Reflections on Cultural Politics: My Interview for Poli (Part Two)

Today, I am running the second part of the English language translation of an interview I did last year with Maxime Cervulle for Poli, a French magazine of media and cultural theory. Last time, the focus was on cultural politics and cybercitizenship. In this part, I turn my attention more fully to issues around Web 2.0. Enjoy and as always, let me know what you think.
In the current context, user-generated content faces new forms of media concentration, and new types of worrying alliances between governmental power and media conglomerates (for example in the Italian and French political context). Is this a paradoxical situation, or does "participatory culture" sometimes serve as a smoke screen for new economic and political configurations?

At the current moment, participatory culture, user-generated content, web 2.0, refer to a range of different corporate and grassroots practices, some of which are more tightly controlled than others. Certainly, as writers like Tzianna Terranova have suggested, user-generated content can become another word for "free labor", allowing for the outsourcing of expressive activity at considerable cost to those working in the creative industries. Certainly, as Trebor Sholtz and others have suggested, social networks seek to lock down our information, making it harder for us to port our data from space to space. As John Campbell has suggested, many of these sites invite us to trade privacy for access to powerful tools for producing and circulating media content, engaging in various forms of surveilance which may or may not be acknowledged to the users.

As I have suggested, a participatory culture is not necessarily a diverse culture. Indeed, sites like YouTube, which rely on user-moderation, often operate on majoritarian premises which place very little value on access to minority perspectives and in some cases, may be less diverse at their most visible levels than forms of public broadcasting which have a strong mandate for broad representation. So, we really do need to look all of these gift horses in the mouth and try to understand the paradoxes and contradictions of web 2.0 culture.

That said, the sheer proliferation of tools has made it much easier for grassroots communications to route around official censorship, whether corporate or governmental. For example, Huma Yusuf has studied the ways that a range of different media channels -- YouTube, SMS, Facebook, Flickr, among them -- were deployed by activists and citizen journalists to get word out about what was happening in Pakistan during the 2007-2008 state of national emergency. She argues that no sooner did the government seek to close off one channel, then activists rerouted towards a different platform. And when activists were

stiffled at the geographically local level, they were able to tap the participation of a larger diasporic community which remain strongly connected to Pakistan through these various participatory power.

The trick, in other words, is to see participatory culture as having some real potentials for grassroots empowerment even as we maintain a healthy skepticism towards

specific web 2.0 practices which restrain rather than enable meaningful participation.

Many of the European writers about web 2.0 raise important concerns that we all need to factor into our analysis, but they are also, in my opinion, too quick to dismiss any claims that these tools and platforms can be used to effect meaningful social, cultural, and political change. The evidence is all around us that even in their most corrupted forms, they offer significant new

opportunities for activism, for cultural experimentation, and for new kinds of knowledge production. This is at the heart of what some people are describing as Networked Publics. It's easy to characterize my perspective as utopian, which often occurs in European responses to my work, yet if this is the case, I am not a blind utopian. For me, a recognition of the progressive potentials of these technologies and practices provides a basis for critiquing the abuses and manipulations which block such a deployment.

Does the recent turn to "creative industries" (in cultural studies as well as in public policy ­ see UNESCO for example) mark an obsolescence of the notion of "cultural industries"? How does this new notion might help us map new terrains in the relationship between culture, economy and society?

The term, "culture industries," is so closely associated with the Frankfort School tradition that I'm afraid that it locks us into old theoretical models of how the entertainment industry operates. There is some danger that the term, "creative industries," may similarly be coopted, especially as it gets deployed through public policy advocates, into a particular neo-Liberal inflection which may blind us to some of the critical issues I've raised above.

Yet, in the short run, it seems to me that the emergence of a new vocabulary allows us to ask some important questions about shifts in the patterns of cultural production and distribution, changes in the way information gets produced and deployed, and the degree to which our whole economic system may be shifting from commodity capitalism to a service economy to a creative economy, which has significant implications for culture and for education.

As we've seen, the power relations created around mass media, which formed the basis for many of our cultural theories, have been altered through the expansion of social networks and the increased visibility and centrality of participatory culture.This is not to say that commercial interests do not exert a strong influence over the communication environment. Of course, they do, but their power is no where near as totalizing as those classical accounts would suggest. This is not to say that these commercial interests do not seek to shape the hearts and minds of their consumers, but they are adopting rather different models of persuasion which depend upon our active participation and which are subject to our collective critique.

So, the most powerful reason to shift from talking about "culture industries" to 'creative industries" is to signal that we need to question and challenge old assumptions and rethink old theories as we deal with some fundamental changes in the way media gets produced,circulated, and consumed in this era of convergence culture.

