Culture of Webbots or artisans? Critical reflections on free culture

by Digital Rights LAC on September 19, 2023

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A retweet, reblog, “like,” among others, are like a balm for the generation of instant gratification where an additional content – whether free or not – becomes a collection element.

By Luis Fernando Medina*

In the following writing, I seek to explore in a very intuitive and concise manner, and based on my experience as an academic, researcher and activist, a few critical thoughts of open models and the so-called free culture. Undoubtedly, as it occurs with initiatives of this spirit, the aim is not to offer a single, absolute answer, but, perhaps, pose some questions with the hope that they are appropriate. Nor is it my intention to recur to this formula as a pretext to avoid conclusions. Therefore, I will try to outline some useful recommendation, to the extent allowed by the escapist and relativistic rhetoric of our time. To achieve this goal, I present two components that are key to free culture, and these are the software culture and the fanatic culture. Then, from a statement of some problematic issues that I observe in free culture, I show how it has come closer to the software paradigm and the consequences of this. Finally, by mentioning what I consider some inaccuracies in the dominant free culture discourse, I move forward to the placid field of speculation – I hope – with a tiny but valuable result.

I want to begin with an anecdote to illustrate perhaps a contradiction I think is common. Last year I participated in Cali at the free culture panel of the ComunLAB event, where several artists, activists, journalists and others attended. I remember in the discussion one of the participants, with some experience in the field of art and the “open,” saying something like that the only way he conceived sharing – the truly openness – was through public domain. Interestingly and almost immediately, another attendee stood up and said, with the firmness of one who has not mastered a subject, hence has nothing to lose, that he disagreed because he wanted to collect for his works. This ruffled a little bit the auditorium. It was my perception that the forces were more inclined to the second intervention. What reminded me this? First, the dogma that have always plagued the free software community. On the other hand, the hacker ethic’s discourse – which I share and defend –, which sometimes, taken out of context, can oppose to common sense. Finally and categorically, not by the argument but by the way, money is an inevitable factor in a capitalist society that sometimes we dismiss inflated by digital utopias.

From this story it may be recalled the enormous software culture influence into the free culture. Undoubtedly, this is no accidental if you follow the line that observes that code-sharing practices were always linked with the software development, from the beginning of computing and decades before the invention of the free software term. Something similar can be said about the Internet’s origins. Tragicomically, the trend was subverted by commercial software, which emerged – Revolution Betrayed – in the aftermath of the digital hippie dream in what is known as the Californian philosophy: computers for freedom but millions in the bag. The connection with the free software may also be noted with the same Creative Common license’s statement, that directly reminds free software freedoms. This corresponds, as has been pointed out dozens of times, to the attempt of transporting a model, which works in the software, to the cultural production with somewhat mixed results.

On the other hand, it is noted that in non-mediated environments by software, fanatic culture is a sharing networks and creation forms reference in peripheral circuits. Sidelining, in order to not falling into the digress, the famous artistic avant-garde  which experimented with ways of creating and distributing content, the fanatic culture that flourished around cultural content was constituted itself in a

generator of cultural artifacts. The fanzines, of science fiction tradition but of massive explosion due to the punk phenomenon and the photocopier, the graffiti and its artistic self-managed DIY approach (at least originally) or the  fifty-something years old beloved cassette format, which helped create a whole distributing and sharing network for fans and creators, are paradigmatic examples.

It is clear that sharing is not exclusively linked to digital technologies and, specifically, to the software culture. Why then this comparison? Beyond the brief historical account, I consider that while free culture is also very akin to the fanatic culture, it is its digital age’s DNA that throws it to the terrain where it can be a mistake to rely on technological determinism. The software has a duality: it can be shared but also is a sharing device, which generates some noise at the time of transposing its paradigm toward free culture. This, mixed with some absolutist discourses of digital techno-utopias, casts shadows on the movement path. Following the free software culture comparison, the latter has spent 20 years in searching for an effective business model, which has occurred in only a few cases. Could it be the same with the free culture and open licensing? I mention below aspects that are used as the basis of free culture and that I think prudent to demystifying.

Digital is an abundance economy. This is true and serves to explain that the cost of copying something is minimal. However, apparently the abundance of circulating digital cultural goods can be double-edged. I have heard many artists moaning in private  – doing it in public would be suicide – that their video, hard work product, pales in visits compared to, let’s say, the gorilla wallowing in his/her feces. Don’t get me wrong. We cannot return to the days of privileged access to the media. However, the abundance of cultural circulation could also lead to a “digital inflation,” where the real value of each creation decreases because there are plenty to choose from, or just the information intoxication is such that it should be resorted to aggregators, publishers, curators. Whereupon, the system’s celebrated horizontality would be a mirage.

Although these concerns have been addressed by discourses like the “long tail” and niche markets, authentic cases of a business model are still elusive, at least to my memory. The more recent trend of using creative commons license “attribution” and “share alike”, ignoring the earlier almost obvious “non-commercial,” somehow implies that perhaps the mainstream media would not fall like vultures over open content, and that something was failing in generating wealth from this model.

Finally, I want to note that sometimes seems the abundance overcome the creator/consumer utopia by a culture of pure and immediate symbolic capitalism: it is not about how much information you have digested and analyzed, but of how much you have accumulated and what you let other know you have. A retweet, reblog, “like,” among others, are like a balm for the generation of instant gratification where an additional content – whether free or not – becomes a collection element. The same configuration of the Internet Service Providers (ISP), where the download speed exceeds the load, or some activists’ insistence to free downloads rather than educate in means for creation, get the web closer to this 1000-channel TV where is hard to choose.

What to do? I do not know exactly. But I believe that, until we find the most appropriate interface for getting a better free culture coordination within a capitalist model, we can vindicate the digital artisan figure, who takes the time to generate his/her contents, who is a fanatic that makes it for the love of art, who is keen with  exchanging, bartering and time banking as alternatives for generating wealth. So, and claiming another free software metaphor, we should aspire more to a small bazaar where small circles of creators are built, and not to the big market where the most admired mask is the one of cultural webbot.