Free Culture: Libre And Gratis

“We come from a tradition of ‘free culture’ – not ‘free’ as in ‘free beer’ (to borrow a phrase from the founder of the free-software movement, but ‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, ‘free markets’, ‘free trade’, ‘free enterprise’, ‘free will’, and ‘free elections’. 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.”1

An essential part of a free culture is the ability to build on what came before, “Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to [puny] dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”2. In this way we contemporary people know and build on the work of our predecessors, just as, and I shall demonstrate this later in this thesis, the ancient Egyptians remixed their rituals, and even their gods, into new combined forms based on earlier constructs. But today this process is being challenged by corporations who seek to own culture, to prevent the remix, and they are using copyright law to do so.

We remix everything. This is what Ferguson argues on his eponymous site, Everything is A Remix3. One example Ferguson provides is that of Star Wars. He relates how the story of Star Wars was constructed by George Lucas under the direction of Joseph Campbell. The story is based on Campbell’s concept of the monomyth4, which sees all myths as remixes on a basic framework. Having a similar method of construction to the Egyptian books of the dead, Campbell’s monomyth contains seventeen possible scenes, but not all myths contain all scenes. Each myth is a different remix. Some of these monomyth scenes are incorporated into Star Wars; call to adventure – Luke sees Leia’s message, supernatural aid – the arrival of Obi Wan, the belly of the whale – caught in the trash compacter, the road of trials – Luke sets off in the Millennium Falcon, and the meeting with the goddess – Luke meets Leia, among others. Apart from the story Ferguson shows the many close parallels that exist between Star Wars and other famous movies, including; Flash Gordon, Seven Samurai, Metropolis, Yojimbo and The Searchers5. Quite simply put, humans prefer the familiar so we love remixes.

Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig argues that culture is a remix6. The entirety of human history has been a process of remixing the knowledge and stories of those who came before us and combining it in new ways to form a new understanding. We tell the stories of our forebears, but we embellish and extend and edit them. By trying to prevent us from remixing, from telling our stories, contemporary corporations are seeking to prevent the development of culture. Attempts to prevent users sharing stories were evident in the world. Berenike was a refugee from a sim themed on Frank Hebert’s Dune series, which had been shut down by the present owners of the copyright on Herbert’s work7. Another member of the community came to us freshly evicted from a Firefly themed sim likewise shut down. CBS forced a Star Trek themed sim to close8, and several Battlestar Galactica themed sims were shut down9 although in this case the copyright holders later relented on the condition that no Battlestar Galactica themed items were to be sold in the Marketplace10.

The result of these actions was that some sims were closed but new ones sprung up just as quickly as the old were closed. Sometimes minor changes to the names were made and in others nothing was changed. Some remain to this day, never having been located by those who would close them. This demonstrates one property of the internet age, things can be created or moved very quickly. New sims, new websites, new IRC channels, new remixes can be put up much faster than existing mechanisms for controlling copyright can find and remove them. This is the best reason why copyright reform should be effected. Existing copyright laws are both unenforceable and based on assumptions which are no longer true. They presume that information is centrally produced and that creative endeavors are motivated solely by monetary considerations11. The growth of a distributed, remix culture, and of free culture, are the proof that these presumptions can no longer be taken for granted. The Free Culture Movement, named after Lessig’s eponymous book12 and also drawing heavily on the work of Richard Stallman in promoting Free Software13 (which explains its strong presence in online culture) seeks to promote awareness and use of Free Content, which is defined by Stallman (here he is speaking specifically about Free Software) as content that allows one;

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1).
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3).14

Lessig argues that the “copyright wars”15 16 are centered on the problem that the ease of subverting copyright law renders it obsolete. Moreover he argues that the necessities of digital life require the law to be changed as it is impossible for computers to function without making copies17 18.

