notes on “free culture”

These are notes I took during the Free Culture conference last weekend. … Most participants were relatively young adults who create ?alternative? news and culture. They are also concerned about the legal and economic aspects of mass communications. Most start with some anger against what they perceive as a unified system composed of big media companies and the policies of the US government and international bodies (e.g., media licensing systems, copyright laws) that together sustain social injustice?poverty, racism, patriarchy, and so on. Using music, poetry, and images, they speak an eloquent and fairly sophisticated New Left language of resistance, subversion, an opposition. A repeated visual motif in their presentations is a woman of color with a raised fist. See for example Third World Majority?s website, with its compelling video clips.

However, several participants believe that a message of opposition and resistance has a limited appeal. Relatively few Americans see themselves as oppressed; and if an organizer makes them angry with eloquent, angry rhetoric, the feeling soon fades. A better way to broaden and sustain motivation is by giving people a positive vision of alternative media that they can themselves participate in creating. In other words, making ?content? is the best route to political mobilization.

Using available technology, people can create powerful, compelling material. For instance, Downhill Battle is trying to build software that allows anyone to produce and view video programming at virtually no cost. The idea is to enable millions of young people to view ?TV? that they have made for one another, instead of programs created by highly paid professionals at big companies. As one person from Guerilla News Network says, ?Let?s just build ourselves. Let?s not wait for public television to come back. Let?s not wait for a grant.?

Looking forward, new technology could make young people and other excluded Americans more sophisticated about policy. If the law forbids or frustrates their desire to make and share free content, then they will not have to be mobilized to fight back; they will mobilize themselves–and in a spirit of confidence rather than resentment. Alternatively, the creation of new media technology could actually make policy irrelevant. The law might not be able to block people from creating their own media.

Questions raised during the conversation:

1) Will people really prefer ?alternative? media if they have a choice, say, between amateur video clips and MTV? One answer is that they will prefer the alternative stuff, because it?s better. The most popular blogs, for example, are independently produced; corporate blogs are relatively unappealing. Another answer is that most people will prefer MTV, but it?s still important to support a minority voice.

2) Where can funding come from? There?s a lot of dissatisfaction with foundations as the source, because then everyone is on ?an allowance? from powerful organizations. (Plus, foundation funds are pretty limited.) Although most people at the conference are strongly anti-corporate, they are interested in sustainable, independent business models.

3) Why are the most popular blogs still produced by highly educated white males? The technology is cheap and open?not perfectly so, but as close to perfect as we are likely to see. Neither policy nor technology stands in the way of equality in the blogosphere. Nevertheless, a privileged group tends to dominate. Maybe the demographics will change over time. Or maybe media technology and policy are not the only important reasons for inequality.

4) Is it most helpful to frame the struggle for ?free? or ?independent? or ?alternative? media in radical leftist terms? I am not hostile to a leftist political conversation in which people consider new media forms as tools to get the social and political outcomes they want. It is also true, however, that many people on the center and the right (including the radical right) do not like the mainstream mass media and would support ?alternatives.? So if the goal is really an open, non-corporate media system, it might make more sense to build a left-right coalition.

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2 Responses to notes on “free culture”

  1. Terrific post. I believe that the lines between consuming, producing and editing content are being blurred. I was just asking a colleague who is a law student, how would we rewrite copyright law if the purpose were to help the individual producer/consumer?

    I like the idea of promoting creation of shareable TV content. In our remix culture, perhaps it will be easier to start with multiple Jon Stewart Shows than it would be to create a new Friends. I have no idea whether the technology works, but I am excited by the concept of Torrentocracy.com.

    It is good to see that others are thinking along these lines. I hope that the questions that you raise will be taken up more broadly.

  2. Gavin Baker says:

    In response to (4): FreeCulture.org and our Free Culture campus groups are explicitly non-partisan. At the University of Florida, we have roughly equal numbers of Democrats as Republicans (along with a few Libertarians and others). I think it’s very important that we consciously craft the ideology of “free culture” so that it is above partisanship and inclusive. To me, “free culture” should be like “free speech”: freedom of speech can be used equally by a Klansman as to denounce a Klansman; we need freedom of speech for that very reason. “Free culture” should mean the freedom of build your own media, be it right wing or left wing, commercial or non-commercial, secular or religious, etc. Free speech is a tool that transcends politics as a vital method to ensure that our society functions in a free, democratic, open way; free culture must follow. This weekend, there were lots of people talking about building a “just culture”, and that’s fine — but you need a free culture first. We should be able to craft superordinate goals in the name of freedom that cross ideological boundaries. Both conservatives and liberals feel left out of today’s mainstream media; both independent, open source programmers and giant software corporations are damaged by software patents; both documentary filmmakers and film viewers are hampered by today’s copyright laws. I think this weekend was a good start in helping people see the connections beyond their local interests… but I also think we’ve got a long way to go.

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