Mashed Up

MashShy 1

Michico Kakutani has a somewhat curious piece in the New York Times in which she argues against the remix-based nature of so much digital culture:

Mr. Shields’s pasted-together book and defense of appropriation underscore the contentious issues of copyright, intellectual property and plagiarism that have become prominent in a world in which the Internet makes copying and recycling as simple as pressing a couple of buttons. In fact, the dynamics of the Web, as the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier observes in another new book, are encouraging “authors, journalists, musicians and artists” to “treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind.”

It’s not just a question of how these “content producers” are supposed to make a living or finance their endeavors, however, or why they ought to allow other people to pick apart their work and filch choice excerpts. Nor is it simply a question of experts and professionals being challenged by an increasingly democratized marketplace. It’s also a question, as Mr. Lanier, 49, astutely points out in his new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” of how online collectivism, social networking and popular software designs are changing the way people think and process information, a question of what becomes of originality and imagination in a world that prizes “metaness” and regards the mash-up as “more important than the sources who were mashed.”

To make the case against quotation, Kakutani cites not only Lanier, but also Cass Sunstein, Farhad Manjoo, Nicholas Carr, Steven Johnson, Susan Jacoby, Paulina Borsook, Isaiah Berlin, and John Updike while citing in a disparaging manner William Gibson, Dylan Ratigan, Esther Dyson, Nicholas Negroponte, and David Shields as unduly techn-utopian. Given the mashupy nature of the piece, Henry Farrell wonders: “is she being obtuse, quite brilliant in a self-undermining way, or something else entirely?”

I’m going to vote for obtuse. Because the particular manner in which Kakutani is appropriating the work of others is very drenched in the conventions and formalisms of newspaper writing, it doesn’t appear to her as objectionable in the same way that certain elements of “digital culture” do.