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Reviewing CW2K: Subtext: The "Control" of Writing

One major subtext of the conference clustered around concerns with "control"-as in the issue of protecting copyrighted writing or software in the age of quick and easy downloads. Clearly, the "Science and Literature Forum" stood out as the session where this debate was most vigorously undertaken. But signs of it appeared in other sessions as well. In "Agency, Desire, and Boundary Transgression: Building Community in the Multi-Verses of Internet FanFiction," for instance, the presenters critically puzzled over fanfic writers' use of other writers' characters, plots, and themes in the (re)creation of new and alternative situations that are more directly, provocatively, and psychically satisfying for fanfic writers. Who is in control of what material? And what are the limits of using others' work, others' writing?

Other presenters explored different boundaries, different troublings of "control" in the writing process. Nick Montfort's "Computer Co-Authors For Fiction" urged the blurring of boundaries between the author as human and the author as computer in his creation and demonstration of software and digital interfaces that allow "man" and "machine" to write a story together; and Tim McGee's "An Apologia for Presentation Software as Composing Tool with a Caution Added" aptly demonstrated how such interfaces, available in some PowerPoint templates, may actually short-circuit the development of students' learning (and thinking) processes. In both of these cases, we are confronted with questions about who is in "control" of the writing process: human or machine? For many, this issue will seem laden with potential – both good and bad.

Indeed, speaking of problems, what about the proliferation of Web sites that espouse hate-filled and ethically troubling positions, such as racism and homophobia? One entire panel, "Pushing the Limits of the Pedagogical Arts of the Contact Zone in the Wired Writing Classroom," took up this issue, arguing that it might be better to confront this material in our classrooms as opposed to trying to control our students' exposure to it. Of course, where one draws the line between "confront" and "control" in a pedagogical situation brings us to even more complex issues about the "control" of information.

Perhaps the most striking explication of how Internet and computer technologies can be used to problematize our sense or notion of "control" over information came in Miguel de Icaza's provocative keynote address during the concluding conference banquet. As a champion and innovator in the realm of developing and providing free software, de Icaza suggested that attempts to copyright information, such as that contained in software for word processing (as only one of many possible examples), amounts to a form of betrayal in that individuals cannot share information and must perforce purchase separate copies. The result, for de Icaza, is corporate enrichment at the price of knowledge enslavement. Moreover, de Icaza questioned the legitimacy of any copyright of information, holding true instead to the mantra of many cyber gurus: information wants to be free.

As I listened to de Icaza, my mind linked back to all of the other discussions and panels in which a similar "information string" was being threaded, unthreaded, and rewoven: many of us, consciously or not, had been puzzling over the proliferation of information in the digital age-and what that means for the traditional "author," the "reader," and the "text." Cogitating here, I couldn't help but wonder if one of the fundamental questions that we as computer/writing specialists are increasingly having to grapple with is, does information desire to be free? And, if so, what does that mean for authorial control? And more broadly, what does it mean for the coherence we have traditionally assigned to the role of the "author," the authorizer of knowledge and expression? Who are we as authors and readers in the electronic age? Who are we as digital texts?

I wouldn't be surprised at all if these questions become not just a subtext but a central theme of future Computers and Writing conferences.

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