Geert Lovink: ‘Critique of the Free and Open’ Keynote

On: November 10, 2010
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About Morgan Currie
I’m an American with eight years of experience in video production, but today I'm a student in Amsterdam, thinking a lot about mediums, the Media, technology, and humans & machines communicating in their specific, special ways. I'm finding methods to give these thoughts a space of their own.


Here’s my long-due report on Geert Lovink‘s keynote speech at the Free Culture Research Conference that took place in Berlin 8-10 October (2010). You can also read more on the conference website.

As Lovink described it in his keynote, the debate about ‘free’ and ‘open’ is undergoing a necessary shift. You could say that the framework was once mostly about unshackling culture for dispersal and reuse now that we have the technical means to do so on a massive scale. We can bash up Beatle songs with Jay Z’s, insert strange new lyrics over old music videos, construct new applications from an old line of code, build on or bastardize whatever. This meant dealing with the fact that most creative production is copyrighted by default. Free culture’s first attack, then, was on restrictive legal regimes prohibiting cultural exchange and remix, leading to the rise of innovative legal tools such as the Creative Commons licenses that allow cultural creators to specify when they’re perfectly cool with being copied and rehashed. The idea is that we could and should build a public sphere honey pot for all.

According to Lovink, there has also been a parallel, more critical line of discussion about the repercussions of the free and open movement that began way back in 1999, where gatherers at the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki discussed the larger political economy of the free. With no way back to the old copyright regime, some observed a new kind of precarity in the cultural sector. So a radical position from inside the movement of participatory and free culture raised the point that this movement was barreling towards an entirely new economic paradigm, making it critical to address how artists and cultural producers would make a living. It was unacceptable to simply say that artists will work at Walmart by day and make free-for-download music at night.

Which brings us to the second wave of the debate, circa 2011: the shift from building new legal tools to building new economic models that sustain creative professionals and cultural institutions. The emphasis shifts from the amateur or bricolateur as a victim of restrictive legal regimes, to ideas on how to empower emerging professionals.

The framework of the global economic crisis makes this question especially urgent. There is less and less centralized money available. Europe is slashing budgets in culture and education. Lovink asserts that the free culture movement should move from the legal sphere to experiment with new economic models that redistribute wealth, a necessity we shouldn’t leave up to centralized government or big corporations. But how do we organize?

Lovink next presented a few examples, beginning with alternatives to the ubiquitous Facebook (though I’m still not sure how these examples monetize). While Facebook is free, its revenue model involves crude privacy violations that exploit social relationships and voiced opinions. Alternatives to this parasitic model include downloadable social networking platforms that take after WordPress, both a centralized website and downloadable decentralized tool. These exist in early stages: GNU Social and the Appleseed Project are open source social net software that offer a distributed alternative to social networking logic but still maintain data privacy. Others open source networks include Diaspora, Crabgrass, and Thimbl, a free open source distributed microblogging tool by Dmitry Kleiner.The message here seems to be that we can unburden these sites from predatory revenue models by dispersing the infrastructure and data, true to the spirit of FLOSS.

Lovink’s other examples of alternative models involve social micropayment platforms such as Kickstarter, Kiva, Kachingle, and Flattr which lets you pay in advance, then redistributes your money over the websites you visit. Other new models he mentioned are crowd-sourced funding sites such as Africa Unsigned, where multiple fans invest up front in music recordings by independent musicians, and the FabLabs, MIT’s curious and brilliant personal fabricators.

An audience member asked whether we should emphasize making money at all, or turn instead to innovating other forms of compensation entirely. Maybe the question after alternative revenue models is alternative currency? In any case, critique of the free and open is useful as a framework to figure out how we can make our bread and butter in the digital age, while keeping the public domain alive.

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