Category Archives: opensource

issue magazine

Hot on the heels of Rosa B. (mentioned last week) comes Issue Magazine, another new web-based publication looking at the changing world of publishing and design. Issue #0, edited by Alexandre Leray and Stéphanie Vilayphiou, is undergoing a slow rollout this week, culminating in a live chat with Arie Altena, Jouke Kleerebezem, and Harrisson on Friday. Currently they’re featuring an essay and an interview with David Reinfurt of Dexter Sinister and Dot Dot Dot on the idea of open-source design and publishing; an interview with Kleerebezem and a piece by Roger Chartier will be up before the end of the week.
What’s particularly interesting about the format of Issue – and one area in which it differs from Rosa B.  – is the way that commenting has been integrated into the articles: after units of the text, there’s the opportunity for the reader to add comments. It’s a bit like CommentPress in conception, but the prompts to comment in Issue appear less frequently than every paragraph. This makes sense: paragraph-level commenting is invaluable for close-reading, but less necessary for the general discussion of an essay. Because it’s early, there don’t seem to be any comments yet, but it’s a promising model of how the readers can be more immediately integrated into a publication.

in search of jenny everywhere

It’s mainly the literary world that assumes fictional work to be best when the creation of only one person. Most TV shows, movies, games and comics are created by teams. But though creativity here is not bound by the Romantic conception of the individual Artist, neither is it free for all. Fan fiction notwithstanding, as the property of publisher, broadcast company or studio, fictional universes are strictly controlled.
In the comics world, there are a handful of characters that could be described as explicitly ‘open-source’. Mythic characters are no-one’s property. Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius was created with the intention that he be available for use as an open character. And Octobriana, a kind of socialist Barbarella, is Communist in both origin and legal status. Allegedly – though the story is somewhat murky – the creation of a 1960s Soviet underground group, her genesis outside Western comics publishing has meant that Octobriana has always existed in the public domain, and she has appeared in numerous different universes.

Inspired partly by Octobriana, in 2001 Barbelith founder and Web commentator Tom Coates and comic artist Steven Wintle led a community discussion about open-source narrative figures. As a result of these discussions, the group decided to create their own: in discussions over the next few months, Jenny Everywhere, aka ‘The Shifter’ was born.

Wintle’s original sketch for Jenny (Source: The Shifter Archive)

Jenny has certain core characteristics. She is a multidimensional person able to appear anywhere, in any universe, at any time. She can be in more than one place at a time. Her favorite food is toast, she wears goggles on her forehead, she is usually depicted with short dark hair and comfortable clothing. (The discussion threads where these characteristics were agreed make intriguing reading). But though she as some distinguishing features, she is explicitly available for any artist to use, providing the following text (first associated with Jenny in 2002) appears alongside:
The character of Jenny Everywhere is available for use by anyone, with only one condition. This paragraph must be included in any publication involving Jenny Everywhere, in order that others may use this property as they wish. All rights reversed.
I wasn’t part of Jenny’s genesis. I came across her only recently, while hunting for something else, and was fascinated. An explicitly open-source character: neither a proprietary figure repurposed on the fringes of legality by fan communities, nor a mythic and hence uncopyrightable figure, nor one whose copyright has simply lapsed, but a set of narrative opportunities co-created and available for everyone to use. As much a political gesture as an artistic framework. I wanted evidence that she’d grown beyond that initial idea.
A bit of Web archaeology turned up a cluster of excitement and creative activity between 2001 and 2003 centering on the Barbelith community. She made appearances in numerous webcomics, turned up on blogs, popped up on Boing Boing. But then it all went quiet again.
I’d had hopes that Jenny might be, as the NYT article suggested, a herald of cultures to come. And there’s nothing more dispiriting than to read past predictions for phenomena that never came to be. But websites become flavor of the month so swiftly, and fade just as swiftly: it seemed that Jenny Everywhere just a transient moment in the hyperaccelerated maelstrom of geek subcultures.
But it seems I was wrong. Jenny is making a comeback. A 2007 Jenny competition on Stripfight saw a rash of new appearances; around the same time The Shifter Archive was launched, a new attempt by US comic artist David ‘Fesworks’ Leyk (to whom I’m hugely indebted for the information in this article) to collate and make available all extant Jenny Everywhere work. And new comics are beginning to appear.

