My Sunny Predictions about Electronic Text

In "Oral Knowledge, Typographic Knowledge, Electronic Knowledge: Reflections on the History of Ownership," I use the theory of transformative technology to interrogate the idea of intellectual property in electronic texts.

In oral societies, intellectual "property" was unthinkable because knowledge had to be continually reproduced in order to survive. "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."

With the development of writing and particularly the printing press, the "performance" of many types of work became industrialized, a matter for the craftsperson skilled at assembling interchangeable parts rather than for the gifted teller of tales. The production of copies became a practice which, if not limited by copyright, endangered knowledge by endangering the ability to profit from it. (The close connection [cause or effect?] between this commodification of knowledge and the rise of capitalism strikes me even more now than it did then.) Simultaneously with the rise of copyright came the romantic myth of the solitary genius and our present abhorrence of plagiarism as one of the worst forms of intellectual dishonesty.

Electronic forms of knowledge are in some ways more like orality because infinitely recursive. They encourage the copying, embedding and linking of texts, and make "intertextuality" a overt and visible rather than a tacit process. Although we can never return to the "tribal" knowledge of fully oral societies, the pull of the medium is away from private ownership of knowledge. Following Bolter, I claim that hypertext has the most powerful transformative potential in this regard because of its power to mix voices, to incorporate marginalia into the body of the text, and generally to blur the distinctions between one document and the next.

I still believe what I said then about the positive potential of hypertext to break down the culture of ownership. What I am not so sure about five years later is its possible effects on discursive rhetoric and about the implications of those effects for our role as teachers.


The theory of transformative technology A summary in a bit more detail.
A link out to my entire "Ownership of Knowledge" article.
A link out to Lunsford et al, "What Matters Who Writes?"Another take on this argument from a more pedagogical point of view.
Intellectual dishonesty A little more on the myth of the solitary genius.
Reading Hypertext An opening move in my darker ponderings, based on some disturbing analogies between hypertext and television.

Home | Index