Wending Through the Wayfinding System

mediating digital media, authoring authority in the digital age.

In the article “In a new world of informational abundance, content curation is a new kind of authorship,” Maria Popova writes:

I started a Twitter feed almost like the film extras on a DVD, hoping existing readers would find additional treats there. But what ended up happening was essentially the reverse: The Twitter feed, perhaps because it allowed for more breadth and cross-disciplinary curiosity, took on a life of its own….

The point is that new tools in general, and Twitter in particular, greatly challenge the binary dichotomy of attention as something that is either given or taken away, distracted. Instead, these tools allow us to direct attention to destinations where it can be sustained with more concentration and immersion. They offer a wayfinding system…

If information discovery plays such a central role in how we make sense of the world in this new media landscape, then it is a form of creative labor in and of itself. And yet our current normative models for crediting this kind of labor are completely inadequate, if they exist at all. We have clearly defined systems for what’s right or wrong in terms of crediting creative labor in ‘text’ (or image, or video), from image rights to literary citations. But we don’t have the same ethical principles for sources of discovery. In a culture of “information overload,” though, it’s through these very nodes in the information ecosystem, these human sense-makers, that this very text or image or video finds its way into our scope of attention…

Finding a way to acknowledge content curation and information discovery (or, better, the new term we invent for these fluffy placeholders) as a form of creative labor, and to codify this acknowledgement, is the next frontier in how we think about ‘intellectual property’ in the information age. IP, as a term, is inherently flawed and anachronistic in its focus on ownership (‘property’) in an age of sharing and open access, certainly. But it also challenges our most fundamental notions of authorship. As Bob Stein put it in his thoughtful 2006 critique of Jaron Lanier’s Digital Maoism, there’s an ’emerging sense of the author as moderator — someone able to marshal “the wisdom of the network.”‘

There are two ideas going on in this intriguing post. The first has to do with a new notion of authorship in which moderating, curating, linking, and pointing around an overabundant, overflowing stream of information becomes a kind of property, an authored narrative. The second is more buried in the implications of the article, but I think it has to do with a deeper and more significant issue: where is the authentic located in an era when we, networked together, collectively consume art and information in states of distraction caused by an overabundance of possible places to look and things to see?

As David L. Ulin notes in an eloquent long essay on the “lost art of reading,” one of the new strains on contemporary readers is discovering how to concentrate while in the digital flow. This is precisely what is on the mind of David Carr, from a negative perspective in The Shallows, and Cathy Davidson, in more hopeful ways in Now You See ItOddly, however, Ulin’s book about why books matter in a distracted time never once mentions Walter Benjamin, who first explored the notion of states of distraction in his famous essay on art in the era of technological reproducibility. Benjamin paid close attention to film, so it’s fitting that Popova refers to the newest kind of cinematic norms (DVD extras) to grapple with Web 2.0 software such as Twitter. For Benjamin, writing as fascism was on the rise in Europe, the technology of film threatened to undermine the cultic value of art, with its roots in the aura of religion.

Fascism, Benjamin thought, sought to use film to aestheticize politics to the point that outlets of expression were utterly severed from demands for rights. His response was to call for the politicization of art, which is to say a careful study of how to reconnect expression to rights in the name of justice. Popova’s article is not at all concerned with Benjamin’s ideas, but her interest in authorial authenticity and intellectual property rights evokes something of Benjamin’s themes for our contemporary moment. Popova, building on the comments of Bob Stein, implies that the authentic aura of the digital age is to be found in the mediator. This figure interjects a humanistic, artistic, and one might even say political personhood at the moment when, to use Benjamin’s terms, distraction shifts into concentration, which is to say when our passive, sensorial experience of the relentless stream of information on the Internet can spring into more active, intellectual, precise perception, understanding, and even empowerment.

There are no shortlinks to justice, but perhaps it’s here, at the nexus of mediation and ownership, where new kinds of rights might be reconnected to new modes of expression, where individual authorship might be reconnected to the commons that can, potentially, democratically, enrich us all.


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