Is free culture enlightened?

This essay was written for my sociology studies at University of Auckland – it will examine the concept of free culture from the point of view of the enlightenment, i.e. the idea that humanity can be improved through the power of reason, particularly the suggestion the latter demands critique of one’s surroundings and situation.

Introduction

An in-depth definition of free culture is not of importance here, as it has been discussed in great detail elsewhere (Paulson, 2010; Stallman, 2002); suffice to say it involves creating works which are not under the monopoly control of one entity, as is the case for most content generated by the current capitalist system, but are instead owned by ‘the commons’. This content includes creative works such as films, music, photographs and computer software. The lack of monopoly control is achieved through a large group of individuals working on projects which are then released under a particular group of licences. These licenses allow other entities remarkable latitude to examine, use and re-distribute the work more or less as they see fit (Lessig, 2004; Stallman, 2002), albeit with some minor restrictions. This freedom to re-use these products appears to challenge and critique the existing order and the products themselves, thus somewhat fulfilling the requirements for enlightenment, as defined by Kant when he states “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority” (1996, p. 17), and “For this enlightenment, nothing is required but freedom, …” (1996, p. 18).

The suggestion of enlightenment as questioning religiously-held values is paralleled in free software, when Eco, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, suggests that the choice between operating systems from Microsoft and Apple is akin to making a choice between religious denominations (1994). Free culture, which values control over the products used by the owner rather than a content company, could be said to sacralise the individual and to reject the notion of an omniscient, all-powerful entity (represented here by a large, opaque private company which dictates how a user will conduct him or herself in certain matters). In this regard, free culture demonstrates a turn away from religious-like behaviours, which concurs with the suggestion by Bronner that “the need remains for an unrelenting assault on religious fanaticism” (2004, p. 14), (cited in (Toscano, 2010, p. 98)). However, this do.s not tell the full story; free culture is itself highly ideological and involves adherence to a fixed set of values (although perversely, the tools and methods used to achieve this aim are continually in an unstable flux) – the phrase “information wants to be free” has become so embedded that it has become axiomatic, unquestioned and unchallenged. In rejecting the prevailing ideology (Microsoft/Apple), there is a move towards the questioning and critique demanded by Kant. Unfortunately, this appears to fail, as shown by examining Toscano (2010) when he admonishes Brenner for his stance: the old ideology is merely replaced with a new set of entrenched values which are not to be questioned, demonstrating tendencies towards fanaticism, and thus the somewhat un-enlightened nature of free culture.

According to Habermas, there are three ‘levels’ of cognitive interest which make up the enquiry required for enlightenment. The appropriation of knowledge can take three forms: analytic-empirical (i.e. the means to achieve some task); hermeneutic-historical (understanding the world around us) and emancipatory (freeing humanity) (1972, p. 308). Modernity mainly concerns itself with knowledge lying in the first level, with little attention to the other two – hermeneutic-historical and emancipatory. Within free software there are, broadly, two different camps – those who use the products because of their quality, and those who use them for more ideological reasons. The first group clearly fall squarely into the first category – the software is generally of high quality and superior to that produced by traditional software companies. The potential for emancipation is hypothetically high, although the tendency within free culture is to fall into the same trap as the rest of society – typical neoliberal values, such as personal responsibility (implicit in the decentralised, DIY nature of the products), efficiency and high productivity are often referenced as being benefited by free software. This implicitly suggests little desire to question the values of the current system, pointing to a lack of enlightened thought in this area.

The freedom to modify, re-use, remix and re-distribute the artefacts released under free culture licences implies a freedom to critique – the work is no longer fixed and defined from above as those created by traditional content providers are. It is free to be re-interpreted as anyone else sees fit – in this sense, this somewhat fulfils the definition of enlightenment put forward by Kant.

However, this critique is tempered; the freedom stated above is highly ideological – the majority of free culture works are only distributed online, and the class system, replicated somewhat in internet access, says that if one is Western, well off and educated, one will be more likely to have access to the works than someone who is not. This is compounded by the requirement for a set of highly technical skills necessary to modify the works – computer coding, graphics design, etc., rendering the potential for critique by the masses close to meaningless; even those who can access the works are subject to the same inability to modify, and thus critique, as those who use non-free culture products.

Slashdot is a popular technology/politics website inhabited by a large number of free culture contributors, which hosts discussions on news topics of the day and thus forms an example of ‘the read/write web’. The site is well known for generating several memes in internet culture, including “First post!” (Forbes.com, 2000). Amongst a large number of users, creating the first post is highly sought after, something which must be done within seconds of the news item hitting the front page, thus necessitating one not read the article. In this forum, there is the possibility of extensively discussing and thus critiquing news items on highly influential topics, but for a significant number of users (enough for the site’s administrators to block this practise), speed is everything and content nothing, thus exemplifying “No one is concerned with the ideology, as long as it is expedient” (Adorno, 1981, p. 30).

Conclusion

On comparing the concept of free culture against several theorists’ ideas around enlightenment, it appears to offer much potential, but rather than this being fulfilled, it has instead repeated and reinforced the values of neoliberalism. The ‘freedom’ that it professes to offer is confined to those who have the skills to take advantage, leaving significant numbers of the population unaffected. Further, the views of those who follow the values sometimes border on the fanatical – free culture at all costs, regardless of the outcome. From a Habermasian point-of-view, the concept appears to reach as far as advancing technical knowledge, although this is hardly an area which needs any help under liberalism, while neglecting the higher, emancipatory values of knowledge.

Bibliography

Adorno, T. W. (1981). Prisms (1st ed.). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Bronner, S. E. (2004). Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press.

Eco, U. (1994, September 30). Eco – “Writings: IBM vs. Mac.” Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_mac_vs_pc.html

Forbes.com. (2000). Net vs. Norm: The Slashdot Effect – Forbes.com. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.forbes.com/asap/2000/0221/043.html

Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and Human Interests. London: Heinemann.

Kant, I. (1996). Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lessig, L. (2004). Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin Press.

Paulson, R. (2010). Application of the theoretical tools of the culture industry to the concept of free culture. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://bumblepuppy.org/blog/?p=4

Stallman, R. (2002). Free Software Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. (J. Gay, Ed.) (1st ed.). Boston, MA: GNU Press, Free Software Foundation.

Toscano, A. (2010). Raving with Reason: Fanaticism and Enlightenment. Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea. London: Verso.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *