Amerika Online

Copyleftists and The New Networked-Narrative Environment: Does Content Want To Be Free?

Mark Amerika

In the first half of this Century, there was reason to believe that publishing houses, run by "gentlemanly publishers" [sic], felt comfortable playing the role of literary-oriented patrons of the arts, oftentimes giving their more innovative editors the opportunity to support the development of experimental writing careers by offering necessary cash advances to the authors so that they could, in the solitude of their profession, compose the best literary art works they knew how to and, if lucky, eventually build a solid audience of support that would not only guarantee the publisher a certain amount of "prestige," but also profits on their new books as well as retro-profits on what had evolved into a significant back-list.

As everyone who follows this scene now knows, this is no longer how the mainstream publishing industry works. The media-driven Blockbuster mentality has taken over the scene. Can you imagine an editor from a big multinational publishing house approaching their publisher suggesting that they invest 5, 10 or even 15 years worth of survival expenses to support the development of an important literary figure? They would never do something like that since it would clearly compromise their position within the organization whose top-down, "bottom-line" mission, is not to build prestige within the "culture business" but to become a huge, profitable media enterprise.

Even countries like Germany, where the cultural prerogative to support the creative and critical writings of contemporary artists from all around the world has outpaced similar programs in other countries, now have literary "agents" whose job it is to successfully package writers as "media constructs" that will attract enough attention so as to commodify their "brand-name" products and sell them to a larger audience.

These successfully packaged "brand-name" identities, whether they be novelists, historians, cultural critics or outrageous social commentators, all depend on the in-place copyright laws for their survival, as do the legions of workers in the publishing industry that produce and distribute their work FOR them. The death of intellectual property rights would be the death of the publishing industry as it now operates and this is why the "culture business" and its network of lawyers and investors as well as the writers it supports, are so slow to make their way into cyberspace and accept the new challenges it presents to our globally-transfigured culture.

The notion of a writer becoming an online publisher and/or cyborg-narrator whose public domain narrative environment is free and open to public viewing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from any Net-connected computer in the world, does not fit into the mainstream publishing industry's production/distribution model. Even the forever marketed "bold writers of the new generation" are simply ported through the dinosauric copyright-system whose primary goal is not to find readers of significant literary work, but to sell as many book-objects as possible so as to make lots of money and satisfy the stockholders. And why not? That's what capitalism is all about -- in fact, the more obvious the mainstream publishers align themselves with the Blockbuster complex and the blatant practice of peddling "literary artists" as more media by-products, the more ludicrous their role-playing identity as "art patron" becomes.

A problem, though, arises, when almost all of our narrative artists, cultural and social critics, historians, etc., play this game, when co-optation by the mainstream is equated with a "become a media-celeb or perish" goals-oriented writing strategy. What's happened to our sense of adventure, of tackling the unknown, of using our work as language or narrative artists to re-evaluate the challenges posed by the formal ambiguities evolving in the new media culture itself? Are we afraid of the economic consequences? How many writers and artists today are actually making a lot of money being "artistic geniuses" in the mold of dead Picasso?

I would venture to say that there are very few innovative writers or artists today who are able to survive simply by selling their most experimental "intellectual property" to the multi-national corporate sponsors located throughout the global economy. In fact, one line of thought making its way through the art-world party scene, a bastardized version of a previous thought developed by Antonin Artaud, is that there really are no more literary masterpieces, just hefty media by-products that occasionally get picked up by the self-replicating mainstream media virus and that are sold to consumers as off-the-shelf "cultural objects" they must own the same way they must own a sports utility vehicle or the latest Braun coffee-maker. In this scenario, there are no readers, only consumers, and, in fact, it's now often suggested that there are "literally" tons of books that get sold but that never get read, that the reason they're bought is not so much to be read and appreciated as works of literary art but, rather, to be installed on bookshelves as a brand-name product identifying the owner of said product with a degree of cultural sophistication they can buy but never actually immerse themselves in. The book-object as trendy wallpaper.

This, of course, changes the way emerging writers start viewing their work and how it should be ported into culture so as to keep them relevant. What becomes obvious to even the casual observer of contemporary art and writing is that it's not only money that drives the New Generation of Literary Writers toward immediate co-optation, but that it's also the chance to be routed through that mainstream media mechanism that feeds into the overriding Blockbuster mentality that informs our present-day construction of value within the late-capitalist system.

But the-times-they-are-a-changing, and as German-based hypertext writer/critic Ruth Nestvold said in the live online Global Chat that took place on both the Alt-X Network and at the Brown University Vanguard Narrative Fiction Festival last Fall, "lots of folks are trying to translate avant garde almost straight to the Web -- but the thing is, a lot of postmodern experiments don't make any sense on the Web anymore. Defying chronology, for instance, is no longer an experiment -- it's the nature of hypertext." Taking Nestvold's notion one step further, I'd say defying intellectual property rights is no longer an experiment -- it's the nature of the web.

