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Lessig, L. Free Culture Intro-Ch. 2

September 23, 2010

Well, I don’t want to sound too biased about what I’ve read so far, but… I’m diggin the book (well at least the parts I delineate)!

One of the first points I’d like to make about this book (always with a tag of, “so far as I have read”) is the accessibility of Lessig’s writing. It’s not weighed down with fancy names, ackronyms or big words. His writing sounds as if he is talking, and I appreciate that! This is not to say he’s “watering” or “dumbing” down his ideas (actually there were several places I thought he couldn’t have said something more simpler yet profound), but to say that his writing was clear, concise, and precise. I did no sifting through these chapters.  

From the beginning, Lessig takes the reader back in times of technological breakthrough(s) (i.e., Wright Brothers – manned flight, Armstrong – FM radio, Walt Disney – creation of Mickey Mouse and Steamboat Willie, and Louis Dagguere – Kodak camera, to name a few) which has spurred on political debates and contentions and at the same time greatly transformed our culture’s way of expression.  He outlines how each of these (previously mentioned) examples have conflicted with special interest groups (mostly Big Corp) with different levels of power who attempted to supress these inventions’ dissemination into the public sphere by way of law. Much of his chapters focus on the notion of the public vs. private domain which he equates to notions of freedom (the public) and permission (the private).  He describes the struggles each of these examples have had to fight for against those individuals (or groups)  who try to “privatize” or “own” whatever spaces/places/images that particular technology enables. His argument claims that in order to protect our first amendment and our right to create, the law must allow for “free” culture to be present and protected.  He spends a lot of time discussing Walt Disney, who, in today’s context, would be considered a “thief” who “stole” parts of another person’s creation and used those parts without the original owner’s permission (specifically discussing Buster Keaton’s creation of Steamboat Bill Jr., and the Grimm’s fairytales).  However, Lessig argues that it’s not “stealing” when you are taking parts and parcels and creating something new from it. In fact, he says, this is essential in order for us to create! Also, he critiques those individuals who label and define this creative process as greedy and controlling power hoardmongerers ( I don’t know if that’s a real word or not, but it works)  who are less worried about creativity and innovation and more concerned with controlling resources and decreasing competition to benefit themselves. He states: “the law’s role is less and less to support creativity, and more and more to protect certain industries against competition” (p. 19).   His call to us from the beginning is urgent and a premonition of the closing-in of our rights to challenge, to provide alternative ideas and solutions, and to our own potential to create in the interest of private gain if we do not understand the source of the “copyright wars”.  He makes a distinction between ‘”commercial culture” … that is produced and sold or produced to be sold’ and ‘”noncommercial culture” … [which is] all the rest’ (p.7). He argues that government, who is influenced primarily by powerful corps., has control over both realms, when in the past “noncommercial cultures” had much more freedom than today’s culture.

Chapter 1 discusses the dominant discourse and notion of “piracy”. He discusses how “piracy” is a term/concept that has been coopted by special interest groups and promoted as “public interest”. What I found the most ‘fun’ to read was his argument discussing “ripping”.  I think that the concept of piracy is such a tight rope and he toed it well.  To support his argument, he brings in Japanese culture and the manga (the graphic novel) and the doujinshi (copycat comic). The doujinshi translates much the same as Disney’s version of ‘Steamboat Willie’ to manga, which is Buster Keaton’s ‘Steamboat Bill Jr.,’. According to the book, doujinshi actually enhances the business of manga because it allows for the re-telling or re-creating of manga. Somewhat like a co-creation with producer and user. Within US contemporary culture, I see this through amateur trailers for movies on Youtube.com. For example, the movie Twilight and its wild success managed to inspire youth from all over to create their own media versions of the upcoming movie, Eclipse.  Thousands of hits are recorded and the comments actually say things like, ‘I can’t wait to see this movie even more now that I saw this! Thanks for making it!’ In anticipation for the movie, fans of Twilight became even more excited to see the newest movie before it was even in theaters.  To me, this is a current example of doujinshi/Disney and manga/Keaton.  Even though creators of these amateur trailers were “pirating” or “ripping” from other places, they were creating something new by piecemeal  from their newly re-arranged rips.  One of the implications was the “new” pieces’ power to (through the Internet) engage others, which created more hype, saliency, and positive publicity for the movie.  He juxtaposes manga and doujinshi and historical US culture with today’s current copyright wars, specifically calling attention the crackdown on Napster for “illicitly” and illegally distributing copyrighted material. I think his juxtaposition is powerful and draws forth a critical eye in understanding the power special interest groups have over the public. When it benefits them, they call it “creativity” and when it doesn’t, they call it, “stealing.”  I enjoyed his exploration over the discourse and the language thrown around, which demonstrated the importance of the people with power and privilege. It reveals those who have the power to shape discourse, and how they use it as a strategic weapon. In a way, he is doing the exact same thing, only turning out the dominant discourse  to reveal it as something oppressive and disconcerting. No?

