Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Free Culture

I love free.  I blog about it; I tweet about it; I consume it; I produce it.

Free Culture is a difficult concept for some to understand, primarily because we have been born and raised in a capitalist society where few things in life are truly free, both in terms of their monetary cost and our ability to influence or control them. When you’re born and raised into this kind of environment — one of disempowerment — powerlessness becomes normal, to the point where we are not even cognisant of the limitations that are placed on our freedom.

Capitalism is merely a familiar frame of reference, but through indoctrination our consumerist personality becomes forged — along with an accompanying perception of reality that people are often unable to let go of in order to see things differently.

Education, both formal and informal, perpetuates this. Far from being an advancement of knowledge, it is more accurately conceptualized as a mechanism for advancing the status quo, and with advanced education can come advanced indoctrination. Through education, commercialization and cost become synonymous with quality and value.

While the trite phrase “the best things in life are free” can be applied to things equally trite — a sunny day or the smile on a child’s face — it almost certainly does not apply to “real” goods and services in our society, does it? Value is attributed to commodities by their price, and by the fact that they are privately owned to begin with. This association between cost, control and actual value, perpetuated by capitalism, becomes internalized and reflected in our own personal values and perceptions.

For example, there is a stigma attached to the notion of reducing or eliminating the scope of property (“Communism”). There is suspicion about the value of anything that one person would freely give away to another (“defective,” “worthless,” or “outdated”), and the character of any person that would depend on others to provide them with goods or services free of charge (“lazy”, “welfare”). With the amount of terms and conditions associated with so-called free gifts, and the serious limitations that our legal system imposes on what we know as freedom, the definition of the word free and its scope in terms of our real-life behaviours has really devolved into something almost completely meaningless.

I am a “consumer” of free culture (to borrow the capitalist term), and have a professional affinity for the ideas it promotes. These two realms are actually closely tied together. Social work (my previous career) has high social value, but is not well financially compensated by society.  This low value that capitalist society places on the value of my  work (and consequently reflected by the amount of income it earned) is what initially prompted me to become both a purveyor and a recipient of free culture, as a means of supplementing what was already a modest lifestyle, purely as a means of personal survival.

When I say “a consumer of free culture” I'm speaking in the comprehensive sense: many of the clothes that I wear, the items and appliances in my home, the materials I used to build my home, the music I listen to, the books I read and videos I watch on the Internet, the blogs I enjoy, the home computer I work on and the operating system and software that run the computer — all of these were freely given to me by people who made a conscious choice to cut out the capitalist middleman or simply put people before profit, and share with others.

Why? Why would complete strangers choose to share their personal and intellectual property with other strangers?

The fact that free culture seems like a new and revolutionary concept speaks volumes about the degree that we've been co-opted by capitalism. Once upon a time, freedom was the catalyst of all human progress. Once upon a time there existed an environment of collaboration where people worked for the common good. It wasn't a fairy tale, 
“it was culture, which you didn't need the permission of someone else to take and build upon. That was the character of creativity at the birth of the last century” (Lawrence Lessig).
One person had an idea, which another built upon, and yet another adapted to meet their own needs, while another still revised it in a way that improved it yet again. Who was it that said, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”? Isaac Newton.

The creativity and innovation responsible for human progress has traditionally built upon existing work, but copyright, patents, trademarks, and other intellectual property laws are working to prevent that process (Lessig). Sharing our excess time, effort and resources with each other mutually benefits us all, and leads to collective prosperity, but this flies in the face of modern drives to accumulate, hoard and protect. Over time, society is becoming more restrictive and guarded, and the potential for progress is being diminished accordingly.

Free culture promotes the creation and distribution of resources in ways that equalize opportunities for people. It encourages people to benefit from the contributions of others, contribute something back, then invite others to do the same. The concept applies to both tangible and intangible commodities: speech, ideas, books, software, music, computer networks, education, and anything else that people can create, share, and develop (freeculture.org).

I do what I can.  I use free software like the Linux operating system, I freecycle goods to others, I produce content under the Creative Commons license, to name a few things.  How about you?

The use and promotion of free culture is an exercise in radical social transformation because many of us are so deeply ingrained with the perception that usage restrictions are normal, even necessary, and that nothing of any value is given away for free. What is the meaning of charity in modern society, when even donations come with the expectation of a charitable tax receipt?

Change it. Circulate property, knowledge, time, expertise, without expectation.  Realize the value of what you possess by transferring it to others who can use it.  In North America, where middle class material wealth is high and informational wealth is nearly infinite, our real value is not in what we accumulate and hoard, but what we give away.

For further reading:
"Earth" image by Camille Harang.