[as a continuation of the discussion of Yochai Benkler's "The Wealth of Networks", the first part of which discusses the economic aspects of networks, found here]
In the first part of Yochai Benkler’s argument, he analyzed the relationship of the ‘network’ to the market. In the second part of his argument, he discusses our relationship to culture and how culture is created.
Through these twin characteristics—transparency and participation—the networked information economy also creates greater space for critical evaluation of cultural materials and tools. The practice of producing culture makes us all more sophisticated readers, viewers, and listeners, as well as more engaged makers.
The radically declining costs of manipulating video and still images, audio, and text have, however, made culturally embedded criticism and broad participation in the making of meaning much more feasible than in the past. Anyone with a personal computer can cut and mix files, make their own files, and publish them to a global audience. (275)
Again, this needs a bit of unpacking. First off, culture is defined roughly as the shared language of communication: with everything from the actual language to the various symbols, products, and shared spaces, culture is both the background and foreground of how we make ourselves understood to other people. Background culture is a priori in that it is the uncontested assumptions that we build our foreground culture on, which is the stuff that we can argue about.
Successful major companies like Apple and Nike engage ‘culture’ in attempting to integrate their symbols and products into part of the background culture: you aren’t buying a computer, you are buying into a group of like-minded users; you aren’t buying simply an expensive jacket, you are buying into an identity (290). This approach works so long as the symbolic status of the products is uncontested (it remains in the background). A non-market project like Google or Wikipedia, however, is more concerned with creating relevancy to the user. Google’s Pagerank system is based on counting how many links point to a specific site, claiming that this is a symbol of a site’s relative importance. Though relevancy is anchored to link creation, anyone trying to outright cheat the relevancy system through link-farming or other forms of search engine optimization is sometimes outright banned from Google’s search. Likewise, Wikipedia’s relevancy is based on that it is a culmination of what other people have found interesting or useful to know about a subject. In varying degrees, Google and Wikipedia address the foreground of culture, which is about creating and debating meaning. As compared to Apple and Nike, Google and Wikipedia are both participatory in that you engage in creating the meaning and relevancy, and both are transparent in that you can learn and understand how that meaning was made.
Structurally, the ease of creating, mixing, and debating culture is amplified by the internet and other networks. While the ‘aura’ (in Walter Benjamin’s terms) or special significance of individual (unique) creations is lost in mass production, gained is a greater outreach. Television and Radio replaced Folk Tales and Campfires in creating mass cultural awareness, statistically speaking. This sort of mass-media meant a new sort of litigation and method of production which gave rise to a ‘culture industry’ (see:Hollywood) that worked similarly to any material industry (294-6). However, we are reaching a new stage where the barriers of production costs and outreach are now significantly lowered by technology, leading to the reintroduction of a sort-of folk culture. Once again, I bring the example of the blooming Makers and DIY movements that sprout all around the country, or shops like eBay and Etsy, or outputs like YouTube or WordPress.
However, the legal framework concerning actually creating or remixing culture remains industrial-era (due to special interest groups and not because of the public will, no doubt), where the act of adapting, appropriating, exchanging, remixing, mimicking, or reinterpreting cultural goods is still illegal and constrained. Never-mind that that is exactly how culture evolves, through a slow process of transformative and repetitive mimicry; never-mind that the process of participation enhances our understanding of culture and makes us better producers—it would be better for industry to keep us all as passive consumers and not undermine the background-culture production line of major corporations. The unorchestrated revolt against mass-produced culture then takes place at the intersection of the high cost of actually enforcing litigation, and the low cost of engaging in the ‘creative cultural bricolage’ (278).
To conclude, neither the internet nor any other network will create any change on its own. “The internet does not make us more social beings. It simply offers more degrees of freedom for each of us to design our own communications space than were available in the past… people do what they can, not what they cannot,” and tend to prefer to do what is easier to what is harder (271-2). So, short of a special-interest coup in public policy, I think it is clear in which direction technology can take us.Read More