MP3s, Plagiarism, and the Future of Knowledge

Downloading copyright music from file sharing sites is prompting much hand wringing among moral guardians. With good reason. Taking someone’s property without paying for it is wrong, plain and simple, in every civilization.

Apologists accept but excuse the charge. Some cite youth’s perennial rebellion against authority. Others cite peer pressure: everyone does it and it’s cool. Still others say it’s actually good for the music business.

More interesting, some explain file sharing, along with college plagiarism, as forms of self-expression. According to “Rolling Stone” editor Joe Levy, avid music downloaders are into making their own mix: “Kids view it as an interactive and creative act.” Numerous recent surveys report college students routinely lift entire blocks of paragraphs off the Web and weave them into term papers, apparently unaware of any ethical violation. They’ve grown up taking and repurposing whatever they like from the Internet’s vast free resources.

Ironically, the kids are right. Putting rich content within one’s grasp was the very reason the scientific community created the Internet. Today’s file sharers and plagiarizers are practicing skills that will be essential for those who pursue careers among the ever-growing ranks of knowledge workers in post-industrial economies.

Surely we can all admit the lion’s share of our everyday tasks involve defining, extracting and arranging, aka sampling and mixing, materials gathered from diverse sources, both internal and external. But the new knowledge environment, however prominent it becomes in our lives, has downsides that merit attention.

Online texts do not have a book’s covers. Quite the contrary, online texts are almost always open to links, comments, discussions and repurposing. Authors don’t get the last word; nor do readers. No one gets closure because, online, no text can claim to be the whole story, the definitive version, the complete in itself expression that commands one’s attention on its own. Authority dissipates in the land of hypertext.

Nor do online texts have order. The early iteration of Yahoo organized Web sites into a fixed hierarchal schema of nested topics, displaying search results this way by default (as the Dewey decimal system does for library books). Today, online texts aren’t ordered, but ranked by network popularity. It’s now more common to see sites with more inbound links listed higher in search engine results.

Texts online don’t have a past. And without a past they have no future, either. Most knowledge was created in the framework of the belief humans are destined for some heroic, heavenly or rational attainment. Ancient, religious and scientific traditions expressed what people variously saw as the purpose of our being.

The new knowledge environment pays little attention to timelines and continuous narratives of human endeavor. Instead, it chunks up human experience into multiple, cross-referenced nuggets dispersed in oceanic cyberspace. Stripped of our distinctively human purposes, the new knowledge environment is what George Trow famously called “the context of no context.”

Literary critic Sven Birkerts sums up the terrain as “non-author centric, nonhierarchal, open to entrance and manipulation, collaborative, significantly unedited; and in its totality, no matter how powerful and sophisticated our search engines and interfaces become, it will be overwhelming.”

The new knowledge terrain has upsides, of course. Along an imaginative dimension this environment favors those who can apprehend the interconnectedness of things, create bridges and connections, spark associations and create the éclat of montage. The left-brain crowd plays this new terrain with parallelism and matrices, macrocosm and microcosm, overview and insets. Social network analysis, network topology and other new perspectives are being framed to help us understand the “natural” dynamics of this new environment. The leading edge of university research adds the dimension of time to this understanding.

Still, knowledge untethered, without a past and future anchored in the human project, is impoverished. Asking which comes first, chicken or egg, is easily answered if one asks which becomes which. The answer is clear: the chicken does not become the egg. The egg always becomes the chicken. When humans do not become, we just spin in place.

Music downloading and college plagiarism are wrong. Explaining behavior in terms of the new knowledge environment norms does not excuse the perpetrators. But there may be greater danger in the new knowledge environment than nurturing a generation of petty thieves and cheaters. We may lose our way altogether.

Related reading