Book Review of Doctorow’s Context

BOOK REVIEW OF CONTEXT BY CORY DOCTOROW

I picked up Doctorow’s book Context at the library. It was in the “New and Notable” section and I picked it up on a whim. In the week I’ve had this book I’ve discovered Dotorow’s fiction titles and have started Little Brother as well. Context  is a compilation of several blog articles and rhetorical pieces Doctorow has composed on the topics of digital rights, creativity, and corporate monopolies on digital content. This book is the second compilation of articles with Content being his first.

There are several points on the topic of content that Doctorow makes in this book. Here are a few of my favorite:

COPYRIGHT LAW IS WRITTEN IN A WAY THAT PUNISHES THE FAN AND GIVES FREEDOM TO THE HATER/SATIRIST.
The point here is that it is possible to write a satire about copy written content, say Harry Potter. But you are under no circumstances allowed to write content that expands on the story and shows a reverence for and appreciation of the content without expressed written consent of the original creator of the content. There are obvious arguments about the original creator of the content’s rights, but Doctorw’s point is the strange observation that we can lampoon, make fun of, or even express a tirade about someone’s creativity, but we can’t appreciate it and honor it by supplementing it.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY IS NOT A GOOD WAY TO LOOK AT INTELLECTUAL CONTENT.
We can’t treat thoughts the same way we treat physical property. Ideas flow from one person to another. How may times have you had your mind jumpstarted by someone conveying their ideas? How often do we have our epiphanies when we are interacting with other people and their ideas? Ideas grow as they are shared, critiqued, collaborated upon, and remixed into new ideas. There is no way to regulate the exchange of these ideas without slowing the exchange to the pace of the dark ages.

FILTERING THE INTERNET AND RESTRICTING ACCESS FOR STUDENTS SENDS THE UNINTENTIONAL MESSAGE THTA PRIVACY DOESN’T MATTER.
His argument is a controversial one that resonates with a lot of arguments that I’ve heard from teachers recently. What good is the internet and the free exchange of information, if we can’t have this experience in the school setting? There is no way to prepare students for their digital future if they cannot explore in this digital world.

He points out that students find ways around the filters and preventative measures so they can access the “whole internet”. Then he flips this on it’s head with the simple question, Would we want them all to be compliant and incapable of thinking for themselves? His argument is for completely “unfiltered” internet. The argument, unfortunately does nothing to address the federal regulations (FERPA and CIPA) that leave districts needing the federal dollars but it is a good statement of how it should be.

He then goes into a discussion about a lesson plan where students rate the websites they find over the year regarding their subject vocabulary words. They do a comparative search and data analysis regarding the relevance of the top 50 results and identify how many sites are blocked. This would create a valuable experience for students to explore the internet critically and analyze data as well as an argument for improving the system.

PUBLISHERS NEED TO RECOGNIZE THAT THEY WILL ATTRACT MORE CUSTOMERS BY ALLOWING END USERS OF DIGITAL CONTENT TO SHARE /LOAN THEIR MATERIAL TO THEIR FRIENDS.
Consider how you learned about you favorite author or your favorite band. Most of the time the books and albums that you truly loved were given to you. You exchange the content with friends and learn what you really like. If my cousin hadn’t left a Pink Floyd tape with me when he visited from Oregon when I was 13, I probably wouldn’t have appreciated them enough to buy another album. (Any Floyd fan knows you need the entire album to truly appreciate their work). Within two years of that summer, I owned every Pink Floyd album released. What does the future hold for ebooks and completely digital content if the “owner” cannot share, loan, or trade the content with friends? What about the “Mix Tape?!” sure there’s nostalgia to that cultural time warp, but I learned about a lot of music through these samples of other peoples collections.

I find myself often agreeing with Doctorow and can appreciate his arguments coming from the position of a fan/consumer of content/person rather than a publisher or copyright owner. Even when I disagree, his arguments contain a razor sharp honesty and are packaged in 4 pages or less that they are easily understood but leave little room for rebuttal. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in producing or consuming content in this century.

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