Information Commodification




Johndon Johnson-Eilola’s article “The Database and the Essay” argues that postmodern definitions of writing have begun to be accepted and popularized by the general public. If we accept the general premise of postmodernism that ideas are formed in context and in social situations and don’t stem from individual genius, we are then faced with the issue of authorship and ownership. Johnson-Eilola points to intellectual property law and the erosion of fair use rights, arguing that language and text has become commodified within a capitalist system, “put into motion…forced to earn its keep by moving incessantly” (203).  This idea of breaking texts into fragmented parts so that they will fit within the avenues of capitalist circulation has quite serious implications for original ownership. When texts are broken into smaller and smaller pieces, allowing for easier commodification, and then continually repurposed into new forms, how can we define authorship and originality? The deconstruction of meaning from a single textual object into an interconnected web of linkage and in-text citation has not created a “communal web of shared experiences,” as Johnson-Eilola claims was originally predicted (204).  What has instead emerged is the commodification of intellect with the continual breaking down and reformulation of texts and ideas, each recombination generating profitable value.

This issue can be viewed in terms of the broader debate over what is writing and what is mere compilation. We generally define writing as involving a creative process that results in the formation of a unique text containing original thought. This is taught in academic settings and grounds most writing pedagogy. However new competing definitions of writing that lean toward postmodernism argue that language is a continual social construction, so is completely arbitrary and that this applies to texts as well. There is a marked shift from thinking of texts as discrete objects to now viewing them as unpredictable, fragmented elements that are constantly reconfigured and reconnected. Johnson-Eilola argues that this shift is important because it “opens a path away from thinking of intellectual property as a work– as a relatively extended, coherent whole– and toward thinking of it as marketable chunks” (209).  By viewing any type of text within these financially geared terms, issues of ownership become problematic. If texts and ideas are continually reformulated, who holds proprietary rights?

Attempts at answering this question have become more urgent and relevant as blogs and linking further complicate the idea of ownership. Traditionally citation and reference within texts is considered necessary and socially valuable and has always been free, but now companies claim that linking within a website destroys their economic model of users moving “top-down” through the site viewing advertisements along the way. If users are linked to a page deep within the site, they miss relevant advertising and the company is not paid. The contrast between the academic argument that information should be free and the economic model claiming that information should circulate and thus earn money can be reduced to the rather difficult issue of information commodity. On one side we have academics arguing that knowledge and texts reside outside of the economic sphere while simultaneously constructing institutions that collect money in exchange for knowledge. And on the other side we have the postmodernists and corporations that fragment and circulate texts, profiting from this continual exchange of information. Though these sides claim to be in constant and bitter debate, their practices are incredibly similar. Does this then de-value the argument? Aren’t both institutions essentially attempting to control the same thing?



Using New Literacies as Quick Fixes: Blog it! Wiki it!

I feel that blogs have become the Band-Aid to the myriad of problems in freshman composition. Students not motivated? Use blogs! Students not grasping audience? Use blogs! Students not interested in what you’re assigning them? Use blogs! Because of this reliance and potential over enthusiasm for blogs, I myself have grown skeptical.

I valued Richardson’s (2010) detailed explanation of Blogs in the classroom because he’s right – blogs can be very powerful when used in the right way. As a new teacher, I find myself struggling to have students write for authentic and real audiences, besides myself. Writing individual papers only aimed at me makes them both boring and stagnant. Blogs seem like a good alternative.

If we use blogs, though, like any type of new literacy, we, as instructors, have to be careful about how we introduce it in the classroom. Benson & Reyman’s (2009) exploration of blogs in the classroom showed me the many pitfalls of using blogs. I think one of the best reasons to use blogs is because of its direct connection to audience. As Richardson comments, “the relevance of student work no longer ends at the classroom door” (27). Students are no longer just writing for each other and the teacher – the audience is now potentially the whole Internet world. With this larger audience comes a new responsibility for students. Their writing now has both purpose (since it’s actually being read) and responsibility (if people are going to read it, I should try). Blogs work for the type of meaningful writing we want students to do and for the way we want them to approach, anticipate, and write for an audience. However, as Benson & Reyman (2009) comment, “understanding of audience does not necessarily lead to a strong sense of the potential consequences for their public writing” (16).  I’ve been a part of many class blogs, have created my own class blog, and have worked with students on their blogs here at SF State. They all have very few hits. My own blog has had 156 visitors from the US and 21 from Russia and then 20 from Latvia. I would say my blog is pretty representative of the kinds of blogs that students will write. I didn’t do much connective writing, so maybe that had an effective on views to my site. However, when I Google some terms I talked about like race, class, gender, my blog does come.

The point of this example is to show that, really, people are not reading my blog.

Students in the Benson & Reyman class discussed how they really felt that they could say anything they wanted to on a blog because they “had a perceived sense of a private, exclusive audience when writing to the class blogs” (18). While the potential audience is potentially massive, the actual audience seems to be fairly small for these blogs. And the students perceive that, negating the value of writing for an audience that blogs encourage.

If students don’t think anyone read the blogs, are we promoting audience awareness? Or are we just assuming there is a wider audience and turning a blind eye?

Because of my jaded view of blogs, I was intrigued by the discussion of Wikis. My knowledge of Wikipedia was cursory before these readings. I use it all the time and I frequently encourage students to do so as well, but I didn’t get how it works. I believe writing can be powerful when it is a collaborative, social, and constantly in flux. So, in other words, when it mirrors Wikipedia. Students who “purposeful[ly] work [at] negotiating and creating truth” understand that their writing has to be valued to be kept on the Wiki – it has to have purpose, be articulate, add something to the conversation, synthesize material (57). In essence, what some of the core values of freshman composition are.

