Category Archives: collaboration

The Future of the Book is the Future of Society

I’m in Milan for the ifbookthen conference. Corriere della Serra (the leading Italian newspaper) asked me for an opinion piece they could publish in La Lettura, their weekly magazine, on the occasion of the meeting. This is what I gave them.
The Future of the Book
As someone who made the leap from print to electronic publishing over thirty years ago people often ask me to expound on the “future of the book.” Frankly, I can’t stand the question, especially when asked simplistically. For starters it needs more specificity. Are we talking 2 years, 10 years or 100 years? And what does the questioner mean by “book” anyway? Are they asking about the evolution of the physical object or its role in the social fabric?
It’s a long story but over the past thirty years my definition of “book” has undergone a major shift. At the beginning I simply defined a book in terms of its physical nature — paper pages infused with ink, bound into what we know as the codex. But then in the late 1970s with the advent of new media technologies we began to see the possibility of extending the notion of the page to include audio and video, imagining books with audio and video components. To make this work conceptually, we started defining books not in terms of their physical components but how they are used. From this perspective a book isn’t ink on bound paper, but rather “a user-driven medium” where the reader is in complete control of how they access the contents. With laser videodiscs and then cd-roms users/readers started “reading” motion pictures; transforming the traditionally producer-driven experience where the user simply sat in a chair with no control of pace or sequence into a fully user-driven medium.
This definition worked up through the era of the laser videodisc and the cd-rom, but completely fell apart with the rise of the internet. Without an “object” to tie it to, I started to talk about a book as the vehicle humans use to move ideas around time and space.
People often expressed opposition to my freewheeling license with definitions but I learned to push back, explaining that it may take decades, maybe even a century for stable new modes of expression and the words to describe them to emerge. For now I argued, it’s better to continuously redefine the definition of “book” until something else clearly takes its place.
A Book is a Place
In 2005 when the U.S. based Macarthur Foundation gave me a huge grant to explore how publishing might evolve as it moves from the printed page to the networked screen I used the money to found what I playfully named The Institute for the Future of the Book. With a group of young people, just out of university and coming of age in the era of the social web, we carried out a number of experiments under the rubric of “networked books.”
This was the moment of the blog and we wondered what would happen if we applied the concept of “reader comments” to essays and books. Our first attempt, McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, turned out to be a remarkably lucky choice. The book’s structure — numbered paragraphs rather than numbered pages — required my colleagues to come up with an innovative design allowing readers to make comments at the level of the paragraph rather than the page. Their solution to what at the time seemed like a simple graphical UI problem, was to put the comments to the right of each of Wark’s paragraphs rather than follow the standard practice of placing them underneath the author’s text.
Within a few hours of putting Gamer Theory online, a vibrant discussion emerged in the margins. We realized that moving comments from the bottom to the side, a change that at the time seemed minor, in fact had profound implications. Largely because Wark took a very active role in the unfolding discussion, our understanding at first focused on the ways in which this new format upends the traditional hierarchies of print which place the author on a pedestal and the reader at her adoring feet. With the side-by-side layout of Gamer Theory‘s text and comments, author and reader were suddenly occupying the same visual space; which in turn shifted their relationship to one of much greater equality. As the days went by it became clear that author and reader were engaged in a collaborative effort to increase their collective understanding.
We started to talk about “a book as a place” where people congregate to hash out their thoughts and ideas.
Later experiments in classrooms and reading groups were just as successful eventhough no author was involved, leading us to realize we were witnessing much more than a shift in the relationship between author and reader.
The reification of ideas into printed, persistent objects obscures the social aspect of both reading and writing, so much so, that our culture portrays them as among the most solitary of behaviors. This is because the social aspect traditionally takes place outside the pages — around the water cooler, at the dinner table and on the pages of other publications in the form of reviews or references and bibliographies. In that light, moving texts from page to screen doesn’t make them social so much as it allows the social components to come forward and to multiply in value.
And once you’ve engaged in a social reading experience the value is obvious. Contemporary problems are sufficiently complex that individuals can rarely understand them on their own. More eyes, more minds collaborating on the task of understanding will yield better, more comprehensive answers.
Our grandchildren will assume that reading with others, i.e. social reading, is the “natural” way to read. They will be amazed to realize that in our day reading was something one did alone. Reading by one’s self will seem as antiquated as silent movies are to us.
The difficult thing however about predicting the future of reading is that everything i’ve said so far presumes that what is being read is an “n-page” article or essay or an “n-page,” “n-chapter” book,” when realistically, the forms of expression will change dramatically as we learn to exploit the unique affordances of new electronic media. Ideally, the boundaries between reading and writing will become ever more porous as readers take a more active role in the production of knowledge and ideas.
Clemens Setz, the author of the literary novel Indigo watched the conversation unfold as 40 students in a class at Hildesheim University outside Berlin carried out an extensive conversation with over 1800 comments. At a recent symposium Setz said that knowing his readers would be playing an active role in the margin will effect how he writes; he’ll make room for their participation.
Follow the Gamers
And lest, you think this shift applies only to non-fiction, please consider huge multi-player games such as World of Warcraft as a strand of future-fiction where the author describes a world and the players/readers write the narrative as they play the game.
Although we date the “age of print” from 1454, more than two hundred years passed before the “novel” emerged as a recognizable form. Newspapers and magazines took even longer to arrive on the scene. Just as Gutenberg and his fellow printers started by reproducing illustrated manuscripts, contemporary publishers have been moving their printed texts to electronic screens. This shift will bring valuable benefits (searchable text, personal portable libraries, access via internet download, etc.), but this phase in the history of publishing will be transitional. Over time new media technologies will give rise to new forms of expression yet to be invented that will come to dominate the media landscape in decades and centuries to come.
My instinct is that game makers, who, unlike publishers, have no legacy product to hold them, back will be at the forefront of this transformation. Multimedia is already their language, and game-makers are making brilliant advances in the building of thriving, million-player communities. As conventional publishers prayerfully port their print to tablets, game-makers will embrace the immense promise of networked devices and both invent and define the dominant modes of expression for centuries to come.
The Future of the Book is the Future of Society
“The medium, or process, of our time — electric technology — is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life.
It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing: you, your family, your education, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your relation to “the others. And they’re changing dramatically.” Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message
Following McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis, a persuasive case can be made that print played the key role in the rise of the nation state and capitalism, and also in the development of our notions of privacy and the primary focus on the individual over the collective. Social reading experiments and massive multi-player games are baby steps in the shift to a networked culture. Over the course of the next two or three centuries new modes of communication will usher in new ways of organizing society, completely changing our understanding of what it means to be human.

