Recursive Publics, Martin Luther, and Copyright

I found this an interesting coincidence reading these two things back to back:

From a post on David Wiley’s Iterating Toward Openess:

Educational reform is much like religious reform, and our openness movement and desires to innovate in higher education are much like the Reformation. When the Church was the prevailing power, it took Luther a significant amount of courage to stand up, nail a list of issues to the door, and say “Go ahead and excommunicate me. I’ve tried reforming from within with no success. You leave me no choice but to leave and try again on my own.”

In today’s higher education environment, accreditation bodies are very much like the Catholic Church of old. They exercise supreme power and authority of our institutions, and should our accrediting body choose to revoke our accreditation, our universities would go straight to the institutional equivalent of Hell.

From Christopher Kelty’s Two Bits, an anthropological study of open source culture (emphasis mine, and the term “geek” here is not meant to be derogatory):

Allegories of Reformation are stories that make sense of the political economy of information. But they also have a more precise use: to make sense of the distinction between power and control. Because geeks are “closer to the machine” than the rest of the laity, one might reasonably expect them to be the ones in power. This is clearly not the case, however, and it is the frustrations and mysteries by which states, corporations, and individuals manipulate technical details in order to shift power that often earns the deepest ire of geeks. Control, therefore, includes the detailed methods and actual practices by which corporations, government agencies, or individuals attempt to manipulate people (or enroll them to manipulate themselves and others) into making technical choices that serve power, rather than rationality, liberty, elegance, or any other geekly concern.

This is part of a larger chapter on Reformation analogies in geek culture. One of the larger points is Reformation analogies point to people trying to save an existing system from itself, which distinguishes Reformation analogies from Revolutionary analogies. Reformation comes about by removing the secret levers in the system that are used to maintain power and lead the system astray.

[Revolutionary formulations go further, and scrap the entire system. More on that later, although Siemens has already started to follow that thread…]

What is fascinating is that Kelty even goes further than David, with a stunning comparison to the Christ’s Cross mark of the Church which used to head the alphabet:

The longer one considers the problems that make up the contemporary political economy of information technology that geeks inhabit, the more likely it is that these allegories will start to present themselves almost automatically—as, for instance, when I read The Story of A, a delightful book having nothing to do with geeks, a book about literacy in early America. The author, Patricia Crain, explains that the Christ’s cross (see above) was often used in the creation of hornbooks or battledores, small leather-backed paddles inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer and the alphabet, which were used [PAGE 75] to teach children their ABCs from as early as the fifteenth century until as late as the nineteenth: “In its early print manifestations, the pedagogical alphabet is headed not by the letter A but by the ‘Christ’s Cross’: ?. . . . Because the alphabet is associated with Catholic Iconography, as if the two sets of signs were really part of one semiological system, one of the struggles of the Reformation would be to wrest the alphabet away from the Catholic Church.”

Here, allegorically, the Catholic Church’s control of the alphabet (like Microsoft’s programming of Internet Explorer to blur public standards for the Internet) is not simply ideological; it is not just a fantasy of origin or ownership planted in the fallow mental soil of believers, but in fact a very specific, very nonsubjective, and very media-specific normative tool of control. Crain explains further: “Today ? represents the imprimatur of the Catholic Church on copyright pages. In its connection to the early modern alphabet as well, this cross carries an imprimatur or licensing effect. This ‘let it be printed,’ however, is directed not to the artisan printer but to the mind and memory of the young scholar. . . . Like modern copyright, the cross authorizes the existence of the alphabet and associates the letters with sacred authorship, especially since another long-lived function of ? in liturgical missals is to mark gospel passages. The symbol both conveys information and generates ritual behavior.”

The © today carries as much if not more power, both ideologically and legally, as the cross of the Catholic church. It is the very symbol of authorship, even though in origin and in function it governs only ownership and rights. Magical thinking about copyright abounds, but one important function of the symbol ©, if not its legal implications, is to achieve the same thing as the Christ’s cross: to associate in the mind of the reader the ownership of a particular text (or in this case, piece of software) with a particular organization or person. Furthermore, even though the symbol is an artifact of national and international law, it creates an association not between a text and the state or government, but between a text and particular corporations, publishers, printers, or authors.

Without the allegory of the Protestant Reformation, the only available narrative for such evil—whether it be the behavior of Microsoft or of some other corporation—is that corporations are “competing in the marketplace according to the rules of capitalism” and thus when geeks decry such behavior, it’s just sour grapes. If corporations are not breaking any laws, why shouldn’t they be allowed to achieve control in this manner? In this narrative there is no room for a moral evaluation of competition…

Isn’t that fascinating? You can read the whole chapter, for free, here.

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One Comment on “Recursive Publics, Martin Luther, and Copyright”

  1. chris kelty says:

    mike, thanks for the comparison… it’s one of those things where once you notice it, it starts to appear everywhere. All the more confirmation of my argument that you found David Wiley using it, since he has been one of the key “modulators” of free software into the domain of education (chapters 8 and 9).


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