Anxiety of Cyber-Influence, or, Books and Blogs
In 1973, Harold Bloom famously wrote of "The Anxiety of Influence," examining the thesis that strong poets, who are inspired by and influenced by former poets, deliberately misread the works that influence them in order to produce original, creative, and non-derivative works.
In developing a theory of how our literature changes in the cyborg environment environment of networked computing, I am struck today by an interesting cycle of influence/citation/theft/allusion/quotation/plagiarism.
Blogs are by their nature a form of literary production that relies upon what would be called plagiarism or copyright violation in the world of writing defined by the relative stability or fixity of the print medium. BoingBoing grabs something that appears on Michael Geist's Blog and either paraphrases or copies-and-pastes a segment of Geist's commentary. This is considered acceptable--and welcome--in the blogging world. You want a bit of theft, you want links, you want a bit of copy and paste: It spreads your message.
On Cyborgblog I am quite untroubled about copying textual excerpts and pasting them into my page. As in my academic writing, I'm careful to indicate where the original text was published, and I put quoted text in blockquotes. Unlike my academic or fictional prose, however, the blog has become predominantly a collection or anthology of other interesting works (essentially, this is one of the four the medieval ways of making books described by the 13th- century philosopher Bonaventure: as blogger I am a commentator one who "writes both others' work and his own, but with others' work in the principal place, adding his own for purposes of explanation"). note
In doing one of my intermittent trolls for cyborg stuff today, I found this book, Pulse: The Coming of Age of Systems and Machines by artist Robert Frenay. Chapter four, Thinking, contains an entry on the future of human beings under the title Evolutionary Robotics (Part Three). It begins:
"Asked if computers will succeed us, MIT’s turns the question on its head. “You can’t know, because it’s so hypothetical,” he says. “But I think to a certain extent we’re going to have to face issues like this a lot earlier than we think. But it’s going to be the cyborg, the melding of silicon and living things. That’s where these issues are going to occur first. It’s not going to be purely intelligent robot versus current existing life form…It’s going to be humans mixed with silicon, and the basic intelligence is still going to be human intelligence."
The words "humans mixed with silicon" link to Cyborgblog, and then the chapter goes on to link to several of the same issues I've compiled on Cyborgblog: the 25,000 living rat neurons as living computers (which I got via BoingBoing); Cyberkinetics; DARPA's Brain Machine Interface program (here, September 2005 - via Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools via Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing our Minds, our Bodies--and What it Means to be Human (May 2005) - and here, October 2004, via Wired News).
What this page in the "book" called Pulse emphasizes is that networked communications take us back to an older form of literary production where copyright ceases to have as much power as compilation and commentory. (Contrast this to the bizarre court case going on right now, where the rapper Ludacris is being forced to defend his repeated use of the words "like that" in his song "stand Up". In a move that signals that the owl has flown, the group I.O.F. is claiming copyright of those chorus words and similar rhythms).
And this brings me back to the rather curious "request from the author" (I quote it in its entirety):
At some point I’d like to experiment with putting the full text of Pulse online in a form that anyone can link into and modify, possibly with parallel texts or even by changing or adding to the wording of mine. I like the idea of collaborative texts. I also feel there’s value in the structure and insight that a single, deeply committed author can bring to a subject. So what I want to do is offer my text as an anchor for something that then grows to become its own unique creature. I like to imagine Pulse not just as the book I’ve worked so hard to write, but as a dynamic text that can continue expanding and updating in all directions, to encompass every aspect of this subject (which is also growing so rapidly).
I realize that what I have in mind is properly called a wiki. But as a writer, I find myself drawn to the phrase “open source.” It’s one of those rare tech terms that has an almost poetic dimension—that serves as a metaphor for something larger. So with apologies to OSI, I’ve reserved the domain name pulseopensource.com. I should add that it’s not yet active. One reason it’s not is the technical complication of putting such a large text online in wiki form. If anyone out there knows of a good method for approaching this project, we’d appreciate hearing from you.
There are numerous wiki texts, references, and guidebooks. I’m not aware of any author of a published book like Pulse who has put his or her work online for collaborative modification. I’m interested in hearing about any other instances of that.
April 8, 2006
Collaborative books are being done already--Wikipedia being the most obvious one. Drupal offers a wiki-ish software for this very process. And certainly releasing your book with a license for others to modify and change it is no longer a nifty new idea. But more puzzling is why bother offering something as "open source" when it's been assembled out of what is already well-known, even clichéd, and out of other people's blogs and posts?
The book Pulse, being offered for 30% off when you order it online, is an example of an older dead-tree-book marketing paradigm trying to jam itself into the world of networked communications. It doesn't work very well.
The cyber-auctor will be a different beast than the printed author.
Note 1: The four ways in which a person can make a book, according to Bonaventure:
- A scribe (scriptor) copies the works of others without making changes or additions.
- A compiler (compilator) gathers together the writings of other authors without adding new material to the text.
- A commentator writes down others' works, which occupy the principal place in the book, and adds his own text to provide clarification and explanation.
- An author (auctor) writes both his own work and others' works, but his own work occupies the principal place while others' works are added for confirmation.
See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 121-22; and Martha Woodmansee, "On the Author Effect: Recovering Collectivity," Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal 10 (1992): 281.
Note 2: "Minerva's owl begins its flight only in the gather dusk..." That is, the culture has reached its highest point of creativity, and is in decline; a new medium will give rise to new empires. See "Minerva's Owl" in Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication , (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991; first published 1951).