I’m reading Jaron Lanier’s 2006 cautionary anti-crowdsourcing manifesto “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism,” and it’s interesting to look at the way he understands writing. On the one hand, in looking at “most of the technical or scientific information” on Wikipedia (I think I’d qualify that to say “much” rather than “most,” unless he’s got access to statistics he’s not citing), he notes that “specific texts get cloned from original sites at universities or labs onto wiki pages,” and such information thereby “loses part of its value” when taken out of its context of production and out of relation to its author. Fair enough: yes, I’ll certainly go with that; the notion that all writing is inherently rhetorical, and that context matters, although he seems to be performing the current-traditionalist move of privileging the primary or original (I’m resisting the urge to put that word in scare quotes) context over any subsequent context or recontextualization. (The New Critics said, implicitly, “Always dehistoricize,” to which Jameson rightly retorted, “Always historize,” to which in turn digital rhetoricians, remix artists, and others aquiver in the ecstasies of influence might respond, “Always rehistoricize.”) Of course, the critique he’s making could be leveled against the decontextualized knowledge found in any encyclopedia, and in fact it often is, implicitly, in the way that composition teachers forbid students from using encyclopedias (wiki or otherwise) as sources for research papers. It’s an interesting take on the value of writing, though; the suggestion that something is somehow worth less when it’s copied into a new context: does this work with or against the ideologies associated with the social turn in writing instruction? Against, I think: it’s a romantic ideal masquerading as a rhetorical ideal. This sense of the nature of his argument is strengthened for me when Lanier asserts that on the Web (and, implicitly, in writing), “value would flow from people” and that “value always came from connecting with real humans.” (Note the familiar romantic privileging of authenticity in the use of the word “real.”) Ultimately, in fact, writing itself becomes for Lanier an asocial act: “What I think of as real writing. . . involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.” For networked writing, that’s a pretty striking concept.
“Digital Maoism” for Digital Rhetoricians?