art and technology, 1971

the cover of the art and technology catalogueA quite note to point out that LACMA has announced that they’ve posted the long out-of-print catalogue for their 1971 Art and Technology show online in its entirety in both web and PDF format. It’s worth looking at: Maurice Tuchman and Jane Livingston, the curators of the show, attempted to match artists from the 1960s with corporations working with technology to see what would happen. The process of collaboration is an integral part of the documentation of the project. Sometimes attempted collaborations didn’t work out, and their failure is represented in a refreshingly candid fashion: John Baldessari wanted to work in a botany lab coloring plants; George Brecht wanted IBM & Rand’s help to move the British Isles into the Mediterranean; Donald Judd seems to have wandered off in California. And some of the collaborations worked: Andy Warhol made holograms; Richard Serra worked with a steel foundry; and Jackson Mac Low worked with programmers from IBM to make concrete poetry, among many others.
One contributor who might be unexpected in this context is Jeff Raskin (his first name later lost an “f”), who at the time was an arts professor at UCSD; he’s now best known as the guy behind the Apple Macintosh’s interface. We’ve mentioned his zooming interface and work on humane interfaces for computers on if:book in the past; if you’ve never looked at his zoom demo, it’s worth a look. Back in 1971, he was trying to make modular units that didn’t restrict the builder’s designs; it didn’t quite get off the ground. Microcomputers would come along a few years later.

