The latest issue of Harper’s features an excellent roundtable discussion on how video games might be used to teach writing. Though most of it will be familiar to anyone who has followed recent debates about “serious games,” it is worth reading. Among the discussants, Raph Koster stood out as particularly insighful, and his comments about new forms of literacy really struck home:
What we mean by literacy is changing. If you look at books like The Da Vinci Code, a lot of what it does is appropriation–of a painting, or a historical text–and annotation, with this whole cottage industry of providing the footnotes: the TV specials, the books. … Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy.
Appropriation and annotation (or, to use the popular vernacular, remix and tagging) have been at the center of my interests for a while now, but it’s nice to see them being discussed in a high-profile forum like Harper’s.
Koster’s comments echo the views of my friend Dan Perkel, who has been investigating “copy and paste literacy” on MySpace. Many people focus on the “remix culture” of appropriation and annotation as if it is something new–but these practices have been around since the dawn of culture. What is new, as Koster and Dan indicate, is the general rise in people’s ability to recognize and engage in these practices: their literacy.
The discussion in Harper’s ends with a kind of lament that a population highly literate in appropriation and annotation will squeeze out the “great artist” by flooding our culture with lesser-quality niche productions. I agree with that conclusion but not the explanation. The era of the great artist will come to an end, not because of overcrowded cultural markets, but because a literate population will recognize appropriation and annotation at the heart of all creative production, and it will reject the myths of the solitary genius and the original creative act that have dominated for the last few centuries. The great artist will disappear, but there will continue to be great art.