A common pattern of relatively self-organizing co-creation sees a notionally ‘flat’ structure in fact driven by a self-selecting ‘core’ that gives the whole collective focus and drives creative energy. When this core steps back, the entire project often falters. I’ve found myself speculating: did Jenny’s initial core creators find their open-source character, unprotected by the corporate interests of a publisher or distributor, mutating to a point where she ceased to interest them? Or was it just a case of people moving on to new projects?
Either way, it points to the fact that for an open-source idea to reproduce, it must be able to outgrow its pioneers. After the initial enthusiasm died down, Jenny is still going strong: not harbored and protected by a close group in the bosom of a web community, but at large and self-reproducing. As ‘Fesworks’ puts it:
“There is no “official” site for Jenny Everywhere. Since she is Public Domain, and open-source […], technically every single Jenny Everywhere comic and story out there is “Fan Fiction”. They only connect to other people’s stories and comic if they choose to connect them.”

Jenny is a tantalizing glimpse of how collaborative, open creativity can be accelerated by the Web. Compared to her print prototype Octobriana, her spread in just seven years is phenomenal. But she raises many questions. For one thing, it is hard to see how a character not possessing quantum superpowers could survive the narrative vicissitudes of starring in the creations of multiple writers without disintegrating to meaninglessness – which in turn may mean that Jenny is a one-off. Then, her genesis and (still short) history is an intriguing case study of the difficulties of balancing creative vision with open collaboration – a problem, arguably, that also faced the Million Penguins wiki-novel and is at the core of the complicated relationship between artists and the Web.
And finally, it’s also about archiving, the fragility of Web history and – Wayback Machine notwithstanding – the rapid decay of old digital artefacts. 2003 is not a long time ago, but many of the old Jenny links are broken. Without the efforts of ‘Fes’, Jenny might be little more than a memory by now. Does any of this matter? If the Web is to become a meaningful locus for creative work, then these are indeed questions to take seriously.

poem for no one

Just came across something lovely. Video for “Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)” by the now disbanded Grandaddy from their great album The Sophtware Slump (2000). Jed is a character who weaves in and out of the album, a forlorn humanoid robot made of junk parts who eventually dies, leaving behind a few mournful poems.

Creator Stewart Smith: “I programmed this entirely in Applesoft BASIC on a vintage 1979 Apple ][+ with 48K of RAM — a computer so old it has no hard drive, mouse up/down arrow keys, and only types in capitals. First open-source music video, code available on website. Cinematography by Jeff Bernier.” A nice detail of the story is that this was originally a fan vid but was eventually adopted as the “official” video for the song.
Thanks to Alex Itin for the link!

commentpress update

The release of CommentPress has made for exciting times here at the institute (the feedback has also been very encouraging). But as with any piece of software, CommentPress will need constant tending, and with quick succession upgrades, we hope to address the most crucial issues – starting with the first major update, CommentPress version 1.1.
This is a very important update, so everyone is encouraged to upgrade as soon as possible.
For a complete list of the changes, check out the CommentPress download page.