Query: Where do you find yourself in this argument? The lines are fuzzy. When is it “stealing” and when is it a public domain where it is considered “free”?

Chapter 2 discusses the transformative effect the digital media and the Internet has had on the public. From p. 37 to the end of the chapter, I was completely engaged because this is where my interests lie–how can we use technology as a tool for empowerment? If it’s going to be around for awhile and we can’t escape it, and without losing our critical lens, how can we find areas of resistance and transformation? This chapter outlines different strategies. In our ubiquitous media-laden and iconographic world, how can we use the same tools that created the environment we are submerged in to understand it better, to critique it, to improve it? First, according to Daley, we must understand that digital media is a language unto its own.  In transforming oppressive social issues, we can use media to either/and reveal, challenge, and/or subvert dominant media ideology. The Internet and web 2.0 software allows for more members to be included in the conversations. In understanding and interacting with media in this way, we become “write capable,” or an individual who has more agency and power, rather than a passive ‘read-only” consumer of media. I liked the analogies.  Also, Lessig argues that digital media can offer different, more powerful forms of expression than just text alone.  Within, my own experience, I felt this with my online mothering community.  In it, we shared ideas, stories, and in many ways were able to engage in a dialogue about the discourse (although we never used those words) we wouldn’t have had before, or at least to that degree.  Sometimes these discourses were reified, but sometimes they were challenged.  The important thing to remember is this was at least a space where the discourse could be engaged in potentially meaningful ways. I think one of the main points  I took from these pages were not to forget about the law, and the law’s influence on what we think, what we are allowed to see and not see. Laws shapes our reality! 

Blogging, a bit like forums, are spaces where people can congregate to share ideas, engage in dialogue over particular issues, and learn a great deal. Lessig also argues that blogs are the most powerful/ “important form of “unchoreographed” public discourse we have” (p. 41).

Query: And, while I do agree these spaces have that potential, I have to pause and make myself remember the degree of power dominant discourse has and how it filters into everything. Also, I doubt these blogs will be this transformative once big businesses start snuffing out amateur blogs by inundating the web with their own, but until they find a way to gain control over the blogs, it can still be considered “more” promising than other forms… Yes? No? Thoughts?

Anyway, I think these beginning chapters will be a great resource for my potential paper topic on theory formation and youth.

Looking forward to comments and responses.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. allitravis permalink*
    September 24, 2010 10:02 am

    I agree–I like the author’s writing style quite a bit, definitely keeps me interested and wanting to read all of it instead of skipping over parts that seem to be wordy and overdramatized.

    I liked the part about piracy as well. As a comparison to the spin off Twilight mini-movies you mentioned as being a positive promotion for the film series, what do you think about other ‘pirating’ films like the Scary Movie series, which takes other movies and makes a mockery of their plot lines? I didn’t see the latest Scary Movie film, but in the previews I saw that they poked fun at the latest Twilight movie…dumbing it down and making it look like it had a cheesy plot line. I feel that if anything, pirating works like the Scary Movie films TAKE AWAY from other works they have ‘borrowed’ material from, not promote them. Thoughts?

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