Tag Archives: Wikipedia

Fill in the blanks

Electrostatic discharge or weapon of the gods?  Lightning #3, Benjamin Stäudinger, Creative Commons license.
Electrostatic discharge or weapon of the gods? Lightning #3, Benjamin Stäudinger, Creative Commons license.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with another writer on Twitter; it was one of those fairly inconsequential, “let’s one-up each other with wisecracks” exchanges until something relatively innocuous happened that has stuck with me since.  He mentioned his dog, and I countered with a response that assumed the canine in question was a he, only to find it was in fact a she.  And I wondered why my brain had made that automatic leap.  Surely I was aware that dogs are manufactured in both male and female varieties, so why did I default to the presumption that this particular dog was a boy?  It reminded me, not in a good way, of the old riddle that starts with a father and son being involved in a car crash.  The father is killed instantly and the boy is critically injured.  He’s taken to the hospital where the doctor on call looks at him and remarks, “I can’t operate on him – he’s my son” and you are supposed to be left scratching your head at the impossibility of the situation – that is, if you’re living in 1952.  In 2013 you know right away that the doctor is the boy’s mother, or that the boy is the child of a same-sex couple.  So, while I wasn’t going to wrack myself with guilt about misjudging the gender of somebody’s dog, it did leave me with larger questions to ponder about how we perceive the world, and the assumptions we use to make the world make sense, if only for a moment.

Human beings have an aversion to ambiguity.  You see this often in the movies we flock to – stories that resolve their plots in a neat and tidy manner with a clear delineation of the good guys and the bad guys.  Nuance here is not a virtue.  Whereas the artier films, while revered by critics and intellectuals, leave larger audiences cold and dissatisfied, to the point of wanting their money back, as if for the investment of that piece of their lives, they feel entitled to a satisfying conclusion.  Ambiguity in these cases is the front door to the house absently left wide open after you’ve left for the day, an insect bite when you don’t have any lotion to put on it and you’re miles from the pharmacy, the missing puzzle piece you swear was in the box when you opened it.  We have an innate need, as Amanda Palmer reminds us, to connect the dots, and when we can’t, it bothers us.  So we provide our own answers, even if they are wildly incorrect.  At least they are answers, the blanks filled in to a satisfactory point for the time being.  Sometimes, those answers prove more creative than the truth, and it’s possible that the aversion to ambiguity is in fact one of the greatest wellsprings to storytelling.  A mystery demands examination and explanation.  Life is like a series of questions on an exam that you must complete regardless of whether or not you’ve studied.  Show your work for full credit.

Despite the willingness of a great majority of us to believe without question in supernatural beings directing both our collective and individual fates, that too is an example of needing an explanation for life’s mysteries, without, ironically, taking things on faith.  Yet even an atheist must, at times, marvel at the sense of imagination revealed in some of these extrapolations, like the richness of the mythology of ancient Greece spinning essentially from an attempt to figure out what lightning was and why it had a tendency to appear along with thunder.  If the Greeks had been okay with lightning just being there and had never bothered to question it, would we have had Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite and the great legends that gave us the Iliad, the Odyssey and so on?  Would said pantheon had arisen had they been able to look up lightning on Wikipedia (or the ancient Athenian stone tablet version of same) and seen that it was “a massive electrostatic discharge between electrically charged regions within clouds, or between a cloud and the Earth’s surface”?  Not sure about you, but Percy Jackson and the Electrostatic Discharge Thief isn’t quite as compelling a title.  There is magic lying hidden in the unknown, the unscientific, the story.

