Argomenti trattati: copyright, cyberspace, ipertesti, comunicazione, network

Oral knowledge typografic knowledge electronic knowledge"
di Doug Brent
Testo tratto da "Intertek", vol. 3.4, 1993, San Carlos, CA, USA

1. using transformation theory

It has frequently been observed that computers are revolutionizing the concept of knowledge ownership. Old standards of copyright and the ownership of intellectual property simply do not apply to the universe of knowledge in cyberspace. In this article I wish to examine more closely the ways in which concepts of intellectual property are changing as the computer changes our relationship to knowledge.

The main tool I wish to use in this investigation is the cluster of theories that Michael Heim has dubbed "transformation theory" (Electric Language, 1987). Marshall McLuhan first called attention to the transforming powers of media in his insightful andinfuriatingbooks,particularly UnderstandingMedia (1964). In that book, he claims that we cannot learn anything of importance about a medium by looking only at its content:

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the "content" of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. (p. 18)

To avoid that numbness, we must refocus our attention on the ways in which the technological characteristics of the medium itself reshape our lives not just by giving us new tools to play with but by reshaping our consciousness on a fundamental and subliminal level.

In Orality and Literacy (1982), Walter Ong builds on McLuhan's general philosophy, plus anthropological research on the development of oral societies, in order to explain the dramatic changes in society that came about with the advent of literacy. Ong argues that the shift from oral to literate culture in about the fifth century B.C. did more than change patterns of art, politics and commerce. It enabled a profound shift in human conscious, bringing about the linear, abstract forms of Western logic that we take for granted today but which were simply unthinkable without literacy as a means of preserving complicated original thought.

What makes transformation theory a particularly powerful tool for speculating on the impact of computers is that the information revolution intuitively feels like a third stage in this process, a revolution as great as the shift from orality to literacy. Admittedly, Heim warns severely against extending the transformation theory developed to deal with the first revolution and facilely using it to predict the outcome of the second:

Because it is anchored in the difference between orality and literacy, the transformation theory is unsuited for an investigation of word processing. Constant reference to the emergence of literacy distorts the phenomenon by reducing the emergence of word processing to a new kind of literacy. The use of the metaphor from print culture is understandable when we are confronted by the profound novelty of digital writing. But if we lose sight of the weakness of the metaphor, we shall pass right by the phenomenon in our anxiety to treat it easily in a familiar, conventionally manageable way. (p. 113)

Heim's warning is well taken; the second shift is neither simply an extension, nor simply a reversal (despite what I am about to argue) of the first. Yet if historical study is to be justified on any grounds other than idle curiosity, it surely must be on the grounds that we can learn something about the present and future by extrapolating from the past. The important caveat is that we must not depend only on a metaphor. To the extent that we see echoes of the first communications revolution in the second, we must be careful to use the metaphor of the first transformation only as a means of generating suggestive possibilities. Before we can rely on these suggestions even provisionally, we must corroborate them by close examination of changes in personal and social behaviour that are already sufficiently far along to be susceptible of examination.

2. ownership of knowledge in oral societies

Ong claims that in a primary oral culture--that is, a culture that has never known literacy--knowledge is not owned; rather it is performed. Without print, knowledge must be stored not as a set of abstract ideas or isolated bits of information, but as a set of concepts embedded deeply in the language and culture of the people. Strictly procedural knowledge--how to build a boat, how to fight a war--is passed on directly from craftsman to craftsman through the process of apprenticeship. However, the more abstract knowledge of the tribe--not just their history but also their values, their concepts of justice and social order--is contained in the epic formulae, recurrent themes, and mythic patterns, plots and stereotypes out of which the storytellers of the tribe weave their narratives. This knowledge exists as a pre-existing network of knowledge, interconnected in extraordinarily complex and non-linear ways and all known in at least its broad outlines to the storyteller's audience before he begins (see Bolter, WritingSpace, 1991).

Lord's work with modern illiterate poets underlines the implications of this means of transmitting knowledge ( The Singer of Tales, 1960). Although the storytellers usually insist that they tell their stories exactly the same way each time, transcriptions of stories told by modern oral storytellers reveal significant variation. Rather than memorizing a verbatim "text," as literate observers assumed, the storytellers fit stock elements to a rhythmic pattern and a well-known plot to re-produce the story anew each time it is told. There simply is no "text" apart from each individual incarnation of each tale.

This has implications for how the creative act is seen. If oral performers were simply memorizing and reciting a work that had at one time been "composed" by a single individual, the process would be no more than an oral version of literate composition, in which a text is composed once and reproduced mechanically many times. But Lord's work reveals that the performer of a tale is combining an act of creation with an act of transmission. His primary work is to transmit the culture of the tribe, and in this act of transmission he must be conservative. Changes in oral knowledge cannot be undone, for there are no old copies to go back to. The tellers must therefore be able to reproduce the forms and plots in which their tribe's knowledge is contained as faithfully as possible. Yet there is also a gradual drift in the stories In a process that Ong calls "homeostasis,"the stories change imperceptibly over time to suit the needs and values of the culture as that culture changes. If the values that are held in high regard by the culture shift to suit changing circumstances, the heroes in the tales will acquire new characteristics, or even cease to be heroes. Individual creativity is profoundly rhetorical, for it is the subtle interplay between teller and audience that shapes the tales to match the values of that audience; yet it is also largely invisible (Ong 1982).