Think about it: if our creative "property" can be infinitely reproduced and instantaneously distributed all over the planet without noticeable cost, without our knowledge, without its even leaving our possession (it's still on the publicly-accessible server, right?), why would we want to put up firewalls to protect it? Of course, one question that immediately comes to mind as we go forth into the techno-jungle mix of wild web growth and savage pla(y)giaristic practice, is what sort of advantages would there be in protecting ones work from all of the potential interactive participants? The most obvious answer is so that the artists responsible for creating the work can get paid for it. If everything is given away for free, then how are we going to get paid for the work we do with our minds? And, if we can't get paid, what will assure the continued creation and distribution of such work?

The problem, of course, is that Net-based work, however creative or intellectual it may be, takes information out of the world of material goods and puts it into the rapidly morphing terrain of digital reproduction, manipulation, and dissemination. This move from material objecthood to virtual objecthood constitutes one of the most significant changes in cultural history and forces us to rethink the way we approach our work as "property."

Throughout the history of copyrights and patents, the proprietary assertions of thinkers have been focused not on their ideas but on the expression of those ideas. The ideas themselves, as well as facts about phenomena of the world, were considered to be the collective property of humanity. In the case of narrative, the author could have a great idea about a book, but "to express" that idea in narrative form, i.e. to make it physical, required first writing-it-out and then turning it into a material book-object.

But what happens if, as in the case of contemporary network-narrative art, the initial concepts thought up by one artist, are eventually expressed by a network of other artist-associates (collaborators) as a fluid work-in-progress whose multi-media digital mix is forever-in-flux? What happens to our sense of a "creative self" when multiple hosts are responsible for distributing the Collective Net-Object? Isn't this already happening today on the World Wide Web?

The once "novel" idea of recording stories so that they can then be bound by the rigid spine of book-media and its enslaving copyright law, is morphing into the Avant-Pop practice of "surf-sample-manipulate," which I elaborated on in my last Amerika Online column and which I view as a pro-active practice of collage-generation that reconfigures the author into a virtual artist who navigates cyberspace so as to engage him/herself in the improvisational mix of digital objects being distributed on the World Wide Web. In this scenario, the author-cum-virual-artist places special emphasis on reconfiguring narratological practice by focusing on both content and source-code, appropriating select bits of data for an evolving network of interactive-participants all over the geopolitcal spectrum. This post-novel network-narrative environment is infinitely expandable and is always already being updated. Network protocols barely available to artists even three years ago are now partly responsible for creating an evolving storyworld production that is finding a home in the electrosphere. Of course, Neo-Luddite social commentators and high-brow media critics would have us believe that this is The End of Something Terribly Important (maybe their late-capitalist hold on the right to own ideas that are really Everybody's?).

Contemporary artists should know better. Gertrude Stein conceived of this before I did, saying it was "the business of live in" a "continuous present" and that we needed to immerse ourselves in "the complete actual present and to completely express that complete actual present." Successful creative writers and literary/social critics who have invested a great deal of time and energy in the development of their own, book-centric, network-value, have a terrific problem with all of this, and who can blame them? They have created their own network-value by successfully marketing their stories and ideas via a bottlenecked distribution system that not only favors the social elite who control the publishing establishment, but which has helped them all locate a consumer-audience that guarantees mainstream visibility and myriad ways of electronically streaming revenue sources into their bank accounts.Their network-value is intimately connected with a production/distribution model that is totally dependent on the past while losing touch with this "continuous present." They perceive real threats from this simulated social world of internetworking, a world that has consistently challenged their ideological foundations. Watching their ideas becoming instantaneously appropriated by the collective web-self for its own uses isn't easy and they won't take it lying down. In fact, as roaming dinosaurs trouncing through the intellectual landscape, they are by far the ones best positioned to defend the past they still live in.

How do we expect them to deal with the fact that each of their contributions to the narrative-in-progress will become imbedded in a fluctuating network of hypertextual links that is continuously being altered by the advent of new web-technologies? It's out of control!

Or is it? Practicing a D-I-Y (do-it-yourself) publishing aesthetic via the Net is clearly the easiest way for emerging artists to get published (from the Latin root "to go public"). In fact, the network protocols of today put more control into the hands of the contemporary artist and open up the possibility of the "reconfigured author" wearing many hats at once, not the least of which would be writer, composer, designer, programmer, auteur, publisher, curator, critic, networker and marketing agent. In late 1993, when I first started talking about this "network publishing" model as a way to bypass the conventional formula for getting an author's work to a global audience, most people in the business thought I was crazy. Now, with the explosion of mainstream media attention on the Internet as both a communications and distribution tool, they have resigned themselves to its role in transforming the publishing industry as we know it.

But doing away with copyright and giving away ones formal "content" for free so as to raise ones network-value is a tough intellectual-bar to leap. Still, a crystal-ball reading of a near-future scenario for writers and publishers would suggest that the Net will continue to grow in influence and that the tricky interface between art and technology will further decentralize the role of the mainstream publisher who, it now seems clear, is no longer interested in "prestige" and is more than happy to rid themselves of this burden. Fortunately, for more adventurous writers willing to free up their content to the audience that awaits them, the new network technology opens up the possibility of experimenting with both the composition and exhibition/distribution of innovative narrative art and this, in turn, creates more exciting boundary-slippage in the creative/critical discourse.