Thesis Blog: Approaching Open Culture

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Writing a thesis on a topic like "Open Culture" is a risky proposition. At best, it’s a cloudy term, subject to misinterpretation and demanding a precise explanation. Since my primary interest is in open source software, I could have written a narrower thesis on copyright vs. copyleft. I certainly considered it.

However, as I hinted in my first post in this series, my interest in open source software is in its subversive or revolutionary potential, its disruption of the wage-labor relation, and its place in the broader movement I’ve come to call "Open Culture." Can I really talk about the collaborative production processes of open source software development without also considering the parallel processes in use at Wikipedia? What about the Google Image Labeler? To limit my thesis to consumer-side regulation, under copyright law, would have forced me to discard many of these interests. So, risks aside, "Open Culture" it is.

In this post, then, I aim to sketch a working definition of Open Culture, and lay out my central research questions.

Defining "Open Culture"

Carpeted CommonsI am tentatively defining the "Open Culture" movement as an umbrella term encompassing four sub-movements:

  1. The open source & copyleft movement, including all licensing strategies that reframe copyright as a tool for maximizing user rights, rather than a profit-maximizing tool.
  2. The rise of an information commons, informed by the preexisting discourse surrounding natural commons (air, water, spectrum, etc).
  3. Participatory production processes, in which consumers become producers, as occurs in many open source communities, on wikis, and in the blogosphere.
  4. Crowdsourcing, which for me includes distributed computing, clickworking, certain partipatory production processes, and many forms of data gathering.

The first two, you’ll note, are more concerned with consumers than producers, and the latter two with producers rather than consumers (or consumers as producers). This will become a crucial distinction for me, later on, as I apply Neo-Marxist criticism to these various movements.

What I’m leaving out of Open Culture, at least for now, includes such "open" concepts as corporate and government transparency, open APIs, open standards, and anything related to security and privacy. I won’t get into the reasons here, though I may indulge in the comments if prompted.

I’ve not yet decided how I ought to deal with digital filesharing, particularly media piracy. It seems irresponsible to ignore it altogether, but it doesn’t fit well into my framework at this point. I’ll sort it out eventually. Suggestions? Do you see filesharing fitting into my four sub-movements? Or do I need to adjust my categories to accomodate it?

Research Questions

Having outlined my subject matter, I’ll now lay out some of the questions I’ll be exploring.

  • How subversive is Open Culture, with respect to capitalist ideology? Copyleft, though it depends on copyright for its very existence, is also a fundamental challenge to Western notions of property and value. Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, often (but not always) exploits free labor – with Google Image Labeler being arguably the most well known example. How do these contradictions play out in the end?
  • This leads to a more general question about the status of labor and wages in Open Culture. Increasing amounts of labor are being given away voluntarily; is this a disruption of the labor theory of value, or merely a shift towards non-monetary forms of capital (specifically, social capital)?
  • How can we reconcile the socialist overtones of the "gift economy" of open source communities with the libertarian, even anarchic, tendencies of the movement’s founders?
  • Will a Marxist/Neo-Marxist reading of Open Culture hold water at all?

Other research questions will, of course, arise, and I’ll raise them in future posts when appropriate.

My next post will examine the process of preparing a thesis proposal – a less interesting but more pragmatic entry in this series.

This is an experiment in open research, not just a performative display, so please critique my work. Does my framework make sense? Am I overlooking obvious or essential research questions? Are there other sub-movements that I ought to consider, or should I discard any of the ones I’ve listed?



Recent "Open Culture" News:

  • is being redesigned using an open design process, in which the top-notch designer, Mark Boulton, is soliciting feedback at regular intervals from the Drupal community. The process has sparked fierce but fascinating debate, both on Mark’s blog and others. Links: 1, 2 , 3 , 4 .
  • The first notable US court case involving the copyleft movement came down on the side of copyleft, upholding the "Artistic License." This is a big deal.
  • The makers of Endnote have sued George Mason over Zotero, my favorite Firefox addon. The issue is that the Zotero team cracked the proprietary Endnote file format, making it easy to import Endnote records into Zotero. Their claim has some validity, but it is obviously a desperate maneuver to keep Endnote alive a little longer, in the face of a far superior (and open source) competitor.

Photo Credit(s)

"Carpeted Commons " by Glutnix