Assumptions in ambiguous situations can of course be wrong, and terribly so.  When we leap to conclusions about a group based on the traits of a few, we’re falling into the trap of the closed-minded, the ostrich with its head buried in the sand.  (Enough bloody human history has been written because of this tendency.)  The ideal approach to any unknown is to enter without preconceptions or expectations and let the details fill themselves in on their own.  But the instinct to grasp at conclusion, while occasionally troublesome, is part of what drives our curiosity about the world, our desperate need to understand why things are a certain way and not another way.  It is what makes us turn pages faster or even peek at the end to find out whether or not the butler did it.  And if the last page has been torn out, we’ll invent our own ending where it was the beautiful scheming mistress of the victim’s cousin’s former roommate.  As long as the mystery remains unresolved, someone will want to posit a solution.  And when the truth is unsatisfying, alternate interpretations will be suggested.  For nature abhors a vacuum.

So, back to the original premise:  why did I assume that the dog was male?  Because it fit the joke I was making, the story I was trying to tell in that place at that time.  It was my interpretation, my truth, in the moment, for the moment.  I recognize, in a most deliciously contradictory manner, that in examining the human relationship with ambiguity, I haven’t fully answered the question.  Instead, to paraphrase a line in The American President, I’ve kinda just left this thing hanging out there, for you to draw your own conclusions.  A propos, however; given the subject matter, it couldn’t really end any other way.  So, your turn.  Fill in the blank: _______________________

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Five things to hate about pop culture references in novels

Aren't those the Spice Girls?
Aren’t those the Spice Girls?

Whether by coincidence or not, I’ve come across a few articles recently about the wisdom (or folly) of including snippets of song lyrics in your novel.  The consensus seems to be that it’s a bad idea.  Allen Klein is dead but those who adhere to his mantra are still far and wide squeezing the vice of legality against the temples of well-meaning, starving scribes who seek to pay a tiny bit of homage to that epic anthem that helped get them through a rough patch of their lives, or, more cynically, want to drop in an overly familiar reference point that will elicit immediate emotional identification without putting in the effort to craft their own.

I get it.  It’s difficult, and even a bit scary, to risk originality in a self-referential culture where everything seems to link back to something else like a giant Wikipedia.  Going where no one has gone before is even more daunting given that every time you think you’re venturing down a fresh trail, you find someone else’s bootprints on it.  There are simply too many of us writers attempting to figure out the human experience.  It’s inevitable that more than a few will reach identical conclusions – sort of the thousand monkey/thousand typewriter argument featuring mildly more intelligent monkeys.

In one of my more wrenching experiences as a gestating writer, I lent a draft of the novel that preceded my current opus to my best friend for his feedback.  I can still recall with gut-churning anxiety the pregnant pause that hung between us one afternoon when I was forced to ask him the question that chills all writers’ bones as it spills across our lips:  “So, what did you think?”  I don’t think the word had entered the zeitgeist yet, but his reaction was the equivalent of “meh.”  I should point out here that my friend is not evil nor inconsiderate of others’ feelings.  But like the most ideal of companions he will never let you twist out in the wind with your pants down if he can help set you right.  And his most germane suggestion, while wounding to anyone convinced of one’s own genius as most beginners tend to be (and I certainly was back then), was not only invaluable, but continues to inform me when I compose fiction.  Paraphrased, it was simply this:

“Cut the pop culture references.”

Between the tears and the simmering hatred (which quickly subsided – we’re still besties, no worries folks), it was a cloud-parting Voice of James-Mason-as-God moment – and yes, Eddie Izzard fans, I am aware of the irony of using a doubly-meta pop culture reference to illustrate this point – that I could not believe I had not seen before.  And it reinforced the notion that you can’t write in a vacuum.  Because I never would have come to that conclusion at that time in my life, and yet it was exactly what I needed to move forward and become a better writer.  Whether it’s in using song lyrics, referencing TV shows or framing your character’s predicament in terms of how much it makes them feel like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, there are, to me, five main reasons why popular culture should be flung far from the pages of your book:

