Tag Archives: internet

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 http://bit.ly/1gyP3yh

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.

Curated Reality: Directives, the Collapse of Collaboration, and Technology in School

If we all took the Invisible Gorilla experiment (1-3), and you were one of the people who saw the gorilla, you’d probably try and figure out who else saw the gorilla, detect what they have in common with you that let them see the gorilla, and find a way to say “Hey, you saw the gorilla too. What’s the deal with the gorilla?”

Since you’d been directed to count all the passes, though, you would then convene with the Basketball Counters (who, all this time, have been doing to their calculations what you’ve been doing to the gorilla) in an attempt to arrive at an accurate picture of what’s going on here. That’s the collaboration that Davidson gestures ambitiously towards in her introduction (5), it’s the framework for the book’s objectives–to examine how we might adapt our schools and workplaces to account for this human tendency to pay attention to some things and not others, and to seek new information on what they’re missing when they need to problem-solve.

But let’s suppose (in a little mental experiment) that the Invisible Gorilla experiment that no one directed the audience to count the passes—there is no clear problem to solve. Without this directive, people would watch the video with a more open filter, with the counting-inclined counting all sorts of passes in different categories, the sports-inclined watching the form of the passes, perhaps, the literature-inclined attempting to close read the scene for symbolic meaning, and a fair number of people just watching. A larger number of people, without their attention externally directed elsewhere, might see the gorilla–without telling everyone to count (as Joe deliberately neglected to do on Friday), most people see the gorilla. It’s a gorilla.

In a group large enough, without this counting directive, people might generally see the gorilla and understand the passes and the coding of the colored shirts, and talk about what it means. But this central consensus on the (now obvious) gorilla presence would still generate a series of outlier groups: people who don’t think the gorilla is important, who counted all the passes between black shirts, or white shirts, or all the passes from one color shirt to different color shirts, and so on. They form their own small groups, reinforcing each other’s beliefs.

This is basically the internet in a nutshell. There is a mass of data, to be processed by people, with no filtering directives or directive towards problem-solving. Like Baby Andy (47), it’s just spitting data at us, and we’re selecting parts, giving them value, reinforcing the reproduction of that data, and grouping up with other people to form cultures where “Dada” is a word and “Mada” is not, where the gorilla doesn’t matter but the black-shirt passes do.

Internet Opinions

Collaboration under these circumstances may or may not be as prevalent as under the “count the passes” directive, but this collaboration is fragmentary and self-reinforcing non-collaboratory (or intra-group collaboratory) activity is just as common. Team Gorilla and Team Mathematics don’t always talk. They have no reason to. This self-selecting group-identity without an impetus to collaboration creates what I call a Curated Reality (sometimes called a bubble world, or a pundit sphere, or when properly financed, a cable news network). Davidson seems particularly unconcerned about this (the book is deliberately “optimistic” [back cover] after all), but it does make me nervous. I’m usually one of those “the internet is THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED” people, but there’s no ignoring the fact that people (all of us) select data that we are already pre-inclined to find interesting, accessible or agreeable, and filter out as “crap” all that stuff which is uninteresting or contrarian, and are generally blind to these filtering activities.

What this has to do with my experiences as a student and as an instructor grows out of the fact that, like Duke, my undergrad institution distributed iPods to its incoming freshmen (in the 2006-2007 school year). The problem was, without the financial resources of Duke or the Apple branding help garnered from Duke’s large public profile, the iPods were only distributed by specific programs in specific colleges. Unlike Duke’s student population, which as Davidson indicates was directed towards education their whole lives (64), the population at my not-quite-Ivy institution was less inclined to go along with the overtly experimental program, effectively fragmenting the student population (and the school) into iPod Education Advocates (developing apps and doing work), Happy iPod Hijackers (who laughed at this heavy-handed idea that if you just dump new tech into an old classroom things will get more efficient, and just used it to listen to music), and The Humanities Students (who did not receive the technology at all, despite appealing to the administration). The collaboration that Davidson commendably notes at Duke (65) collapsed before it even formed, except for isolated, intrepid pockets of iPod Education Enthusiasts and iPod owners. Like miniature Dukes.

In the following years, whole colleges in the university abandoned the program. The programs that abandoned the iPod did so because collaboration and innovation was stifled–ironically, stifled because these programs had implemented free iPods in an unequal fashion and hoped that crowdsourcing without directives would somehow magically collaborate them straight into the information age. iPod education became a Curated Reality–those who had it said it worked, those who had given up on it said it was worthwhile but not exemplary, and those who never had it scoffed at the idea that technology had anything new to offer, and none of these groups was really interested in talking because there was no directive, no problem to solve. Collaboration became in-group only, and attention blindness became the mode of the day.

While Davidson says Duke’s program never came with a directive (62-63), it did implicitly have one. Duke distributed the technology to a student population already inclined to work outside class time on improving the university, with specifically branded partnerships with Apple, under an educational initiative undertaken by the whole university with the direction of Davidson herself (64). In essence, she did the Invisible Gorilla experiment on a room full of professional counters at a conference on counting basketball passes–a directive is implicit in the context, creating an object of, and impetus for, collaboration.

