Free As In Free Culture: Trilemma’d

While this year’s iCommons certainly brought a vast array of different viewpoints and ideas to the table, it occured to me that if one actually sat down to compile a list of existing broad trends in how the Free Culture community deals with itself, it’d actually be fairly short. I’d contend it would read something like this —

1) The Push To Define Freedom — As advocated by Mako and the basis for Driscoll’s current project to collect visions for “How It Looks Like After We’ve Won.” Essentially, the argument for which is pretty reasonable and basic: knowing your end goal is usually useful for guiding your action, even if that goal is very broadly drawn.

2) Free Culture as a Community Uniter — As seen in the James Boyle conception of FC as a “cultural enviromentalist movement” that attempts to forge points of unity between previously disaparte communities a la Silent Spring/Enviromentalism.

3) Free Culture as Inclusive to All Cultural Communities — As seen in classic Lessig and arguably in how Benkler characterizes the Free Culture situation as a battle over two camps of institutional ecology. That is, that Free Culture’s aim should be to bring these issues to as many cultural production communities as possible.

Indeed, I think if you talked to most Free Culture people, you’d find that most people agree to a greater or lesser extent with all three.

But I think if you look at the problem closer, it’s not just that all three are difficult to pursue simultaneously, it’s impossible.

In fact, looking at these three — I think Free Culture faces a trilemma, where you can only at best ever move ahead on two of them. I think the future of Free Culture isn’t in what we should take on, but instead, what we should leave by the wayside.

Think about it:

Let’s say we agree that freedom should be defined (1) and that FC should be a uniter (2). Since all cultural communities have different issues (a la Fred’s point about the different visions of “free” in different endeavors), it will be impossible to move equally strongly on (3) — that is — be all inclusive. This set-up reminds me of the “FSF” model of setting up the movement: defining your boundaries affirmatively for a vision, recruiting allies that agree with that vision of freedom and then fighting for it.

Fine, you say, let’s assume instead that you want to be a cultural enviromentalist uniter (2) and you want FC to be all inclusive (3). But then you’re fucked for (1) — since it’s impossible to be all inclusive and define freedom in a strong way. Instead, you have to leave freedom undefined enough to allow everyone to have their say. I’d say this is kinda like the “enviromentalist” model. That is, a loose affiliation of groups joined by commonalities where they occur.

Alright alright, well, how about you want to define freedom clearly, because it’s good to have a goal (1), and you want to be all inclusive (3). The only way I’d see doing this is having FC play a role in encouraging communities to have a dialogue about their version of freedom and which intellectual property issues are relevant to them. This essentially allows the act of defining freedom to occur in a decentralized way. But in doing so, FC abandons any pretension of attempting to unite all these communities into some kind of coherent force or vision. FC’s role then, is as a facilitator of discussion within and among communities that are empowered to decide for themselves what freedom means — a “freedom is free choice” model.

Independent of which path is the best, I think this frame is helpful since it builds some stable ideas about what configurations are possible, and raises the possibility of what will have to be given up for FC to progress in an effective way.

But, I’m at work right now — so more on this later. WOO!


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