The Escasy of Influence and the Power of Networks

Today, I want to call to your attention two recent articles which speak to themes that have been recurring interests in this blog since we launched last June -- the first deals with the relationship of intellectual property and creative expression, the second deals with web comics as a site of experimentation and innovation. Both warrant closer looks. Jonathon Lethem , an author whose fiction consistently plays around with themes of fandom and popular culture, has published a provocative essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence," in the most recent issue of Harpers, which explores the ways that copyright has operated to constrain and plagiarism and appropriation to expand the richness of our culture. Lethem's statement is impossible to summarize here because it expresses its ideas as much through its form (composed of remixing a range of writers who have dealt with the contemporary debates about copyright, including Lawrence Lessig, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Richard Posner, Lewis Hyde, David Foster Wallace, and Henry Jenkins).

Something of the piece's argument can be determined by its opening quote from John Donne:

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated."

For those who are curious, Lethem mashes up a passage from Textual Poachers with the Michel DeCerteau's The Practice of Everyday Life, the book which provided me with my theoretical underpinnings:

Active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own--artists are no more able to control the imaginations of their audiences than the culture industry is able to control second uses of its artifacts. In the children's classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the old Skin Horse offers the Rabbit a lecture on the practice of textual poaching. The value of a new toy lies not it its material qualities (not "having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle"), the Skin Horse explains, but rather in how the toy is used. "Real isn't how you are made. . . . It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." The Rabbit is fearful, recognizing that consumer goods don't become "real" without being actively reworked: "Does it hurt?" Reassuring him, the Skin Horse says: "It doesn't happen all at once. . . . You become. It takes a long time. . . . Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby." Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, the Velveteen Rabbit's loose joints and missing eyes represent vandalism, signs of misuse and rough treatment; for others, these are marks of its loving use.

As a fan of Lethem's fiction (The Fortress of Solitude), I am tickled pink to see my own writing included in this context. Every so often, journalists, who see me as an advocate of very loose copyright protection, ask me how I would feel if someone took and used my work without my permission as if it were a kind of gotcha question. In reality, I am delighted to see people engage with my ideas; I give much of my own intellectual property away on a daily basis -- here in the blog and elsewhere -- because I care much more about having an impact on the debates that impact our culture and in providing resources for my readers than I am interested in regulating what they do with my text. Of course, it is nice when they acknowledge that I wrote the material, as Lethem does here, but I also understand as the quote from Donne suggests that new works get built on the shucks of old works and that to be part of the conversation is to become the raw materials out of which new texts get generated or perhaps simply the compost that allows them to grow.

This blog has periodically touched upon the artistic innovation which has occurred in and around web comics in recent years as well as the various scenarios which might support their future development. I wanted to flag for readers a very interesting overview of the space of web comics today which was developed by Joshua Pantalleresco over at the ComicBloc. Again, this is apt to seem self-serving since I was one of the people he interviewed for the story but Pantalleresco's article is most interesting for the comments he was able to gather from the web comics artists themselves, talking about what they see as the benefits of working in this medium. What follows are just a few of the better quotes from the article:

"I think the biggest advantage is also, ironically, the biggest disadvantage: distribution... The glory of online comics is that readers don't have to go to a comic book shop to read them and can instead read them at home, at work, the library or anywhere there's a computer with a high-speed Internet connection." -- Dirk Manning, creator and writer of both Nightmare World and Tales Of Mr. Rhee

"Really the sky is the limit at this point for self publishing. If you really have the will to put your stuff out there, the tools are all available...There's nothing to stop you except maybe fear. Fear of rejection, fear of taking risks, fear of failure.... Creators can get there work out there without the constraint of publishing or distribution companies. Sure, there will be more books out there that probably never should have existed, but the good books, the really good books will rise to the top.--Tom Stillwell, creator and writer of Honor Brigade

"You MUST have a website that looks professional and is user friendly...Blog on this site, post images, give free previews ...provide as much information about you and your books as possible. You also MUST make sure people can find this site. If you build it, they won't come. They won't know it exists. You need to bring them there. You get people there by self promotion. You aren't just selling the book. You are selling you as a creator."-- Stillwell

If you want to read what I had to say, you need to actually read the article.

What struck me about the two articles is that they both emphasize some of the skills we have been discussing through our work for the MacArthur Foundation. The first makes the argument that artists learn and grow through a process of appropriation and transformation of existing materials, the second that networking constitutes an important aspect of contemporary authorship. These are core insights we should be making available to our students, especially those who aspire to enter the creative industries.

And, oh, while I have your attention, MIT World recently posted a webcast of a very interesting lecture by John Seeley Brown, the former Director of Xerox-PARC and a key thinker on the social life of information. I was in the audience when Brown delivered these remarks which speaks about collective intelligence, participatory culture, and digital education. I recommend this webcast to anyone who regularly reads and enjoys this blog. Here's part of the summary that MIT World posted:

We learn through our interactions with others and the world, he says, and there's no more perfect medium for enabling this than an increasingly open and organized World Wide Web.

In a digitally connected, rapidly evolving world, we must transcend the traditional Cartesian models of learning that prescribe "pouring knowledge into somebody's head," says

John Seely Brown. We learn through our interactions with others and the world, he says, and there's no more perfect medium for enabling this than an increasingly open and organized World Wide Web.

While the wired world may be flat, it now also features "spikes," interactive communities organized around a wealth of subjects. For kids growing up in a digital world, these unique web resources are becoming central to popular culture, notes Brown. Now, educators must begin to incorporate the features of mash-ups and remixes in learning, to stimulate "creative tinkering and the play of imagination."

With the avid participation of online users, the distinction between producers and consumers blurs. In the same way, says Brown, knowledge 'production' must flow more from 'amateurs' - the students, life-long learners, and professionals learning new skills. Brown describes amateur astronomers who observe the sky 24/7, supplementing the work of professionals in critical ways. A website devoted to Boccaccio's Decameron welcomes both scholars and students, opening up the world of professional humanities research to all.

The challenge of 21st century education will be leveraging the abundant resources of the web - this very long tail of interests - into a "circle of knowledge-building and sharing." Perhaps, Brown proposes, the formal curriculum of schools will encompass both a minimal core "that gets at the essence of critical thinking," paired with "passion-based learning," where kids connect to niche communities on the web, deeply exploring certain subjects. Brown envisions education becoming "an act of re-creation and productive inquiry," that will form the basis for a new culture of learning.