On the difference between free speech and free beer: free culture as “people want to be free”

“Information wants to be free” has the same relationship to the digital rights movement that “kill whitey” has to the racial equality movement: a thoughtless caricature that replaces a nuanced, principled stand with a cartoon character. Calling IWTBF the ideological basis of the movement is like characterising bra burning as the primary preoccupation of feminists (in reality, the number of bras burned by feminists in the history of the struggle for gender equality appears to be zero, or as close to it as makes no difference).

Geert Lovink, the quite famous net critic, has recently been making the lecture circuit tour with a speech entitled a “Radical Critique of Free”. While such a critique is of course welcome and necessary, I was rather shocked in Venice when I listened to such a lecture, to discover that Geert Lovink’s considers the free culture movement as an enemy, because it advocates everything to be free. Geert presented the following expressions of free as ‘the enemy’: the freeconomic ideas of Chris Anderson (who in fact, also does not advocate everything to be free, but rather explains its economic rationale in a era of very cheap digital reproducibility), the Oxcars free culture festival (which pays it artists!), and the Barcelona charter on digital rights. This equation is of course entirely untrue, and I was surprised that someone of Geert’s stature, could make the classic mistake between free speech and free beer, which has been clarified ages ago.

But this distinction therefore bears repeating, which may be why Cory Doctorow thought it was important enough for an editorial in The Guardian.

Cory Doctorow (excerpt):

“So what do digital rights activists want, if not “free information?”

They want open access to the data and media produced at public expense, because this makes better science, better knowledge, and better culture – and because they already paid for it with their tax and licence fees.

They want to be able to quote, cite and reference earlier works because this is fundamental to all critical discourse.

They want to be able to build on earlier creative works in order to create new, original works because this is the basis of all creativity, and every work they wish to make fragmentary or inspirational use of was, in turn, compiled from the works that went before it.

They want to be able to use the network and their computers without mandatory surveillance and spyware installed under the rubric of “stopping piracy” because censorship and surveillance are themselves corrosive to free thought, intellectual curiosity and an open and fair society.

They want their networks to be free from greedy corporate tampering by telecom giants that wish to sell access to their customers to entertainment congloms, because when you pay for a network connection, you’re paying to have the bits you want delivered to you as fast as possible, even if the providers of those bits don’t want to bribe your ISP.

They want the freedom to build and use tools that allow for the sharing of information and the creation of communities because this is the key to all collaboration and collective action — even if some minority of users of these tools use them to take pop songs without paying.”

3 Comments On the difference between free speech and free beer: free culture as “people want to be free”

  1. AvatarGeert Lovink

    Hi Michael,

    thanks a lot for your comments.

    The title of my lecture was ‘A Radical Critique of Free Culture’ .. A minor mistake on your side but quite important… To say that I did not ‘understand’ the distinction between ‘free lunch’ and ‘free beer’ sounds, perhaps, a bit weird, if not shocking. Of course, I know about this, but I disagree with it, and have been for a long time. What may work for some computer programmers doesn’t work in other contexts of society. To uncritically adapt the liberal-conservative rhetoric of Richard Stallman, Lawrence Lessig, Joi Ito and others is something that I am, in turn, surprised about, in particular when this is done by active, autonomous comrades from Spain and Italy. They should understand that the FLOSS discourse cannot be uncritically transplanted into the domain of cultural production.

    Michael, to state that people do not ‘understand’ is part of the problem. It shows how dogmatic you (still or again) are. I am not a true believer. A dissident who makes ‘mistakes’ and needs to go back to school. This re-education style of discourse just repeats what the blind and deaf Stallman has been repeating times and again (as if his pupil were kind of stupid), instead of looking at it from the perspective of discussion, thereby precisely avoiding the real debate, namely, how artists are going to make a living.

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi Geert, I’m not sure you can equate my position or perhaps dogmatism with that of Richard Stallman (of course I dispute this, there is a lot of controversy in our pages, not a unique position), and my intervention is not meant to put forward a ‘correct’ position. But, of course, as a free culture advocate, it does bother me that a critic of your stature not just criticizes it, but posits as the enemy. I’m not the only one making that interpretation, since quite a bit of people have referred to another taped presentation where they understand that you say the same thing.

    I’ve listened to your presentation, and must admit that I do not understand it, since there is absolutely no way that the free culture movement, in the manifestations of it that I have witnessed, is opposed to artists making a living, on the contrary, it is their central concern, and there are many dialogues and proposals concerning it, from volcker’s collective license, the work of philippe agrain, to simona levi’s stress on open business models, etc… It is just that we value both the sharing and the wider participation of amateurs, and that we seek solution that does not suppress it (in my/our opinion an impossibility that will hurt industry, artists and users), but is based on the new reality of digital reproducibility. The Oxcars for example, pay their artists, and the Barcelona charter is a set of rights for users, discussed in dialogue with artists, creatives, hackers, etc … So why not align with a democratic movement for user rights and artists sustainability, and see it as an enemy?

    So, I could not hear a critique of free culture, I just don’t know yet what you mean by it.

    Why did I think you confused the two, well because you put in your list, on the one hand, Chris Anderson’s Free, who is not an advocate of everything being free, but explains why it makes sense as a business strategy in certain cases (his work is mostly empirical and looks somewhat superficial, then the Oxcars and the Barcelona Charter, who have nothing to do with Chris Anderson’s free, but with the right to share.

    For the benefit of our readers, here’s what you said in an interview, which I hope sheds lights on your concerns, for artists sustainability, which I find fully legitimate, and I share:

    from http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=1148


    Maresa Lippolis: You’ve been studying networks and how people collaborate into networks, how do you describe, in your analysis, p2p, their communities, and the new production of sense they are developing?

