Swimming in the Waters of IP

Alex C. Nielsen's picture

In reviewing the posts for our first survey, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College (LINK), “This is Water,” which was shared widely in recent years across social media, comes to mind.  In his speech, Wallace argues that we travel through life often unaware of how the quotidian permeates our existence: that we travel, like fish, in the “waters” of life without appreciating its ubiquity and our place within it.

 

Similarly, many of our respondents explored a notion of Intellectual Property which permeates our daily practices to the point of near-invisibility - and in bringing these issues to light, we might become aware of the information environments which both control our own worldviews and mediate our identities as thinkers, learners, and media participants.  From Stephanie Vie’s views of memetic creation and the role of IP in our creation of cultural content, to Marc Ouellette’s exploration of our existence within a corporatized Internet of Things, I am struck by our respondents’ vision of IP as subsumed within all elements of information and knowledge creation.

 

Our posts over the last three weeks have covered a wide range of disciplines, ideologies, and epistemologies; and yet, I am struck by the core cultural assumption of the “reality” of Intellectual Property—the reification of a legal concept within our everyday practices and the theoretical assumptions we must necessarily make as teachers and scholars of the humanities.  Such an assumption may be necessary, but it also participates necessarily in a prevailing ideological paradigm driven by institutional interests and corporate cultures.

 

Of course, naturally, we must begin with an assumption of the legitimacy of IP in principle as educators; we have, after all, an obligation to our students and our communities to help them navigate the realities of authorship and ownership of texts—both those of their own creation and those with which they will engage as learners and scholars.

 

However, it may behoove us to contextualize our understanding of IP through the predominant ideologies of our time and the realities of our academic and cultural institutions.  It would likely prove trivial to offer a Marxian reading of IP which calls of the seizing of the “memes of production,” but I’m unsure of how such a lens, or such an opposition, to currently prevalent, established systems would be productive.

 

There are certainly models in place, and our scholars have noted many, which offer alternatives to the current IP paradigm - be it Open Source and Creative Commons approaches, or awareness and rejection of corporate interests driving the work we do pedagogically and socially as activists and citizens.  However, in championing such solutions, we must be aware of their affordances and limitations, as modeled by Dan Cox, Kim Gainer, and Chet Breaux in previous weeks.  We must explain the role of such approaches to students in the humanities and beyond not only as alternatives to the current paradigm, but as responses to the prevailing ideologies of capital and ownership-centric practice.

 

I am encouraged by the prevalence of moral and ethical arguments and the shared belief that the next frontier of IP will be the exploration of philosophies and ethics of ownership, be they personal, public, or commercial.

 

As Dan Cox noted in his response in Week 1, of special concern in learning spaces is the degree to which we are forcing our students to participate in systems of ownership in which they lack the voice of power to negotiate their own own IP.  Kim Gainer, similarly, sees pedagogical risks in coming years, noting that digital pedagogy might demand students to perform acts of learning and sharing which violate their agency as owners of their own intellectual products.

 

There are also concerns beyond the personal text that require careful consideration; Dan Richards does significant work in connecting the pedagogical and professional within the field of technical communication—and several of our contributors have noted the IP is centered in public spaces, in companies, and in public archives, making IP something of a battleground between the public and the private.

 

The truth is, IP strikes me as especially challenging to parse because it permeates all aspects of modern life. As Daniel Hocutt and Marc Ouellette demonstrate, we must view ourselves as agents of ownership not only of information, but of ourselves as information—always swimming in a sea of IP concerns and reminding ourselves and our students of this reality constantly:

“This is water.”