***This essay was written by CityLIS student Anna Gialdini in April 2019. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.***
The infosphere – and one of its predominant media, the internet – have brought about
new modes and attitudes for sharing information. The social, economic and political
implications and repercussions in society are momentous. One of the ways in which the
infosphere is changing communication concerns our ideas around authorship: what it is, how we relate to it, where we research it, and how it influences the value we give to information.
This essay looks at these aspects with the aim to cast light upon, specifically, how western
societies have transitioned from the predominance of the Romantic idea of the “single
author” to much more fluid forms of authorship in the infosphere. Historical Examples of “Shared” Authorship in European literature, a two-centuries-old idea of the author still influences the collective imagination; the author, a single (usually white, often male) individual identified as a creative force and associated with ideas of originality, inspiration, and solipsist work is an enduring inheritance of the Romantic period (Bennett 2004). Philosophers Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes were the first, in the 20th century, to challenge this formulaic, individualised persona of the author. In particular, in an essay titled “La mort de l’auteur” (“The death of the author”), Barthes (1977; originally published 1967) challenged the single author paradigm by emphasising the number of forces that intervene when a creative work is produced. Foucault, on his part, highlighted how “a ‘deep’ motive, a ‘creative’ power, or a ‘design’,” all designations of the Romantic author, “are only a projection” (Foucault 1998, 213;1 originally given as a lecture 1969). This kind of individualistic idea is, as we will see below, coming to an end.
First, however, it is worth considering how, even historically, there have
been significant exceptions. Shared authorship is by no means a new concept or a phenomenon uniquely attached to the infosphere. The idea of a collaborative effort leading to (often narrative) forms of information dates back at least 3,000 years, when the figure of the aoidos (ἀοιδός, literally “singer”, but effectively an oral poet and storyteller) represented an important element in Greek society. Some of the first major narrative works of Western culture, namely the Iliad and the Odissey, are thought to be the fruit of the work of aoidoi, not necessarily working collaboratively in the manner we mean it today, but certainly constantly re-working materials with each performance (Foley 2010). This process is, as it is easy to imagine, also associated with a more fluid form of the text, which is said to have circulated exclusively in oral forms until the 6th century BC, when the Iliad and the Odissey were first put to paper (or rather, papyrus) at the orders of Peisistratos, ruler of Athens, as the story goes (Davison 1955). To this
day, oral epic is still a living tradition in Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro: the new challenge is the preservation of this fascinating artistic practice (Dushi 2014).
It is quite interesting to observe that both to late antique scholars (starting in the 6th
century CE) and to modern archaeologists and philologists, it still seemed much more natural to attribute these fundamental works to a single author, i.e. Homer (West 1999). Pioneers such as Heinrich Schliemann dedicated their life to his myth (Easton 1998), and nowadays, it is still hotly debated whether a Homer actually existed and what forms his authorship may have actually taken (Graziosi 2002).In any case, oral poetry can be considered of a cornerstone of ancient (often low literacy) societies not just in Europe, but across the world (Couch 1989), often, interestingly, characterised by fluid forms of the text but not exempt from a desire to see the author as an individual genius or even a “seer” (Finnegan 1977). In the major monotheist religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), religious texts are also not recognised as the result of an “individual” effort – they are the product of a God channelling his message through multiple human beings. This has interesting implications for the history of information: in the Ottoman Empire, for instance, printing remained prohibited well into the 20th century, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk brought about his progressive revolution (Carter 1943): before then, it was considered undignified – if not sacrilegious – for the word of God to be so easily reproduced; the work of many (human) mediums (calligraphers, illuminators, etc.) was needed for the text with no (human) authors (Robinson 1993).
Sometimes shared authorship owes to the accidents of fate. In the manuscript
transmission of ancient authors, it was common during the Middle Ages for extensive
commentaries by later scholars to accompany the main text; often, such commentaries,
known as glosses, sat at the margins of the page or were inserted as interlinear content.
Reproduction through scribal work was not without mistake: and thus, occasionally glosses were copied as if they were part of the main text (Clemens and Graham 2007, 39), which created a corrupted version of it: effectively, unintentional, shared authorship, as the mistake was reproduced from copy to copy (Hanna et al. 2005, 364).
Shared and collaborative authorship has existed for a long time, and has taken various
forms. Historically, the value humankind has attached to these has not necessarily been any less than that of single authorship; however, in certain areas of life we have been associating authorship with authenticity for centuries, especially where adulteration constituted a potential damage to health or finances, such as in pharmaceutical knowledge (Johns 2008); but how has this changed in the age of the infosphere?
Contemporary Forms of Information Production
The communication of written texts was never necessarily a straightforward process;
today, however, the process is even less linear. Through technology, we now have ways to
“author” texts that only 50 years ago would have been unthinkable: we laugh at the absurd
dialogues created by AI (Artificial Intelligence), but they force us to confront our ideas on
authorship: we still strongly believe that in them, there lies no actual creativity, no intelligence (Dethlefs, Schoene and Benoit 2018). These are prerogatives of the human mind. Some of the same bias is also directed at human, but non-traditional, forms of
authorship. Fanfiction is a good example: as a re-elaboration of narrative information, it
consists, essentially, of using previously-created characters altering the narrative lines.