This inseparability of creativity and performance meant that there was no such thing as ownership of knowledge--or, more aptly, there was no such thing as private ownership of knowledge. Knowledge was held in common, entrusted to the tellers of tales who were maintained by the tribe, not for their individual contributions to the growth of ideas, but for their ongoing duty to keep knowledge alive by performing it.

3. ownership of knowledge in literate societies

With the introduction of writing, all of this changed. According to Ong and his anthropological school of communications history, writing had a number of profound effects, including the development of the self-conscious, rational self, of the power of abstraction, and consequently of the entire Western system of logic. For my purposes here, however, the most important result of the invention of writing was a separation of text and performance, of knowledge and knower. As Havelock puts it in Origins of Western Literacy (1976), writing separates "the knower from the known" by creating a fossilized text that can achieve a continued existence apart from any knower. The knowledge represented by an oral tale is so embedded in mind and action that it cannot be contemplated as a separate entity; such knowledge travels as an almost subliminal partner of a performance, as transmission that the performer does not even think of as "knowledge" but rather as simply a set of actions. A manuscript, however, can be handled, stored, retrieved from a vault and re-performed a millennium after all previous readers have died. Therefore, with writing knowledge comes to be seen as something reified, as existing outside the self.

If knowledge can be separated from the knower, it can be owned by separate individuals. In an oral culture, plagiarism is unthinkable, simply because the survival of the culture depends on plagiarism--that is, on each performer learning what has gone before and making it his own. As the manuscript society came into existence, it became more common to attribute written tales to their sources in prior texts. Yet, as any student of early written poetry will know (Chaucer is a wellknown example), prior texts were often so inseparably mingled with new material that generations of scholars have been kept happily employed in sorting them out. During the manuscript age, the painstaking copying and illustrating of a manuscript was in some respects a personal performance of knowledge analogous to the performance of an epic poem or folk tale.

It was the printing press that made private ownership of knowledge a necessity, for it was the printing press that finally severed the connection between the creation and the transmission of knowledge. For transmission was now a mechanical act, performable by a machine. Originality, once a deadly danger to a society that had to struggle to maintain its equilibrium, could now be seen as more valuable than performance. To claim originality for what was only a re-performance became a serious breach of the values of the society. Appropriating another's ideas, once an essential means of keeping them alive, became the act of a plagiarius, a torturer, plunderer, oppressor:

Typography had made the word a commodity. The old communal oral world had split up into privately claimed freeholdings. The drift toward greater individualism had been served well by print. (Ong 1982, p. 131)

Copyright laws were soon created as a means of preserving this intellectual property. As Patterson points out (Copyright in Historical Perspective, 1968), copyright was originally created more as a means of breaking the stationers' monopoly on texts than as a means of protecting authors' rights. Yet the commonsense notion that an author's words were things of countable value pressed the law of copyright further and further in the direction of articulating those rights against those of the stationers who simply reproduced the physical text. By the eighteenth century, copyright was firmly established not only as a means to ensure that an author will be paid for his ideas, but also to ensure that he will be able to protect their integrity by granting him the sole authority to correct, amend or retract them. In the Miller vs. Taylor decision of 1767, a decision vital to the shaping of English copyright law into its final modern form, Mr. Justice Aston commented, "I do not know, nor can I comprehend any property more emphatically a man's own, nay, more incapable of being mistaken, than his literary works" (Patterson, p. 170).

The modern abhorrence of plagiarism, of course, has never meant that one should not use another's ideas. The practice of bringing ideas forward and integrating them into later works is fundamental to the modern belief that knowledge is cumulative and improvable. But a crucial difference between oral and literate diffusion of knowledge is that as knowledge diffuses through knowledge networks of modern research disciplines, it leaves behind the tracks of its passage in the form of earlier texts linked by webs of citations. Among other functions, these citations ensure that the producer of a particularly fertile idea is given due credit for her work, even as that work is being corrected, amended, extended, and ultimately submerged into the new knowledge that is being built upon it. Whereas the oral bard could demonstrate that he was earning his keep simply by continually re-performing the knowledge of which he was guardian, the modern researcher must demonstrate that she is worthy of being maintained by her tribe by creating work worthy of being explicitly cited by others. Thus she retains ownership of the ideas at the same time as she releases them into the world to perform their work--in a sense leasing rather than transferring them to others.

Thus the effects of printed texts are somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, the explicit pointers to earlier texts reinforce the fact that knowledge is built communally, through the interactions of thousands of individuals. On the other hand, the fact that each idea can be labelled with the name of its maker has created the romantic myth of the individual creative genius. This myth manifests itself in the arts as the figure of the brooding artist creating in solitude, and in the sciences as the individual inventor, the Nobel prize winner who sees what noone has seen before.