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Nothing New

We sometimes think that we are living in times that are uniquely conducive to participatory entertainment, with our video games, blogs, YouTube, and the like. However, as Lawrence Lessig reminds us in One Way Forward, it only seems that our era is uniquely participatory because the prior era was uniquely non-participatory. He points out that the big technological innovations of the 20th century- the phonograph, radio, and television- made us passive consumers of the entertainment produced by experts, where we were once much more likely to be amateur producers of entertainment for our friends and families.

The technological innovations of the 21st century are reversing that, but we are wrong to think that this makes the 21st century unique. I found a striking reminder of this in Jane Hirshfield’s The Heart of Haiku, which tells the story of the raise of the haiku and the life of Basho, the poet who developed the form. The book includes a description of how haiku developed out of the tradition of linked verse, which is a poetry form that is written by more than one person. As Hirshfield explains, “linked verse could be written by two people, but more often were composed over the course of several hours- during which a good amount of sake or rice wine might be consumed- by a larger group of three to seven poets.” A master poet wrote the opening lines of each linked verse, and then the group wrote the remaining lines. These opening lines were called hokku, and evolved into haiku.

Composing linked verse was a communal form of entertainment, and according to Hirshfield, “In 17th century Japan, linked-verse writing was as widespread and popular as card games or Scrabble in mid-20th century America.” She compares it to online communal games today, saying that “linked verse brought its practitioners into an interactive community that was continually and rapidly evolving.” It made me think of blog carnivals and the mash-ups of movie scenes that are popular on YouTube. So perhaps the only thing new thing about our modern mash-up era is its global reach.

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