I am intrigued by the idea of having students work on creating a document together. This could be revising and reworking our notions of genre through the semester, or adding to a list on good thesis statements. Either way having a place where everyone can add, and everyone has agency to change, what we are discussing. iLearn has a pretty user friendly version of Wiki’s built in and I’m trying this out next week in my class.

If Compositionists have been so struck by blogs why have Wikis been given the wayside? Blogs provide a platform to publish and write to an (imagined) audience. Wikis also provide a platform to write to an imagined audience but also encourage collective revision.

I think part of it is our reluctance to let go of authorship in the classroom. Blogs maintain this because each student writes their own blogs. With wikis, collaborative writing and learning takes place meaningfully and thoughtfully. While we can track who adds what, the goal of the Wiki is for information to be revised and rethought together, not for everyone to have their own independent voice. As Hunter (2011) suggests in his study of World of Warcraft Wikis, wikis both “erase a sense of authorship” (45) and “individual contributions are deemphasized” (54). This is very interesting to our notions of how we teach writing in the classroom: as a very individualized, independent, and frequently isolated activity.

            Wikipedia has always been scorned in the classroom for its unreliability. But more people have access to making it reliable than something written by one person from the The Times or Wired. I think part of our hesitancy with Wikis is the lack of authority, specifically in regards to assessment. We typically assign each student a prompt, to be completed independently. When we assess, through feedback and/or a grade, we are responding to that specific student. We know they wrote the essay. With Wiki’s then, this individual writer becomes problematize. How do I evaluate a Wiki that every one adds to? What about individual grades? What if nobody adds anything to the Wiki because it is already pretty good? I foresee problems arising when students post something in a wiki because they have to, not because it furthers the discussion. With these questions aside, I do think that Wiki’s add a new dimension to the classroom that values collaboration and revision.

As I hop off the blog bandwagon, I hop on the Wiki bandwagon. Students don’t collaborate? Wiki it! Students don’t see their revisions as purposeful? Wiki it! Students aren’t grasping the exigency of writing? Wiki it!

NY Times Announces Pay-Per-Read Model for Online Readers

The integration of the Internet, mobile technologies, and social networking has created this expectation for on-demand news.  It’s also expanded the notion of authorship, and to some extent, conditioned us into believing that online content should be free (at least when it comes to the exchange of information).  Traditional news media has struggled to find its footing in this market of content saturated messaging.  And in its latest attempt in trying to resurrect the flagging print industry, the New York Times made an announcement that it will now start charging its online readers for reading more than 20 articles a month.

Beginning March 28, this new pricing model will let readers who wish to have access to more content purchase digital subscription packages that start at $15 for four weeks access.  Print subscribers will have full-access.  The new pricing model has already been  implemented in Canada.  The news has generated a mixed reaction–some readers are willing to pay for what they deem quality content, and a majority have threatened to boycott, not happy about having to pay for content that has always been free.

What will happen if other major publications start to follow suit?  How does this pay-per-read model affect accessibility?  And if all professional news publications start to follow this trend, will our news diet start to rely more heavily on informal news sites and blogs?  If the New York Times is successful in repositioning its online business model, this could mark a major change in how content is used and valued on the Internet.

Consciousness and the writing medium

After reading these articles, I find I am unable to come up with a satisfying thesis to unify these works. Although I found them the most difficult, Reid’s and Ong’s articles seem to work the best in finding related approaches to the functions and/or effects of writing on human consciousness.
Reid discusses the reduction of binaries, focusing on the bridging of internal and external in the creation of consciousness. Once the thought becomes external instead of purely internal, the external world would be more able to affect it. It then makes sense that the medium could affect thought, unlike the Platonic conception where it was untouchable by the technology used to record it.
(As an aside, although my understanding of the ideas discussed here is shaky at best, I wonder if the changed notion of authorship ties into this bigger idea of consciousness. If there is no set notion of authorship, how does this change the consciousness of an individual working on a Wikipedia article with numerous other authors as opposed to, say, an individiual essay he or she would turn into a teacher? Is this much different than a pre-internet article written collaboratively with other individuals?)
One aspect of Ong’s writing that struck me was his comment that “new tracks for thought are imposed by the new technologies. And the software of the computer vigorously interposes even another consciouness or other consciousnesses–the programmer or programmers–between the knower and the known.” This may have a number of interpretations, but one way I see it is that whatever operations a given word processing program allows you to do may affect what you write. The software engineers guide how you are able to express certain ideas through choices such as font selection, stylistic alterations like bolding and italics, or the ways in which graphics can be inserted into the text. The differences may be negligible in individual instances, but the implication seems to me to be that over time, writing with Word or Notepad or a WordPress account will change what and how students write. And as is evidenced by the comments from blog posts and class discussion, the mere use of the technology for posting a blog can cause some anxiety, which might affect what is ultimately written. The inverse may be true as well–some students who become nervous when faced with a pen and paper might feel more at home using a computer, simply as a medium where they are more comfortable, where legibility of handwriting is not an issue.
I realize I have gone slightly off-topic here, but it does relate to what a student’s writing output will be. The effects on thinking and consciousness detailed by these writers refute the claims in the Phaedrus that writing only records pre-conceived thought or a Platonic truth, that only fools think “written words can do anything more than remind one who knoews that which the writing is concerned with.” The modern arguments seem to be that writing is generative, and as such, the tools and technologies used to generate the writing will affect what the writing itself will be.