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Right to Repair is Right to Interpret

How is a tractor like a writing desk?

Some metaphorical insight is to be gained in the comparison between reading and writing, and reaping and sowing. Changes in technology that facilitate physical contact between laborers and their element, be it a blank page or a fallow field, bring farmers and literary scholars into a more direct, non-figurative conversation, concerning the nature of electronic goods.

In the digital world, neither plow nor pen is subject purely to their mechanics. Modern tractors like modern typewriters are also computers, which means that these tools now contain an inward facing surface, marked by inscription. Solid-state memory arrays are machined out of silicon, ceramic, palladium, platinum, silver and other precious metals. They are tiny storehouses for information—programming instructions—which ultimately govern the behavior of the mechanism. The presence of such a surface and the capability to respond to its commands is what differentiates “smart” devices from their lackwit counterparts. To paraphrase Marx, the smart device is one that evolves grotesque ideas out of its silicon brain. It is a thing imbued with potential for symbolic manipulation.

It should not surprise us then that protections usually reserved for intellectual property have been expanded to cover such tangible goods as harvesters and combines. In her essay “Freedom to Tinker,” Pamela Samuelson, of Berkeley Law, described the now infamous attempt by John Deere, a major international maker of agricultural machinery, to restrict access to the innards of its machines, thus severely limiting its customers’ ability to repair their own equipment. Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and have mobilized politically, resulting in “right to repair” bills adopted into law in at least eleven states, including New York and Massachusetts.

These bills are important to me as a literary scholar, because the right to repair implies, physically, the right to read, write, and interpret inscription implicit in all smart devices, including those on our writing desks. Like farmers, all those who read and write at a computer are faced with a threat of critical disempowerment. The practice of literary hermeneutics, the interpretation of texts, in all of its varied traditions, cannot take place when access to inscription is physically curtailed. Think of it as an ultimate form of political censorship, not by decree, but by material design. Solid-state drives are sealed hermetically and therefore hermeneutically.

What one sees at the surface of a screen is part of a more complex, laminate figure that extends across surfaces: some near the reader and others remote, inches and sometimes continents away from the site of interpretation. The electronic book in my palm has its origins on servers guarded by armed men in Ohio, Northern Virginia, Mumbai, and São Paulo.

“Literary analysis should awaken to the importance of media-specific analysis, a mode of critical attention which recognizes that all texts are instantiated and that the nature of the medium in which they are instantiated matters,” N. Katherine Hayles wrote in Poetics Today more than a decade ago. These words, along with other pioneering works by materially-minded textual scholars—Johanna Drucker, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Jerome McGann among others—have motivated my approach to writing Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation.

Read the rest at Stanford University Press blog.

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