1.  It dates you

And not the good dinner-and-a-movie type either.  Pop culture’s shelf life is shorter than that of the mayonnaise you’ve been meaning to throw out of your fridge for the last few weeks.  Your bon mot about your hero’s wisecracking best friend being a combination of Sue Sylvester and Honey Boo Boo is going to go way sour long before your book even makes it to the shelves.  I remember a few years ago when Desperate Housewives premiered and every entertainment trade paper, magazine and website could not shut themselves up about it; every goddamned article about anything television-related found a way to work in some mention of Desperate Housewives and how it was a divinely inspired paradigm-shifting watershed point in the history of broadcast programming.  Ask yourself whether in 2013 and beyond, anyone is going to view a witty Desperate Housewives reference as anything but sad.  (Fair warning, Downton Abbey and Girls, it will happen to you too.)  You want your story to mean something to people for decades and generations to come – timeless is preferable to timely.

 2.  It’s meaningless unless your audience gets it

In the realm of stand-up comedy, one of the worst offenders for dropping obscure references is Dennis Miller, with the result that even the most well-read of his audiences will only laugh at his material a fifth of the time (of course, ever since he was reborn as a Dubya-lovin’ right-wing pom-pom waver, he’s been considerably less funny anyway).  A reference that a great number may not understand is not the most egregious violation of “good writer etiquette,” but a major beat should never hinge on it.  If, at the moment of her deepest anguish, your heroine is compelled to confess that she feels just like Bitsie Tulloch’s Dylan on Quarterlife, that’s awesome for the three people out there who remember that show and completely baffling for everyone else (i.e. 99.9999% of your readers), and thus any hope you may have harbored for soliciting empathy will be lost to the winds like the passengers and crew of Oceanic 815 (see what I did there?)

3.  It’s the last refuge of the unimaginative

Licking my wounds back then, I was compelled to ask myself why I was relying so much on what other people had created instead of forging ahead on my own.  Writing moments that resonate is a lot like method acting:  you have to look deep inside and wrench the truth screaming from your own gut, not rely on what you once heard or saw in something somebody else wrote.  And it’s an opportunity that you should never pass up, even if it is intimidating.  If you’re running down the field with no one in the way, why would you pass the ball to another guy for the final five yards?  You should never abdicate the chance to be creative.  If you’re writing about a group of characters who have bonded over their love of a favorite TV show, why not make up your own show?  I’ll get you started:  every show is about cops, doctors or lawyers, so have your guys quote lines from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D.  Okay, I’m staking a claim to that one and writing a pilot.  “FADE IN:  INT. COURTROOM – DAY – CLOSE on SERGEANT LAWYER as he contemplates a scalpel in his right hand and a semi-automatic pistol in his right.  CUE the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’”  Aw, crap, there’s Pete Townshend’s attorney on line one.

4.  It’s giving away free advertising

I’ll invoke the mighty Aaron Sorkin and repeat his maxim that a writer’s job is to captivate you for however long he’s asked for your attention.  And we writers are serious bear huggers.  We don’t want to let you go.  We want you firmly ensconced in our world, and not thinking about TV shows and songs that have nothing to do with the story we’re trying to relate.  We certainly don’t want you thinking about other products you might like to purchase.  Ever wonder why you don’t ever see commercials for handguns?  Because there are enough glowing closeups of barrels and triggers and bullets flying in sexy slow motion, and irrelevant exchanges of dialogue about muzzle velocities and stopping power in movies to do all the advertising gun manufacturers will ever need.  Walther probably owes a great chunk if not the lion’s share of the sales of its PPK to James Bond.  Sex and the City and chick lit do more for Manolo Blahnik shoes than ten years of paid ad campaigns ever would.  (If I can digress further into the cinemarr for a moment, one of the most vomit-inducing examples of this was the trailer for 10 Things I Hate About You – the ad trying to get people to see the movie, oh irony of ironies – which opened with a character saying “There’s a difference between like and love.  I mean, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.”  Spew.)  If that’s truly your wish, then why not just publish a novel full of empty pages stamped with “Your Ad Here”?  Or go to work writing advertising copy since it’s probably more up your alley.