What do you mean by "creative economy"? Are you refering to the concept of "cognitive capitalism" ?

I was not familiar with the phrase, "cognitive capitalism," but I took the logical next step in an era of collective intelligence: I looked it up on Wikipedia, where there happens to be a particularly good summary of its core ideas. Here's part of what Wikipedia says: "The production of wealth is no longer based solely and exclusively on material production but is based increasingly on immaterial elements, in other words on raw materials that are intangible and difficult to measure and quantify, deriving directly from employment of the relational, affective and cerebral faculties of human beings." The Wikipedia entry stresses that these "immaterial elements" are getting translated into "intellectual property" and are thus generating rents

through copyright protections. So, based on this definition, then I would say there's a close relationship between the two concepts.

The "cognitive capitalist" model seems to adopt a largely critical stance on these developments, where-as most of those who use "creative economy" are celebrating the shifts. Both are describing a series of moves from commodity and industrial based modes of production towards a service based economy towards an economy based on brands and intellectual property. And there's no question that the struggles over intellectual property will be the core conflicts which will shape our cultural and political lives for the coming decades. The good news is that we are seeing considerable activism emerging around issues of fair use, net neutrality, privacy, and control over personal information and these groups are gaining some ground in institutional change and much more ground in terms of actual cultural practice. The general public today embraces a model of intellectual property which differs fundamentally with the stated goals and

interests of the corporate sector, as they are increasingly taking media into their own hands, and that is forcing legal and economic changes that have to acknowledge, incorporate, and respect the emerging power of participatory culture.

So, if the intellectual property industries represent a form of "cognitive capitalism," might we argue that Wikipedia itself represents a kind of "cognitive socialism?" After all, the content of the site is freely given by those who choose to participate; participates seek no material rewards but

rather are sharing knowledge for the common good; I was able to access that information without paying rents; and I was just able to deploy it in responding to your question. And that's precisely the challenge I would pose to the most critical accounts of these trends.

There is something different taking place here in social organization and political behavior in a world where information can become a source of power and wealth, where social networks allow for new forms of collaborations between groups and individuals, where information can circulate with little to no direct costs, and where much information is being provided for free from groups which are not motivated primarily on a commercial basis. Certainly, we need to be very aware of how commercial interests may feed upon and exploit this grassroots effort at the production of information. But we also need to recognize the alternative economy which is represented by the growth of these new social networks.

In some current work, I've been looking closely at Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift which talks about the ways that commodity capitalism intersects with the gift economy. I'm finding this as a very helpful starting point for understanding the tensions which are now defining our economic and legal systems. Many of the groups which have emerged on or moved to the web have historically operated not only according to different values than commodity culture but they have explicitly argued against making profits from the circulation of their work. This is certainly true of the female-centered fan culture which was the focus of my book, Textual Poachers, several decades ago. And the movement to the web has enabled them to lower costs of production and circulation even more, transforming their cultural goods into gifts which are freely bestowed on anyone who is interested. We can't romanticize this new "gift economy." We have to understands the strengths and limitations of its models. But we can't

ignore it as a counterforce on "cognitive capitalism" if we are to develop a full understanding of the new information landscape.

The model of "cognitive capitalism," at least as represented through Wikipedia, seems incomplete if it emphasizes only the mechanisms by which capitalism is reproducing itself in an era where intellectual property is king, and does not confront the alternative systems of production and distribution which are emerging from participatory culture. So, the wikipedia definition, based on the writings of Ed Emery, continues: "The subjection of the worker within the production process is no longer imposed in disciplinary fashion by direct command (foremen etc); most of the time it is introjected and developed through forms of conditioning and social control. Individualised contractual relations are the order of the day, and this tends to introduce individual competitiveness into people's working behaviours." Yet, we can also argue that

a networked society has enabled new forms of informal, noncommercialized collaboration and cooperation in which information is freely shared for the benefit of all.

Even as this new stage of capitalism you're refering to could completely remap power relations and economic opportunities in new and imprevisible ways, it also implies that unequal access to technologies, computation power or high-speed connection might result in unequal economic developments. What kind of "access politics" should be deployed?

I make a distinction between the digital divide, which has to do with access to the technology, and the participation gap, which has to do with access to skills, knowledge, and cultural/social capital. In many ways, the first is a problem which can be and is being addressed through the provision of access to networked computers via schools and public libraries. The second, on the other hand, is a much more difficult problem to confront.

