 2008, believed that it would survive the decade). For any of Remix‘s other flaws, the hybrid culture Lessig describes has a high degree of veracity.

This is (maybe?) a vindication of Chris and Callie’s insistence that Broadcast Media is not passive, at least in the Michael-verse, because I can’t for the life of me think of a time when I imagined something to be really read-only. Lessig’s notes on remix in education, too, seem obvious given my history of writing and my current pedagogical (and theoretical) tendencies to see conventions, genres, and appropriations as the backbone of a text, and the meaningful recombination of research data plus new observations from that recombination to be the height of professional writing (see: all instructions for academic writing ever).

I can only hope Lessig’s right about the law catching up to the culture—of ditching its enterprise to perpetuate/create the RO culture myth—since it never occurred to me prior to today that the AMVs I consumed avidly just 8 years ago were in some way potentially illegal. I always considered the arguments in favor of royalties in music and film to be predicated on an elitist belief that film and music, as less-accessible-therefore-less-pedestrian arts than writing, were therefore more worthy of reward. As more and more of our readings gesture towards it (however remotely), I begin to get the impression I was right–that digital means gradually break down access barriers to new forms, and threaten the cultural elite that benefits. Much of the drama around the Internet has to do with controlling access, with creating artificial scarcity—with inventing the myth that an RO culture ever truly existed, much in the same ways other reactionaries create nostalgic mythic pasts to defend.


3 thoughts on “The Mythical Read-Only Culture”

  1. Michael– Given all of the recent privacy focused discussions on the internet, I find it interesting that your so accepting of surveillance. I, too, am a very avid amazon user—perhaps a bit too avid, as I just ordered toothpaste on it—but when I read Lessig’s praise of their “suggested purchases,” I immediately bristled. Yes, I know they are tracking everything I (and everyone else) have ever bought, but there’s something that strikes me as an invasive when they shove that tracking in my face.

    I wonder if you feel similarly alright with gmail’s monitoring. Although amazon’s suggestions irk me, I find it downright creepy when gmail starts suggesting ads based off of the emails I send out. I once recommended a plumber to someone and then had ads about toilets for two weeks. To me, that’s not okay.

    1. Michael and Heather–I second your comments about being realtively (and perhaps problematically) un-irked by Amanzon’s tracking of my browsing/purchasing history. I do, however, find a sort of perverse delight when Amazon “gets it wrong.” For instance, I ordered several early-American texts last semester, but only because they were required texts for a seminar, NOT because they in any way accurately reflect my true interests and preferences. Amazon’s attempts to then steer me towards similar texts led to the very mature and not-at-all-crazy result of me scoffing at my computer screen, “You don’t know me, Amazon!”

      Of course, what is intriguing about this is that Amazon does not simply recommend blindly, but does actually encourage you to tailor the recommendations you recieve to weed out the red herrings by choosing WHICH items you receive recommendations based on and by giving you the ability to delete the ones you aren’t interested in. Similar instances of “choice” are enabled by things like the sponsored messages on Facebook, as well as some video-streaming services like Hulu offering a “choose your own ad” based on relevance: .

      All this is to say that I find these sorts of often unasked-for interactivity to be both intriguing and utterly strange–they offer choice, but sometimes in arenas where I am really not asking for one. If you’re going to make me watch one of three car ads, Hulu, just pick one and let’s get this over with: I have Hannibal to watch.

    2. Heather–actually, I find that gmail doesn’t creep me out either. Part of that might be that I’m a super-long-term gmail user, but I think my childhood in a house without lockable internal doors made me divide “being monitored” from “being judged”. (Man, more and more of this article requires me to posit some weird psychosocial development issues.) But I’m also thinking that this monitoring happens in normal real-world stores and post-offices–it’s just that we’re preconditioned to imagine that the teller at the drug store or the postlady aren’t judging us as they give us what we asked for. Maybe the key difference is that Amazon remembers (but cannot judge), and the kid at the counter at CVS doesn’t remember (but totally judges).

      Also, you are not the only person in this thread to perhaps overuse Amazon. Talk about the postlady judging me…

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