where minds meet: new architectures for the study of history and music

This is the narrative text for an NEH Digital Humanities Start-UP grant we just applied for.
With the advent of the cd-rom in the late 80s, a few pioneering humanities scholars began to develop a new vocabulary for multi-layered, multi-modal digital publications. Since that time, the internet has emerged as a powerful engine for collaboration across peer networks, radically collapsing the distance between authors and readers and creating new communal spaces for work and review.
To date, these two evolutionary streams have been largely separate. Rich multimedia is still largely consigned to individual consumption on the desktop, while networked collaboration generally occurs around predominantly textual media such as the blogosphere, or bite-sized fragments on YouTube and elsewhere. We propose to carry out initial planning for two ambitious digital publishing projects that will merge these streams into powerfully integrated experiences.
Although the locus of scholarly discourse is slowly but clearly moving from bound/printed pages to networked screens, we’ve yet to reach the tipping point. The printed book is still the gold standard of the academy. The goal of these projects is to produce born-digital works that are as elegant as printed books and also draw on the power of audio and video illustrations and new models of community-based inquiry -? and do all of these so well that they inspire a generation of young scholars with the promise of digital scholarship.
Robert Winter’s CD Companion Series (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mozart’s Dissonant Quartet, Dvorak’s New World Symphony) and the American Social History Project’s Who Built America? Volumes I and II were seminal works of multimedia scholarship and publishing. In their respective fields they were responsible for introducing and demonstrating the value of new media scholarship, as well as for setting a high standard for other work which followed.
Although these works were encoded on plastic cd-roms instead of on paper, they essentially followed the paradigm of print in the sense that they were page-based and very much the work of authors who took sole responsibility for the contents. The one obvious difference was the presence of audio and video illustrations on the page. This crucial advance allowed Robert Winter to provide a running commentary as readers listened to the music, or the Who Built America? authors to provide valuable supplementary materials and primary source documents such as William Jennings Bryan reading his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, or moving oral histories from the survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911.
Since the release of these cd-roms, the internet and world wide web have come to the fore and upended the print-centric paradigm of reading as a solitary activity, moving it towards a more communal, networked model. As an example, three years ago my colleagues and I at the Institute for the Future of the Book began a series of “networked book” experiments to understand what happens when you locate a book in the dynamic social space of the Web. McKenzie Wark, a communication theorist and professor at The New School, had recently completed a draft of a serious theoretical work on video games. We put that book, Gamer Theory, online in a form adapted from conventional blog templates that allowed readers to post comments on individual paragraphs. While commenting on blogs is commonplace, readers’ comments invariably appear below the author’s text, usually hidden from sight in an endlessly scrolling field. Instead we put the reader’s comments directly to the right of Wark’s text, indicating that reader input would be an integral part of the whole. Within hours of the book’s “publication” on the web, page margins began to be populated with a lively back-and-forth among readers and with the author. As early reviewers said, it was no longer simply the author speaking, but rather the book itself, as the conversation in the margins became an intrinsic and important part of the whole.
The traditional top-down hierarchy of print, in which authors deliver wisdom from on high to receptive readers, was disrupted and replaced by a new model in which both authors and readers actively pursued knowledge and understanding. I’m not suggesting that our experiment caused this change, but rather that it has shed light on a process that is already well underway, helping to expose and emphasize the ways in which writing and reading are increasingly socially mediated activities.
Thanks to extraordinary recent advances, both technical and conceptual, we can imagine new multi-mediated forms of expression that leverage the web’s abundant resources more fully and are driven by networked communities of which readers and authors can work together to advance knowledge.
Let’s consider Who Built America?