The excerpt from a Youtube video that follows, by user Gabgorilla from October 20, 2011, stands as a prime example of both an argument for technologically enhanced education, and as an example of an artifact of collapsed collaborative possibility and implicit, limiting directives, forming a Curated Reality:

In the video, the user (a student or professor, perhaps, in a digital composition course) juxtaposes the “classrooms of today” (which are filled with laptops, mostly Apples) with the “classrooms of the past” (with patriarchal paintings and warped desks) (see 00:16 to 00:19), using Dictionary.com and proprietary clip-art to make a point about technology and classrooms in a painfully artificial use of technology that students would giggle a bit at. The video transitions from talking about technology in education generally to focusing implicitly on composition, challenging the notion that technology can only be used for “word processing” (01:48 to 01:50) while it fails to cite any uses that are not composition-oriented. The end result is commendable, but fails to reach outward beyond its implicit focus on composition technologies, proposing to enable a collaboration it implicitly fails to imagine. The video’s author challenges us to use technology in new ways, which in the video seems to mean making essays with more expensive software than a word processor.

This video gets caught up (as Davidson does, a bit) in the rhetoric of technology as panacea for education–a Curated Reality based on enthusiasm for technology and education whose laudable enthusiasm frequently erases the dangers of technology inequality and of shoehorning technology into a classroom without regard for its actual pedagogical usefulness or the ways in which technology has already impacted the classroom. Technology, despite everything said, insistently remains a replacement for or enhancement of older technology, and paying attention to it at all is grounds for self-congratulation (see all of Davidson, Chapter 3). Likewise, it remains bound up in an implicit economic language where the cost of these technologies, and their accessibility, is ignored. iPods are used to record and distribute spoken lectures to other iPod users (Davidson 66), and Duke (and Davidson) congratulate themselves on crowdsourcing new ways to use technology to make education accessible to everyone (with the several hundred dollars necessary to purchase an iPod in 2006).

Selective attention to one aspect of educational technology by a specialized group of educators with a specialized group of students (Davidson’s Duke and it’s implicitly elite student body) with the directive (implicit or otherwise–it was certainly obvious to Duke students) of modernizing educational practices creates a small group which can collaborate but collapses the possibility of collaboration outside that context–no one cites the problem of unequal implementation, or of the social forces built into educational systems which disqualify certain approaches (and which contaminated Davidson’s experimental control of not telling students what to do). Davidson, pointedly, recognizes this skewed basis but continues to universalize her experience at Duke anyway (64). She claims there are no directives or conditions–but directives were built in everywhere. Likewise, at my undergraduate institution, the unequal implementation of the initiative put further directives in the mix, rapidly enabling very specific kinds of collaboration and utterly destroying any other kind.

My much-belabored point is this: Much like the video’s limited embrace of technology, Davidson’s ideas of where this technology goes in Chapter 3 perpetuates some of the problems she wants to fight: it disables the awareness of attention blindness and collaboration that she champions. As many education technology enthusiasts (like me, and Davidson, and others) have done, we have challenged the conditions of an old, conservatively anti-technology Curated Reality on education and, in the process, perpetuated our own Curated Reality, blind to our structural preconceptions. We have enabled some forms of collaboration by disabling others, blind to our own implicit directives while claiming to be “open.” Our utopia is smaller than we imagined, because membership and collaborative knowledge is governed by criteria we pretend aren’t there.

Nostalgia, Net Neutrality, and the Spanish Inquisition

I have a friend who just cares so much about injustice and oppression. On her Facebook feed, she often posts exposé-style articles about injustices and petitions to change this or that about the world. I love being connected to this friend, as she often makes me aware of issues that I didn’t even know were issues and exposes injustices, but sometimes she posts something before she has had time to look into it and her worry is Snopes-worthy.

One issue that she posted about a few weeks ago was that of net neutrality. At the time, I did not take this post very seriously, even though my philosopher was adamant that I should probably care about it. As I considered this issue further I realized that I really wanted to care, but I am also pretty sure that this nostalgic idealized internet-before-regulation never existed, just like Standage’s idealized coffee shops never existed.

[For the Colbert version of net neutrality, click here. The video is longer than one-minute, though, so you don’t need to watch it in order to understand my arguments].

Standage describes the coffee houses as “forums for free speech and the free exchange of ideas” (113). In his interpretation of them, people from all classes could come together and, you know, discuss things. The problem I have with this goes back to two things: (1) it is very clear to any researcher of the period that there was little class-mixing in these coffee houses and (2) even in Standage’s examples, people tended to visit the same coffee houses in which their particular communities (the scientific qua “Philosophical” community and the sailors’ communities were his examples) gathered consistently. People, as they do now, stuck to their familiar, comfortable communities.

