Folk Processes and the Internet

story © Michael Betancourt, May 16, 2004 all rights reserved.


A new electronic-based culture is emerging in the on-line communities centered around P2P networks, open source, and through personal web sites and blogs. It has been gradually developing ever since the world wide web was launched in the early 1990s, even though it began in the period before then. To call the loose collection of tendencies centering around the non-commercial spread of software, services, and media (music/art/video/writing) a culture may be premature, however, understanding what it could represent for a broader context beyond the confines of the Internet requires this designation.

It proceeds based upon the lateral free flow of ideas and cultural “artifacts” in the form of digitally reproduced files. (This is the fundamental reality of the internet: that in order for a “web page” to be visible, it and all it contains must be downloaded in the form of files to the viewing computer.) The various “organizations” that have emerged around this technological fact, Open source, creative commons, the General Public License (GPL), are all variants on this singular issue of general (democratic) availability of the products they license to the “end user.”

In contrast to these non-commercial entities, the financial interests represented by the RIAA or MPAA, and protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), all desire to claim ownership over the uses of this emerging electronic culture.

In a digital reproduction, the use and distribution of art/music/writing/etc. are closely linked to one another—the encounter with a digital cultural object automatically offers the potential to alter that object—the imposition of structures on distribution impacts use just as restricting use restricts distribution. This is not to say that commercial concerns about being paid for cultural production is “wrong,” only that the ability to control use (and consequently redistribution) is basically incompatible with the digital distribution system of the Internet as it currently exists.

At the same time as commercial production and distribution demands restrictions and controls, it also acts to block the development of acommercial alternatives: (for example) the CSS encryption that most commercial DVDs contain does not have a non-corporate, noncommercial decoder available.

Thus, in order to engage with this commercial culture the only access is through commercially sanctioned playback devices. This serves to consolidate all aspects of culture under the commercial model. The conflict over the DeCSS open source player is not a conflict over digital piracy. Piracy does not require that the encryption be broken—an encrypted DVD can be distributed as easily as unencrypted one (as the court documents from this case attest). The conflict over the DeCSS decoder is the ability of the corporate owners to force their audience to pay for the ability to view a DVD’s contents that they have purchased. In effect, to pay twice.

Because restrictions on access via CSS (or the earlier AmeriChrome technology used on VHS tapes) does not prevent the large-scale piracy that impacts corporate profits, the purpose of this technology must be directed not towards piracy, but towards restricting the ability of the “normal” customer from being able to modify that disk/tape’s contents.

In the centuries prior to the industrial revolution, the everyday civilization that existed outside of church and courtly control was driven by what is called “the folk process.” It is the gradual transformation of existing stories, music, and art in a collective fashion where individual ownership and authorship is subordinated to a reworking of already existing art. This culture provided the basis for the earliest industrially mass produced cultural products during the nineteenth century.

However, what relationship the folk process might have to the development of this electronic culture is not a part of these debates over intellectual property. But it should be since the folk process is what transforms culture over time in a way independent of fashion. This is a concept largely lacking in discussions of industrial (and now digital) cultures. Its absence is remarkable because it is a fundamental part of pre-industrial culture’s cultural development. The emergence of the mass market media culture in the twentieth century initially coexisted with folk culture, but gradually marginalized it as the mass market expanded its ability to deliver its productions uniformly to a large audience.

The inevitable result of the consolidation/expansion of a mass audience was the elimination of alternatives not distributed by this mass market. Radio, film, television, mass publishing all are hieratic delivery systems with limited (to non-existent) options for their audience to respond with different productions or to reconfigure the mass production in ways visible beyond the limited circle of acquaintance. The legal structures of ownership (copyright and trademarks) also provided the mass market production the ability to prevent, silence, and punish folk reinscriptions of corporate-owned culture.

The emergence in, for example, peer-to-peer file trading networks of novel artworks (remixes, compositions created through sampled content) that would neither exist nor be available without this distribution system is the folk process in action. The appearance of this music shows a vibrant, actively creating culture independent of commercial concerns.

Thus, we can understand the conflict over Intellectual Property as also (simultaneously) a cultural conflict based on limiting the folk process: once it become possible for all “consumers” of culture to become active producers by changing and redefining the mass products in ways relevant to their own lifeworlds, the necessary “mass audience” hypothetically addressed by all advertising begins to disappear. The response is a vicious cycle: businesses see their audience “eroding” because they are able to re-create their own cultures on-line, prompting those businesses (RIAA being only the most immediately visible) use their declining profits to justify political and commercial coercion to attempt to restrain their audience from the folk process.

This conflict between ownership and use cannot be resolved easily because it requires either powerful commercial interests to surrender a degree of control over their investment to a folk process, which they can not profit from directly, or a radical redefinition of the technology in use so that the digital distribution that allows this folk process to compete with commercial production-distribution is no longer possible. An alternative to this dualism is these businesses not only allow the folk process, but that they incorporate it into their business as a method for popularizing their commercial work and the specific artists they are promoting. Aspects of this model are already in use in China where music piracy serves to increase the demand for specific artists who profit form their performances, endorsements, and appearances more than from their music; The Blair Witch Project and Howard Dean’s abortive campaign for president also made use of the folk process in similar ways for different purposes.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  May 16, 2004  all rights reserved.

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