In 1991, before going into production, we spent a full year in conversation with the book’s authors, Steve Brier and Josh Brown, mulling over the potential of an electronic edition. We realized that a history text is essentially a synthesis of the author’s interpretation and analysis of original source documents, and also of the works of other historians, as well as conversations in the scholarly community at large. We decided to make those layers more visible, taking advantage of the multimedia affordances and storage capacity of the cd-rom. We added hundreds of historical documents -? text, pictures, audio, video -? woven into dozens of “excursions” distributed throughout the text. These encouraged the student to dig deeper beneath encouraged them to interrogate the author’s conclusions and perhaps even come up with alternative analyses.
Re-imagining Who Built America? in the context of a dynamic network (rather than a frozen cd-rom), promises exciting new possibilities. Here are just a few:
• Access to source documents can be much more extensive and diverse, freed from the storage constraints of the cd-rom, as well as from many of the copyright clearance issues.
• Dynamic comment fields enable classes to produce their own unique editions. A discussion that began in the classroom can continue in the margins of the page, flowing seamlessly between school and home.
• The text continuously evolves, as authors add new findings and engage with readers who have begun to learn history by “doing” history, adding new research and alternative syntheses. Steve Brier tells a wonderful story about a high school class in a small town in central Ohio where the students and their teacher discovered some unknown letters from one of the earliest African-American trade union leaders in the late nineteenth century, making an important contribution to the historical record.
In short, we are re-imagining a history text as a networked, multi-layered learning environment in which authors and readers, teachers and students, work collaboratively.
Over the past months I’ve had several conversations with Brier and Brown about a completely new “networked” version of Who Built America?. They are excited about the possibility and have a good grasp of the challenges and potential. A good indication of this is Steve Brier’s comment: “If we’re going to expect readers to participate in these ways, we’re going to have to write in a whole new way.”
Discussions with Robert Winter have focused less on re-working the existing CD-Companions (which were monumental works) than on trying to figure out how to develop a template for a networked library of close readings of iconic musical compositions. The original CD-Companions existed as individual titles, isolated from one another. The promise of networked scholarship means that over time Winter and his readers will weave a rich tapestry of cross-links that map interconnections between different compositions, between different musical styles and techniques, and between music and other cultural forms. The original CD-Companions were done when computers had low-resolution black and white screens with extremely primitive audio capabilities and no video at all. High resolution color screens and sophisticated audio and video tools open up myriad possibilities for examining and contextualizing musical compositions. Particularly exciting is the prospect of harnessing Winter’s legendary charismatic teaching style via the creative, yet judicious use of video.
We are seeking a Level One Start-Up grant to hold a pair of two-day symposia, one devoted to each project. Each meeting will bring together approximately a dozen people -? the authors, designers, leading scholars from various related disciplines, and experts in building web-based communities around scholarly topics -? to brainstorm about how these projects might best be realized. We will publish the proceedings of these meetings online in such a way that interested parties can join the discussion and deepen our collective understanding. Finally, we will write a grant proposal to submit to foundations for funds to build out the projects in their entirety. The work described here will take place over a five-month period beginning September 2008 and ending February 2009.
Some of the questions to be addressed at the symposia are:
• what are new graphical and information design paradigms for orienting readers and enabling them to navigate within a multi-layered, multi-modal work?
• how do you distinguish between the reading space and the work space? how porous is the boundary between them?
• what do readers expect of authors in the context of a “networked” book?
• what new authorial skill sets need to be cultivated?
• what range of mechanisms for reader participation and author/reader interaction should we explore? (i.e. blog-style commenting, social filtering, rating mechanisms, annotation tools, social bookmarking/curating, personalized collection-building, tagging, etc.)
• how do readers become “trusted” within an open community? what are the social protocols required for a successful community-based project: terms of participation, quality control/vetting procedures, delegation of roles etc.
what does “community” mean in the context of a specific scholarly work?
• how will scholars and students cite the contents of dynamic, evolving works that are not “stable” like printed pages? how does the project get archived? how do you deal with versioning?
• if asynchronous online conversation becomes a powerful new mode of developing scholarship, how do we visualize these conversations and make them navigable, readable, and enjoyable?
Relevant websites
Video Demo for Who Built America? (circa 1993)
Video Demo for the Rite of Spring (circa 1990)

