Relax! Producing culture in a weak intellectual property environment

I just published this article on eurozine, based on the talk I gave at their conference, Changing media – Media in change in mid May in Linz, Austria. Here's the argument in a nutshell:

Cultural producers should be relaxed about digital technology's erosion of copyright. A weak copyright regime offers a chance to re-embed cultural production in concrete, personal relationships out of which new economic models can and do emerge.

If you want to know why and how this is the case, you'll have to read the whole article.

For those with very little time, here's the conclusion, and, very important in my view, how to avoid the argument about new opportunities to be high-jacked by the conservatives who want to cut public cultural funding.

Re-embedding culture

One way to understand copyright is as an abstracting mechanism. Copyright stabilizes a work so that it can be lifted out of concrete social relations – between the author and her cultural environment – and made to circulate as a commodity in abstract, impersonal markets. The more innovative alternative models re-embed cultural works in concrete, personal social relationships. This is made possible through social media of all sorts, which allow personal relationships to grow beyond the small and the immediate. Strong copyright is not helpful in this process. Indeed, it is detrimental to it, because of the strict separation between author and audience, where one is entirely active the entirely passive. Re-embedding cultural production into concrete social relationships requires that all parties actively contribute to creating the particular environment. Their contributions are highly differentiated – not all people are, or need to become, an artist.

Autonomy beyond Privacy? A Rejoinder to Colin Bennett

The journal Surveillance & Society just published a debate on the value of concept of privacy in surveillance studies and beyond. The debate was initiated by Colin Bennett's essay "In Defence of Privacy", my piece "Autonomy beyond Privacy?" was one of the responses to it. The others were by Pris Regan, John Gilliom and danah boyd.

Here's how my contribution concluded which summarizes the main point I wanted to make:

We should start from the understanding of what privacy is conventionally thought to achieve: individual and social self-determination. We need then to review the contemporary conditions under which this goal can be advanced and assess the role of privacy in advancing it. Today, it requires both the ability to make oneself visible to others in relatively open ettings, as well as means of mitigating the resulting power-differentials between the users who provide personal and those institutions which collect, aggregate and act upon this information. The notion of privacy is of limited use in the context of the first dimension, but remains vital in relation to the second.

Von Nischen und Infrastrukturen

Herausforderungen und neue Ansätze politischer Technologien

Neue Technologien aus dem aktivistischen Umfeld bieten radikale Alternativen zu kultureller Nischenbildung und zentralisierten Web 2.0-Infrastrukturen.

Die sozialen und politischen Realitäten der Digitalisierung und Vernetzung sind heute von zwei konstitutiven, aber grundsätzlich unterschiedlichen, ja teilweise sogar entgegengesetzten Dynamiken geprägt. Beide stellen den Medienaktivismus vor neue Herausforderungen. Zum einen können wir ein Aufblühen neuer kultureller Nischen und horizontaler Organisationsformen beobachten. Zum anderen erleben wir gleichzeitig eine enorme Zentralisierung und Konzentration auf der Ebene der Plattformen, welche einen grossen Teil der infrastrukturellen Grundlage des Wachstum der Nischen und neuen Kooperationsmuster darstellen. Nachdem der Aufbau alternativer Infrastrukturen – Zeitschriften, TV Kanäle und Internetplattformen – in den ersten 30 Jahren medienaktivistischer Projekte eine grosse Rolle gespielt hat (Stalder 2008) sind diese Fragen in den letzten 10 Jahren etwas in den Hintergrund getreten. Denn die Komplexität der Infrastrukturen nahm stetig zu, was es immer aufwendiger machte, sie zu betreiben und die neuen, offene Plattformen, wie sie für Web 2.0 typisch sind, stellten allen - scheinbar ohne Einschränkungen - mächtige Werkzeuge zu Verfügung. Warum eine eigene Plattform betreiben, wenn grosse professionelle Anbieter das besser, sicherer und kostenfrei anbieten? Heute sind die Probleme dieser Entwicklungen aber deutlich zu erkennen. Im Folgenden werden die Herausforderungen dieser Nischenbildung, die dunkle Seite der zentralisierten Infrastrukturen sowie die darauf reagierenden, neue Entwürfe für de-zentrale Infrastrukturen skizziert.

