I’ve been pondering through much of this class, issues of accessibility inside and outside of academia. Politically, I’m all for free information exchange. It seems in everyone’s benefit to offer access to scholarly materials, and to consult a wide range or people with different backgrounds in order to create the most accurate and thoughtful information possible. Yet, I have entered the academic machine, pouring personal resources into my education, which is a problem in and of itself. My point, though, is that I have dedicated my life up to this point in time to creative writing and scholarship, building up a credible background and gaining access to scholarly resources I otherwise wouldn’t even know the existence of, let alone build upon. If all of these resources and information were then free, how exactly would I, as someone who has poured everything into this venture, make a living wage from this dedication?
“Information Wants to Be Free” is perhaps one of the most significant articles from Stewart Brand’s The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. (1987) in this regard. While the article primarily addresses software copyright in the digital age, I think this issue extends to all forms scholarship, and as the article suggests, any open information such as music.
As I scour the internet for inspiration on my final project in this class, I wonder how original my ideas are? I’m relatively new to programming, jumping almost immediately into Java to accomplish particular, ambitious web goals. I find myself copying code from others and attempting to tweak these things into what I need. While this mode of operation is prolific, I feel at times like I’m doing something unethical, despite the fact that this seems to be the manner of coding. The nature of coding often appears collaborative, building off of established patterns and countless forums have been erected for the purposes of helping inexperienced coders figure out the glitches.
One might assume that this would ensue in copyright issues, but perhaps the web blurs these lines of plagiarism that appear more clear in traditional scholarship.
“Each new kind of information provider has to get used to the idea of leakage, just as book and magazine publishers had to go through denial, outrage, panic, lobbying, and eventual accommodation when Xeroxing came in…Information wants to be free. When that’s totally denied, customers go elsewhere, or they blandly break laws they consider unjust” (Brand, 204).
Language and program developers want people to use their products. The language is then a product for consumption rather than exclusively closed off. The issue regarding plagiarism isn’t so much with users as much as other companies who build off of or mimic existing software.
One of the more interesting aspects of Brand’s “Information Wants to Be Free” is the direct juxtaposition between literary publication and software publication. Brand suggests that like the advent of online books, software publishers “are finding that a program is not a commodity that they can sell and forget about, it’s an entering into a long relationship with the customer, extending through panic phone calls for help by the user and new updated versions of the program by the publisher, often based on customer complaints and suggestions” (206).
A primary issue concerning publication is the monopolization of the book market by corporations. The company Amazon, which has become one of the largest national book distributers in the nation, due to cheap prices and delivery as well as the advent of the online kindle book, has made literature more accessible than ever—at a price. The literary community continues to side eye Amazon for undercutting small presses and authors, aware that Amazon may one day, or perhaps already does, decide what then gets published. While it seems smart to base publication on demand, what then get’s left out of the repertoire? Could a book have come along that would have changed literature if the model weren’t set up on neo-liberal principles? Will my book of poems even reach a publisher’s desk before being dismissed?
On the other hand, I could at this very moment take a manuscript, upload it as a kindle book, set a fee, and immediately begin making money off of my work. A former colleague of mine, a creative writing teacher, had a student in her 1191 class who had done this very thing, gaining more readers and profits than her own teacher. This also exposed the teacher, course, university system, publisher, and editor, in many ways as obsolete.
Brand asks, “Are these developments natural extensions of what goes on in a market economy and a democracy, where individual choice ultimately governs? I hope so” (214).
The ways in which we consume and produce work have undeniably changed, but at what and whose expense? I might say it is at the expense of jobs and quality of produced work. The student I mentioned above, for instance, gained notoriety for her erotic fan fiction, and was not a truly skilled writer (yet), but the market provided a demand for this work, giving her little incentive to develop as a writer of quality. But I wonder if it is ethical to force writers through a system which offers hardly any financial benefits? It is the press and/or the privatized university that collects all financial gain, rather than the author. The university and the publisher receive sponsorship, and therefore don’t lie outside of the government control discussed by Brand.
Throughout this article I thought of Steve Roggenbuck, a poet who dropped out of his MFA in 2011, who created complete open access to his work and published his own chapbooks online. Roggenbuck realized that he didn’t need the networking opportunities and technical help offered by academia to succeed in this time of free, open digital access:
“i’m known most for my videos, which have accumulated more than 1.3 million views together, and which have been presented in the new museum 2015 triennial in nyc and the oslo poesifilm festival in norway. my work has been covered by the new york times, gawker, the new yorker, rolling stone, the fader, NPR, the guardian, and the atlantic
i’ve also published six collections of writing so far, and i’ve done poetry performances in five countries and most of the united states. in 2012 i was the first living poet to be declared a meme by know your meme. i’m also an eight-year vegan, a runner, and a lover of the sky
Roggenbuck and other multimedia poets use the internet to produce work outside of governmental control and sponsorship. Although they don’t typically make a profit from this work, their popularity facilitated by open access have procured secure job positions as well as opportunities to publish on high profile and highly trafficked outlets, making it possible to earn a living wage and simultaneously thwart the influence of sponsors on their work.
We should consider the influence of such work, and look at the paths being forged outside of the university when it comes to making work free. While plagiarism and other downfalls may occur, the benefits of accessibilty aid writers and scholars in tremendous ways that the closed access university model never will. Perhaps scholars must form their own path, whether or not this means biting the hand that feeds.
Brand leaves us with a paradigm to keep in mind when navigating consumption and production on the web:
“While computers probe and imitate the “society of mind,” they are also shaping the mind of society” (228).
Brand, Stewart. “Information Wants To Be Free.” The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. (1987). Print.
Steve Roggenbuck. Bio. SteveRoggenbuck.com/bio/. Web.