Fanfiction authors are massively different from the Romantic author challenged by Foucault and Barthes: they are what R. Lyle Skains (2019) calls “demotic” authors; the author is “one of us”, equally admired by their audience and dismissed by many others. At the same time, in some research fields multiple, shared authorship, with no clear boundaries between individual responsibilities, is the norm: in STEM research, and especially in certain fields such as astrophysics, collaboration is more attested than the humanities and social sciences (Parish, Boyack, and Ioannidis 2018).
“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”
It is particularly interesting to consider how authorship and trust in authorship have
been changing in the last couple generations, on account of the nature of communication
today: in the “infosphere”, more than ever our lives are shaped by the constant exchange of
information, at a faster pace than ever, on which our sociability and economy depend (Floridi 2016). While the internet does not constitute all of the infosphere, online communication represents perhaps the most drastic change. In this complex information environment, it is now easier, cheaper, and faster than ever to reach audiences, and in a way therefore more difficult to evaluate authorship and distinguish between authoritative and non-authoritative information. Different social groupsdisplay different approaches to evaluating and using information they find online. Many internet users tend to assign cognitive authority to texts without necessarily investigating their authorship, perhaps because of the difficulty inherent to that (Cromwell and Fritch 2002).
Much of the uncertainty concerns identity. In computer-mediated communication
(CMC), anonymity is often the norm, with both positive and negative connotations and
consequences: positive for privacy, autonomy (i.e. the opportunity to experiment with new
behaviours and even identities without repercussions); negative for group polarisation and
bystander apathy (Christopherson 2007). In many ways, anonymity can constitute a threat: the Online Harms White Paper released in April 2019 identifies five main dangers associated with online activities (illegal content and activities; terrorist propaganda; antidemocratic disinformation; gang promotion on social media; harassment), all of which are enhanced and encouraged by the anonymity the internet can provide (HR Government 2019, 5).
Uncertain online identities have become commonplace in popular culture: a famous
New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner turned internet meme shows two dogs in an office, one explaining to the other that “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (Fleishman 2000). Another meme mirrors the same sentiment of mistrust in information sourced on the internet: it used to be a common adage that “there are no girls on the internet”. Since the New Yorker cartoon, the situation has escalated, as it is easy to observe from the discussion surrounding online reviews of purchases: the worry of economists and small business owners is met with knowing resignation from consumers (Smithers 2019).
Authorship in the Infosphere and Trust
The systems that have supported the creation of knowledge for the last three centuries
are no longer sacred. The “death of expertise” phenomenon highlighted by Tom Nichols
(2017) has roots in the same mistrust in traditional media and paths to education: a complex phenomenon grounded in social, cultural, and economic factors. In the age of “post-truth politics”, traditional forms of authorship are less effective than emotional forms of communication; in the meantime, in some fields of research, such as psychology, peer-review and the very scientific method are undergoing a re-discussion of their own, as the idea of reproducibility in the social sciences is being eroded (Dominus 2017).
Anyone can be an author; but that does not mean that the information they create will
be met with trust by their audience – an essential element for information to be passed on.
Research has shown, for instance, how trust is a crucial element for effective knowledgesharing in the workplace (Abrams et al. 2003). On the internet, two opposite attitudes seem to prevail: many look at any sort of online information with suspicion, as the processes that offer some sort of guarantee in other forms of publication, such as editorship or peer review, are mostly absent. Others, often less
“digitally savvy” over-50s, tend to believe that since it is online (i.e., in a way, “published”),
then information must be accurate and true (Gottfried and Grieco 2018); they also find the
internet to be a source of trustworthy information in opposition to established forms of
An attitude of mistrust in “established” forms of knowledge (those traditionally
achieved through academic education especially) is on the rise, and partly grounded in
cultural politics. As early as the 1990s, libertarians started laying claims to the some aspects of the infosphere and most notably the internet: known as “cyberlibertarianism”, the phenomenon nowadays is of interest to information and political scientists and philosophers alike. Despite prejudices, the internet has not led to less social interaction: quite the contrary (Katz, Rice and Aspden 2001). Cyberlibertarians have found comfort, self-determination, and freedom from “earthly constraints” (Turkle 1995) and governmental “influence” in interaction the cyberspace. According to Mihaela Kelemen and Warren Smith (2001, 371),”cyberlibertarian rhetoric has risen to prominence by capitalizing upon two ideas which lie at the heart of modern civilization: the power of technology and the power of the individual”: virtual communities not only allow the individual much wider freedom than traditional communities, but also give space to constantly reshape one’s identity.
While it is easier to find and retrieve information of any type than it ever was at any
point of human life (which is simultaneously true of academic research articles and of
conspiracy theories), the infosphere has exposed the inequality of the world in which we live.In encouraging many to challenge it, it has brought information at the centre of class
struggles. The study by Abrams et al. mentioned above revealed that “[t]wo forms of
interpersonal trust—trust in a person’s competence and in a person’s benevolence—enable
effective knowledge creation and sharing” (Abrams et al. 2003, 64). Even when the former is preserved, the latter is broken, as it is assumed that those in a position of power will use
knowledge to maintain it.