A rebuttal of Lessig’s position might be that surely if we make everything that is easy to accomplish, and impossible to prevent, legal, then we must make murder legal. For it is trivially easy to employ a firearm in the termination of another’s life. However there is a moral argument that murder deprives someone of their life, whereas, as I shall argue in more detail later, no one is deprived of anything in the case of digital copying.

We encounter the new and we add it, Borg like, to ourselves and become a new thing. Just as in nature everything is a hybrid likewise it is with religion and culture. Cusack19 has noted that it has been the declining reach of Christianity that has allowed so many new religions to flourish in the last two hundred years. She points out that scholars of religious studies have come to agree that this flourishing is a symptom of a healthy and free society, and that it only slows where repressive state power is employed to curtail it20. In the case of copyright it is the decline of centralised content production and distribution that is allowing new cultural forms to appear.

This is the reason why the copyright wars are so important. The process that the corporations seek to constrain is the healthy and free creation of culture itself. They want to control not only what, but how, and when, we experience, and this ultimately means they want to control what we become. The copyright control mechanism in Second Life, known as the permissions system, was inserted in an attempt to effect the requirements of copyright law. Initially it didn’t exist. When it was instituted, being in the world was restricted by copyright. This reshaping of culture by means of copyright is just one of the shared problems, a problem for both companies seeking to control content and users wishing to create their own, that need to be solved in the internet age. It is the same problem as new religions are experiencing as we move from the monopoly of the Abrahamic religions to a more open and diverse user created domain of religion.

My experiences in Second Life have caused me to come to believe that another shared problem driving the creation of new cultures21 in virtual worlds is indubitably a dissatisfaction with the shared culture of meatspace. People are not getting what they want from their meatspace community, if they have one. This is usually expressed as a desire to be more free. Many of the people in the communities I participated in had no meatspace community to which they felt they belonged. Most because of cultural isolation, that is they are living in a meatspace community which is strongly at variance with what they feel to be their own cultural norms. For example, Pagans living in the bible belt of the US are people who seriously fear violence if they reveal their religious affiliation to those around them in meatspace. For various reasons these cultural isolates find they cannot move to a different meatspace community and so a virtual community becomes their only option for greater freedom and self expression.

Paradoxically online communities can be both more enduring and more ephemeral than those in meatspace. In a world where the populace is more mobile than ever one might relocate to a new geographical location several times in one’s life, or one might have to travel extensively for one’s work. In such circumstances the online community one is a member of may become the most enduring community one participates in. However as communities are no longer formed exclusively on the basis of geographic location but are often online communities, they may rise and fall as those online sites live and die.

But even those members of the community who were embedded in meatspace communities that were not openly hostile to them expressed a dislocation from the norms of their meatspace culture which was sufficiently important to them that they chose rather to live in a virtual world, and often saw it as their primary reality. Ordinary people are aware that corporations are not held to the same standards as they are, especially in relation to copyright. The integrity of those acting to restrict access to content is compromised in that they use not only legal means in their attempts to do so, but also use exactly the same tactics as criminals and black hat hackers22 Sony’s rootkit fiasco being among the most memorable. If there is no equity under the law, why then would one feel obliged to abide by it?

Many members of the community expressed that they felt completely disempowered and unable to effect change in their meatspace communities. Most live in Western liberal democracies. It was likewise common for community members to echo Snog’s famous lines “There is no democracy. There is no America. There is only IBM and ITT, Union Carbide and Exxon”23 as an expression of a shared perception that democracy is a lie, that corporations run the meatspace world, that voting changes nothing, that power elites are so entrenched that nothing short of armed revolution will effect change of a magnitude sufficient to bring about a society in which they want to live. Rather than expending what they feel is a futile effort to modify meatspace, or in a moral rejection of taking up arms to achieve change, members of the community were choosing to enter a virtual world in order to explore a frontier that they felt they could shape. They spoke of a desire to reject what they saw as the disempowering, fear laden, corrupt media gestalt of the meatspace world, and instead work to create a space they chose to believe is a separate world, with its own reality, where they could build the lives they really wanted. Or, perhaps more correctly, the lives they thought they really wanted. To find the freedom they so desperately sought. The freedom they have been conditioned by the dogma of democracy to believe is their birthright – and I was one of them.

