the value of voice 02.03.2006, 9:00 AM
posted by jesse wilbur
We were discussing some of the core ideas that circulate in the background of the Institute and flow in and around the projects we work on—Sophie, next\text, Thinking Out Loud—and how they contrast with Wikipedia (and other open-content systems). We seem obsessed with Wikipedia, I know, but it presents us with so many points to contrast with traditional styles of authorship and authority. Normally we'd make a case for Wikipedia, the quality of content derived from mass input, and the philosophical benefits of openness. Now though, I'd like to step back just a little ways and make a case for the value of voice.
A beautiful sunset by curiouskiwi. One individual's viewpoint.
Presumably the proliferation of blogs and self-publishing indicates that the cultural value of voice is not in any danger of being swallowed by collaborative mass publishing. On the other hand, the momentum surrounding open content and automatic recombination is discernibly mounting to challenge the author's historically valued perch.
I just want to note that voice is not the same as authority. We've written about the crossover between authorship and authority here, here, and here. But what we talked about yesterday was not authority—rather, it was a discussion about the different ethos that a work has when it is imbued with a recognizable voice.
Whether the devices employed are thematic, formal, or linguistic, the individual crafts a work that is centripetal, drawing together in your mind even if the content is wide-ranging. This is the voice, the persona that enlivens pages of text with feeling. At an emotional level, the voice is the invisible part of the work that we identify and connect with. At a higher level, voice is the natural result of the work an author has put effort into researching and collating the information.
Open systems naturally struggle to develop the singular voice of highly authored work. An open system's progress relies on rules to manage the continual process of integrating content written by different contributors. This gives open works a mechanical sensibility, which works best with fact-based writing and a neutral point of view. Wikipedia, as a product, has a high median standard for quality. But that quality is derived at the expense of distinctive voices.
This is not to say that Wikipedia is without voice. I think most people would recognize a Wikipedia article (or, really, any encyclopedia article) by its broad brush strokes and purposeful disengagement with the subject matter. And this is the fundamental point of divide. An individual's work is in intimate dialogue with the subject matter and the reader. The voice is the unique personality in the work.
Both approaches are important, and we at the Institute hope to navigate the territory between them by helping authors create texts equipped for openness, by exploring boundaries of authorship, and by enabling discourse between authors and audiences in a virtuous circle. We encourage openness, and we like it. But we cannot underestimate the enduring value of individual voice in the infinite digital space.
KF on February 3, 2006 2:34 PM:
This is a really important set of issues, Jesse. Many traditional literary intellectuals have a tendency toward panic (or, alternately, dismissiveness) in the face of new publishing technologies in no small part because of the perceived loss of individual authority in the network. But I'd argue that only part of this is actually about authority, per se -- the part that says "but *anybody* could have written this! How do we know it's true?" Part of it, on the other hand, is about an ingrained individualism that pays a kind of lipservice to collaboration and debate, while holding fast to the idea that only individually authored texts are of value. What goes unspoken in much of this panic (or dismissiveness) is a kind of sublimation of fears of the loss of individuality within more ostensibly acceptable ideas about the loss of authority.
It's very American of us, no? The opposition between my individually-produced (and therefore sound) ideas and the murkiness of ideas produced by the collective seems to me to reinscribe all kinds of Cold War panic about dehumanization and stagnation in communal systems of production. But as you suggest here, and as traditional literary intellectuals seem often to miss, one way that the individual will continue to matter in new networked models of publishing is precisely in the area of voice. The ideas that a group of authors (and readers) work out together may be collective, but the expression of those ideas can still remain vibrant, retaining all the compelling elements of the individual while adding in the energies of the group.