Volltext online: Von Nischen und Infrastrukturen. Herausforderungen und neue Ansätze politischer Technologien. Medienimpluse 2/11 (21.06)

The state of free culture, 2011

The Free Culture Forum released the Declaration on Sustainable Models for Creativity in the Digital Age in February 2011 following their second Forum in Barcelona in October 2010. This loose global network of artists, cultural producers, political activists and scholars is spearheading a movement to enable culture to be free for all to express and enjoy and to prevent it from being enclosed through copyright and other regulations that are preventing access to what should be a cultural commons.

In this text, I will assess the state of free culture today by first locating it within the broader movement for the digital commons. I will then look at the first two phases of free culture which centered around technological and legal issues. This sets the context to assess the current phase of economic and institutional experimentation.

The full article is here. A substantially shortened, but nicely lay-outed version is here (pdf, 8.8.MB), as published in the Spring|Summer issue of the Komsos Journal.

Wikileaks und Medienaktivismus

Mein Artikel zu "WikiLeaks: Neue Dimensionen des Medienaktivismus" (pdf) ist bei Kommunikation@Gesellschaft veröffentlicht worden.

Mit WikiLeaks hat der Medienaktivismus eine neue Dimension erreicht. WikiLeaks versteht die neuen sozio-technischen Möglichkeiten und institutionellen Widersprüche, die die gegenwärtige Phase der Entwicklung der Netzwerkgesellschaft kennzeichnen, für sein Projekt nutzbar zu machen. Politisch bleibt das Projekt allerdings schwer kategorisierbar, da es gleichzeitig eine markt-libertäre und eine institutionskritische Haltung vertritt, gleichermassen staatliche wie privat-wirtschaftliche Akteure mit einschliesst. Solche Widersprüche können ausgehalten werden, denn anders als traditionelle aktivistische Medien versucht WikiLeaks sein Material nicht in einen erklärenden Zusammenhang zu stellen, sondern überlässt die Interpetation anderen.

Platform Politics Conference

Here's the abstract of my planned contribution to Platform Politics: A Multidisciplinary Conference, - Cambridge 12-13 May 2011.

The Pirate Bay and WikiLeaks. Platforms for radical politics of access

The two defining stories of radical media activism over the last few years have been The Pirate Bay (launched in late 2003) and WikiLeaks (launched in late 2006). The former's aim has been to highlight in the most drastic fashion the inadequacy of the current copyright regime. In order to do so, it established an alternative distribution platform based on free access to media products. WikiLeaks was founded to make possible access to insider information by encouraging whistle-blowers around the world to bring their material to the public, protected via WikiLeaks. Beyond protecting whistle-blowers, WikiLeaks aim has been to transform journalism by forcing it to publish – as much as possible – its sources so that the public can check the veracity of the claims. Its founder, Julian Assange, called this “scientific journalism”.

In my contribution to the conference, I propose look at the politics of these platforms in three ways. First, by analyzing how it has been articulated by the activists themselves. They are distinct from most previous media activists, in so far as they are not directly connected to traditional social movements and their political agendas, but are rooted in the hacker culture and its specific political culture, centering around access to (public) information, transparency of institutions and individual empowerment.

Second, I will look at the politics of the infrastructures. Each was built using open source software that has been adapted with very considerable technical skill. Each has been run by a very small number of people, using very little money (in comparison to what they achieved).

Some Reviews of our "Personal Web searching" paper

There has been a number of reviews of our paper "Personal Web searching in the age of semantic capitalism."