    Geert Lovink: We need to make a distinction between the official P2P ideology, in which I also participate, and the dirty reality. There is a multitude of reasons why people participate in P2P networks. Also politically there is a interesting range of people involved in P2P, from the post-modern poor, driven by a lack of cash to techno-anarchists to capitalist pro-market libertarians. In that sense P2P is deeply human. It’s like sex. There is so many ways of doing it, and the reasons and intensions are so different, each time, even within one person. I am not saying the situation is complex. I do not mind to explain, and defend, the idealistic version of exchange, anti-copyright, sharing and so on. The fuzzy everyday use of P2P exchange networks is largely happening outside of any discourse. I see P2P networks as a temporary autonomous zones, as described by Hakim Bey, as they are bound to disappear (in order to reappear elsewhere). I do not think it is useful to argue that they should be legalized.

    Maybe this is because I am from Amsterdam where we have made a lot of interesting experiments with phenomena that happen in the grey zone between legality and illegal practices. We have often seen that half-way tolerating illegal activities is generating interesting situations. Elias Canetti’s descriptions of how crowds gather and fall apart might help in this context. Complete legalization often kills the activity and neutralizes the problematic field up to the point of disappearance. Legalization of exchange of copyrighted material is not the way to go. What we instead need is an alternative economy, one in which artists and creative producers are financially rewarded directly, without ‘middle men’, for instance through micro-payments.

    Maresa Lippolis: In your essay The Principle of Notworking (2005) you say that propaganda is not as effective in networks than in other media. Do you still think that’s true, even considering the extend web 2.0 is growing? Is it possible that p2p could be a good instrument to empower people and develop new channels to distribute sense?

    Geert Lovink: You are right that we witness an unprecedented ‘massification’ of web platforms with up to 100 million users of a single website. Average social networking sites have somewhere between 1-5 million users. However, they are not online all the time. At any given moment in time there are around 40.000 people inside Second Life. These numbers might grow and look different at peak times.

    Still, they are not grouped together. I believe that we have left behind the television age where we sit around the fire together, as Marshall McLuhan once described it. With the exception of moments like the Olympic Games the Long Tail is bound to get longer. We will have to get used to this and reconfigure our understanding of what power consists of in the distributed age. Power as such does not disappear, neither does propaganda. What diminishes is the spectacular, celebratory aspect of it. The trend of indirect, invisible ideology further continues. It will become really difficult to detect present forms of subliminal indoctrination.

    There is a still a great desire for consumer capitalism, in particular when it is glamorous and wild. P2P networks are not a serious counter force in this game. The fact that one collaborates and exchanges doesn’t make you a Gutmensch, let alone a revolutionary. For me it is not enough to ask the question of empowerment. For what? It’s the same with this abstract (but appealing) demand for ‘change’? Change in what direction?

    Maresa Lippolis: During Video Vortex 2 in Amsterdam Florian Schneider focused his speech on the idea of imaginary property. He said that in the digital age property shifts from the Marxist concept of fetishism towards the idea of social relations. To own an image or a medium means to define social relations and a network. Do you think this can also be applied to P2P communities? How could use value and exchange value being rediscussed in this case?

    Geert Lovink: I am not on top of the P2P debate about value. If you follow interesting forums like iDC on this you would see that Michel Bauwens, Franz Nahrada and Adam Arvidsson have a lot of interesting insights. Five years ago it was a German list community called Oeknonux that discussed these issues. Oekonux as a project got really far into the debate but then stalled because the founder and moderator, Stefan Merten, wasn’t able to let go of the project and so the context dried up. I can only make some meta observations.

    Ever since Baudrillard and others of the 1960s generation we have seen a further acceleration of the whirlpool of concepts that were once developed in the time of Smith, Ricardo and Marx. The political economy during the late 20th century has not developed a convincing critical vocabulary of its own, so we’re still in the midst of the debates around the different definitions of value, use value, exchange value, surplus value, price, wealth, and so. If we discuss the economy of free software/open source and peer2peer networks it makes more sense, as Arvidsson and others suggest, to investigate ‘accumulated affect’ and ‘sociality’ that result in an economy based on ‘ethical value’ (driven by brands). I can see this point and do believe that it contributes to a more equal and sustainable society. It will also mean more media madness, not less.

    What I would contribute to the debate (I am not an economist) is the ‘free cooperation’ concept from Christoph Spehr. This brilliant essay just came out in an English translation. For me the sociality of the net has to be free in that there has to be a way to opt-out. There should not be a compulsory element. Contributing for no money has to become a free choice, not the default setting.

    Maresa Lippolis: You address a sharp critique to Lessig’s creative commons production model. How can collaborative free networks bring about new forms of production?

    Geert Lovink: I can see the point of Lessig and his creative commons model. Realistically, it’s something content producers like me can work with. What I do not agree with is the emphasis in the cc rhetoric on the innocent amateur. In my view the amateur is a. not innocent but guilty. There is a pleasure in downloading and sharing illegal material. I wonder if Slavoj Zizek has already written about this. And b. the amateur should at least be given the option of participating in the money economy. If the amateur, who earn money with some other job profession in the day time, feels that he or she want to contribute and share for free, then that’s fine.

    At the moment the amateurs are blocking the careers of entire generations of young professionals. With this the rich knowledge of professions is threatened to disappear (for instance those doing investigative journalism). We have to stop this talent drain and not create economies that have to live off charity. Free networks should take themselves more serious. The first step to get there should be to critically investigate the ‘ideology of the free’. New forms of production, as you call it, cost money. We need to circulate money so that it can flow into those circles that have taken up the task to seriously construct tomorrow’s tools.” (http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=1148)

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