CommentPress 1.0

At long last, we are pleased to release CommentPress, a free, open source theme for the WordPress blog engine designed to allow paragraph-by-paragraph commenting in the margins of a text. To download it and get it running in your WordPress installation, go to our dedicated CommentPress site. There you’ll find everything you need to get started. This 1.0 release represents the most basic out-of-the-box version of the theme. Expect many improvements and new features in the days and weeks ahead (some as soon as tomorrow). We could have kept refining it for another week but we felt that the time was well past due to get it out in the world and to let the community development cycles begin. So here it is:
/commentpress/ »
This little tool is the happy byproduct of a year and a half spent hacking WordPress to see whether a popular net-native publishing form, the blog, which, most would agree, is very good at covering the present moment in pithy, conversational bursts but lousy at handling larger, slow-developing works requiring more than chronological organization – ?whether this form might be refashioned to enable social interaction around long-form texts. Out of this emerged a series of publishing experiments loosely grouped under the heading “networked books.” The first of these, McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1, was a wildly inventive text whose aphoristic style and modular structure lent it readily to “chunking” into digestible units for online discussion. This is how it ended up looking:
In the course of our tinkering, we achieved one small but important innovation. Placing the comments next to rather than below the text turned out to be a powerful subversion of the discussion hierarchy of blogs, transforming the page into a visual representation of dialog, and re-imagining the book itself as a conversation. Several readers remarked that it was no longer solely the author speaking, but the book as a whole (author and reader, in concert).
Toying with the placement of comments was relatively easy to do with Gamer Theory because of its unusual mathematical structure (25 paragraphs per chapter, 250 words or lessper paragraph), but the question remained of how this format could be applied to expository texts of more variable shapes and sizes. The breakthrough came with Mitchell Stephens’ paper, The Holy of Holies: On the Constituents of Emptiness. The solution we found was to have the comment area move with you in the right hand column as you scrolled down the page, changing its contents depending on which paragraph in the left hand column you selected. This format was inspired in part by a WordPress commenting system developed by Jack Slocum and by the Free Software Foundation’s site for community review of drafts of the GNU General Public License. Drawing on these terrific examples, we at last managed to construct a template that might eventually be exported as a simple toolset applicable to any text.
Ever since “Holy of Holies,” people have been clamoring for us to release CommentPress as a plugin so they could start playing with it, improving it and customizing it for more specialized purposes. Now it’s finally here, with a cleaned-up codebase and a simpler interface, and we can’t wait to see how people start putting it to use. We can imagine a number of possibilities:
-? scholarly contexts: working papers, conferences, annotation projects, journals, collaborative glosses
-? educational: virtual classroom discussion around readings, study groups
-? journalism/public advocacy/networked democracy: social assessment and public dissection of government or corporate documents, cutting through opaque language and spin (like our version of the Iraq Study Group Report, or a copy of the federal budget, or a Walmart press release)
-? creative writing: workshopping story drafts, collaborative storytelling
-? recreational: social reading, book clubs
Once again, there are dozens of little details we want to improve, and no end of features we would love to see developed. Our greatest hope for CommentPress is that it take on a life of its own in the larger community. Who knows, it could provide a base for something far more ambitious.
An important last thought, however. While CommentPress presents exciting possibilities for social reading and writing on the Web, it is still very much bound by its technical origins, the blog. This presents significant limitations both in the flexibility of document structures and in the range of media that can be employed in writing and response. Sure, even in the current, ultra-basic version, there’s no reason a CommentPress document can’t incorporate image, video and sound embeds, but they must be fit into the narrow and brittle textual template dictated by the blog.
All of which is to say that we do not view CommentPress or whatever might grow out of it as an end goal but rather as a step along the way. In fact, this and all of the experiments mentioned above were undertaken in large part as field research for Sophie, and they have had a tremendous impact on its development. While there is still much work to be done, the ultimate goal of the Sophie project is to make a tool that handles all the social network interactions (and more) that CommentPress does but within a far more fluid and easy-to-use composition/reading space where media can mix freely. That’s the larger prize. For the moment though, let’s keep hacking the blog to within an inch of its life and seeing what we can discover.
A million thanks go out to our phenomenal corps of first-run testers, particularly Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Karen Schneider, Manan Ahmed, Tom Keays, Luke Rodgers, Peter Brantley and Shana Kimball, for all the thoughtful and technically detailed feedback they’ve showered upon us over the past few days. Thanks to you guys, we’re getting this out of the gate on solid legs and our minds are now churning with ideas for future development.
Here is a chronology of CommentPress projects leading up to the open source release (July 25, 2007):
GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 by McKenzie Wark (launched May 22, 2006)
The Holy of Holies: On the Constituents of Emptiness by Mitchell Stephens (December 6, 2006)
The Iraq Study Group Report with Lapham’s Quarterly (December 21, 2006)
The President’s Address to the Nation, January 10th, 2007 with Lapham’s Quarterly (together, the Address and the ISG Report comprised Operation Iraqi Quagmire) (January 10, 2007)
The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age with HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) (January 17, 2007)
Scholarly Publishing in the Age of the Internet by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, published at MediaCommons (March 30, 2007)
(All the above are best viewed in Firefox. The new release works in all major browsers and we’re continuing to work on compatibility.)

