The BWHBC and the Borg   5 comments

One of my favorite demotivators (satirical motivational statements) states, “You’re unique, just like everybody else.”  Any collective, including the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, can take something from that statement.  Everyone does indeed have unique experiences, but everyone is also the same in some way.  The ability to reconcile those two seemingly paradoxical facts could be a great advantage when it comes to producing a single work with many contributors; that is, everyone can relate to a common bond through their own personal life stories, and I think that’s part of the success that Wells describes Our Bodies, Ourselves as having.

Despite the title I gave this post, I don’t intend to suggest that the BWHBC is some arch-nemesis of humankind.  Indeed, I don’t think being a collective is necessarily a bad thing.  I always rooted for the Borg in Star Trek, and my best friend in high school and I always discussed the fact that Borg society probably ran quite efficiently.  In fact, driving to school in the mornings, we frequently imagined that if the Borg had a land-based transportation system, they probably never had any accidents since they all were interconnected and had one single intention.  Imagine it now: a light turns green, and all cars waiting at the light immediately accelerate at the same rate to continue on their way.  A light turns red, and they all come to a stop simultaneously.  Never mind the fact that no one has any unique identity; if they’re all working as one towards a common goal, they’ll only reach that goal faster.

The same goes for writing collectively, I think: when authorship is distributed, many authors (and researchers, editors, experts, etc., as Wells repeatedly suggests) work together on a common project.  Unlike the Borg, however, the BWHBC and other distributed authorship projects are made up of humans, and even the term “collective” doesn’t mean the same thing to every member of the collective.  Nevertheless, far more was accomplished under distributed authorship than by any one single author working solely on a book.

Also contra-indicative of any Borg-related traits, the individual identities of the people who contributed to Our Bodies, Ourselves were significantly important in producing a successful product and its surrounding discourse.  It wasn’t only writers who were counted in the collective, though; the collective also included readers as well as collaborators of the people more directly involved in the composition of the work.  In short, the BWHB “collective” was a group of many different people with many different experiences who all worked together, directly or indirectly, to produce an account of useful information.

In terms of T&T, I think distributed authorship is best seen in many forms on the Internet.  Wikis, forums, blogs, even social networking sites are all places in which people interact to create an elaborate discourse to which every community member can contribute.  Even Our Bodies, Ourselves has taken advantage of this method of authorship and is still going strong at http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/.  Perhaps it’s just a logical extension of the pre-Internet practice of distributed authorship; whatever its medium, though, I’m of the opinion that collective writing is a beneficial method of authorship.

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Posted October 11, 2010 by wdorner in Uncategorized

5 responses to “The BWHBC and the Borg

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  1. Will- intriguing analogy. I guess the question that comes to my mind reading your BWHBC/Borg analogy is that it seems the notion of plurality and singularity of purpose might be a bit conflated — at least in my mind. Conceptually, I’m contemplating the distinction thus: on one hand, you’ve got multiple independently-thinking minds, serving to create a collaborative multi-dimensional product where “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” On the other, you’ve got Borg automatons of one mind or one ’cause’- with one way of thinking or one overarching premise (i.e. patriarchy = oppression)- a ‘prime directive’ as it were- working toward one end. The question becomes, which one does OBOS fall into- if either?

    • Thanks for the reply, and I do agree that the biggest difference is the difference of collective purpose. I tried to disambiguate the two (plural vs. singular) in my paragraph about individual identities, but I suppose I wasn’t very clear.

  2. It might be useful to remember Wells’s distinction between collective and distributed.

  3. Dear Will,

    Here are some of the definitions of “collective authorship” (their term) that I heard from the BWHBC:
    we all agree on the content of every page of the book
    we find somebody we trust to write the chapter and then we change the way it’s written to fit OBOS style
    we trust each other to do the research and write it up well, so we delegate the writing.

    All these are useful rules of thumb, but they don’t describe a coherent practice, and they don’t come close to the actual practices of the collective. Most of the original members give a quick wash with a wet brush to material that the staff (which includes two original members) develops. And the staff people are like walking rolodexes–they know or know about everyone working in their territory.

    Some parts of OBOS–the treatment of birth control–got lots of attention, and the collective was really able to establish a consistent treatment of the issue. Other parts–the exercise chapter, “In Amerikkka they Call us Dykes,” were really at odds with the collective’s politics, but they best they could put together at the moment.

    Borg like cohesion seems to be beyond us, for better or worse.

    • I appreciate the response!

      I don’t think Borg-like cohesion is really possible in any human-organized system; I always considered it almost like an ideal (excluding the forced assimilation of unwilling participants, which is just one reason why it will never work). It’s just that while I was reading, the word “collective” kept calling the thought to my mind.

      It’s interesting to see in your definitions how much collective authorship relies on words like “agree” and “trust,” and those are important distinctions as well. In fact, this makes me think of the several group projects with which I’m involved this semester, some even for this class, that might rely on the very same definitions (i.e., agreeing on the content, matching the styles, and delegating the writing).

      Again, thanks for your response and additional information!

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