Cory Doctorow as Exemplar

Throughout the fall term, I am going to be sharing with readers more of the work we have been doing for the MacArthur Foundation on new media literacies, building up to the release of a significant new white paper in late October which makes the case for a new set of social skills and cultural competencies which we need to be incorporating into American education. We are already hard at work putting these ideas into practice, developing curricular activities and supporting materials that will help teachers and after school programs respond in more meaningful ways to the challenges and opportunities of the new participatory culture.

One of our core projects is the development of an exemplar library. When we spoke with teachers and after school programs, it was clear that they recognized that their students were interested in new forms of cultural production that are enabled by new media technologies and new forms of cultural distribution supported by the web. They knew that their students were fans, bloggers, and gamers. But they faced a number of issues: they had no standards by which to evaluate work produced in these new and emerging media; they didn’t know enough themselves to give good advice to student media makers; the students lacked role models to help them understand future opportunities in this space; and the students were facing ethical issues that their teachers and parents didn’t really understand.

We decided to respond to these challenges by producing a library of short digital films focused around media-makers and the craft and ethical choices they face in producing and distributing their work. For each media maker, we may produce 5-10 short (4-5 minute) video segments addressing different points in their creative process. A teacher or after school program might show one or more of those segments to kick off a discussion about media production processes. They may decide to work horizontally — fleshing out one form of media making — or vertically — looking at storyboarding or interviewing techniques across a range of artists and media. These videos will be accompanied by supporting materials — vocabulary sheets, charts showing the various tools the artists use, and potential production activities that can be brought into the classroom. We also imagine that as students get engaged with the videos they will seek out more content on their own via our website and thus dig deeper into the whole world of media production than can be accomplished within the constraints of the school day.

Long term, we expect to make this an open library where anyone can insert their own content and thus provide an incentive for teachers and students to engage with media production projects around artists in their own local community. In the short run, we are producing these videos in-house — working with Comparative Media Studies graduate students and with our new production coordinator Anna Van Someren, who was until recently part of the Youth Voice Collaborative here in Boston.

We are just now putting the first crop of exemplars out on the web and I figured I would showcase them here as they go up. One of the first will have special interest to readers of this blog, many of whom found this site because of some early shout outs by Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing. When Doctorow was speaking at MIT last year, CMS graduate student Neal Grigsby grabbed some time with him to talk about blogging, science fiction writing, and online communications. The documentary was produced for middle and high school students but we think it will engage many adult viewers as well.

Here are some highlights:


Doctorow was until recently an advocate for the Electronic Frontier Foundation: he is someone deeply committed to the concept of the Creative Commons, so it is fitting that the opening film starts with him reading aloud the Creative Common license that grants us permission to share his words with the world. He explains elsewhere in the opening segment:

My first novel was the first novel to use a Creative Commons license. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was released in stores on January 9, 2003 and, on the same day, it was released as a Creative Commons download that came with a license that allowed you to noncommercial redistribute it and make reuse of it as much as you wanted. The novel has been distributed from my website at least 650,000 times and from other people’s websites some unknown number of times, and it’s in its 6th printing. And that’s because for most people an electronic book is not a substitute for a print book it’s an advertisement for a print book. And, for me, my biggest problem isn’t piracy, its obscurity. And it really seems to me that the more you give away, the better it is. That seems to be the conclusion that I’ve come to.

Doctorow went on to talk about why he choose Disneyworld as the setting for his first novel and in the process shared something of his own fannish relationship to popular culture:

It’s a great fictional setting, for starters. I mean, there’s so much great detail. And it’s got both a lot of familiarity and a lot of foreignness for people. A lot of people have been to Disney World, it gets more visitors every year than the United Kingdom. But it also has all this rich detail, that if you spend a lot of time playing around with it, you can find all these interesting little factoids and trivioids that you can drop in and really excite people.

I love putting pop culture into the work I do. It lets you be a fan with a giving up authorship. You can be a drooling fanboy without surrendering your position at the top of the geek hierarchy by working in these fanboy references

in your stuff as you go, you know? And it’s also, I think, a nice way to pay homage to your literary ancestors and your peers. And it’s a little naughty, too, to drop in the occasional visit from someone else’s characters or the

occasional moment from someone else’s world. I think that pop culture references and references to other works in my own works give them a kind of a richness, a depth. You can import an entire other narrative just by dropping a couple of references to it in your book or in your short story, and that, think, is pretty exciting.

The other great advantage, of course, of writing a novel set in theme park is that it makes your trips to Disney World tax-deductible. And so I had a couple of very fine years of tax-deductible trips to Disney World.

Doctorow offers some pragmatic advice about writing in general (which are sure to earn jabs in the elbow from composition teachers around the country):

The most important thing, I think, that any writer can do is: when you’re learning your writing habits, eschew all ceremony. Don’t be one of those writers who needs to light a candle, and clean the cat, and wash the dishes, and vacuum the house, and put away all the books, and do 20 minutes of yoga, and go for brisk walk, and contemplate your navel before you can set a word down on the page. When you go back and reread your work, you won’t know which pages you wrote on days when you were feeling completely uninspired, and which

pages you wrote on days when you were having a great time. And by not letting yourself get trapped into ceremony, and the myth of the Muse that has to visit you before you can commit to writing, you will be a writer. Because a writer is someone who writes not someone who complains about writing. And if your job is to be a writer you have to be able to write. Garbagemen never talk about having garbagemen’s block. Doctors never say, “I can’t do surgery today, I’m just not in the mood.” If it’s your job you have to be able to write when it’s

time to write.