The Participation Gap is an educational issue: how do we insure that every citizen has access to the social skills and cultural competencies required to be a full participant in the new media landscape? It is also a cultural issue: how do we insure that all have a sense of "empowerment" or "entitlement" which insures that they feel comfortable entering into these emerging networked

publics? And in some ways, it is an economic one, having as much to do with the distribution of time as it does with the distribution of wealth and power, though it is hard to separate the three. So, certain classes of people, because of the restructuring of work, have more flexible or disposable time through which they can interface with networked publics, while others have lives

structured by routinized labor and the demands to struggle to support their families which makes it much harder for them to enter the rhythmns and flows of digital communications.

The participation gap refers to all of these obstacles to full participation. In my case, the work I am doing with the MacArthur Foundation around new media literacies is intended to represent a model for the kinds of "access politics" required to confront the participation gap. It starts from the recognition that the informal forms of participation and social networking which are part of the

lives of many American young people are not available to all. These sites of informal learning are the new "hidden curriculum." Historically, educators note, those kids who have access to encyclopedias and opera records, dinner table conversations about politics and trips to the art museum, performed better, and were perceived to perform better, in schools than those young

people who lacked these experiences. These informal, domestic activities shaped their cultural capital as they entered institutional learning. Similarly, research shows that such kids are much more likely to go to public art institutions even if you lower economic barriers than those kids who lack this kind of cultural capital. Pierre Bourdieu's work is a great illustration of the relationship between education and these forms of cultural distinction and discrimination. So, we are trying to develop resources which help broaden access to the kinds of skills, competencies, and self perceptions which emerge through these informal online activities. We are doing so as part of a network of researchers, across a range of disciplines and institutions, working with

the MacArthur Foundation, to reshape the core institutions that impact young people's lives in response to the shifts in the cultural and informational environs.

Do new modes of knowledge production made possible by web 2.0 actually change the politics of knowledge? Can "collective intelligence" become a counter-hegemonic sphere or does it tends to reproduce -as you underlined with YouTube- majoritarian premises?

The first thing I'd stress is that the technologies in and of themselves guarantee nothing. What matters are the social practices, cultural norms, and institutions which emerge around these technologies. Too much early digital theory talked about the democratizing impact of new media without recognizing that those tools and platforms can be deployed towards many ends as they get inserted into different political, economic, and social contexts.

We can argue that there are a range of different models of collective intelligence shaping the digital realm at the present time. We might distinguish broadly between three different models: 1)An aggregative model which assumes that we can collect data based on the autonomous and anonymous decisions of "the crowd" and use it to gain insights into their collective behavior. This is the model which shapes Digg and to some degree, YouTube. 2)a curatorial model where grassroots intermediaries seek to represent their various constituencies and bring together information that they think is valuable. This is the model which shapes the blogosphere. 3)a deliberative model where many different voices come together, define problems, vet information, and find solutions which would be impossible for any individual to achieve. This is the model shaping Wikipedia or even more powerfully alternate universe games.

Of the three, the deliberative model offers the most democratic potentials, especially when it is tempered by ethical and political commitments to diversity. This is the model which Pierre Levy describes in his book, Collective Intelligence. Levy's account stresses the affirmative value placed on diversity in such a culture. The more diverse the community, the broader range of possible information and insights can inform the deliberative process.

So, the Wikipedians talk about "systemic bias" to reflect the kinds of gaps or excesses in their information which comes from the predominance of geeks and the limited participation of some other groups in their authoring community. Some topics get extensive treatment while others get neglected as long as some groups are over-represented and others under-represented in the process. Yet, Wikipedia's norms as a community stress the importance of insuring that as many

different points of view get represented. The group seeks to lower obstacles to more diverse participation and to make room for those viewpoints which might otherwise get silenced. This was seen as a way out of "edit wars" which would stall the project, but it also has the effect of creating a possitive value on broader representation and inclusiveness.

No such mechanism exists in YouTube, say, which does adopt a more majoritarian model. It isn't that minority perspectives can't be found on YouTube: the platform can be used by many groups who circulate its contents in their own communities through the curatorial processes of blogs and social network sites. But there's nothing that places a positive value on insuring that this diversity gains visibility at the highest levels on the site: you can come to Youtube and

not be exposed to views or content which operates outside the dominant perspectives of its user base (though keep in mind that those perspectives may or may not align with those which govern "mainstream" mass media and so YouTube may still represent a challenge to old style hegemony.)

We are at a moment where a lot of social experimentation is taking place around collective intelligence. We have lots of models to chose from and there's some key work for media scholars and theorists to be reflecting on the social mechanics and technical affordances of different sites to see which may best promote the democratization of knowledge production. There's plenty of room for healthy skepticism in this process as well as I hope, some space for the utopian imagination. But, we get nowhere if the theorists adopt a purely cynical and critical perspective, seeing it all as more of the same, as capitalism in new bottles, and thus failing to make meaningful distinctions between different social and cultural practices that are emerging in cyberspace.