The single overriding expression of being in virtual worlds is the desirability of being able to be anything. To do anything. To use existing forms to create new meaning by remixing. To create new characters. To not be stuck in the rut that might be one’s meatspace life. To create a new self in a way not possible in meatspace. To create and explore many selves, in many different worlds. To enter new spaces of being and knowing in ways not possible, or not feasibly possible, in meatspace. To push boundaries. To go to new places. To be free. To create and bring to life a character in a role play scenario is not inauthentic, it is a creative endeavor. It is as inauthentic as Shakespeare. One of Second Life’s fatal flaws, its permission system, seeks to curtail this endless remix. It actively seeks to make it much harder to do so. In this respect it is at odds with the desire for the freedom to create the endless remix that is culture.

Copyright has moved from being a limited monopoly granted to encourage innovation to a stifling constraint on innovation24. This explains the growth of peer to peer and Free Culture. The gatekeepers have become too greedy and the peasants are revolting. In virtual worlds the peasants are making new spaces in which to create and innovate. Spaces where they do not wish to allow the corporations to control the creation of culture. They do this by ignoring, in overwhelming numbers, the constraints of copyright law. It is just not possible for all copyright violators to be prosecuted, and they know it25. Thus the strength of the rule of law is lessened by the excesses of the greedy.

In September 2007, Linden Lab started the Architecture Working Group, with membership open to any interested parties, in order to “open up the Second Life Grid from something operated solely by Linden Lab to where others can run parts of the grid”26. Indeed, as Ondrejka says, “creating the Metaverse is such a tremendous undertaking that it will need to happen in a distributed fashion”27. On the 30th of June 2008, employees of both Linden Lab and IBM successfully teleported from the test Linden Lab grid to an OpenSimulator grid run by IBM28. This initiative resulted in the release of an open source version of the Second Life client software29. Soon after this Darren Guard initiated the OpenSimulator project to develop open source server software, which by its first birthday in 2008 had 250 users and 25 sims30. Over the past few years many other grids using the OpenSimulator server software have appeared and have probably already overtaken Second Life in number of sims31. This has had a tremendous impact on Second Life and its residents.

While these grids are still some way from being replacements for Second Life, they are developing at a considerable rate. There are still many problems to be solved, notably that of transfer of objects between grids. This can be done now on a limited basis, but once it is a completely solved problem it will irrevocably alter the nature of content management in virtual worlds. Residents already want to be able to move items they have purchased with them to whatever grid they visit. Content creators think they need to control their content. This tension needs to be resolved. Perhaps education of content creators regarding alternative business models is the best solution. The choice is between this and a Canute like attempt to stop the copying of digital items. In the fun economy those who are not fun will die.

Yet there is a disconnect between the language of the desire for this freedom and the actualisation of it. As yet, most it seems are not comfortable to accept the full mantle of control for their own cultural destinies. There are, for example, still more users of the gated, corporatised, community that is Second Life than there are for the fully open and libre OpenSimulator32 33.

It seems though that the tide is turning, indeed the pace of this change is accelerating. The number of sims in Second Life has been declining slowly but steadily since late 2010 while the number of OpenSimulator sims have been climbing at a much faster rate than Second Life’s decline34. There are now 249 discrete OpenSimulator grids with over 25,000 sims35. In OpenSimulator land holders can make their own choices about how to implement and apply object permission settings and can also choose to allow or restrict the movement of goods from their sim.

The cost of the change is what keeps users in Second Life. Despite their early rhetoric of Second Life being “your world” Linden Lab has made a concerted effort to prevent users from taking the things they built or bought in the world of Second Life to other worlds. One buys virtual goods in Second Life with real money, but one is prevented, in fact prohibited, from taking those goods into other spaces. This is the single most important factor that keeps people in Second Life when other factors cause them to want to leave.

