Some preliminary midrashim

The original basis for these hypertexts was a paper delivered to the Whizin International Symposium on "The Moral Toll of the Information Superhighway," at the University of Judaism, Los Angeles, March 1995. The symposium was partly devoted to the question of intellectual property on the Internet, centered on the hypothetical case of Job Jobim, a grad student accused of plagiarizing the work of mythical author "Salingway" using the Internet.

This web is also part of a larger web, an ongoing expanding project, Telepathy, available on my home page at Many of the outlinks from this web are to the Telepathy hypertext.
"Literature is not exhaustible, for the simple and sufficient reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships."  -- Jorge Luis Borges, "A Note on Bernard Shaw" [1]

Information, knowledge, and wisdom

At the risk of offering platitudes, I'd like to suggest two principles on which I base the following critique of copyright laws and the Western paradigm of intellectual property. The first is a simple distinction:

Wisdom, understanding, and information (or raw knowledge) are not the same things and can't be reduced to each other.

Information is raw data. By itself, without a context or theory or human intention, it is an inert element, both amoral and senseless. Knowledge is the human use of information. Knowledge makes sense of information in a larger system. It is sensible, but it is also amoral. As our century has shown all too well and often, you can bend knowledge to unwise ends. Wisdom is both sensible and moral. In the Jewish tradition, wisdom does not arise without both information and knowledge, but knowledge and information do not guarantee wisdom. Furthermore, wisdom is inert without action. Indeed, in the Jewish tradition, acts precede wisdom and belief.

The Internet floods our desks every day with information. It helps grow our knowledge. But age-old questions about the wise disposition of this knowledge will not disappear. If anything, they become more urgent

The second principle occurred to me in listening to [Technion Professor] Amnon Yariv's talk about the progress in communication technologies and what lies on the horizon in terms of broadening the bandwidth by improving the channels of transmission and switching technology. He remarked that "communication was the eleventh commandment." I would offer a counter-formulation: 

On the eighth day of creation, the Universe made Noise.

On the first six days of creation, G-d [Jews traditionally do not write the complete Name in order to indicate its Unknowability] created the universe and all the things in it. On the seventh, G-d rested. But on the eighth, the first Monday morning in the universe, the whole hurly-burly was put in motion. Imagine the din!

In more technical terms, following Markoff's formulation, we note that "noise is the backdrop condition of the universe." Every physical reaction and process creates a certain amount of entropy. Indeed, reading this inevitable entropy created in all physical processes as a universal "background" noise forms the basis for the aboriginal definition of information by Norbert Wiener, which in turn is the single bit of mythography on which the entire Information Revolution - or better, the Cybernetic Revolution - is based.

According to Wiener and Shannon and Weaver, information is the measure of how much entropy is defeated or recuperated within a system of communication or order, what Wiener called "negentropy" (= -k log p). Wiener's mythography is recapitulated in Claude Shannon's work at Bell Labs in the 1940s and published with Warren Weaver as The Mathematical Theory of Information (1949). In their work, these three mathematicians attempt to codify the thought experiment designed by Maxwell who even in the latter half of the nineteenth century recognized the depressing view of the universe suggested in his own Second Law of Thermodynamics - that the universe, and all reactions in it, tend towards a maximum state of randomness. - and tried to formulate a way to elude it in his famous Maxwell's Demon experiment.
Implicit in Maxwell's Demon conjecture is a more fundamental commitment to viewing the human mind as occupying a special place in the universe: in this view, humans were placed on the Earth to make sense out of the noise, to make knowledge, wisdom, metaphors and music. Our species is both the consequence and the maker of local islands of order and information, extending the biosphere and its niches which gave rise to us into an infosphere, systems of organization that resist the universal tide towards entropy. Whatever else it might be -- organic computer, hallucination machine, quantum wave collapser, mystery -- the human brain is a consummate and compulsive information maker, sifting patterns out of randomness, a semi-permeable membrane between the noisy Out There and the sensible In Here, sitting in the middle of the positive feedback loop beween nature and artifice. Without the human gift and compulsion to desire information, to summon information there was nothing to hear the noise, and nothing to make sense in the universal din. It was then, and only then, on this imagined Eighth Day of Creation, that the real purpose of a day of rest and peace, of silence, became both conceivable and necessary. So the creation account ends with the Sabbath, perhaps a gift to humanity even greater than fire, that doesn't make complete sense until the world, and humans, actually begins their work.