And now the very mild Katie-version of the Spanish Inquisition, without torture, directed at Standage:

Now, my point here is not to lambast Stangage for his misrepresentation of historical events; after all, it is clear that he really wants to think of the coffee houses and their digital reflection (the internet) as a free and open world for all to join and share ideas. I applaud this enthusiasm. My problem is with the fact that the nostalgia and idealization of processes and events creates a cloud of ignorance about what philosophers call “the facts of the matter” or the things that we really know about these idealized “freedoms” and “democratizations.” These are the facts of the matter as I—with a political ideology which is currently influenced very deeply by G.A. Cohen, to put my cards on the table—see them:

Premise 1: As long as the processes which enable the internet are controlled by capitalistic enterprises, they will be trying to enact enough control over these processes so as to make as much money as possible.

Premise 2: Capitalism is not concerned with individual freedom and liberty; it only espouses such ideology in order to make money.

Premise 3: The elite in any society that does not value and defend equality are always looking to maintain control over information and content, as knowledge = power (hence the chapter on Luther and printing).

That said I am not convinced that the internet has ever been neutral, nor do I think that it will continue to serve as the beacon of liberty that Standage espouses. I am interested, though, to hear more of your thoughts on whether you believe the internet to be a really free space which enhances individual liberties.

Meeting Tom Standage at the Coffeehouse

After grabbing your favorite coffee drink from the over-worked barista, you sit down next to Tom in the busy Starbucks where he has saved you both a table and ask him a question about his book, Writing on the Wall. He starts going on and on about his research, just like he always does when you meet up for coffee:


. . .

. . .

. . .

Alright, just kidding.

Tom Standage wasn’t really in a coffeehouse when he said those things and neither were you when you heard them. I’m afraid the smell of espresso that still lingers in the air is simply your imagination.

But what a “meta” moment that has just occurred! This was a conversation in a virtual (audio-created) coffeehouse about the history of coffeehouses, accessible to you via what Standage might describe as a digital “coffeehouse,” the WordPress interface.

What can this weird listening experience tell us about the relationship between the historical coffeehouse and our digital play areas?

In his book, Standage describes online discussion and social-media forums just like this WordPress site as having the same “vibrant, freewheeling spirit of the coffeehouse” with “a free and open space for debate and discussion” (123). It is clear that he sees online discussion communities as analogous to those meeting grounds of the past, where class and social status were (in theory) discarded in favor of meaningful intellectual and social activity. In connecting these two spaces, he doesn’t go so far as to posit a wholly equal relationship; Standage is more interested in proving the concept of pre-digital social media than navigating the specific nuances between these different kinds of technologies.

Yet, as I read his chapter on coffeehouses and scientific journals, I was struck by his positioning of internet forums alongside the former in terms of content and quality of conversation. Scientific journals aren’t given the same “free and open” description as coffeehouses and forums are given.

But how “free and open” are internet forums, truly? Beyond issues of accessibility as well as economic and socio-political power structures governing interest and ability to participate (things that affect all forms of information-sharing across history), the short clip above points us to at least two issues that we should consider in relating internet forums to coffeehouses and scientific journals both.

First, though internet forums do seem to engender a conversational style not unlike those of the coffeehouse, their text is permanent in a way that face-to-face discussion could never be. It is not just its placement in the archive of the forum–messages can be saved and screenshot so that they remain even after the original poster has deleted it from the discussion board. Although the oral quality of Standage’s dialogue gives the appearance of immediate, easy (“free and open”) conversation, you are able to play it over and over again at your leisure. In this sense, the permanence of the text of online forums follows scientific journals more so than coffeehouses.

Second, just as scientific journals were prized in part because of their “geographical reach” (121), so too are internet forums able to reach even further and wider. As opposed to the close proximity of the coffeehouse, the internet forum is able to receive visitors and posters from disparate locations, many that we will never know even came. Because of this, it is often open to the same critique of credibility as scientific journals–a truth well-represented in the earlier audio clip, which featured my personal mash-up of a Standage interview and many different free atmospheric sounds (such as footsteps, coffee pouring, and relative background noise) instead of a true recording of him in a Starbucks. Although I think we are learning more and more to think through issues of credibility (and here I don’t mean issues of ethos as much as the ability to prove you actually are the person you say you are) in written online text and image, the presupposed integrity of audio and video still seems pervasive. In terms of proximity and the ensuing issues of credibility, then, internet forums are again more similar to scientific journals than to coffeehouses.

I think that Standage is doing good work in countering contemporary anxieties about social media by delineating its impulses throughout history. Having been given these broad strokes, however, we should think more in-depth about how to understand specific kinds of contemporary digital technology and social media, as they relate to previous information-sharing techniques and to one another. Though he readily admits that his “analogy between ancient (analog) and modern (digital) forms of social media is not perfect” (241), I think it is important that, if we’re willing to follow his conception of social media, we map out exactly what the differences are.

What other specific issues do you consider when trying to relate newer social media to Standage’s older examples? What do we make of their interaction and interference with one another? How can we extend or revise the kinds of connections Standage’s book has created for us?