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Culture is Public Because Meaning Is

A contribution to Eyebeam’s forum on Distributed Creativity, 11.12.03 – 12.19.03

As a friend wrote to me recently, collective authorship offers one way out of the dilemmas of postmodern artmaking. It’s a seductive idea, and this forum has spend a very interesting few weeks talking over some of its implications. But as we are winding up the conversation, it occurs to me that it is perhaps important to remember that there’s nothing new about this strategy—distributed creation in combination with what we now think of as appropriation and remixing is how all culture is created. A brief dip into the anthropological perspective reminds us of the obvious (but somehow forgettable) fact that culture is an agglomeration of countless anonymous acts of creativity and filtering. Everything we do, from how we make coffee in the morning, to the clothes we put on and the words we use to greet the first person we see, is cultural creation. In our own cultures, we are always producers as well as consumers. We don’t need special occasions, systems, software, or organizations for this to be true. We’re constantly modifying and adapting our language, our meals, our manner of interacting, our leisure activities, our parenting, sometimes with larger and more intentional acts of creativity, sometimes with small variations we don’t even think about. Some of these innovations are passed along to the people we encounter, some remain private.

All of this goes on, constantly and continuously, with or without our intentions. We are the creators, inheritors, owners, and consumers of languages, cities, customs, values and ideas. As artists, we are collaborators whether we mean to be or not, working from the cultural context built by countless others, contributing to the work of others as soon as we release what we do into the world. As Clifford Geertz suggests, “culture is public because meaning is.” pdf

And I think we generally feel a natural moral right to use our culture the way we want to, which is why there are some kinds of limits on copyright and on the private fencing-off of the commons of culture (use is always a bit ruthless and personal, creative at the same time as it is destructive—as Nicholas Bourriaud has said “To use an object is necessarily to interpret it: to use a product is to betray its concepts.”) Obviously, in this moment, we are in a struggle about how much of our culture is collectively owned, and how much is private “property.” 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.

We are already equipped with the technology we need for distributed creativity – the brain. But we do have a strong need for social technologies (laws, for instance) that protect our right to use it. As exciting as legal innovations like the GPL and now the Creative Commons licenses are, what I’ve come to see as crucial is 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. Maybe if we felt a bit more conscious gratitude for the cultural context in which we do our work, we might feel a little less hubristically attached to our heroic individuality as authors and creators.

More than just examples of legal innovation, the gift economies that have grown up around free and open source software are a source of inspiration for a somewhat different way of living in relation to our creative work. Though there are certainly ways of making money on free software (and I believe there are also ways of making money on free art) these communities foreground the other kinds of motivations we might have for doing our work: to solve interesting puzzles, to play, to wow our friends, to contribute to a larger good. Making art and making music are certainly as much fun as making software. Serious fun. As we know from anthropological studies (like Marcel Mauss’ wonderful essay “The Gift”) gift economies are as traditional as you can get, but they are also one of the most interesting social innovations of the current moment.

Many experiments in these areas have been showcased and discussed over the last few weeks. Different forms and structures are being tried, and in my opinion, the more the better. The main thing we can do make any of these structures come alive is simply to participate fully with our own work, to play, to have some serious fun.

Sal Randolph 12.19.03