Will this process of democratisation and remix continue or will those seeking to restrict information win out? I suggest democratisation and remixing will prevail. I am optimistic that, because this process is such a basic part of being human, we will not fully arrive in the Orwellian nightmare of 1984. We may hover at the edges of it, but I do not believe that it is possible to continue to be human if our ability to remix is removed. Lessig likewise believes that it is impossible to stop it, that decades of evidence from the copyright wars demonstrate this36. Kurzweil, pondering on a cosmic scale, notes that “universes that do not support the creation of increasing complexity die out”37.

Kurzweil38 goes further and asserts that this process of information recombination leading to new outcomes will expand exponentially. Kurzweil bases his predictions on the idea that “It is the evolution of patterns that constitutes the story of our world39. Although Kurzweil’s focus is on computing his ideas are just as applicable to ritual. Rituals are a series of patterns repeated and adapted and repeated. Moreover our use of ritual, like everything else, is now intertwined with information technology, the performance of ritual in virtual worlds being an exemplary example. Thus it enters the realm of Kurzeil’s remit. Kurzweil sees this exponential growth as speeding us on our way to the singularity, “A future period when the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed”40.

In this singularity approaching time, change occurs much more quickly. Though the corporate push for monopolies on ideas has possibly still not yet reached its greatest extent, it could still become much more oppressive and become exactly like the scenario that Orwell laid out in 1984, this attempt to restrict access to information will ultimately fail because of the avalanche of free, both libre and gratis, information that is becoming available to us. Kurzweil proposed in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines what he called The Law of Accelerating Returns.

“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”41

The rituals performed in the communities I participated in are evidence of this exponential growth. Even only fifty years ago access to the details of the ancient ritual used would have been restricted to academics or those with access to particularly good libraries. Certainly one would not have been able to construct a ritual based on them, while sitting at home in front of a computer in less than an hour, without access to the internet, itself a product of this exponential growth. My own research is a further example of this exponential growth. I was able to, by utilising the fastest growing expression of this exponential growth, the microchip, participate in this online community, a thing impossible without the combination of microchip plus internet. Should I have the ability to travel back in time to meet myself at age 16 I would be unable to explain to my younger self the topic of this research. There would be insufficient referents. There were no personal computers and no computer games in my childhood. There was no internet and thus the concept of a real time, interactive, immersive community of persons from all around the world was unimaginable. All these things are a part of our headlong rush towards the singularity.

One product of the approaching singularity will be our own integration with computers. We won’t be meatspace humans doing rituals in virtual worlds, rather, Kurzweil argues42 we will integrate technology into our bodies, or abandon our bodies completely and become software. In this way we will become what Kurzweil calls spiritual machines43. The process of immersing ourselves in online communities is a step on the road to Kurzweil’s singularity. He argues44 that when the singularity occurs we will become a blending of computer and human, even going so far as to say that we may, eschewing the meat, upload our consciousness into machine bodies in a quest for immortality. Certainly my experience of being in cyberspace, the process of becoming one with an avatar, seems like a step on this path. In those moments when I became the avatar, when I slipped into the moment of flow, my consciousness was not at all on my meatspace body. My centre of attention slipped into the avatar. My consciousness entered the machine.

We have evolved from the monopolisation of single ideas by an elite, to a democratization of knowledge and education because this fits our purpose, which is survival, better. The greater the number of us as a species who have access to ideas and education the greater the likelihood of our continued survival. If more humans can make fire, more humans will stay alive. Information access is a survival prerequisite. To characterize this in theological terms, the word is god. From this perspective, corporations seeking to monopolise access to ideas, through such means as copyright restrictions and patents, are trying to own a piece of god. In doing this they are acting to restrict both our evolution as a species and our divine purpose, that being to experience gnosis.

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  38. Kurzweil, R., (2005), The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Penguin Books, New York. ↩︎
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