Monday, June 1, 2009


I started talking yesterday about the problems I’m having figuring out the Free Culture Movement (not least of which is understanding in what sense they're using the word "culture"). Today I’d like to ruminate about these people a bit more.

You’ll notice that they have a Board of Directors, most of whose academic expertise is in philosophy, computer science, mathematics, or law, all of which are, of course, eminently worthy pursuits, but nothing I would call creative per se. In fact, only one of the Directors lists in her profile any activity a reasonable person could agree is creative. That is Ms. Ducruet, who tells us she “makes films.” What kind of films, digital or other; how they are produced; and where and how they are exhibited or distributed, she does not elaborate on, but she “makes films.”

I hope you’ll forgive me my skepticism upon finding this claim among a group of technocrats. And please excuse the possible leap to an unfair conclusion, but perhaps this Board is representative of this Movement’s followers.

If that's the case, there’s a strong possibility that few who subscribe to the tenets of the Free Culture Movement are actually supplying culture. Not that they realize that, however.

This is what for me, more than anything else, undermines the persuasiveness of the Free Culturists’ arguments: their implied loyalty to the idea that self-produced CDs from obscure garage bands, released in a vacuum and subjected to no critical scrutiny, nevertheless have an instant credibility as “culture” that is just as valid as the work of critically-acclaimed musicians. The Free Culturists seem to subscribe to the widespread but misguided notion that technology is somehow more than just a tool that will produce varying results depending on the innate skills of the individuals using the tool, but a skill in and of itself.

Sorry, but no. Buying a program that digitally edits .wav files does not necessarily make you a sound mixer. Having the technology to create a blog and post links to other content instead of describing, or offering an original analysis of, your subjects does not make you a journalist or essayist. Not any more than posting a video of yourself masturbating and forcing YouTube to cancel your account makes you a filmmaker. Similarly, knowing how to tell someone else’s joke, as opposed to having an original, funny idea, does not make you a satirist or a comedian, or even particularly interesting at a party.

Think I’m jumping to unfair conclusions about this “movement”? Here’s a direct quote from their manifesto: “With the Internet and other advances, the technology exists for a new paradigm of creation, one where anyone can be an artist, and anyone can succeed, based not on their industry connections, but on their merit.”

That undefined use of the term “merit” is the only reference I can find in the manifesto to the question of the quality of all this unbridled creativity that the internet is supposed to facilitate. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Free Culture Movement offers us no clue whatever as to how or by whom this “merit” is determined. The quality of anything is, of course, a totally subjective consideration, unless you believe in listening to experts, academic or otherwise, who assert that there are generally-accepted qualitative standards by which to judge creative works -- a group that would qualify for being called an elite, not to put too fine a point on it.

But in the wikimaniacs’ world, in which any evaluation or assertion is as valid as any other, and in a society in which the term “elite” has a connotative weight that is always negative -- always inferred to mean groups guilty of some form of injustice or oppression -- merit will not be determined by critical elites. That’s not “democratizing” enough.

So if not critical approval, what else can determine “merit”? Popularity? In a capitalist society -- which is what ours is, like it or not -- popularity is generally determined by commerciality. But in the utopia these Free Culturists envision, everything will be free. (Right now, though, until the reliability of metrics improves dramatically, the definition of popularity will still make the ka-ching ka-ching sound.)

So, again I ask, what is merit?

I guess painting yourself into a corner is too low-tech for these people to recognize when they do it to themselves.


Mark B said...

The artist part of me agrees with you, but then the part of me that has written programs says "nooo, making a working usable program is certainly as much a creative act as doing a Batman comic".

And yes the "free culture" movement is interested in ripping off artists. I was wandering around the Electronic Frontier Foundation a couple of years ago and a couple of their lawyers were talking about a case and said something like, "It's gonna hurt mid level authors/musicians income but it will really screw the big corporations". When I had some discussions with the non-profit I was working with it bacame clear that they didn't understand at all that their are creators behind the corporations at all. Which is the weird state of working hacks who do Batman work sometimes (like me).

While it's interesting taking on the academics you really should try the same thing with a writer like Cory Doctorow who has embraced the free culture, creative commons movement, is a key part of it and turned it into part of his career. The transfer of data is so cheap now the financial models are falling apart(see the newspaper biz) we have to find something else to make it work

Mark Badger

Michael Netzer said...

I find myself zig-zagging between the two extremes. Several years ago I started a free sketch thread at Millarworld. Digital sketches done by request and posted to the forum. It was a big hit and some called it genius. It did more to make my work visible than anything else I could imagine at the time. I'm a Wikipedia contributor and upload my art with a creative commons license because it's worth the exposure to me.

On the other hand, I'd love nothing more than to "sell" my services and most of these activities are geared to do just that by evoking an interest.

Seems that free culture cannot automatically mean merit, just as financial success cannot mean so either. the porno industry has led and shaped every media technology advancement, from film, video, to CD, DVD and the Internet. It's a perfect example of fiscal success devoid of creative merit.

Merit, it would seem, remains what it is, regardless of the venue,

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