Sunday, May 31, 2009


The other day I was in the library looking for any non-fiction book -- you know, those things that have carefully-attributed footnotes instead of a link to Wikipedia (which, I shamefully confess, I’ve been guilty of here) -- on the Free Culture Movement, about which I’m deeply curious. It was hard even to know where to begin looking; the Dewey Decimal System doesn’t have a code for Magical Thinking. So I never found one -- not even next to the Libertarianism and Scientology books -- but that is probably only because of how woefully underfunded my local library is.

The Free Culture Movement is apparently a group of people, mostly students and adult academics who should know better, who’ve taken a vow, not of poverty, exactly, but of...what? They say they will “consume” free culture, popular or high (they don’t distinguish), with the implication, but not the explicit pronouncement, that they mean to do so exclusively. Rather than me trying to distill or translate it for you, which I’ll concede I’m probably unqualified to do anyway, why don’t you check out the link above and read their manifesto -- yes, that's what they call it -- in their own words?

Back now? Then maybe you can help me figure out what their central grievance is, which seems to get lost amid a lot of high-minded, pedantic circumlocution. Evidently, they equate “injustice and oppression” with culture being owned and controlled by corporations. Ohhhhkay...I guess. While I wouldn’t put it in such melodramatic terms, the idea of most entertainment and/or information being controlled by a small handful of huge, vertically-integrated conglomerates doesn’t much appeal to me, either. We’ve all seen what kind of diversity of opinion and availability of so-called "out-of-the-box thinking" is inhibited, and possibly even repressed, that way.

But, according to the Free Culture Movement, the internet, and its capacity to give anyone with a computer a platform, is supposed to be the corrective to the corporate stranglehold on intellectual property. The key to this, apparently, is its free accessibility to any would-be content provider, “amateur” or “professional” (which, I have no doubt, the Movement would tell you are meaningless terms), and the fact that -– so far, at least -- the content thus provided is free, too.

Here's where I start to have trouble following their logic. Most content on the net is free, of course: marketing experts will tell you that the only net content that is willingly paid for by a large number of people (as opposed to, say, the number of Salon Premium subscribers) is pornography. But the idea that everything else is free is largely an illusion, just as the idea that broadcast (as opposed to cable) TV is free is also illusory.

The content creators get paid for their work in both media; it’s just that their payday comes, directly or indirectly, from advertisers. And you, the consumer -- or, if you prefer, "end user" -- pay for it by having to sit through advertising. Something, by the way, you can elude a lot more easily with television, thanks to your DVR, than you can on the internet, where not all ads are pop-ups and thus can't all be suppressed by pop-up blockers.

The Movement seems to think that the way to end cultural corporate hegemony is this: “We will use and promote our cultural heritage in the public domain. We will make, share, adapt, and promote open content. We will listen [only?] to free music, look at free art, watch free film, and read free books." An elaborate boycott of stuff you have to pay for, it seems. Though what that's supposed to accomplish isn't clear to me.

It has apparently not occurred to these people that if all culture were free, there would be a great deal less of it, because most of the time in which this culture could be created would have to be taken up by the day jobs the Creatives would need to hold down in order to survive. That would leave a lot less time in which to be creating. After all, actors, musicians, graphic artists, and writers don’t wait tables to support themselves while they’re acting, playing, painting, or writing for free. For most of them, the idea is to keep a day job with flexible hours only until they can get steady, paying work doing their creative thing.

Nor has it occurred to the Free Culture Movement people, apparently, that they won’t be able to get much more of the free culture they like for very long, because people -- at least those who live on Planet Earth -- who spend all their time making things and giving them away for free can’t buy food, clothing, or shelter, and then they die.

The only counter to that argument that I can think of would be if all the Creatives were people who have trust funds. Scions of the very rich. Which would kind of kick the shit out of the "democratizing" goal that The Free Culture Movement holds so dear, wouldn't it?

I believe the average person might make the argument that the main reason "free culture" is free in the first place is because it's not "good" enough for someone to be willing to pay for it. There I go again, with that "amateur" and "professional" thing. But there are flaws that can be found in that contention, too.

So if you think I’m leading up to an argument in favor of market forces –- that what is popular (i.e., what sells) is what is by definition good and worth preserving -– a kind of Darwinian attitude toward culture -– you’d be wrong. It’s all much more complex than that.

And I think that’s enough of a “tease” to go out on, for now.


1 comment:

David Wise said...

This is wrong and stupid and evil on so many levels a literally do not know where to begin.

These people are students. They've never had to support themselves. Once they get jobs and spouses and kids and all the rest of adult life's responsibilities, how much time do you think they'll have to "be active participants in a free culture of connectivity and production, made possible as it never was before by the Internet and digital technology"?

They think they're being utopian; in fact, they are being parasitic.

First rule about "free culture" (or free anything): You get what you pay for!

Also please note: The "manifesto" contains a COPYRIGHT NOTICE!!

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