Introduction to the CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
(circa 1989)

so when are you going to retire?: a book in process about age, work and identity

I want to give a shout out to a wonderful new project by a dear friend of ours. So When Are You Going to Retire? is -? or will be, or is in the process of becoming -? a book exploring questions of age, work and identity through the stories of people over 80 who continue, against the odds, to work for a living. As of very recently, the author, Ashton Applewhite, has begun documenting her research on a very attractive new weblog, and is inviting readers, writers and experts in the field to join her in conversations and story sharing that hopefully will shape the book’s development. In an email, Ashton explained to me why she’s doing this:

I’m a generalist writing about a broad topic: people in their 80s and 90s who are still in the workforce, and what we can learn from them. Following on the Institute’s work with Siva and Mitchell Stephens, I’m excited about using the blog as a mechanism for thinking out loud as I go through my material, formulate the themes of the book, and write the proposal. I think that ongoing feedback from experts (gerontologists, social scientists, demographers, etc.) and discerning readers will sharpen and inform my thinking -? in other words, that the network will help me build a better book. I also think i’ll end up with a valuable platform for leveraging and disseminating my work over the long run -? one that could radically revise conventional notions of shelf life. Cutting Loose, my book about women and divorce (HarperCollins, 1997) is still in print; imagine what sales would look like if it were at the hub of an ongoing social network, and what a rich site that would be?

Though this isn’t an officially Institute-sponsored project, we’ve done a fair bit of kibbitzing from the sidelines on the conceptual layout of the site and on general strategies for writing it (this being Ashton’s first foray into blogging). We’re also brainstorming with Ashton on that most crucial of issues: building an audience. Most of our networked book projects have been on technology or media-related subjects that naturally appeal to online readerships and get picked up easily in the blogospheric grapevine. Ashton’s book doesn’t have such an obviously built-in wired constituency, although its potential readership is far broader and more diverse than that of any of the works we’ve published. I imagine it will be a gradual, word of mouth kind of thing.
So check out Ashton’s rich and inviting site, join the conversation, and spread the word to anyone you know who might be interested. If you know of any specific sites or online communities that Ashton might want to connect with, let her know through the “email me” link near the top of her site. There’s already quite a lot to delve into since Ashton’s been blogging under the radar for the past several months, cutting her teeth on the form and piling up some wonderful stories (many of which you can listen to in audio). Help start building this network, and this book.

flight paths 2.0

Back in December we announced the launch of Flight Paths, a “networked novel” that is currently being written by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph with feedback and contributions from readers. At that point, the Web presence for the project was a simple CommentPress blog where readers could post stories, images, multimedia and links, and weigh in on the drafting of terms and conditions for participation. Since then, Kate and Chris have been working on setting up a more flexible curatorial environment, and just this week they unveiled a lovely new Flight Paths site made in Netvibes.
Netvibes is a web-based application (still in beta) that allows you to build personalized start pages composed of widgets and modules which funnel in content from various data sources around the net (think My Yahoo! or iGoogle but with much more ability to customize). This is a great tool to try out for a project that is being composed partly out of threads and media fragments from around the Web. The blog is still embedded as a central element, and is still the primary place for reader-collaborators to contribute, but there are now several new galleries where reader-submitted works can be featured and explored. It’s a great new platform and an inventive solution to one of CommentPress’s present problems: that it’s good at gathering content but not terribly good at presenting it. Take a look, and please participate if you feel inspired.
Multimedia gallery on the new Flight Paths site

ghost story

02138, a magazine aimed at Harvard alumni, has a great article about the widespread practice among professors of using low-wage student labor to research and even write their books.

…in any number of academic offices at Harvard, the relationship between “author” and researcher(s) is a distinctly gray area. A young economics professor hires seven researchers, none yet in graduate school, several of them pulling 70-hour work-weeks; historians farm out their research to teams of graduate students, who prepare meticulously written memos that are closely assimilated into the finished work; law school professors “write” books that acknowledge dozens of research assistants without specifying their contributions. These days, it is practically the norm for tenured professors to have research and writing squads working on their publications, quietly employed at stages of co-authorship ranging from the non-controversial (photocopying) to more authorial labor, such as significant research on topics central to the final work, to what can only be called ghostwriting.

