O is for Intellectual Property/Propriety

| May 3, 2014

In an odd bit of coincidence last week, I was wrapping up with applying some copy to a teaching website I was working on. Specifically: I was applying a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial license to the materials on the site, and as I finished applying my edits, I switched over to this blog to work on some entries. As I opened my browser to our shared blog, I saw bits and pieces of my work fragmented, out-of-context, and thrown together in a seemingly random assemblage. I didn’t remember putting this here, but it was definitely my stuff. I wondered if this was some feature or view of the WordPress platform I simply hadn’t yet seen – like an aleatoric list of random snippets of your own posts. Upon looking more closely, it became apparent that someone or something else had copy/pasted in a way that confused me – . Wait – how did this get here? This particular sense of being out of place, this disorientation of content, evoked a familiar feeling… “I’ve been hacked!” Someone has appropriated my credentials and acted maliciously! Quick – change the passwords! While this feeling of having the unique digital and financial markers of identity fraudulently acquired, of being ‘hacked’, may be novel to humanity, it is also one that people of our age know all too well. On the spectrum of invasive identity violations, having a blog account hacked is one of the least invasive.

I’ve recently gotten my debit card hacked twice in the span of 10 days, and I’ve been feeling rather… vulnerable. In this crazy kooky postmodern age, the notion of ‘self’, or ‘personhood’ is reduced to an assemblage of digital effects.

McLuhan liked to refer to any medium as an ‘extension of man’. But I would counter that media have subsumed man.

Example: “Steve” = Social Security Database entry + bank account + credit card account + HR records + mobile phone records + course blog + twitter + facebook + email account + any number of other blips on the digital radar.

But to bring it back to my original point, it’s increasingly daunting in this age to feel like any extension of ourselves (meaning: any “artistic expression”) is really ours. The term “remix culture” emerged a while back in response to the transmedia practices of appropriation and collage that became so rampant in the 90s into the present.

I’m reminded of the Beastie Boys “Paul’s Boutique” album, which was drawn almost entirely from sampled work, and it’s seen as one of the last albums to “get away” with so much rampant uncredited sampling.  (See this site which is a comprehensive list of all the samples and references.)

But how do we, in the digital age, “control” anything we create once we’ve created it?  All digital rights management (DRM) technology is hackable. Is the notion of propriety an anachronism?  Is that a bad thing? Do we just have to accept that any kind of digital work is essentially owned by the world once it’s created?  And why does it even matter?