Funny how the mind works in a hyperlinked Web. One moment we’re searching for this, then we trip across that, and suddenly a distraction becomes a fascination. It was just such a train of … can I even say thought … that led me to a brief essay that expressed the tension many of us feel between the desire to share what we know, and the pressure to control, profit or merely get credit for our work.

The focused mission that launched me on this diversion was an exploration of Remix Culture, the emerging practice of grabbing bits of this and that to make new whole that are presumably greater than the sum of the parts. That search led me to the nexus of alternative copyright, Creative Commons, and ultimately to Opsound.org, an experimental site for audio artists. And that’s where my thought engine got derailed in reading what Opsound artist Sal Randolph had to say about mix’n’match culture:

“There is a tension between our need to be able to use cultural elements freely and the desire to make a living off of the kinds of value that are made by creativity and innovation. This isn’t only true for artists. The phenomenon is much broader, across all of our cultural knowledge, from science and technology to folklore and custom, games and sports. In a strange paradox, as technology multiplies our interconnections and access to each other’s contributions, it also motivates content owners towards restriction and control.”

Randolph alludes to open source software, which evolved around the general public license, and the new media ferment that has been catalyzed by the copyleft licenses, and observes that these are crucial (but preliminary steps) “in the creation of a social consensus (another sort of social technology) that we all have a stake in a common culture which has been collectively authored.”

That struck me as a deep and interesting notion, one that seems at the same time hopelessly idealistic yet temptingly plausible. One glance at the prime time television would suffice to depress. Yet at the same time there are quite obviously arising the tools that allow ordinary people to create works to amuse or inform each other. This could allow us in the not-too-distant-future to return to what I imagine to be the past. Before electricity people played pianos or fiddles or simply told stories. Industrialization and specialization squelched that. It was more efficient for most of us — who, after all, have limited talents in these regards — to outsource entertainment and information, freeing us to focus on whatever core competencies we might enjoy.

I say that but it doesn’t mean I like it. I fancy Robert Heinlein’s observation that specialization is for insects. Yet we live in a specialized world. At least those of us who enjoy the pleasures of hyperlink that is one of the sweetest honeys of our hive-like global economy. What a conundrum. Some few of us may rediscover the joys of self-expression, while many billions more could live comfortably for a month on what I pay for broadband access. I don’t know whether to clap or weep, so I guess I’ll just go to work.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media