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McKenzie Wark

Open Culture

Photo © Ara Koopelian, CC-BYMcKenzie Wark is a professor of cultural and media studies at the New School in New York, and author of A Hacker Manifesto, published by Harvard University Press. He chose to post the draft of his next book, GAM3R 7H30RY, on a site designed in coordination with the Institute for the Future of the Book, an organization that seeks to explore, understand and influence the shift of intellectual discourse from printed page to networked screen.

GAM3R 7H30RY is described as an experimental networked book, and allows readers to post feedback online using windows that are arranged like note cards on the page. The entire online work is currently CC licensed under the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5.

Creative Commons contacted Wark to discuss this project, his choice of licensing, and his thoughts on the future of print publishing.

Creative Commons: Can you give us a bit of background about the project? How and why did you start it?

McKenzie Wark: GAM3R 7H30RY grew out of my last book, A Hacker Manifesto, which, incidentally, was about intellectual property. I wanted for the next book to find some way of sharing the book with readers before it reached its final versions. A lot of authors do blogs and things either before they write a book or after it comes out. I wanted to share the actual text of the book as a work in progress, so readers could contribute to it mid way.

The usual blogware just wouldn’t do for that. Neither would a PDF, which provides no adequate way to link comments back to points in the text. And that god awful comments function in MS Word is just the bane of my existence. So we needed a new tool.

So in collaboration with the Institute for the Future of the Book, we created a new kind of interface that would present a longish text in a useable way online, and enable comments, both about specific paragraphs and more generally about the project.

The idea was to get both gamers and academics to come together around this idea of what I call gamer theory – which is that computer games are a new dominant cultural form, and hence call for new kinds of critical concepts. It went up in May 2006 and produced a steady trickle of really useful comments and dialogue. I wrote the title GAM3R 7H30RY, partly so I would have a unique search string, and I’ve found very interesting and useful stuff on other people’s websites as well.

CC: How did you decide to use a Creative Commons license for this project?

MW: It’s a question of goodwill. Users of mainstream services like MySpace are now very nervous about ownership questions – and rightly so. Who owns what you contribute to somebody else’s website? So just as a matter of principle I wanted everyone to feel like they could have “ownership” of GAM3R 7H30RY, where noncommercial purposes are involved. The CC license is now widely understood as a key to that goodwill gesture, at least in the new media circles where this book was likely to travel.

What the media corporations refuse to countenance is the fact that communication has always been in part a commodity economy, but in part also a gift economy. They want to use intellectual property law and the technical crippling of media technologies – what I call Digital Restrictions Management – to shut down the gift part of the communication cycle. It’s crippleware for the whole culture. Having written against this in A Hacker Manifesto, I wanted to make damn sure I wasn’t contributing to it. Hence the CC license for the web expression of the project.

CC: What behavior did the license enable that traditional all-rights-reserved copyright wouldn’t? Were there any unexpected benefits due to the license?

MW: I think it allows readers to contribute their thoughts and ideas to the book without feeling like they are just doing my job for me. People are waking up to the fact that the so-called participatory side of the blogosphere is really just another version of outsourcing. Not only do we have to put up with the ads in commercial online media, we have to produce the stuff ourselves now. You write it, but they own it.

So in its own small way, GAM3R 7H30RY was about making it clear that there is also a gift economy side to participatory media. I give my book away, in its not-quite finished state, for free to anyone who wants to read it or share it, as a way of encouraging people to help improve it. And they are! I have some terrific material from readers that will go into the finished book.

I also intend that site to stay up in one form or another so people can use it in teaching. I think the CC license should make people feel comfortable about doing that too.

CC: Are there any plans to translate the site/project into print? If so, why? How might a print version differ from the online one?

MW: I’m in talks with my publisher, Harvard University Press, about this right now. It’s new territory for them, so there’s a learning curve. This is a major and respected academic press, so they don’t do things without thinking them through.

One thing we would have to work out is a way to license the print book in a way that doesn’t prevent the online conversation from continuing. We still need university presses, or something like them. We still need their expertise in filtering and editing manuscripts, managing a backlist and publicizing works. And all that has to be paid for.

So the question is: how can the gift economy of the online “book” and the printed book with a cover price work together? I think the practice of how you do it is actually quite clear and no big problem. It’s just a question of getting the legal conventions to catch up.

Creative Commons is a big help there. But in reality I’m doing with GAM3R 7H30RY pretty much what I did with A Hacker Manifesto and my other books: I’m giving away ideas in lots of forms that are transitory and fragmentary, which persuades some readers that they would like to respond to that by buying an actual book – a well designed, well edited, well bound object that will look great on the coffee table, that you can hand to a friend, that you can store on your shelf. In other words printed books still have lots of functions. Not to mention being easier to read.

CC: If you are planning a print version, do you predict (or have you had) any trouble with traditional print publishers over licensing or other transferring issues?