Controlling information has always been a powerful tool in the hands of dominating
classes. One of the groundbreaking theories for which French philosopher Michel Foucault is known is that of the relationship between knowledge and power – a relationship with a bidirectional nature, as those who are in power control what knowledge is created and how it is shared; and in turn, knowledge is used to reinforce one’s position, cultural and social capital, and overall, power (Foucault 1983).
This awareness makes it so that even those in the same line of work may be brought
to conflict; and one or both factions can use knowledge ownership and authorship as a sign of “belonging” to a specific social-professional groups, especially in environments that are traditionally hierarchical. A study of professional relationships and trust in academic
education amongst nurses found that nursing assistants (with no degree) had little trust in
graduate nurses, whom they saw as unwilling to “work hard” – which brought about
workplace tensions (Domajnko and Pahor 2010); another highlighted the negative effects of mistrust that health policy-makers and health researchers direct at each other (Gollust et al. 2017).
Authorship and ownership
Another very common idea surrounding authorship is that of “ownership”. Like single
authorship has not been as fixed a paradigm as one may think, neither is the equivalence
between authorship and some sort of property rights as rooted in historical evidence as we
tend to believe: controlling the publishing process was, in fact, rather difficult for authors until the modern period. In his Retractationes, St. Augustine complained about an enthusiastic acquaintance sharing (thus, “publishing”) his unfinished work that he had sent him for feedback, when it felt that it was not ready for an audience (Retractationes II.15, in Wilson 2018, 151); copyright was born in the early modern period – 16th century in Italy (Richardson 1999); 18th century in Britain, the United States, France, and Germany (Baldwin 2014) – to protect the revenue of printers, not authors.
The infosphere has loosened the control over ownership that has been more or less
established, albeit hotly debated, for the last three centuries – both by introducing new
models such as Open Access in academia (Suber 2012) and Creative Commons in the arts
(Lessig 2003), and by creating a culture of re-use of content. In the past, copyright laws
aimed at stopping those who tried to make a profit out of others’ authored work; nowadays
re-use is meant and understood as an act of creation and creativity (or even devotion to an
artist, such as in the case of fanfiction), rather than theft. Fan art re-uses content – especially digital content – regularly, often also with the explicit goal of freeing art from the restrictions of corporate mentality. This happens, for instance, in cinema (Lothian 2009), music (Tanaka, Tokui and Momeni 2005), and documentary making (Larsen and Nærland 2010). The devaluation of authorship (in economic and, often, cultural terms) is used as an argument by those against more freedom in the infosphere, although the current market hands power to corporations rather than creators, to the detriment of diversity in the arts, a compelling argument for a re-discussion of copyright law (MacMillan 2015, 441).
Reproduction could once be tricky: when Aldus Manutius, perhaps the most famous
printer of the early modern era, became famous, Lyonnese printers tried to imitate his
anchor-and-dolphin device and sell counterfeit editions under his name; when Aldus himself provided an accurate example of the design to deter them, he instead ended up encouraging them (Davies 1995, 49). In the last decades of the 20th century, however, humankind suddenly gained access to tools permitting fast, cheap reproduction – and that has only been becoming faster and cheaper in recent years. In this sense, as “original” and “copy” lose their original meaning (Davis 1995), authorship, too, is inevitably changing.
Authorship as a concept and in its forms is not just changing in online environments.
In the arts, new, often bold forms of “shared” authorship are more and more common:
immersive forms of art and documentation remove the audience from a purely receiving,
passive position (Robinson 2015), with new technologies such as Virtual Reality providing a new experience of art (Dunne and ZU-UK 2018).
Authorship is also changing intentionally, at the hands of authors. In writing, authors
writing under collective pseudonyms are often also copyright activists, calling for a revision (or abolition) of copyright law: Wu Ming Foundation, for instance, a successful group of Italian authors, have had their work published by famous publishing houses (including Einaudi) but also made their books available for download for free on their website (Wu Ming Foundation, n.d.), relinquishing not just their ownership, but also their identity, in favour of “transindividual authorship” and “copyleft” (Thoburn 2011); an established group, many components of Wu Ming Foundation have also published under the name Luther Blissett, an open name for their more fluid embodiments, consisting of hundreds of individuals at one point (Tayler 2009).
In the age of the infosphere, authorship is changing in complex ways, and so is the
value (economic and otherwise) that we attach to it. We are witnessing at the same time blind trust in the internet and the rejection of traditional forms of expertise; artists challenging copyright and authors working collaboratively, with very mixed reactions from their audiences; and new publication modes. Shared, collaborative, communal forms of authorship have existed for centuries: while cultural and legal movements such as single authorship and copyright laws brought about specific paradigms by which creativity was understood between the 18th and early 20th century, the infosphere is now giving artists and audiences the opportunity to re-discuss such paradigms. In some ways, we have circled back to aiodoi culture – to fluid, choral authorship.
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