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Open Cultures

4 March 2014

It was a few months ago that I first came across Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art commencement speech which he delivered at the Philadelphia University for the Arts in 2012. Gaiman is one of my favourite authors and at that time what I found most beautiful was his heartfelt yet simple call for aspiring artists to appropriate for themselves the purposefulness of their creations while still keeping in mind a deep conviction that self-satisfaction as much as self doubt are the ultimate stases to truly great art. Today I serendipitously rediscovered the speech again and noticed a part that hadn’t seemed too relevant at the time, almost at the end of the presentation, where Gaiman discusses the changing world of disseminating creative content. Although mostly it is about art, clearly the thoughts are applicable to many other cultural realms beyond art:

 We’re in a transitional world right now, if you’re in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing. The models by which creators got their work out into the world and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that — they’re all changing. I’ve talked to people at the top of the food chain, in publishing, in book selling, in music, in all those areas, and no one knows what the landscape will look like two years from now, let alone a decade away. The distribution channel that people had built over the last century or so are in flux; for print, for visual artists, for musicians, for creative people of all kinds. Which is on the one hand intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we’re-supposed-tos of how you get your work seen and what you do then, they’re breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen.

As I mentioned in a previous post, some authors strive to point out that there is a difference between the Open Access movement  as an anarchic form of subverting traditional scholarly dissemination channels, and Open Access as a more modest move to help facilitate a transition to accessible and effective forms of communication. But I think Gaiman’s speech encapsulates that although we might analytically separate these two ideas, in fact they are intrinsically intertwined. In the light of Gaiman’s words, taking the creation of scholarly knowledge as one more form of creative action among others (and why should we not?), OA becomes part of a much wider cultural movement that results from the deep changes that communication technologies have been subject to in the last two decades.

Gaiman’s stance is a mix of both nervousness and excitement in his call to use new technological channels; they will be the future, whether we like it or not, but it is up to the creative creator to harness their powers. In contrast, looking back to the pre-history of the Open Access movement, Steve Harnad  — one of it’s foundational figures of OA – wrote in his Subversive Proposal in relation to self-archiving (what Harnard would himself later baptize as ‘Green’ OA in other Internet forums):

Simply archive your PREprints (on which you have
not ceded copyright to anyone) in a public ftp archive. Let EVERYONE
(or a critical mass) do that. And then nature will take its course.
(Everyone will, quite naturally, swap the reprint for the preprint at
the moment of acceptance for publication, and before paper publishers
can mobilize to do anything about it, the battle will be lost, and they
will be faced with an ultimatum: either re-tool NOW, so that you
recover your real costs and a fair return by some means other than
interposing a price-tag between [esoteric, no-market] papers and their
intended readership, or others will step in and do it instead of you.)

This IS subversive. Direct appeals (whether to authors or to
publishers) to “publish electronically” are not subversive; they have
simply proven hopelessly slow. And at this rate (esoteric) paper
publishers will be able to successfully prolong the status quo for well
into the forseeable future — to the eternal disadvantage of learned
inquiry itself, which is the one that has been suffering most from this
absurd Faustian bargain for the centuries that paper was the esoteric
author’s only existing expedient for PUBLICation at all.

Here we see two very different stances to Open dissemination technologies; Gaiman the modern user who is nevertheless frank about a certain uneasiness regarding what unexpected changes may come even as he is excited by the possibilities; Harnad the revolutionary visionary who is pushing for a radical changing and leveling of the landscape. Of course, both are admissible positions, and both have their useful place in the constellation of the OA movement. In my own empirical research I certainly have encountered mixes of both, and I sometimes myself don’t know where I stand as an academic. This is actually what is making my research exciting right now; as Gaiman says and as Harnad wants, things are likely to change very fast in the coming years.

There is a third position, that of what may seem like ‘conservative.’ scholars and content publishers that are recalcitrant concerning what the new changes proposed might affect. But that is a long topic for another post altogether.


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