the open library

openLibrary.jpg A little while back I was musing on the possibility of a People’s Card Catalog, a public access clearinghouse of information on all the world’s books to rival Google’s gated preserve. Well thanks to the Internet Archive and its offshoot the Open Content Alliance, it looks like we might now have it – ?or at least the initial building blocks. On Monday they launched a demo version of the Open Library, a grand project that aims to build a universally accessible and publicly editable directory of all books: one wiki page per book, integrating publisher and library catalogs, metadata, reader reviews, links to retailers and relevant Web content, and a menu of editions in multiple formats, both digital and print.

Imagine a library that collected all the world’s information about all the world’s books and made it available for everyone to view and update. We’re building that library.

The official opening of Open Library isn’t scheduled till October, but they’ve put out the demo now to prove this is more than vaporware and to solicit feedback and rally support. If all goes well, it’s conceivable that this could become the main destination on the Web for people looking for information in and about books: a Wikipedia for libraries. On presentation of public domain texts, they already have Google beat, even with recent upgrades to the GBS system including a plain text viewing option. The Open Library provides TXT, PDF, DjVu (a high-res visual document browser), and its own custom-built Book Viewer tool, a digital page-flip interface that presents scanned public domain books in facing pages that the reader can leaf through, search and (eventually) magnify.
Page turning interfaces have been something of a fad recently, appearing first in the British Library’s Turning the Pages manuscript preservation program (specifically cited as inspiration for the OL Book Viewer) and later proliferating across all manner of digital magazines, comics and brochures (often through companies that you can pay to convert a PDF into a sexy virtual object complete with drag-able page corners that writhe when tickled with a mouse, and a paper-like rustling sound every time a page is turned).
This sort of reenactment of paper functionality is perhaps too literal, opting for imitation rather than innovation, but it does offer some advantages. Having a fixed frame for reading is a relief in the constantly scrolling space of the Web browser, and there are some decent navigation tools that gesture toward the ways we browse paper. To either side of the open area of a book are thin vertical lines denoting the edges of the surrounding pages. Dragging the mouse over the edges brings up scrolling page numbers in a small pop-up. Clicking on any of these takes you quickly and directly to that part of the book. Searching is also neat. Type a query and the book is suddenly interleaved with yellow tabs, with keywords highlighted on the page, like so:
But nice as this looks, functionality is sacrificed for the sake of fetishism. Sticky tabs are certainly a cool feature, but not when they’re at the expense of a straightforward list of search returns showing keywords in their sentence context. These sorts of references to the feel and functionality of the paper book are no doubt comforting to readers stepping tentatively into the digital library, but there’s something that feels disjointed about reading this way: that this is a representation of a book but not a book itself. It is a book avatar. I’ve never understood the appeal of those Second Life libraries where you must guide your virtual self to a virtual shelf, take hold of the virtual book, and then open it up on a virtual table. This strikes me as a failure of imagination, not to mention tedious. Each action is in a sense done twice: you operate a browser within which you operate a book; you move the hand that moves the hand that moves the page. Is this perhaps one too many layers of mediation to actually be able to process the book’s contents? Don’t get me wrong, the Book Viewer and everything the Open Library is doing is a laudable start (cause for celebration in fact), but in the long run we need interfaces that deal with texts as native digital objects while respecting the originals.
What may be more interesting than any of the technology previews is a longish development document outlining ambitious plans for building the Open Library user interface. This covers everything from metadata standards and wiki templates to tagging and OCR proofreading to search and browsing strategies, plus a well thought-out list of user scenarios. Clearly, they’re thinking very hard about every conceivable element of this project, including the sorts of things we frequently focus on here such as the networked aspects of texts. Acolytes of Ted Nelson will be excited to learn that a transclusion feature is in the works: a tool for embedding passages from texts into other texts that automatically track back to the source (hypertext copy-and-pasting). They’re also thinking about collaborative filtering tools like shared annotations, bookmarking and user-defined collections. All very very good, but it will take time.
Building an open source library catalog is a mammoth undertaking and will rely on millions of hours of volunteer labor, and like Wikipedia it has its fair share of built-in contradictions. Jessamyn West of put it succinctly:

It’s a weird juxtaposition, the idea of authority and the idea of a collaborative project that anyone can work on and modify.