Ideally, this would constitute a sort of apprentice system -? one generation of scholars teaching the next through joint endeavor. But in reality the collaborative element, though quietly sanctioned by universities (the article goes into this a bit), receives no direct blessing or stated pedagogical justification. A ghost ensemble works quietly behind the scenes to keep up the appearance of heroic, individual authorship.

wikipedia’s growing pains

Insularity, editorial abuses, jargon, anonymity, power… some of the difficulties that beset the great public knowledge experiment of our day. Our friend Karen Schneider has a smart piece on Wikipedia’s “awkward adolescence.” Worth a read.

Like a startup maturing into a real business, Wikipedia’s corporate culture seems, at times, conflicted between its role as a harmless nouveau-digital experiment and its broader ambitions.
…The quieter rumblings about Wikipedia have less to do with vanity edits or poor maintenance of content than they do with the organization’s increasingly arbitrary editorial overrides and deletions and rapidly thickening in-group culture.
…Sock puppets, spy-versus-spy hijinks, and super-secret-vocabularies may be fine for a short-term experiment in information management; but Wikipedia positions itself not as a free encyclopedia, but
the free encyclopedia. A FAQ claims, “We want Wikipedia to be around at least a hundred years from now, if it does not turn into something even more significant,” and Wikipedia’s fundraising page asks potential donors to “Imagine a world in which every single person can share freely in the sum of human knowledge.”

edit the galaxy

Galaxiki is “a new kind of wiki based community portal that allows its members to edit stars, planets and moons in a virtual galaxy, creating an entire fictional world online.” The site uses primarily public domain NASA photography.

Millions of stars, planets, moons, pulsars and black holes can be explored using an intuitive 2D map. The site software manages most of the physical properties and behaviours of the solar systems, from orbits to the chemical composition of planetary atmospheres. Some planets offer conditions that may allow life – the idea behind Galaxiki is that community members can create fictional life forms and write about their histories on their planets….For only USD 12.- (or EUR 10.-) you can purchase your own solar system that only you can edit.

perspectives on distributed creativity

Assignment Zero, an experimental news site that brings professional journalists together with volunteer researcher-reporters to collaboratively write stories, has kicked off its tenure at Wired News by doing an extended investigation of “crowdsourcing.” Crowdsourcing is the latest internet parlance used to describe work traditionally carried out by one or a few persons being distributed among many people. I’ve always found something objectionable about the term, which is more suggestive of a business model than a creative strategy and sidesteps the numerous ethical questions about peer production and corporate exploitation that are inevitably bound up in it. But it’s certainly a subject that could use a bit of scrutiny, and who better to do it than a journalistic team composed of the so-called crowd?
It is in this self-reflexive spirt that Jay Rosen, a exceedingly sharp thinker on the future of journalism and executive editor of Assignment Zero (and the related, presents an interesting series of features assembled by his “pro-am” team that look at a wide variety of online collaboration forms. This package has been in development for several months (many of the pieces contain links back to the original “assignments” and you can see how they evolved) and there’s a lot there: 80 Q&A’s, essays and stories (mostly Q&A’s) looking at innovative practices and practitioners across media types and cultural/commercial arenas. From an initial sifting, it’s less an analysis than just a big collection of perspectives, but this is valuable I think, if for no other reason than as a jumping-off point for further research.
There are many of the usual suspects like Benkler, Lessig, Jarvis, Shirky, Surowiecki, Wales etc., but as many or more of the pieces venture off the beaten track. There’s a thought-provoking interview with Douglas Rushkoff on open source as a cultural paradigm, some stuff on the Wu Ming fiction collective (which is fascinating), a piece about Sydney Poore, a Wikipedia “super-contributor,” and some coverage of our work, an interview with McKenzie Wark about Gamer Theory and collaborative writing. There’s also an essay by one of the Assignment Zero contributors, Kristin Gorski, synthesizing some of the material gathered on the latter subject: “Creative Crowdwriting: The Open Book.”
All in all this seems like a successful test drive for an experimental group that is still inventing its process. I’m interested to see how it develops with other less “wired” subjects.

