Thursday, May 26

The Plagiosphere

Rise of the Plagiosphere, a windy but compellling essay on technology, intellectual property, and plagiarism from MIT's Tech Review.
The 1960s gave us, among other mind-altering ideas, a revolutionary new metaphor for our physical and chemical surroundings: the biosphere. But an even more momentous change is coming. Emerging technologies are causing a shift in our mental ecology, one that will turn our culture into the plagiosphere, a closing frontier of ideas. ...

What NASA did to our conception of the planet, Web-based technologies are beginning to do to our understanding of our written thoughts. We look at our ideas with less wonder, and with a greater sense that others have already noted what we're seeing for the first time. The plagiosphere is arising from three movements: Web indexing, text matching, and paraphrase detection.

... Two years ago I heard a speech by a New Jersey electronic librarian who had become an antiplagiarism specialist and consultant. He observed that comparison programs were so thorough that they often flagged chance similarities between student papers and other documents. Consider, then, that Turnitin's spiders are adding 40 million pages from the public Web, plus 40,000 student papers, each day. Meanwhile Google plans to scan millions of library books--including many still under copyright--for its Print database. The number of coincidental parallelisms between the various things that people write is bound to rise steadily. A third technology will add yet more capacity to find similarities in writing. Artificial-intelligence researchers at MIT and other universities are developing techniques for identifying nonverbatim similarity between documents to make possible the detection of nonverbatim plagiarism. While the investigators may have in mind only cases of brazen paraphrase, a program of this kind can multiply the number of parallel passages severalfold. Some universities are encouraging students to precheck their papers and drafts against the emerging plagiosphere. Perhaps publications will soon routinely screen submissions. The problem here is that while such rigorous and robust policing will no doubt reduce cheating, it may also give writers a sense of futility. The concept of the biosphere exposed our environmental fragility; the emergence of the plagiosphere perhaps represents our textual impasse. Copernicus may have deprived us of our centrality in the cosmos, and Darwin of our uniqueness in the biosphere, but at least they left us the illusion of the originality of our words. Soon that, too, will be gone.

I was just thinking the same thing the other day! Should have patented the topic, I guess. Reminds me of a book I'm reading, The Victorian Internet, about the invention of the elegraph. When Samuel Morse got excited about the idea, he had never read the "prior art" and so wound up recapitulating a lot of the errors that had been made in the past before settling on his ticker tape solution. Ignorance can be useful. On the other hand, given the same premise and a shared set of reasoning tools, people will often conceive the same set of possibilities and go through the same process of elimination. You don't need to posit the Jungian collective unconscious to account for it.

On the other hand, I think there's also a parallel sphere, the mixosphere. Take "The Grey Album," a remix of Jay-Z's "The Black Album" with samples from the Beatles' "The White Album." This is a more classical sense of originality, a process by which we recompose and reuse the building blocks that history and culture have provided us to suit our present-day needs. Ovid rewrote the Greek myths he was interested in, mostly from the sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll point of view, cribbed his account of the creation of the world from Lucretius, and joked around with two very restrictive verse forms, the elegaic couplet and the dactylic hexameter. His creative process was not all that unlike the creative process of Rahsan Roland Kirk. You can't play jazz until you've mastered your scales, and Mary had a Little Lamb and Fur Elise.

In classical rhetoric, the idea of invention and discovery has little to do with creation and innovation and everything to do with finding a piece of prior art--the sayings of the philosophers and poets and historians, says, or something out of your own experience--that you can adapt to present circumstances. It's called heuristics, and the Tribe Called Quest used it when they snapped up two bars of "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" as the basis for "Can I Kick It?" Code-writers do it all the time when they snag an open source module developed for one purpose and stick it into a doodad of another kind.

The meaning of a poem is always another poem, as Harold Bloom liked to say. In fact, this whole plagiosphere thing is just a rehash of "The Anxiety of Influence"! Someone oughta sue.

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