5.  And it will probably cost you

So not only will you not be paid for name-dropping all these lovely corporations and pushing their merchandise, but you’re just as likely to get dinged by the same people for using their content without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.  This is an older article, but a good one from The Guardian where novelist Blake Morrison talks about how much it cost him to include fragments of popular song lyrics in his work.  Don’t these people have enough money already without needing more of yours?  And what’s worse, the money probably won’t even go to the artist who wrote the lyric in the first place – it’ll get split amongst various anonymous shareholders in the faceless publishing company that holds the rights to the song.  If you really, desperately, achingly want to have your character sing “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to the extent that you’re more than willing to cough up whatever atrocious fee you’re invoiced for, Richard Ashcroft isn’t getting a penny, as much as he may be tickled that you quoted his signature composition.  It’s going to whoever now controls ABKCO Music, the actual rights holder of that song.  The thought of that should turn your stomach enough to lead you in another direction.  Here’s a much better thought:  Even if you can’t write chord progressions, you can probably make up your own original lyrics.  Then one day, maybe someone will want to compose a song using those lyrics, and they can pay you for the privilege of doing so (or, conversely, you can sue their ass off when they steal it without acknowledging your authorship).

Having said all that, let’s make it about me again.  Does any of this apply to my novel?  Well, fortunately, when writing fantasy there’s less of a temptation to include popular culture since it makes no sense within the context of the story – or worse, pulls you out of the story when a grizzled medieval warrior makes anachronistic mention of the Seinfeld episode about Teri Hatcher’s boobs (argh!  Desperate Housewives reference!)  That isn’t to say you can’t or won’t slyly drop in semi-clever hints or vague references about the galaxy far, far closer to home.  I’ve been pretty good about steering clear of that, with two or three arcane exceptions (in extremely non-consequential passages) that I won’t mention except to say that when you do read the book you get +1 Internets for finding them.  I have, however, committed the faux pas of including allusions to songs as chapter titles.  Not in all of them, but enough to be potentially embarrassing and/or expensive.  So a quick trip to the rewrite shed is in order.  But better to do it now than to get too far down the road and receive a sternly worded letter from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. demanding recompense for what is, essentially, a throwaway gag that has no significant bearing on the greater narrative.

The moral?  Make your story one hundred percent yours, soup to nuts and credits to navy beans.  It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman:  cheaper, easier and more fulfilling too.

What’s the matter with Belarus?

Greenland is still not that big.

Like many of my fellow WordPressians, I find the country view statistics page fascinating.  It’s a bit surreal to see how wide your “reach” truly is (and a good reminder to not put anything on the web that you wouldn’t be comfortable carving in cement on your front doorstep).  Again, I’m not under any illusion that a lot of these hits are anything but accidental, as search engine terms meet in the conflux of wilderness that is the Internet.  But like any good geek, I’m a completist, and there’s an indescribably giddy sensation that results whenever I check this map and see a new country colored in.  The sad reality of the world, however, means that barring radical change, none of us will likely ever be able to complete the set.

Glaring exceptions like the over 1 billion people locked behind the Great Firewall of China continue to stand out. North Korea, where despots would rather build useless rockets than let their people watch cats dance on YouTube.  Closed internet systems like the ones operating in Cuba and Burma. Iran’s Supreme Council of Virtual Space (ironic given that there are, according to Wikipedia, over 700,000 Iranian blogs.)  The big annoying exception there in Eastern Europe, Belarus, where no website is allowed in country unless it has registered with their Ministry of Information first (can’t believe I forgot to send the form in again!)  Afghanistan, or huge portions of Africa that are too poor to feed themselves or too consumed by tribal hatred to live in peace, let alone gain anything as First World-privileged as regular web access, are a reminder that this freedom that I and millions like me have to share our words is so very precious, and so terrifyingly fleeting – we need to guard it with our lives and celebrate it at every opportunity.  And not only that, we owe it to the rest of humanity that what we are sharing is something worthwhile – worth whatever amount of time we’ve so humbly asked for your attention.  Squandering a post on a mindless, misspelled profanity-laced rant about some band you’ve never liked is not only a waste of your own intellect and time, but it’s a virtual slap in the face to millions of people who would love to be able to read what’s out there and can’t because of poverty, oppression or a hundred other reasons that would never even occur to us.  We owe it to them to always try to raise our game, to elevate the conversation and push things forward.

