|August 16th, 2006|
the group wonders about the changing definition of literacy, and what current technologies are doing to our literacy practices:
KOSTER: …To me, there’s a question hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no one writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy. Think of blogs, for example: most blog posts are reblogs, they’re parasitic on things other people have written. It’s a democratized writing, a democratized literacy. (p.39)
Not sure I see the connection between democracy and literacy as appropriation.
The “parasitic” phrase was actually Bill Wasik’s editorially pithy way of summarizing a lengthy digression of mine that had to be edited out. But I think I stand by the overall concept.
Creation is hard. Really hard. Everyone is creative in some fashion, but few people are able to move their creativity across a broad spectrum of media and of tasks. And even if you have a knack for it, creation is still hard work, and takes dedication and craftsmanship to do well.
Given that everyone has a creative impulse, the question is how to permit people to feel creative and to create work in a wider array of fields. And one of the classic ways this is done is via the training wheels of imitative, derivative, and appropriated work. Young writers start out with fanfic that gives them ready-made characters. Artists learn by copying the styles of famous works. Musicians work within genres and learn to play the songs of others before they learn to write their own. Businessmen read business books, advertisers copy ads, directors steal camera angles.
The easier it is to appropriate and annotate upon the creation of others, the easier it is to access the act of creation, because requiring creation ex nihilo is a high barrier to entry.
Orson Scott Card’s classic 1979 short story “Unaccompanied Sonata” describes the life of a composer and musician, Christian Haroldsen, who is kept isolate from any other music precisely because he is a genius, and they want him to express himself free of the stain of any influences. Eventually, a listener slips him a recorder with some Bach on it…
“Fugues and harpsichords, the two things you noticed first — and the only things you didn’t absorb into your music. All your other songs for these last weeks have been tinted and colored and influenced by Bach. Except that there was no fugue, and there was no harpsichord. You have broken the law. You were put here because you were a genius, creating new things with only nature for your inspiration. Now, of course, you’re derivative, and truly new creation is impossible fo ryou. You’ll have to leave.”
This is, of course, total balderdash. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Christian goes out into the world, banned from creating music, continues to make it — and, as you might guess, creates his best, most enduring work (and suffers for it, naturally; just go read the story).
Everyone builds on something; shoulders of giants and all that. But it used to be harder to make the climb onto those shoulders; the giants were few and far between, their work was poorly distributed, and the minimum threshold for copying or even understanding their work was fairly high. One of the most profound effects of the historical trend towards the greater distribution of creative work of all kinds is that more people are getting to see a wider range of work: simpler stuff, tougher stuff, weirder stuff, conservative stuff. Now you can hop from the shoulders of pygmies to the shoulders of basketball players and make your way to the giants step by step.
The literacy of appropriation and annotation is a literacy wherein someone can make a solid musical contribution to the world without knowing very much about music, via mashups or loop construction. It’s one where fictional worlds grow deeper with each fan-created concordance. It isn’t new — as many have pointed out even here on this blog, Elizabethan theater was built out of appropriation and commentary on previous stagings of given tales, and today’s Broadway operates in similar fashion.
It is nonetheless a seismic change; the push towards microchannels of content wherein everyone can be a producer also means there’s lots more to copy, lots more to steal from, lots more to learn from. In the long run, this means there’s lots more good work. This is democratized creativity.
I do happen to disagree with Thomas de Zengotita, who gets the last word in the Forum when he says
Everyone in the overdeveloped world will have the tools they need to create this amazing stuff, whether it be blogs or films or games. None of it will rise to the peaks that we associate with names like Joyce or Proust, but a great deal of it will be fantastic … Everyone will be an artist, but the price is that no one will be a great artist.
I don’t see any reason why this easier staircase means that no one will be a great artist; perhaps the fear is that people will stop on the staircase where they can do so more easily. My own personal take is that this is a rising tide and that all boats will go up. Perhaps no one will be a truly great artist only because there will be so many of them that “great” will cease to have the same meaning, as creative content becomes more and more a commodity to be found everywhere.