But the only realistic alternative may well be the library that Google is building, a proprietary database full of low-quality digital copies, a semi-accessible public domain prohibitively difficult to use or repurpose outside the Google reading room, a balkanized landscape of partner libraries and institutions left in its wake, each clutching their small slice of the digitized pie while the whole belongs only to Google, all of it geared ultimately not to readers, researchers and citizens but to consumers. Construed more broadly to include not just books but web pages, videos, images, maps etc., the Google library is a place built by us but not owned by us. We create and upload much of the content, we hand-make the links and run the search queries that program the Google brain. But all of this is captured and funneled into Google dollars and AdSense. If passive labor can build something so powerful, what might active, voluntary labor be able to achieve? Open Library aims to find out.

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.

a quick note on commentpress

Apologies to all who have been waiting so patiently for CommentPress (our open source theme for WordPress that enables paragraph-level commenting on blogs and other documents). Many of you have told us about specific projects you’re dying to start if only you had the plugin… Believe me, we can’t wait to get it out into the world so people can start playing with it (and improving it). We’re sorry this has gotten so delayed.
Unfortunately, what with Sophie, MediaCommons and the pressing task of raising more funds to keep the Institute going, finishing up CommentPress keeps getting relegated to the back burner. Add to that a more or less lost month of June with many of our number scattered around the world for weddings and long overdue vacations (I’m writing this from South Korea).
The good news is that we’ve been making progress all along, slowly but surely cleaning up the code, streamlining the interface, and making a simple, clean out-of-the-box design. It looks like we’re nearly there. I can say with 99% confidence that we’ll have this puppy ready by mid-July, probably sometime in the week of the 16th through 20th.
Thanks again for your patience. We’ll have this for you soon.
(Reposted from comments.)

the people’s card catalog (a thought)

New partners and new features. Google has been busy lately building up Book Search. On the institutional end, Ghent, Lausanne and Mysore are among the most recent universities to hitch their wagons to the Google library project. On the user end, the GBS feature set continues to expand, with new discovery tools and more extensive “about” pages gathering a range of contextual resources for each individual volume.
Recently, they extended this coverage to books that haven’t yet been digitized, substantially increasing the findability, if not yet the searchability, of thousands of new titles. The about pages are similar to Amazon’s, which supply book browsers with things like concordances, “statistically improbably phrases” (tags generated automatically from distinct phrasings in a text), textual statistics, and, best of all, hot-linked lists of references to and from other titles in the catalog: a rich bibliographic network of interconnected texts (Bob wrote about this fairly recently). Google’s pages do much the same thing but add other valuable links to retailers, library catalogues, reviews, blogs, scholarly resources, Wikipedia entries, and other relevant sites around the net (an example). Again, many of these books are not yet full-text searchable, but collecting these resources in one place is highly useful.
It makes me think, though, how sorely an open source alternative to this is needed. Wikipedia already has reasonably extensive articles about various works of literature. Library Thing has built a terrific social architecture for sharing books. There are a great number of other freely accessible resources around the web, scholarly database projects, public domain e-libraries, CC-licensed collections, library catalogs.
Could this be stitched together into a public, non-proprietary book directory, a People’s Card Catalog? A web page for every book, perhaps in wiki format, wtih detailed bibliographic profiles, history, links, citation indices, social tools, visualizations, and ideally a smart graphical interface for browsing it. In a network of books, each title ought to have a stable node to which resources can be attached and from which discussions can branch. So far Google is leading the way in building this modern bibliographic system, and stands to turn the card catalogue of the future into a major advertising cash nexus. Let them do it. But couldn’t we build something better?

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?