MW: When I did A Hacker Manifesto, I had to assign all rights to Harvard University Press. I think they understood from the get go that a lot of my ideas will circulate freely on the Internet, but that I would not do anything that would hurt their efforts to benefit from the rights for which they paid me.

That book did well enough that they are prepared to at least think about a different licensing arrangement this time for GAM3R 7H30RY (should they accept it). What I’m saying to them is that I can assign to them the rights that they can actually make a living from, but that we leave out of the contract what I would call the “fantasy rights” that are usually in these things.

What got me interested in all this in the first place was the ridiculous state of academic journal contracts, where you sort of assign all these mythical powers in all territories, ‘til the end of time. Rights that nobody in a million years could ever figure out how to profit from, but that some lawyer with no clue about how the reading-writing relationship actually works dreamt up.

Maybe that’s a big part of the problem: Lawyers just don‘t read like normal people. They read and write with the meter running! This warps their judgment about the subtle nature of the intertwining of the gift and commodity economy in culture.

CC: If the project does go into print, will you be posting a CC-licensed version of the final version?

MW: I hope so – it depends, as Laurence Sterne wrote in Tristram Shandy, whether “I can strike a tolerable bargain with my book seller.” I have some bargaining power, but not as much as Lawrence Lessig does! So we’ll see.

CC: How did this experience differ from your normal writing process? Was it a positive or negative experience, overall?

MW: I was asked by Bob Stein, the moving force behind the Institute for the Future of the Book, if I would have liked to have been in dialogue with readers when I wrote A Hacker Manifesto. And I said: “hell no!” That was a sitting alone on the mountaintop kind of book. Writing does not always benefit from being in instant contact with its intended audience. You lose the capacity to surprise that audience, and to really challenge its beliefs in a sustained way.

But I have a lot of respect for Bob and I liked the team he has put together at the Institute, so I thought: maybe for the next book. So I was very happy when they agreed to design and build a brand new, purpose-built website for GAM3R 7H30RY. Jesse Wilbur built it, after long conversations with me and Ben Vershbow, also from the Institute.

At first I was very nervous about readers coming in to the process at this mid-point in the writing process. Writing is a pretty solitary art, and particularly early on you can be a bit sensitive to how people respond. But generally, readers extended this huge amount of goodwill to me and to the project. I’m really thankful for that.

So now I not only have the official reader’s reports commissioned by Harvard University Press. I also have this unofficial “peer review” material from the website. It’s peer review in a different sense. Some people call it peer-to-peer review. People have to prove their “credentials” in what they write on the site, rather than simply have it taken for granted that because you are professor such-and-such your opinion should matter.

I had terrific official reader’s reports from Harvard – they’re very good at that process. But like most writers I’ve also had terribly ignorant and lazy official reader’s reports, presumably from supposedly respectable sources. Peer review doesn’t always work as it should. I think what we’re experimenting with here is not something that can replace peer review but a sort of check and balance. A sort of collaborative filtering.

CC: What are your feelings about the networked book- will authors take to it? And do you think authors can remain commercially viable while networking and CC-licensing their work, prior to print publication?

MW: To take the last first: one of my all time favorite books is Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. There’s a lovely edition for sale from Zone Books. Today its Amazon rank is about 18,000 – but I’ve seen it as high as 5,000. This edition has been in print for twelve years.

You can also get the whole text free online. In fact there are three whole translations you can download. In the ’60s Debord was editor of a journal called Internationale Situationiste. All of it is freely available now in translation.

The Situationists were pioneers in alternative licensing. The only problem was they didn’t have access to a good license that would allow noncommercial circulation but also bar unauthorized commercial exploitation. There were some terrible pirate editions of their stuff. Their solution to a bad Italian commercial edition was to go to the publisher and trash their office. There has to be a better way of doing things than that.

But in short: the moral of the story is that if you give a nice enough gift to potential readers, they return the gift by buying your stuff. Debord’s works are now classics. Constantly reprinted, a nice little earner for his widow. But it is because of this huge gift of stuff to readers that readers – generations of them – return the favor by buying the works.

Culture has always worked like that. The real question to ask is the reverse: how is anyone except the media conglomerates going to make a living when they have commodified culture to within an inch of its life? How are they even going to make a living off it? It’s never been done before in the history of the world.

On the networked book: this also is something that is not as new as it looks. Literature has always been networked. As the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler and his followers argue, there would be no novel without a postal system. The book as artifact and the book as vector, or relation between points, always go together.

What the networked book needs, however, is new tools, new conventions, new economies. That’s where GAM3R 7H30RY and experiments like it are interesting. It’s about reinventing the connective tissue between books, across space and time, and between different kinds of reader. It’s about making an end-run around monopolies of knowledge and culture. Creative Commons is a key part of that process. But so too are new media tools, and perhaps even more importantly, new cultural, social, and literary conventions. We need to relearn how to read and write.

Posted 11 October 2006