promiscuous materials

This began as a quick follow-up to my post last week on Jonathan Lethem’s recent activities in the area of copyright activism. But after a couple glasses of sake and some insomnia it mutated into something a bit bigger.
Back in March, Lethem announced that he planned to give away a free option on the film rights of his latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Interested filmmakers were invited to submit a proposal outlining their creative and financial strategies for the project, provided that they agreed to cede a small cut of proceeds if the film ends up getting distributed. To secure the option, an artist also had to agree up front to release ancillary rights to their film (and Lethem, likewise, his book) after a period of five years in order to allow others to build on the initial body of work. Many proposals were submitted and on Monday Lethem granted the project to Greg Marcks, whose work includes the feature “11:14.”
What this experiment does, and quite self-consciously, is demonstrate the curious power of the gift economy. Gift giving is fundamentally a ritual of exchange. It’s not a one-way flow (I give you this), but a rearrangement of social capital that leads, whether immediately or over time, to some sort of reciprocation (I give you this and you give me something in return). Gifts facilitate social equilibrium, creating occasions for human contact not abstracted by legal systems or contractual language. In the case of an artistic or scholarly exchange, the essence of the gift is collaboration. Or if not a direct giving from one artist to another, a matter of influence. Citations, references and shout-outs are the acknowledgment of intellectual gifts given.
By giving away the film rights, but doing it through a proposal process which brought him into conversation with other artists, Lethem purchased greater influence over the cinematic translation of his book than he would have had he simply let it go, through his publisher or agent, to the highest bidder. It’s not as if novelists and directors haven’t collaborated on film adaptations before (and through more typical legal arrangements) but this is a significant case of copyright being put to the side in order to open up artistic channels, changing what is often a business transaction — and one not necessarily even involving the author — into a passing of the creative torch.
Another Lethem experiment with gift economics is The Promiscuous Materials Project, a selection of his stories made available, for a symbolic dollar apiece, to filmmakers and dramatists to adapt or otherwise repurpose.
One point, not so much a criticism as an observation, is how experiments such as these — and you could compare Lethem’s with Cory Doctorow’s, Yochai Benkler’s or McKenzie Wark’s — are still novel (and rare) enough to serve doubly as publicity stunts. Surveying Lethem’s recent free culture experiments it’s hard not to catch a faint whiff of self-congratulation in it all. It’s oh so hip these days to align one’s self with the Creative Commons and open source culture, and with his recent foray into that arena Lethem, in his own idiosyncratic way, joins the ranks of writers shrewdly riding the wave of the Web to reinforce and even expand their old media practice. But this may be a tad cynical. I tend to think that the value of these projects as advocacy, and in a genuine sense, gifts, outweighs the self-promotion factor. And the more I read Lethem’s explanations for doing this, the more I believe in his basic integrity.
It does make me wonder, though, what it would mean for “free culture” to be the rule in our civilization and not the exception touted by a small ecstatic sect of digerati, some savvy marketers and a few dabbling converts from the literary establishment. What would it be like without the oppositional attitude and the utopian narratives, without (somewhat paradoxically when you consider the rhetoric) something to gain?
In the end, Lethem’s open materials are, as he says, promiscuities. High-concept stunts designed to throw the commodification of art into relief. Flirtations with a paradigm of culture as old as the Greek epics but also too radically new to be fully incorporated into the modern legal-literary system. Again, this is not meant as criticism. Why should Lethem throw away his livelihood when he can prosper as a traditional novelist but still fiddle at the edges of the gift economy? And doesn’t the free optioning of his novel raise the stakes to a degree that most authors wouldn’t dare risk? But it raises hypotheticals for the digital age that have come up repeatedly on this blog: what does it mean to be a writer in the infinitely reproducible non-commodifiable Web? what is the writer after intellectual property?