K.G. Schneider on February 3, 2006 3:05 PM:
We often talk about Wikipedia as a pot of information and that alone, but we forget that the written human record nourishes the soul as well as the brain. Your post acutely observes one of the characteristics of Wikipedia: the voice that emerges from the anonymous first person plural. In that last sentence, I worked hard not to preface "voice" with an adjective, but you do make me ponder how for me, the pleasures of research include the joy of new voices. The "voice" of Wikipedia stands in intriguing contrast even as it parallels the rise of the blog, with its emphasis on the idiosyncratic narrator. A multi-person blog, such as if:book, is still a collection of distinct voices.
Daniel Anderson on February 3, 2006 4:07 PM:
I like the idea of sorting through the collective and individual voices as they weave together in communal spaces. No doubt shared postings do take on a more uniform voice as they play out in collective space, even while retaining individual tones--and this process seem double-edged, to me. The shared ways of speaking bind the group and make conversation possible, but then there is the assimilation worry--voices too far out of the mix will not make it in or understand what is being said.
One other observation: a recent techrhet e-mail list discussion touched on similar problems with social software when it comes to customization and the ability to shape the social space. At this point, the activity and reflection about voice may reflect the current status of these tools--they are heavily focused on text and, so far, we are looking there for voice. This makes sense given the mode of communication in blogs today, but may only capture part of the concern. Sites like flickr, also, only get us half-way (or really not anywhere at all); they still don't allow writers to shape the space. So, the authority issues bound up with the technology and its compositional options should be folded into the considerations of intertexual voices.
Jesse Wilbur on February 3, 2006 7:32 PM:
Daniel, I definitely agree with you. Flickr in particular is missing out on the benefit that comes from personalization - what's more personal that actual glimpses into your own life? Blogs can relate that after a fashion, but there is something more visceral that comes from images, and not letting people control the context (at least a little!) seems to be a missed opportunity.
Which is why MySpace was such a surprise for me. I just checked out my family members there and wow... the differences in presentation and style were vast. Much more reflective of their personalities, even if it rendered their pages almost completely unusable. Of course, in this case, it's likely that they made choices about presentation unconscious of usability. This, I think, is indicative of the usual tradeoff - individualism with jagged edges, or assimilation with rounded experiences.
Daniel Anderson on February 4, 2006 8:56 AM:
Absolutely. Prompted by your survey of family sites, I just browsed around on myspace and quicky came to a more jumbled page that crashed my browser--and that's a great indication of the tension between facilitating composing/voice and taking over the process. Bradley Dilger recently made some points about this and he has been thinking for a while about problems with the terms "ease of use."
I think the key is hitting the sweet spot between making new articulations possible, and shutting them down. Something like iMovie, I think, is a good example of an application that gets close. It doesn't assume that authors will not need to learn to import files, edit them, stitch them together, understand something about delivering them, but it moves deep technical knowledge of the operations below the surface so that authors think more about their conceptual dimensions--if they think about them at all.
sol gaitan on February 5, 2006 4:44 PM:
I have been thinking of the collective voice of anonymous works that are at the core of many cultures' oral tradition and that have come to us in translation (traduttore traditore.) A sort of open source avant la lettre, endorsed by the individual voice of the translator. The discerning reader may chose Pope's translation of the Iliad, Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights (I prefer Cansinos Assen's Spanish version,) King James's translation of the Bible, Dutt's translation of The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or Ximenes' translation of the Popol Vuh. But even then, it is the collective voice what we hear, seldom worrying about authorship because voice, collective or individual, is authorship.
Collaborative mass publishing when it deals with facts, needs to be reliable, therefore the "expert" voice should be welcome. The idea of "experts mixing up with the public" is a healthy one. Dialectics implies that the process of reasoning by means of discussion is worth because we are seeking synthesis. Is that the territory of the individual?
alex itin on February 7, 2006 1:23 PM:
The only thing about this work is that once you get the joke, the work gets duller and duller... compare this to Rauchenberg, or even Warhol (which suffers from symptoms of the same problem in my opinion)...
It is beautiful in the way a Rothko is beautiful, but it lacks the story of beauty... What is a democratic image?