There is nothing as singularly powerful or resilient in the universe as an idea, and those ideas can spring from the humblest beginnings; an idle thought on a spring morning can one day come to change the world.  On a blog, we don’t have to answer to an editor or fit a predetermined viewpoint based on an advertiser’s demands.  We are ideas in their purest form, and participants in a grand tradition dating back to the first time one homo habilis showed another how to use a bone to smash open a piece of fruit (or, depending on your beliefs, to when Eve suggested to Adam that he take a bite of that fruit).  So let’s make our ideas good ones.

This is your brain on digital media

Arianna Huffington addresses the Toronto Digital Media Summit, photo by yours truly sitting four rows back.

Johnny Mnemonic features a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves as a “futuristic” (I put the quotes around futuristic because many of the movie’s concepts have grown quite out-of-date) courier whose packages of data are uploaded directly into his brain.  Eager to take on a high-paying job, Reeves’ character agrees to carry more information than his brain can handle.  I find myself in a similar situation after two days at Toronto’s 2012 Digital Media Summit, having assimilated the insights of dozens of expert speakers and panellists, including representatives from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft, on what this whole concept means and where they think it might be going.  The key word there is “think,” because digital media is progressing too fast for the majority of us to simply keep up, let alone predict.  Today’s phenomenon is tomorrow’s relic, and what seems like a ludicrous concept this morning might be a smash success this afternoon.  The statistics are cosmic in their scope:  2 billion people on the planet access the Internet as part of their daily lives.  52 billion pages indexed on Google, 1.3 million articles on Wikipedia, 100,000 years’ worth of YouTube video shared on Facebook in 2011 alone.  Futurist Michael Tchong, one of the featured speakers this past weekend, refers to it as an ubertrend, which he defines as “a major movement, pattern or wave emerging in the American lifestyle that ripples through society leaving many subtrends in its wake.”  Although opinions on how to harness these ripples are numerous, one fact that seems to be shared is the idea that all of this is fuelled by the human need for connection – and kinship.

Associated with that need for connection is the humorous acronym FOMO, that Tchong suggests is behind much of the social media explosion – Fear Of Missing Out.  When so much flies by at lightspeed, billions of times every nanosecond, we are terrified that we might not see all of it, whether it be the latest updates from our friends and family, infinite funny cat videos or actual breaking news.  Texting and driving, Tchong says, happens because some of us have decided that being in touch is more important than being alive.  Perhaps, if one can venture down the garden path of existentialism, for many people being in touch is being alive; this idea of ambient awareness that I have discussed before.  But it is far more than simply wanting to know what’s going on – it’s wanting to know.  Arianna Huffington, who gave the closing keynote address yesterday, referred to her early book The Fourth Instinct, which suggests that beyond the usual human needs for survival, sex and power, there is a hunger for spiritual fulfillment and meaning; to answer that fundamental question of Life, The Universe and Everything (yes, Douglas Adams fans, I know it’s 42, but stick with me here).  Digital media is a sublime leap towards the realization of this answer, because it brings people together in a grand unified search.  This is why I put no stock in the philosophy of every man for himself; the mere existence of the ubertrend under examination here suggests that we are inclined towards a sense of community, of belonging, and that the reason why the technology of information has been the fastest to progress (instead of jetpacks) is because it reflects what we want most as a species gifted with intellectual curiosity.

