April 09, 2005


A couple days ago the New York Public Library (as in the big one guarded by lions) asked Who Owns Culture? and called in Lawrence Lessig, Jeff Tweedy and Steven Johnson to navigate. Actually the real question getting asked seemed to be "Who Makes Culture?" And the answer it seemed was "us". Whether the us was the three people on stage, the lily white crowd or something larger was utterly unclear. Ultimately though what made the event interesting though was not the questions that where asked but those that were not.

Only the a few years ago the fact that our current system of intellectual property is rift with problems, dangers and tragedies was radical, the "copyright is good for creators, no questions" Kool Aid was being served nearly universally. Mentioning the deep problems in the system was akin to unleashing the hounds, all too often I'd watch as otherwise intelligent humans turned into rabid hard copyright defenders. Thanks in large part by Lessig this is no longer the case. In fact not a single questioner in the room ever stood up the challenge the panelists. The besuited middle age lawyer looking men to my right nodded and smiled repeatedly to Lessig's arguments. It was a friendly crowd admittedly, but also one of privilege, people with something to gain from keeping things the way they are. And Lessig's "free culture" arguments pretty much where accepted as common truth, at least among those who listen to too much NPR.. Now Lessig of course represents the mainstream compromise side of the anti-copyright warriors, but at least culturally he's looking like a winning general nowadays.

Posted by Abe at April 9, 2005 02:09 PM


Maybe Lessig et al are the winners "culturally," but the courts are still largely on the side of the MPAA/RIAA. (We'll see how the Supreme Court rules on the Grokster case: but the one legal expert I informally asked about it predicted that the ruling will be anti-Grokster, not entirely throwing out the Betamax precedent but sharply limiting its scope).
When we have the courts ruling one way, and the "culture" tending the other way, what will happen socially? And how does this relate to other current cultural disputes -- where it is the "right" not the "left" who disagrees with the courts, on matters like separation of church and state, same-sex marrriages, Schaivo, etc?

true indeed, and its also worth noting that Lessig, as much as I like his writing & powerpoints (the best use of that tech I've ever seen), made some massive mistakes in arguing in front of the Supreme Court. No telling what might have happened, but for all we know that failure might ultimately outweigh any good the man has done in spreading ideas & memes.

also worth noting that I left out what was to be the second half of that post, which was to be a critique of the audience. Essentially a critique of the culture that Lessig has clearly one. Few notes on that, this event cost $10 and sold out in 35 minutes! Good for the future of intellectual events in NY, but what a skewered crowd it produces. In a city that's 25% black and 27% hispanic, the crowd of about 600 was the whitest I've ever seen. A few asians, and perhaps a few jet setting latin americans and middle easterners. The only black face I saw was one security guard. You couldn't capture that latte drinking volvo driving liberal stereotype any better, unless maybe the event was held somewhere where people actually drive.. Lessig maybe conquering the NPR set, but as wealthy as they may be they don't pull all that many strings nowadays, do they..

I wonder though how much the crowd makeup was skewed by the fact that the event was sponsored by Wired, which kept a bunch of tickets reserved for their uber VIPs, presumably mostly middle class white men, and sent out postcards and email reminders way in advance to their kinda VIP mailing list (which I'm on by fluke). The NYPL also kept a bunch of tickets for librarians (presumably mostly white) and probably also some for Friends of the Library (presumably also mostly white).