Transparent Culture

“It makes culture more transparent to its inhabitants. (275)” Benkler in The Wealth of Networks discusses the way the average person with a connection to the Internet and a few simple tools (mostly free if one scouts around for opensource) can create and participate in a resurgence of folk culture. It may not be mom and pop strumming a guitar in the living room, but it is being created by the regular “folk.” According to Benkler what is significant about this is the mystery that used to surround production is now able to be understood by those participating in the creation of new artifacts. With this new understanding comes the ability to critique it and in turn critique our culture. (Perhaps this is the reason that I respect a critique about my own work coming from another artist rather than those who are not – although non-artists (you know what I mean so don’t give me any flack about my term) sometimes offer the most interesting observations.)

I really appreciated Benkler’s explanation and treatment of background knowledge or shared assumptions and meaning making in the shaping and changing of our collective culture. Benkler describes culture as the collective understanding of who we are, the way things ought to be, and our attempt at making sense of the world we live in. This is made possible through dialog among people. Which is where all this participation in the creation of artifacts is so important. No longer is it the only the elite who have access to understand and use the tools necessary, but (as we have heard 5 billion times now) anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

Creative Commons definitely has a role to play in fostering this transparent conversation. For example, I could be one of those special elite people with bags and bags of money, but I might feel quite comfortable with the fact that someone might have more to “say” based on what I “said.” Why not allow them to copy, paste and remix. I can then copy, paste and remix a response. We can engage in an open conversation and change our minds about meaning, thus changing the culture. At any rate, whether I explained that very well or not, Creative Commons allows me to use artifacts from the culture to create new works.

Fresh on my mind though was the story yesterday about the girls in Afghanistan who were attacked with acid for daring to attend school. How does everything I have been reading in Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks apply to them? They don’t have any computers that I could see in the empty class on today’s news. The Taliban and/or other terrorists don’t care if I post some remix denouncing what they did. I wonder if the Taliban would be up for a little remix of their ideas. I am pretty sure that it is in our background knowledge (the big bad West) that throwing acid on girls and women is unacceptable. Or is it?

Tools in the Public Sphere

Ah yes, Utopia on earth. It has been discussed, debated and philosophized about for centuries. Personally, I don’t believe that in our present condition that we humans will ever achieve said Utopia. Benkler in The Wealth of Networks also acknowledges that the dream of  utopia through the Internet was a naive notion (215). What we are dealing with now is a maturation.

First, it is important to note that this does not mean that things cannot change for the better. Improvements can come. Benkler discusses two great examples of the ways in which the tools, i.e. the Internet and the tools for use within it’s framework, create a public sphere where change and influence can and does occur. I appreciated the real examples of how this so-called democratization would actually look. I had been struggling with some of the concepts without concrete stories. The first example deals with Sinclair Broadcasting where tools on the Internet were utilized to exert pressure on the network to stop an airing of an apparently biased documentary. The second dealt with Diebold, a manufacturer of electronic voting machines, and the trouble they ran into when internal documentation was found to be accessible to the Internet and the implications of impropriety within those documents. What is significant, I think, about this story is that when threatened with legal action to remove Diebold information, students at Swarthmore College engaged in “electronic civil disobedience. (230)” I am taking notes on how they did that.

Secondly, I think the argument that the Internet could possibly be a great equalizer is misplaced. Benkler acknowledges that “this does not mean that all these statements [ones we make on the Internet] are heard by the relevant others to whom they are addressed. (216)” While we may have computers, connections and tools available to enter and engage in the public sphere as never before, we do not all have the influence, stature, or writing abilities of, for example, Ariana Huffington. I mean, how many people read this post? Benkler then adds that achieving the success of those involved in the Sinclair and Diebold cases had is “something a single committed individual could choose to do. (225)” I’m not sure I agree.

Thirdly, I think it is very interesting in both the examples that the “blogosphere” influenced the mainstream media. There was enough buzz about those issues on the Internet to make the editors take notice and make decisions to run stories, further influencing events. While I have always held the belief that we are responsible for what the media dishes out (I will explain my thinking in the another post…someday), it is heartening to see hope in others that they can have influence over what they read, see, and talk about. Or not.

In closing, I leave you with a Benkler quote.
“Understanding what we will lose if such changes [redesign of computer equipment to make it harder for end users to exchange information] indeed warp the topology of the network, and through it the basic structure of the networked public sphere, is precisely the object of this book as a whole. (261)”

Punctuated Equilibria

The first chapter of The Wealth of Networks (How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom) by Yochai Benkler was very interesting reading. I am looking forward to reading more.

In an earlier post, I talked about how mass collaboration is only possible for those with a computer and an internet connection. It does not include many in the developing world and those that do have it in most of those countries are not girls. It is hardly inclusive at this stage of the game. Benkler too points out that the “declining price of computation, communication, and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population – on the order of a billion people around the globe. (3)” This still leaves over 5 billion people without that means. My guess is that it is primarily those who live at a subsistence level. Why guess? Check the Number of computers per 100 inhabitants by Country. The top five are Switzerland, United States, Sweden, Canada and Australia, while the bottom five are Cambodia, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Chad.

Benkler also says that the marks of what a society’s freedom looks like is based on “how we make information, how we get it, how we speak to others, and how others speak to us. (7)” If we were to look at women as a segment of any society I wonder if we could use Benkler’s analysis as a reliable test. Let’s look at Switzerland then. Hmmm, women won the right to vote in 1971. 59% of Swiss women are employed while 75% of men are, but that does not tell us if they are seeking employment. Would the numbers be similar for who is making the information? What about Chad then? Women in Chad could vote in 1958. Well before Switzerland. Women in the workforce in Chad? About 44%. I don’t think this is going to work as a test without some heavy duty analysis. Just because women are given the right to vote doesn’t mean they take advantage of it or even have the ability to exercise that right. That is what is so incredibly embarrassing about the latest vote I participated in. Under 60%! Shameful.

What is also touched on in previous posts, as well as posts by classmates, is the idea that these technologies can bring about social change. Benkler says, “The technology will not overcome their resistance through an insurmountable progressive impulse.” It won’t just happen. “The reorganization of production and the advances it can bring in freedom and justice will emerge, therefore, only as a result of social and political action aimed at protecting the new social patterns from incumbents’ assaults. (23)” It is fragile and it requires those who are willing to fight for it in order to preserve it. Benkler also adds to that discussion by pointing out that the tension between economics, institutions, laws and technology is dynamic, yet it is never in tension for too long a period and usually finds a kind of equilibrium. I suppose then that we can and should look forward to the change that is coming as a result of the economic “shock” we are now experiencing.

What will we renegotiate? What will we fight for?