Technology is Political and the Political Ramifications of Free Culture
Published 2020-07-27 on Anjan's Homepage
The digital computer is a decentralized tool for the manipulation and copying of information. The traditional technology that facilitated the transfer of information was the printing press. As the history commonly taught in western highschools goes - the printing press was one of the causes of downfall of the catholic church in many countries. In fact, many will mention that the protestant reformation would not have been possible without the printing press.
In Renaissance Europe, the arrival of mechanical movable type printing introduced the era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information—including revolutionary ideas—transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities; the sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class. Across Europe, the increasing cultural self-awareness of its people led to the rise of proto-nationalism, accelerated by the flowering of the European vernacular languages to the detriment of Latin’s status as lingua franca.
Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg CC-BY-SA-3.0
Printing presses do not hold these political opinions. But to argue that technology isn’t political causes one to stop from reflecting on one of the most important forces in society. As such, the following important questions alongside many others are avoided:
- Is this technology good for me?
- How does this technology allow new ways of organization?
- How can I use this technology to assist me in my work to improve society?
The printing press most notably enabled mass production of books and easier distribution of ideas. However, if you only needed one copy of a book, it was still more cost-effective to make the copy by hand rather than paying for the tooling required for a printing press. The digital computer, like its great grandfather the printing press facilitates the spreading of ideas. However, the digital computer makes the cost for producing 1 million copies equal to producing 2 copies. The consequence of this decentralized copying is that it potentially allows every ordinary citizen to become their own mass publishing company without masters.
Computers and their capability for decentralized copying can do a great amount of social good. In 1983, Ben Bagdikian published a book called “The Media Monopoly” in which he predicted a doomsday scenario in which a few corporations owned all the media. It is widely used in journalism classes next to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent 1. In the first version of the Media Monopoly, Ben mentioned that 50 corporations currently controlled most of the media that Americans consumed. By 2017, 5 corporate giants controlled 90% of the media Americans read, watch or listen to 2. Canada has the worst media consolidation issue out of all g8 members:
For example, in 1990, 17.3% of daily newspapers were independently owned; whereas in 2005, 1% were.
Freedom of the press assumes that there will be numerous popular sources of information. However, the dynamics of the old media market3 causes consolidation such that most people effectively get their news from a few sources. The press may be free on paper but in practice, the viewpoints presented in mass media are from a small opinion molding class and are always vetted by the five filters of editorial bias as noted by Noam Chomsky.
This gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history 4.
How likely is it that you will be presented an idea that is against the media monopoly’s interests? Theoretically, the fewer prominent top-level companies there are - the narrower the window of ideas presented.
The notion of even a single social idea being censored due to it not conforming to the parent company’s interests is reason to seek better distribution platforms. Free Culture is a movement that grapples with the current state of media and its ramifications for democracy. The movement attempts to create legal/creative organizations that promote free software (Free Software Foundation), and free media (Creative Commons) to confront the problem of the media monopoly. Free Culture realizes the new abilities of the immaterial digital age for social benefit.
We need to promote platforms for organization that protect our freedom to learn about controversial ideas. Drawing on the ideas of decentralization and user control, the organizational ideas of software freedom are important here. A computer obeys the instructions given by the software. As such, whoever controls the software controls the computer. The ability of computers to replicate and distribute information can be leveraged to conduct mass peer-review of software, ensuring users are not being abused by developers. Without the ability of users to collectively study, modify, change, and improve the software that runs on their computer, they must accept whatever the proprietor wishes to program onto their computer. Proprietary software gives you zero security from malicious features from the proprietor (Click to see over 500 known malicious features in popular proprietary programs with sources). Furthermore, consider how apple regularly censors apps associated with political movements from its app stores 5. Apple’s users have no freedom to remove this malware and must tolerate it. In the free world, users working collectively are free to remove features that are malicious. We do not need to beg and grovel for the proprietor to be better or have the classification of right and wrong made for us.
The decentralized copying of information (federation) allows for social networking in which users can freely associate with digital organizations that share their values. Decentralized social media is only now economically possible thanks to the widespread availability of computers which can copy and forward information at practically no cost. Running a computer server is cheap (about $5 CAD per month). If you are technically inclined and willing to learn, you can easily expand the Free Culture movement by hosting socially responsible services for your social circle.
If you are nontechnical, your actions will determine if society realizes the social benefits of the digital computer. Encouraging participation in public forum hosted on federated free software instead of one of the major media companies is a political act. Even if they are resistant in the beginning, pushing them to participate may be the only way to show them that what you are presenting is not merely a utopian dream but a practical solution for our current problems. Your primary form of communication for organizing political action or personal life should be controlled by you or someone you know in real life. As such, you are minimizing the organizations standing between you and your audience.
An alternative solution endorsed by progressive Democrats and popular media is known as “breaking up the media” 6. However, when one considers the old media market’s3 dynamics and the historical record, this would only be a temporary solution. Consider that AT&T was broken up in an antitrust suit by the United States in 1982 7. Free culture must be involved in the solution to create a longstanding solution to the issue of the media monopoly.
How likely is it that you will be presented an idea that is against the media monopoly’s interests?
It is worth noting that the media monopoly is dismissive of Free Culture on the surface. Media companies see the Free Culture Movement as a serious competitor and constantly work to undermine its ideas. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embrace,_extend,_and_extinguish
TL;DR: Technology is political. It is up to you to realize the new allowances that technology gives you.
This post is inspired by Bradley Kuhn’s talk “FSCONS 2017 - Bradley Kuhn - The Crumbling Intellectual Infrastructure of Free Software”
Old media market means a market without the widespread use of digital computers or a society with widespread digital computers but the citizens do not participate in free culture on a mass scale.
Ben H. Bagdikian, “The Media Monopoly”
Erin Hale, “Hong Kong protests: Apple pulls tracking app after China criticism” The Gaurdian. [Online]. Available: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/10/iranian-hardliners-want-isolated-internet. [Accessed: 2020-07-24].
- O’Brien and L. Oliver, “Iranian Hardliners Want An Isolated Internet — US Politicians and Companies Shouldn’t Help” Electronic Frontier Foundation. [Online]. Available: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/10/iranian-hardliners-want-isolated-internet. [Accessed: 2020-07-24].
- Mozur, “Apple Removes Apps From China Store That Help Internet Users Evade Censorship” New York Times. [Online]. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/29/technology/china-apple-censorhip.html
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