  • The first was a very thorough summary in Search Engine Land (14.02).
  • Ethan Zuckerman published an interesting, though weirdly titled -- " In Soviet Russia, Google researches you" -- review (24.03) in which he pointed out that
    personalization is disturbing to the extent to which it separates us from the real, true, stable search results, the ur-results Google is withholding from us in the hopes of selling us ads for effectively… but even more disturbing is the idea that there’s no solid ground, no single set of best results Google could deliver, even if it wanted to.
  • Zuckermann's review was picked up and slightly mangled by the German newspaper "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" (28.03).
  • Martin Feuz and I wrote a short summary of the paper for the Swiss newspaper NZZ (07.04).
  • MIT Technology Review (11.04) published a piece called "How Useful Is Personalized Search?" focusing on our finding that the there is lots of quantitative change in personalization, but rather limited qualitative. (Also available in German.)

Leaks, Remixes und die Unordnung der Diskurse

In: Springerin, Heft 2/11

Die beiden radikalsten Medienprojekte der letzten 10 Jahre, The Pirate Bay (TPB) und WikiLeaks, haben in kürzester Zeit haben sie entscheiden dazu beigetragen, bestehende „Kontrollprinzipien“ diskursiver Ordnungen ausser Kraft zusetzen. In der Folge entsteht der Raum für neue diskursive Formationen, deren Konturen erst unscharf zu erahnen sind.

TPB, 2003 ins Leben gerufen, trug wesentlich dazu bei, file-sharing zu einem Massenphänomen zu machen. Zwar nach wie vor der wichtigste BitTorrent Tracker (mit momentan über 27 Millionen aktiven NutzerInnen), aber es gibt unzählige anderer, geschlossener und offener Tracker, so dass file-sharing nicht mehr vom Schicksal dieses einen Projekts abhängt. Mehrere Wellen der Strafverfolgung, sowohl gegen Tracker als auch gegen individuelle Nutzerinnen, konnten weder die Infrastruktur noch die Popularität von file-sharing in relevanter Weise schwächen. WikiLeaks, das Ende 2006 an die Öffentlichkeit getreten war, etablierte ein neues Modell wie Insider grosse Datensätze – wie sie in allen Organisationen vorhanden sind – anonym an die Öffentlichkeit bringen können, um verborgene Missstände aufzuzeigen. Egal wie es mit WikiLeaks als spezifische Organisation weitergeht, es zeichnet sich jetzt schon ab, dass das Prinzip der Leaks ganzer Datenbanken weiter gehen wird. WikiLeaks selbst ist nach wie vor hoch aktiv und bereits positionieren sich selbsternannte Nachfolger.

currently operating leaking platforms

Not all of them are actually fully operating, some are still in planning stages, and tunileaks and frenchleaks are, strictly speaking, not a leaking platforms but republish selected US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks. We can see a great deal of innovation in this space, addressing some of the most problematic architectural flaws of WikiLeaks, mainly the high degree of centralization and the lack of transparency that goes with it. Now that the efficacy of the basic principle has been established beyond doubt, the next phase is about fine-tuning the systems. If that can be done inside WikiLeaks, ot or if the next phase will be achieved by any of the alternative platforms remains to be seen, but it seems likely that one way or the other, it will be achieved.

Free Culture Forum Declaration

sustainable creativity

The Free Culture Forum has launched its declaration on "Sustainable Models for Creativity in the Digital Age". After last year's "Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge", the declaration is an important next step in the self-definition of the free culture movement. It moves beyond licensing issues, focusing instead on long-term sustainability, which needs to combine income streams for professional producers with the right to access and re-use material for the general public. I think this is crucial, but admit to being somewhat biased, since I played a part in drafting these documents. See for yourself.

We can no longer put off re-thinking the economic structures that have been producing, financing and funding culture up until now. Many of the old models have become anachronistic and detrimental to civil society. The aim of this document is to promote innovative strategies to defend and extend the sphere in which human creativity and knowledge can prosper freely and sustainably.

This document is addressed to policy reformers, citizens and free/libre culture activists to provide them practical tools to actively operate this change.

  • How To for Sustainable Creativity [30 pages]
  • Syndicate content