The interview also serves our mandate to offer teachers some standards for thinking about what constitutes good writing in the digital media. Here’s what Doctorow has to say about the art of blogging:

A blog succeeds, I think, on the basis of how good your headline and your lead is. There’s a tendency among bloggers to want to repeat the privilege and sin of newspaper writers, which is to write the clever, silly headline that draws its strength from its place on the page and the context that surrounds it. So you write a headline like “Britain Weeps!” And it’s 72 point bold, and beneath it is a big photo of someone crying. And that’s intriguing. But if you do that in a blog, and your headline is syndicated to an RSS reader, and it turns up among 2000 other undifferentiated headlines, and all it says is “Britain weeps,” or “OMG LOL,” or “funniest thing I’ve seen this week, can’t describe it, you gotta see it,” all that stuff goes right into the round file; all that stuff just gets pitched out.

If you want to write stuff that carries, you have to really focus on these clean headlines that eschew all cleverness for memorability, the ability to be remembered. And then you have to follow it on with a lead, a nut graph, that grabs everything that’s in the story and sums it up in three sentences. And it’s really hard to do that. Everyone wants to give some background. They want to say, “for the last several weeks we’ve all noticed that something, something, something, and then, subsequently, dumpty, dumpty dum, which brings me to today’s point.” Again, when people are skimming headlines and just the first sentence, that stuff is just noise. You have to open, and then move back to it.

It’s like writing copy for a wire service. Because that’s, in effect, what you do when you blog. The primary method for consumption of any blog these days is through an RSS reader, at least as the initial path in. BoingBoing, for example, has about 1.1 million unique RSS readers per day, and about 350,000 unique web page readers per day. So it’s wildly disproportionate, by far the majority of people read it in headlines. So, if you’re a wire service customer at a newspaper, what you do all day is go in and read thousands and thousands of headlines, and figure out which one of these is relevant to you, and pick them up for your newspapers. So, if you’re a wire service writer, you’ve got to write to that audience. And I think that what the Internet has done is turn all those of us who read through our headline readers into wire service editors, and all of us who write blogs, and who are conscious of wanting to spread the material in our blogs, into wire service writers.

And finally, Doctorow talks extensively about science fiction writing as a mode of social commentary and activism:

The job of the technology activist and the job of the science fiction writer are pretty comparable in that both are meant to try to investigate and try to articulate what the consequences of technology policy changes will be. To say, “if you do X the outcome might be Y.” And certainly in civil liberties that’s always been a tricky one. To say, “well, to regulate the speech of these neo-Nazis, you will end up regulating the speech of these other people in this

way that would cause harm. Popular speech never needs defending, so if we’re only going to allow people who agree with us to speak then this is what the outcome can look like.”

Science fiction tells you how the present should be, it tells you what’s wrong with today, and what the future could be…. Science fiction is the most didactic literature, I think, going. It’s kind of infamous for the soliloquy. You know, the author who breaks off to have a character… You know, Heinlein’s characters sit there and give 25 minutes of watered-down Ayn Rand in the middle of their space adventure.

1984 is the sterling example. I went back and reread that just a month or two ago, this being a good time in the history of the western world to reread 1984, and it’s remarkable not just as a piece of political fiction, as it’s remembered, but as a piece of science fiction. He does all the skiffy stuff that science fiction readers love to find in their books. He’s a great shallow extrapolator; he extrapolates just enough to give you that frisson of the future, and then uses that to hold a warped mirror up to the present. And it works really well….

One of the nice things about writing fiction that has some didactic elements, or that has a mission and is intended to educate as well as entertain, is that it’s very hard to rebut a short story. If you write an essay, someone can come along and write another essay that says your essay is rubbish. The number of people who can write a short story to rebut your short story is much smaller.

Special thanks to Margaret Weigel, the research director on the New Media Literacies Project.

Comments

  1. This seems like a great project. An excerpt from my blog entry on the interview portions you quoted:

    I find it particularly interesting that Doctorow speaks of putting such references in his otherwise “original” stories (original in a copyright sense, anyway) because “It lets you be a fan [without] giving up authorship.” Fan fiction usually does involve surrendering some incidents of authorship, but hardly all — attribution and the resulting respect of the fan community are the key retained rights.

    Doctorow continues that pop-culture references allow him to stay “a drooling fanboy without surrendering [my] position at the top of the geek hierarchy by working in these fanboy references in [my] stuff as [I] go.” And this is literally true in the sense that the geek hierarchy by the Brunching Shuttlecocks has published sf authors at the top, with fan fiction authors occupying the middle-to-bottom positions, depending on how well they fit normative expectations for what people (mostly women) can legitimately write about. Yet as my description indicates, I was somewhat put off by Doctorow’s wording because it struck me as so specifically fanboy — a claim to cultural capital that relies on distinguishing his activities from the things that the real weirdos do. There’s always a tension in any movement for cultural acceptance between insisting on the validity of alternative values and throwing the most extreme members of the group off the sled to prove that the remaining members are just normal folks. I understand why Doctorow, and to some extent Jenkins, take the normal-folks-with-benefits approach. But my fan community just got tossed off the sled.