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Plagiarism's future

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Monday, May 8, 2006

I’d be lying if I said I cared about the latest plagiarism scandal, in which young Ivy Leaguer Kaavya Viswanathan stole sections of other books to turn out a chick-lit opus for a fiction-packaging firm. In the particular case of Viswanathan, the hysterical reaction is probably augmented by schadenfreude at a student from one of the “elite” schools being exposed as a fraud—it seems to shore up the suspicion that the Ivy League itself is huge cultural fraud. (Elite schools have nothing to do with merit in the sense of raw talent or ability, and everything to do with conserving perceived superiority for an already established overclass. In other words it is fundamentally a network for keeping “the wrong sort” out of the upper echelons of the academy at large, and in many cases, the media and politics. The structure of American society is loose enough to thwart that network and let exceptionally ambitious people circumvent the Ivy League screen; the less maniacally driven, less relentlessly self-promoting, however are more likely to be filtered out regardless of ability.)


In general, I think these plagiarism “scandals” are culture’s collective and reactionary way of resisting the way intellectual property is evolving under pressure of digitalization. Cultural productions are becoming more collective, at the industrial level (the way many hands are required to make big budget films) and the grass-roots level (the way knowledge and ability are pooled in cross-linked blogs). Economist Tyler Cowen lists a few observations about contemporary plagiarism here, noting that information technology (the digitalization of media, the usefulness of cut-and-paste functionality, vast searchable archives, ready access to diverse influential texts) makes plagiarism more tempting to commit and easier to catch at the same time. In Cowen’s opinion the ready access to the words of so many intellectual influences will make for more citations and possibly the diminishing of the aura of individual originality. The unmistakeably overt nature of influence will change perceptions of the individual genius. When information was more easily hoarded, pre-digitization, plagiarism was a viable aesthetic strategy—hidden influence could be passed off or received as originality as long as one’s borrowings could be concealed or were obscure. For example, Once artists had to travel to some aesthetic center like Rome or Paris to imbibe the influences of past artists, to discover techniques or approaches or concepts to work into their own efforts; this journey would theoretically give them an advantage over other artists, and it would be left to art historians to discover the pattern of influence decades later. And similarly, pop bands used to be able to exploit the obscuirity of their influences to come across as original—neo-garage bands in the 1980s come to mind. Now everyone has the same source material available to them at a few mouse clicks. In the publishing world of the 18th century, authors routinely borrowed portions of books they had the ingenuity to acquire and translate for miscellanies, and pirates simply took foreign books and changed their titles and claimed them for their own. When the work in question is ephemeral, it’s easier to get away with; when the audience doesn’t care who wrote something—which is generally the case, unless there is some prestige that might accrue to the reader from being familar with a specific author—then there is not much disincentive (beyond suits filed by aggreived authors you’ve stolen from) to slapping any old name on it. Thus developing a cult of personality is probably more important for a writer than turning out consistently good work.


Cowen suggests that the concept of originality will shift from a capacity to invention to a talent for filtering—editors who choose judiciously what to compile and present, and in what manner to present it—how to intigrate it in ingenious ways—will possibly garner the prestige once reserved for artists. For sure a good information filters are useful and more necessary than ever. But will anyone care to be known as a really good filter? Could these theoretical celebrity editors have as much incentive for developing a cult of personality as writers have? One could argue that remixing DJs who acquire a reputation exemplify this, though the way they recombine things can be seen as traditionally creative. Perhaps the radio station I mentioned in a previous post offers a better example of the celebrities of the future. The station’s random playlist was misperceived as the expression of an audacious guiding genius known as “the Guru” who acquired a coterie of adoring fans who used their own creativity to supply the non-existent logic for the sequences of songs the computer generated. Is creativity—once you strip away the red herring of originality—always a matter of an audience’s being able to intuit the logic for the choices it infers?

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