And as expected, many fear the undiscovered country it is leading us towards.  Misguided approaches to regulate digital media, such as SOPA, ACTA or the Vic Toews nonsense going on in Canada, are the last refuge of an old guard longing for the simplicity of the era when everything could be explained as God’s will.  Ironically, that fear comes from the very same place as the curiosity that drives the democratic exchange of ideas as exemplified by digital media.  When information rested only in the hands of a few, those few were respected and admired as learned leaders.  The more the truth spreads, the less those people are needed – the influence they have built for themselves, out of this same, basic longing for community, diminishes as others cease to listen to them, until they are finally left alone, and forgotten.

So what then, in a nutshell, could you say is the biggest takeaway from my massive data intake of the last two days?  Certainly enough thought to chew on for the conceivable future (and more than a few blog posts I’m sure), but above all else, reinforcement of the notion that a global community, a global family, is not just a pipe dream of a few starry-eyed prognosticators, it is a place we are going whether we like it or not.  Our existence as individuals in a population of 7 billion mirrors our tiny earth adrift in an incomprehensibly vast universe, and just as each of us longs to find meaning as part of a family, our entire race hungers for meaning within the endless dark.  Why are we here?  Maybe Cousin Phil has an idea – check his status update.  Connection, knowing that we are not alone, is tremendously liberating – it reassures and emboldens us to take the next step.  Host Rob Braide of Galaxie Radio kicked off the conference by invoking the analogy of a drunk who drops his keys on a dark street and wanders to the safety of a street light instead of looking for them straight away.  The connection provided by digital media is that light.  And the more light the better.

Fun with words: Update your dictionary

Photograph by Henry Lim.

There are too many fascinating words in English that don’t get used very often.  Our vocabulary tends to be limited to the scope of our daily lives, and the mundane exchanges of forgettable pleasantry that pass for typical conversation.  If the Inuit have a hundred different words for snow, English has a billion permutations of how to talk about snow in a workplace elevator.  Still, our language is full of tricks and tropes that allow us to use these same old words in exciting new ways.  You’ve probably used many of these without realizing what you were doing (or writing) at the time.  But much as a famous technology company would assure you that “there’s an app for that,” in English, there’s a word for that as well.  These are some of my favourites, and I hope they shall find greater use in the future:

  • Portmanteau – From French for “carry your coat,” this is a word that originates as the combination of two separate words in order to describe something new, like how combining smoke and fog gives you smog.  Some popular examples include breathalyzer, jazzercise, soundscape, televangelist, bromance, and, regrettably, bootylicious.
  • Mondegreen – Refer to my previous post on misheard lyrics – this is the term for those.  It was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in an essay in Harper’s Magazine in 1954, referring to a 17th Century poem called “The Bonny Earl O’Moray,” in which a stanza reads:  “They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, and laid him on the green.”  Wright heard the latter phrase as “And Lady Mondegreen.”  The key to a true mondegreen, according to Wright, is that the misinterpretation must improve upon the original; hence, my father’s (in)famous misreading of Hall & Oates’ “The woman is wild, ooh” as “Poobulasquaooh” probably doesn’t count.  (See also:  “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”)
  • Anacoluthon – Familiar, if not immediately, to any man in trouble with his wife, this is the term for a phrase where the grammar is broken.  “It was just a – I didn’t mean to – I’m so sorry.”
  • Apophasia – Politicians love this one, for it lets them slag their opponents without seeming like they’re doing so on purpose.  This is when you say you’re not going to mention something but end up insinuating it anyway.  Ronald Reagan used it to great effect in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale when he said after being challenged that he was too old to be President, “I am not going to make age an issue of this campaign.  I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  Or “You know, it’s not true, all that stuff they say about Phil being a lying, sleazy, unprincipled, back-stabbing, philanderous, greedy old opportunistic horse thief.”
  • Mumpsimus – Anyone who insists on saying “nucular” is guilty of this grammatical offense – the term for a habit adhered to obstinately, no matter how many times evidence shows it to be in error.  It comes from a story about a monk who mispronounced part of the Latin Eucharist and refused to change it to the correct version because he’d been doing it his own way for forty years.
  • Paraprosdokian – I just learned this one yesterday and I’ve saved the best for last.  This is where the second part of a sentence unexpectedly causes you to reinterpret the first part.  You could almost call it the Groucho Marx, as he was a master of it:  “I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening – unfortunately, this wasn’t it.”  Or the other famous quote, usually interpreted to be said by or about Winston Churchill depending on where you read it:  “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

