The Information Super-Sewer – Chris Hedges’ damning critique of Free Culture

The only income left for most of those who create is earned through self-promotion, but as Lanier points out this turns culture into nothing but advertising. It fosters a social ethic in which the capacity for crowd manipulation is more highly valued than truth, beauty or thought.

While the severing of intellectual property rights from their creators, whether journalists, photographers or musicians, means that those who create lose the capacity to make a living from their work, aggregators such as Google make money by collecting and distributing this work to lure advertisers. Original work on the Internet, as Lanier points out, is “copied, mashed up, anonymized, analyzed, and turned into bricks in someone else’s fortress to support an advertising scheme.” Lanier warns that if this trend is not halted it will create a “formula that leaves no way for our nation to earn a living in the long term.”

“Funding a civilization through advertising is like trying to get nutrition by connecting a tube from one’s anus to one’s mouth,” Lanier says.

Chris Hedges: The Information Super-Sewer – Chris Hedges’ Columns – Truthdig


As a founding (now lapsed) member of Harvard Free Culture and a former employee of Creative Commons, these are some pretty hard truths, thoughts I’ve been harboring for over 3 years now but reluctant to state publicly. But perhaps as a result of working on my thesis film— by far my most substantial endeavor to date— combined with getting ready to graduate— meaning next year not only will I no longer have institutional/financial support for making art, but I will have to actually earn a living— that I feel like it’s time to come out about my growing ambivalence towards “free culture.”

To be clear, I don’t blame the Free Culture Movement or Creative Commons. They exist in a fairly obscure corner of internet intelligentsia, pretty much irrelevant in the face of the powerful social and economic forces that have brought us to our current situation, where original content is little more than bait to capture eyes for advertisers.

Frustratingly, fear of this exact situation was the precise reason I originally became such a free culture zealot! Specifically, I was appalled by how record companies would debase great music by putting it into a car commercial. I hated the idea that something I made could be forever converted into commercial speech and used to peddle crap. And so the “non-commercial” option for Creative Commons license held great appeal for me.

More generally, I was impressed the elegance of the intellectual property compromise in the Constitution:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

The free culture movement, it seemed, was interested in restoring the balance between private interest and public good. This was a balance which, if harmoniously struck, actually served both parties better than either extreme: When creators are well-rewarded for their efforts during their lifetimes (or at the least make enough keep working, and maybe eat), the public benefits from their cultural and scientific contributions (if not immediately, then when the works enter the public domain). Likewise, a rich public domain benefits individual creators, in that they have an incredible foundation of work to build upon.

Of course, beginning in the 1970s if not earlier, this compromise had been seriously hijacked by the big media companies, who all but eliminated the “temporary” aspect of their monopoly. So when I first got interested (around 2004?) in the movement, CC/FC seemed like a clever, grassroots way to restore balance to copyright law: enable creators to legally share their work with the public, in a way that was consistent with the new realities of the Internet. The big media companies didn’t understand the new digital frontier, and it was ripe with Utopian potential. Never before has there been such easy access to public domain works! Let us enrich it, and surely someone will soon work out a way for creators to be rewarded!

But somewhere along the way, the fight became less about restoring balance, and more about promoting New Media ahead of Old Media. Google & the like were quick to make alliances with Creative Commons, which as a nascent foundation needed money. They were brought together by a common enemy, Big Media, which was embodied by groups like the RIAA and the MPAA, evil organizations that robbed grandmothers of their retirement savings by suing them for hundreds of thousands of dollars because their grand kid illegally downloaded a handful of songs.

“Don’t be evil” Google was exciting and hip and powerful! They ply their employees with free smoothies and sushi and cliff bars, back massages! Who could resist them as an ally? But one would have to be a fool to think they were fighting for creator’s rights. Was it not their duty as a corporate person to borrow the FC movement’s moral high ground so as to accelerate the inevitable elimination of their clumsy, Luddite competitors?