On a hypothetical case of plagiarism using the Internet

With this preliminary midrash on Genesis as a cyborg tale, let us turn to the case at hand, for it strikes to the very core of our postmodern confrontation between the assumptions of authoritative traditional media like the book and the challenges of new media like the hypertextual internet, or the World Wide Web. In particular, it puts under question the idea of owning one's knowledge, expressed as information.

"On an internet hunt, he [Job Jobim] was led to the UCLA materials, which he accessed in 1993 without signing any release. His dissertation consists of a deconstructive reworking of Salingway's classic novel Sotah Water. In fact, Jobim discards the last four chapters of the novel and replaces them with 200 pages of his own in the form of lengthy extracts, written in the first person, from Salingway's correspondence."
-- David Nemer, "Case Study II: Hypothetical on Authorship/Ownership" [2]
Authorship; Ownership; Truth. These three terms define the parameters or the limits of the fictional case in hand of Job Jobim. They are intrinsic to our concepts of intellectual property, and in turn are connected to the very fabric of Western civilization, and its ideas of selfhood, of privacy, of property, of mind, and of creativity, beyond crass questions of profit and loss. Indeed, measured against these sweeping philosophical categories the case in hand seems nothing more than a blip on the screen. What gives it poignancy is that we here negotiate the future in very stark terms: we are editing the inscription of the genetic code of the future as we carry this old debate into the new electronic medium of the Internet. Instead, let me describe an incident similar to this case study which might shed some light on it.

Before doing so, though, if you are interested, you may want to consult my statement of bias. The case of Job Jobim begs several questions, now familiar to most students of postmodernism and of the Internet: What is an author? Who owns your words and images? What does our cybernetic future portend for notions of intellectual freedom and intellectual property when nearly universal information will be universally accessible? It even strikes to the heart of knotty philosophical questions such as: How does a text represent truth? What is inspiration? Creativity? Originality? Privacy?

Like several works of literature in recent years, Job Jobim's dissertation calls into question the idea of authorship itself. The late and lamented Kathy Acker, in 1982, published a monument to plagiarism, Great Expectations, which cut and spliced chunks of Charles Dickens' classic, just as Job Jobim's dissertation does to Salingway's letters and private papers. Perhaps even more fundamentally provocative is Jorge Luis Borges' story "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," [3]: a twentieth century author labors for a lifetime to produce word for word -- but originally and almost miraculously -- certain extended passages of Cervantes' Don Quixote. Are these brilliantly original works of art or are they craven acts of plagiarism?

WIlliam Burroughs is the godfather of postmodern plagiarism as a positive act. He encourages readers to employ the cut up and paste back method. Takind his cue from extensions of Freudian psychoanalysis, he suggests that taking a text, even the recording of your own voice, cutting it into random pieces and then pasting them together reveals truer hidden meanings and elements of surprise.  At the same time, postmodern critics like Stanley Fish have made careers out of challenging the "ownership" of the text, or more precisely, questioning who owns the intention and creativity -- the genius -- of the literary act. Critics and readers, he maintains brashly, not authors, "own" the literary text. After all, they're the ones who mine its natural resources to create the true value and meaning in reading.

Scholars like my colleague Karen LeFevre at Rensselaer have shown that the image of the author as an atom of solitary genius is a convenient legal fiction. By any measure, writing is a social act and the writer is a conduit for the circulation of vast and collective ideas. There is much to criticise in "this atomistic concept of the writing self," she writes. "[I]t fails to take into account the social origins, influences, and consequences of invention. It abstracts writers from society, deemphasizing or ignoring their constant interactions" with society, an ever-evolving language, conventional "forms and norms. It overlooks that many ideas, images and texts derive from the heritage shaped by others, living and dead. It neglects the power of social collectives that shape and encourage" individual expression." [4]

Other scholars have shown that the very idea of the author as owner of her words -- and even the ideas manifested in those words as property -- is not a natural human view but rather a relatively recent invention of the late eighteenth century, a convenient fiction which obscures or effaces other possibilities of writing, reading, and invention. This hypertext is designed to elucidate the battle between these two ideals, one predominant and expressed in copyright and intellectual property laws, the other a suppressed, exilic, nomadic, diasporic, quasi-non-Western, talmudic alternative, which is symbolized herein as "©ontra."
Some preliminary midrashim Invention of/and Copyrights Internet, Samiszdat and Hypocrisy The Talmud as a model for hypertext discourse Information, Violence, and Shelter from the Storm  Notes  Resources 

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