There you have it – six fun terms to expand your vocabulary – not that they’re likely to help when you’re stuck in that elevator on a snowy day.  Perhaps “anacoluthon” might spring to mind the next time you find yourself struggling for words in a difficult situation.  You could even try to relax the tension of the moment by pointing it out to your sparring partner.  I disavow myself of all legal responsibility therefor should you then get summarily punched in the face.

P.S. Thanks to the Great Encyclopedia of Earthly Knowledge for its customary assistance.

Swimming against history

January 18 Wikipedia Screenshot.

Today, multiple sites across the Internet, including WordPress and the Great Encyclopedia of Earthly Knowledge (G.E.E.K., or Wikipedia) are blacking themselves out to protest two pieces of legislation moving through the United States Congress – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), which, if passed, could potentially turn back the clock on the evolution of the Internet.  These two acts have been essentially written by lobbyists from the motion picture and recording industries, who, perhaps upset that their latest ADD blockbuster grossed only $199 million instead of $208 million, or that their hot new Auto-Tuned tone-deaf breast flaunter’s album hit #2 on the charts instead of #1, are going after any website that does anything with copyrighted content – you could find yourself subject to a lawsuit for uploading a YouTube video of your toddler shaking his booty to Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies.”  There are lots of good articles out there summarizing the danger posed by SOPA and PIPA, and I’m not going to rehash them here.  What I can’t help thinking as I follow this story is that it all seems so terribly familiar.

Knowledge is freedom and power, which is why oppressive regimes since the dawn of civilization have been trying to restrict it or stamp it out.  Without venturing too far down the road of hyperbole, it’s hard not to see this latest strike at the commons as a new link in a long chain leading back to the burning of the Library of Alexandria.  But for a second, just for the sake of balance, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the ones pushing this legislation.  They are creators of original work who are feeling that their rights are being infringed upon.  Fair enough.  As a writer myself, I can empathize with that to a degree.  I have a novel I am ready to submit for publication, and were I to discover that someone else had stolen it and was making money off it instead of me, I would probably be livid.  But it’s one thing to go after a guy selling millions of illegal bootleg copies of Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol, and SOPA and PIPA don’t stop there.  I’ve written here about the evolution of remix culture and how it is exemplified by the public reaction to shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  Remix culture isn’t there to take money from content creators – it embraces their work and applies individual creativity to form something brand new, for the sake of joy, not profit.  And SOPA and PIPA take direct aim at remix culture like an H-bomb directed at some microbes on a hill.

The White House has announced it will not sign these bills in their current form.  Even if the President were to veto them outright, this issue isn’t going away.  Yet listening to the complaints of the MPAA and the RIAA over copyright infringement remind one of the late Jack Valenti in the early 80’s likening the VCR to the Boston Strangler.  The movie business survived the advent of Beta and VHS – it grew larger and more powerful, and gave us DVD’s and Blu-rays for our trouble.  Home theatre is a thriving industry now.  And the record companies survived mixtapes and Napster.  What happened was that the doors were thrown open to newcomers of hitherto undiscovered talent who didn’t have to supplicate to the old guard to let their creative voices be heard by millions of people.  We are seeing the ongoing democratization of creation, where what you can do is more important than who you know, and the old barriers to sharing your work are dropping away.  SOPA and PIPA are an attempt to metaphorically burn the library – but even if they pass, even if they do set us back, evolution can’t be stopped.  Creativity always finds a way – and the beliefs of the SOPA and PIPA-pushers to the contrary, the world usually doesn’t come to an end.

Ever onwards.