Users, Scribes, and Anonymity

For an age where curation is emphasized, the curator is often brushed under the rug. Take Youtube for instance. When you are trying to find music there, do you focus on the uploader? Attention is on the video description and the content therein. The uploader remains a contingency. It did not matter who put up the full album. What is important is that the album is available for download.

This matter of anonymity spans centuries, most acutely before 1500 and the rise of typography. “Oddly enough,” Marshall McLuhan writes, “it is a consumer-oriented culture that is concerned about authors and labels of authenticity. Manuscript culture was producer-oriented, almost entirely a do-it-yourself culture, and naturally looked to the relevance and usability of items rather than their sources.”

Youtube, and by default the Internet, is a producer-oriented system. The uploading of videos upon videos is its goal. It is a library of sounds with users who fills its shelves. At what point does one of these users take up an elevated role as, say, a curator or author? Well, how did the scribes of medieval libraries look at such a question? In Medieval Texts and Their First Appearance in Print,  E.P. Goldschmidt approaches such a problem:

“What amount of ‘comportation’ of acquired information entitled a man to claim the standing of an ‘author’ of a new unit in the chain of transmitted knowledge? We are guilty of an anachronism if we imagine that the medieval student regarded the contents of the books he read as the expression of another man’s personality and opinion. He looked upon them as part of that great and total body of knowledge…”

An answer seems irrelevant. The user today is treated more like a scribe than an author.

And yet the consumer-oriented system of today McLuhan mentioned still exists within Youtube. While we may not care about who uploaded it, we do care about the author of said music we want to hear. We would not have searched it otherwise. That kind of authorship usurps the user.

But let us rephrase that consumer-oriented culture has been the standard for most of modernity. Now, the producer-oriented system of manuscript culture finds itself bubbling back to the surface in our Internet age. Scribes are returning as users whose anonymity is of no concern to them or to those using their uploads. Only the music matters. Time will tell when we will not only deem irrelevant who uploaded a piece of music but also who wrote or performed it.


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