Participatory Design is in the Content

On January 1, 2005 by Christy

Just scanning over audio interviews over at IT Conversations and I came across an audio recording of a chapter from Lawrence Lessig‘s (Professor of Law at Stanford Law School) book titled Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. The ideas discussed in it and the subsequent ‘derivative’ works created around it are very pertinent to a discussion I’m having with Monique De Haas on the different types of content creation (gee, we’re having fun and learning alot together but can’t someone else join in too!!?). We’re discussing appropriators, ‘textual poachers’ (Henry Jenkins), fan fiction, pirates and so on and looking at when an appropriator becomes an artist, and also how this relates to top-down management of rights etc. Lessig is acutely aware of the difficulty in defining a ‘creator’, a ‘pirate’, a ‘copyist’ and so on. I’ve only just started reading his book but here are some quotes from Lessig’s book that have resonated so far:

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 the 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.(ix)

A free culture has been our past, but it will only be our future if we change the path we are on right now.(xv)

A free culture is not a culture without property; it is not a culture in which artists donÂ’t get paid. A culture without property, or in which creators canÂ’t get paid, is anarchy, not freedom. Anarchy is not what I advance here.

Instead, the free culture that I defend in this book is a balance between anarchy and control.(xvi)

…this book is about an effect of the Internet beyond the Internet itself: an effect upon how culture is made. My claim is that the Internet has induced an important and unrecognized change in that process.(7)

This rough divide between the free and the controlled has now been erased.9 The Internet has set the stage for this erasure and, pushed by big media, the law has now affected it. For the first time in our tradition, the ordinary ways in which individuals create and share culture fall within the reach of the regulation of the law, which has expanded to draw within its control a vast amount of culture and creativity that it never reached before. The technology that preserved the balance of our history—between uses of our culture that were free and uses of our culture that were only upon permission—has been undone. The consequence is that we are less and less a free culture, more and more a permission culture. (8)

Digital technologies, tied to the Internet, could produce a vastly more competitive and vibrant market for building and cultivating culture; that market could include a much wider and more diverse range of creators; those creators could produce and distribute a much more vibrant range of creativity; and depending upon a few important factors, those creators could earn more on average from this system than creators do today—all so long as the RCAs of our day don’t use the law to protect themselves against this competition.(9)

My fear is that unless we come to see this change, the war to rid the world of Internet “pirates” will also rid our culture of values that have been integral to our tradition from the start.(10)

To build upon or critique the culture around us one must ask, Oliver Twist–like, for permission first. Permission is, of course, often granted—but it is not often granted to the critical or the independent.(10)

There has never been a time in our history when more of our “culture” was as “owned” as it is now. And yet there has never been a time when the concentration of power to control the uses of culture has been as unquestioningly accepted as it is now.(12)

What I also love about the concept and the complementary content creation around it is the application of the ideas — the good ol’ putting your money where your mouth is. The book’s website offers not only further discussion and the whole book for free, but an index of ‘derivatives’ or ‘remixes’ from/of the book by people (fans). These works include audio versions, html, pdfs, pdas, flash, wikis and so on. Of course! This excitement and participation reminds me of the hacking of the Hackers movie website in 1995 (of which I can’t find the hacked version on the web anymore — anyone found it?).

Interesting and exciting stuff. But the discussion about types of participation and the issues around it really calls for a continuum of participation. I’m working on that at the mo…any ideas?