Saturday, November 12, 2011

Embroidered Digital Commons: Nodes

The Women Writers’ Network (WWN) is a node at which vectors of knowledge about Womens’ writing cluster at different sites across Europe and through the newly built Women Writers database. At Belgrade University in March 2011, and Chawton House Library in November 2011, this network of women and men has read and stitched the term ‘Nodes’ as part of the Embroidered Digital Commons. This draft paper reflects on the nodal aspects of the WWN in relation to the Digital Commons.

Network topologies with their nodes and vectors can be used to map communication networks of people and knowledge, and their systems of production and distribution. In 1964 Paul Baran’s distributed network diagram was used to envisage the many:many communications network of the Internet. This distributed network is more robust than a centralized network, as communication can be re-routed through any nodes to reach its destination. In this way the distributed network is an egalitarian model of utopian freedom (for users to be producers), and a more efficient model for sustainable communications.

The definition of 'Nodes' describes a nodal structure of networked communication through located and virtual sites through which ideas travel and coalesce. This language of social networks is a paradigm shift in how we value, archive and communicate knowledge. Rethinking our network topologies provides the opportunity to map women’s knowledge and writing throughout a range of formats (letters, textiles, texts) through personal and informal networks as well as professional and academic structures. Analysis of the Internet provides new vocabularies and ways of visualizing and thinking about informal distribution and reception.

The ethos of the Digital Commons operates within the distributed digital network of the Internet, which enables all forms of texts to be made public, along with their html or encoded computer languages. This includes different rescensions of a text, letters, fragments, notational knowledge, and multiple translations, which together build an understanding of the scope of ideas in a text. Meaning is not fixed, but emerges through an understanding of the many contexts for production and reception. In the digital distributed network images and texts are freely circulated, changing the nature of the ownership and copyright, and challenging the notion of the ‘original’ or ‘true’ document.

The Digital Commons focuses on the potential of the distributed network to create new levels of access and availability for sharing and researching data (in this case literature). This ethos of open-access is a challenge to closed forms of knowledge such as JStor, and closed processes such as blind-peer review. Instead quality is ensured by open and frank discussion, and measured by the number of links and references or citations to a text. Economic recuperation is through unique printed format, and not ubiquitous online access. Instead of attempting to enforce copyright, perhaps accurate meta-data tagging is more essential for tracing the provenance of digital material. Only then can attribution and moral rights be respected and traced.

The Women Writers Network gathers at particular physical nodes to share their research. Through presentations and discussions new connections are made between ideas and influences in womens’ writing across geographies and over time. This intense social and intellectual activity informs the structure of the online database located on a server in the Netherlands, which can be accessed remotely throughout the world. The database is another node in the WWNetwork which traces connections of influence and reception between women writers throughout Europe; compiling a glimpse of the extent of women’s social networks through knowledge and literature over centuries.

In keeping with the spirit of the Digital Commons: the WWN Database is both an archive of existing knowledge, and a research tool to discover old knowledge with the potential to reveal new ways of thinking. Significantly the database is both physical and virtual as it has emerged from, and is maintained by, a robust social network of academics and researchers across Europe.

The networked web of communication is traditionally perceived to be 'female gendered', in contrast to the more linear hierarchies of patriarchal society. The distributed and decentralized networks are perhaps more akin to the way in which women have been able to circulate their written forms of knowledge through social circles excluded from centralized publishing structures.

Today the characteristics of women’s work form the backbone of the new flexible worker in the cultural industries and knowledge economy. Digital networks enable fast speed computer processing and communications fully exploited by global capital. At the heart of the crisis of outsourcing and deskilling is the changing nature of Intellectual Property. Whilst the distributed network of the Digital Commons supports collective and collaborative writing and making, whilst the old forms of copyright are rapidly becoming redundant.

In fact, copyright has often been a poor way of protecting the rights of women artists, crafters and writers. This is mostly due to the huge administrative infrastructure required to collect small amounts of money, which are heavily top-sliced before meager sums reach the final author or maker.

Ann Bartow, in her paper ‘Fair Use and the Fairer Sex’ (2006) examines the gendered aspects of copyright law. Historically women have not been recognized in property law, and so even if they owned the copyright of their work, they were unable to enter into contracts to be renumerated for the publishing of their work. Instead any financial gain was kept by the (male) publishers, or passed onto a husband or male relative (Bartow, 2006, p571). As Astrid Kulsdom outlined in her presentation, Ouida (Maria Louise Ramée, 1839-1908) suffered from the lack of synchronized international copyright law. But as a woman it is likely that she had no legal power to enforce her moral rights, or rights of attribution, let alone a ‘property right’ over the translation of her novels form English into Dutch.

Most interestingly, Bartow discusses the problems of copyright for computer software and quilting (p573) partly due to the forms of collective production. She states: “As a general rule, copyright does not easily accommodate collaborative, creative, online endeavours.” Where authorship is complex and shifting, and the work emerging and changing over time, without a fixed author and finished product, copyright has no meaning.

Bartow highlights blogging gender statistics which reveal that slightly more women than men create blogs, a form of writing easy to publish and difficult to copyright. Continuing her analogy of blogging and patchwork, she writes:

“In some respects, group blogs offer a text-based homology to quilting” (p573).

Both blogging and patchwork are decentralized networks for both amateur and professional knowledge sharing. The focused creative project provides a structure for collective making and discourse.

As a text, the Embroidered Digital Commons is a collective form of close-reading. Here embroidery is enacted as reading, not instead of reading. And the content is both metaphorical and technical. The poetic nature of the text requires close reading, re-reading, and discussion. This is not a diversion from public life, but a designation of public space both for making and critical dialogue.

Embroidery can also be an aid to close-listening. Where the hand and is occupied with aesthetics and spatial logistics, leaving the brain to concentrate on processing equally complex information and ideas.

Ann Bartow (2006). Fair Use and the Fairer Sex: Gender, Feminism, and Copyright Law. In: Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, Vol 14:3.

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