Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Free Culture

I wrote this entry, originally, on July 6, 2004.

In the very beginning of his book, Free Culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity, Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford Law Professor and reknowned Internet intellectual seems to be taking a rather narrow approach when describing the sense of the word "free" in the title of his book: Free Culture.

Although I may be mistaken, in the following passage from the preface, Lessig seems to be confusing "free" with the freedom to put the past behind, to become free of its control over us.

A free culture supports and protects creators and innovators. It does this directly by granting intellectual property rights. But it does so indirectly by limiting the reach of those rights, to guarantee that follow-on creators and innovators remain as free as possible from control of the past. A free culture is not a culture without property, just as a free market is not a market in which everything is free. The opposite of a free culture is a "permission culture"--a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past.

Let us first attend to the question of "permission" and then to "freedom".

It is hard to see how creators of the past could give any "permission" one way or the other. It appears as if Lessig is taking some poetic license with the word "permission". So, perhaps my whole enterprise of interpreting his definitions in any serious way is just off the course … but I have to assume he is somewhat serious about his definitions … and go on giving my own interpretation of them …

Turning to freedom "from" the control the past exercises on us, I would like to observe that we don't have any such freedom.
We only imagine we do.

The freedom we do have is a freedom to review, interpret, re-mix and learn from the past and move towards a possible future, disclosing its various aspects and possible realizations. I think later on in his book, Lessig is really focusing on that type of interpretive and creative freedom. So, it is a pity that he defines "free" as he does in the first few pages of Free Culture. I find that definition at best unnecessarily narrow and at worst inconsistent with the force of the rest of his argument.

As Heidegger has pointed out in his Was hei├čt Denken?, rootedness is the very essence of meditative thought. Without rootedness it is impossible to grasp the past, the present or the future in a context that relates to our being. So, to state that "free culture" is about freedom from the "control of the past" is to confuse the very meaning of the past and of culture.

A rooted culture, e.g. the Shiite Muslim culture, is not to be confused with a culture where only what the old version of that culture has permitted receives expression. On the contrary, a free culture has a capability to re-interpret what has gone on up to the present moment. In fact, elsewhere in his book, Lessig gives expression to this understanding of what "free" means.

Lessig should have defined "free culture" as one where:

… follow-on creaters and innovators remain as free as possible to re-interpret the past, and do so for all of the past, not just a selected portion of it that is perpetuated by commercial activity protected by copyrights …

Furthermore, the opposite of "free culture" is not a "permission culture" but a "shackled culture," where the past is shackled either by neglect (or otherwise by purposeful forgetfulness) from being re-interpreted in creative ways. A "shackled culture" or a "culture of slavery" only allows certain interpretations and ideas to survive. All other ideas are banished into the abyss of silence and fall forever out of reach. In a free culture, all ideas have an opportunity to florish and be interpreted anew.

It is that sense of "freedom" that the rest of Lessig's book is about.

Finally, to what extent big media is involved in purposefully using "technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity," as Lessig's book title suggests, is open to question. While big media's use of technology and the law in pursuit and protection of their commercial interests may lead to such lock-down and control, it is the job of policy-makers and the government to set the rules of the game to strike a sustainable balance between private property and free culture. If the giants of media business care little about Free Culture, that lack of care is more a by-product, not flowing from their direct intent, but a derivative consequence of their calculative, profit maximizing mode of being. One may still argue, from an economic point of view, that a shackled culture is bad for profit in the marketplace of ideas but that requires a separate, more in-depth consideration.

Note: I wrote this note on July 5th while waiting in the Mumbai International Airport for my flight to Frankfurt. I had just flown in from Bangalore and had to wait until 2:55 am, July 6th, to get on my flight to Frankfurt. It would be 19 hours in total before I can make it from Bangalore to Frankfurt. I entered it as a blog while sitting at 54f offices in Darmstadt. 54f is an architecture company my brother and three others from Darmstadt University founded some time ago . . . More on 54f to come later.

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