So as often happens, attempts to fix a broken system resulted in helping to usher in something arguably worse.

But is the situation actually worse? On the one hand, it’s awesome that I can put my short, diy, films online and have potentially infinite numbers of people see them. And I can watch and listen to all sorts of film and music that would be near impossible to access pre-Internet. On the other hand, going forward, it is unlikely I will ever actually get paid to create art or tell stories. Instead, if I find a job at all, I will be getting paid for my ability to capture the attention of consumers. Which I suppose, isn’t that different from before. Except that now consumers will be watching my films on their fucking phones.

Hedges’ column goes on to talk about the frightening implications of the angry, ignorant, digital Internet hive mind— a provocative read. But in light of the more personal nature this post has taken, I give Gillian Welch final word:

6 thoughts on “The Information Super-Sewer – Chris Hedges’ damning critique of Free Culture”

  1. Been thinking about/reading about this l8tly as well. This guy seems a little alarmist, but on the money in many ways.
    -Google is a obvz a bunch of yuppie horseshit. They are quickly establishing dominance over the “new” internet under the pretense that their model is streamlined, hip and non-offensive.
    -Art pieces, articles, etc. are becoming more and more like banner ads. The demand for new content is never ending and artists are expected to produce new shit for free all the time, sometimes solely in the service of someone else’s website.

    That said, it’s always been the goal of DIY marketplace by force. The Lookouts! of yesteryear need a 2k10 equivalent on the net (and who better to set that trend than us?) Artists need to be smart. Throw the scraps to the wolves, save the gems for when you have yr payday in writing.

  2. I was a free software fanatic as well. I make video art and write my own software. I agree with what’s written here.

    Many forms of art production enjoyed the benefit of a mass consumer market. It was a phase. The Internet has ended it.

    If you want to make money as an artist, you will need to do it ye olde fashioned way. You will need to make art that an incredibly wealthy individual or institution or the catholic church will pay for, -the mass consumer will no longer pay for it.

    ‘Popular Art’ has been the domain of advertising for a long time. This is why Pop Music is manufactured indirectly to target a generic demographic and more directly to target advertisers who will promote the music on radio. ‘Film’ production has been similarly affected.

    When there was a mass-consumer market, point-of-sale concerns were abstracted away so that art production wasn’t as pinned by advertising as it is now.

    state of the art decay.

  3. Agreed. Smiling that you mention Lookout! — working towards a present-day equivalent seems like a good aspiration. Pre/early-internet DIY was such an influential thing for me. But now the rhetoric and ideals have become so muddled (if not co-opted) by Youtube etc. etc. that it’s too easy to forget how exciting it was. As the recipients of that we have a sort of duty to keep it alive.

    I think one important thing is just to keep a bit of distance from the gushing torrent of hype. Not that we should totally disengage and be luddite hermits (I mean, sometimes I think that). Just like the occasional pilgrimage to TacoBell, this is our culture so we should participate to a degree (the scraps). And even that’s unfair; the Internet is way more complicated and awesome than our industrial food system. But in order to reflect/critique, not to mention produce anything worthwhile, we need some space. The non-stop makes us stupid, or at least stupefied.

    What have you been reading? Would be interested in getting some other perspectives.

  4. I think of temperance when I read this.

    Isolated groups (especially those who think they are actually broadly connected) run toward extremes. The medium is the message, so is it in any way surprising that digital media drives polarization?

    Temperance sounds like the antidote, the *heuristic* for wisdom when everyone keeps running off to utopia/dystopia. Everything changes, but both faster and slower than we might imagine.

    Temper the temperance even. Often the reality is in the lukewarm middling ground, still the right choice is sometimes to go all the way to the logical extreme.

    I suspect that over the course of your life you will be paid for things you never anticipated and passed by on things that you thought were sure-fire sell-outs. I stop to consider the difference between what your work does in its own ‘rite’ versus what others derive from it as they exploit the commons.

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