July 30, 2005 · Nelson Pavlosky
You could say that I grew up with free culture, or that free culture grew up along with me. Free culture as a coherent movement is young, although you could say that its roots go back to the beginning of print culture, since before we had bloggers we had independent pamphleteers like Thomas Paine. It could go back to the beginning of culture itself, since before we had DJs we had the remixing and appropriation inherent in oral cultures of the past and present. Still, only recently have people been connecting the dots, with the help of the democratizing power of digital technology and the internet. The free culture movement is young (like me), and perhaps that’s why I feel that young people like me should have a special affinity for it.
I was born in 1984, the same year as the free software movement, the year RMS left MIT to start the GNU project. Stallman refers to the free software movement as his child, and I’ve sometimes wondered, “What would the free software movement be like, if it were a kid? Would they be fun to hang out with? I bet they would be an idealist like their father, and, well, kind of like me.” In 1984, the internet, which would help make free software more than an idealistic dream, was itself just a babe. The number of hosts on the internet was just breaking one thousand… I don’t think anyone even knows how many hosts there are on the internet today. 1984 was also the year that the Supreme Court decided in Sony v. Universal, the “Betamax case,” that taping shows off your TV in order to watch them later was a fair use, not copyright infringement, and that the VCR manufacturer could not be held liable for the infringing activities of its users so long as the VCR had “substantial non-infringing uses.” The battle over what exactly the Betamax ruling meant has continued up until the present day, surviving the disappointingly unclear Grokster decision this summer, but that decision in the year of my birth was a significant victory for free culture, even though none of the parties that were “on our side” would have recognized themselves as part of a fledgling movement.
Shortly after I was born, my family became “early adopters” of the personal computer. Our first computer was an Altos computer with a 40 MB Winchester hard drive, it cost $18,000 and it was the state of the art! (I now carry 512 MB on my USB keychain drive, which cost 50 bucks.) My father wrote it off as a business expense for his home office, and as soon as I was old enough to sit up, he had me playing “educational” games on the green monochrome screen. As I got older I began to use word processors like Wordstar, where I learned the revolutionary concepts of “copy” and “paste,” and how digital technology allows you to edit a document, dissecting it into its component parts and reassembling it, without destroying the original. I loved this freedom to experiment with different versions of the same document, mashing together different drafts and building a better version from the mistakes of the past. I didn’t know this at the time, but later the internet would allow me to do this collaboratively on a global scale.
Blogging arrived on the scene as I arrived in high school, with the term “weblog” arriving in 1997 and “blog” being coined in 1998. Naturally, at the time I did not know that I would eventually have my own blog, or that I would meet my girlfriend through Livejournal. (Lauren dear, would this be too public of a place to “officially” ask you out?)
Presumably “bloggers” were covering the story as Napster debuted in 1999, and I joined millions of others in using it to expand my musical horizons. Before Napster, I mostly listened to my favorite band, Queen, and whatever my parents listened to or what came on the radio. After Napster, I became a fan of genres that many people have never heard of, such as progressive rock, trance, and third wave ska, and this led me to purchase many CDs I would, otherwise, have never have purchased. (This had an impact on my own musical compositions, as my noodling around on the guitar began to produce full-fledged songs around that time.) Some of my favorite finds on Napster were purely accidental, songs that turned up in the search results while I was looking for other things. For instance, I was searching for the Matrix soundtrack, and found a trance song labeled “Matrix ][", which I later discovered was actually "Grid ][" by the Cynic Project, who apparently was just a college kid making music in his basement. The Cynic Project album, “Soundscape Sampler,” was available from MP3.com at the time, and MP3.com did on-demand printing of CDs for their artists, so I bought the CD.
That CD is now a historical artifact, of course, since MP3.com was killed off shortly after I purchased that album. I watched as both Napster and MP3.com were destroyed by record industry lawsuits, and I became angry and resentful. At the time, I didn’t know the history of the persecution of new technologies by the industries of old, but I did know that these services created a marketplace for more obscure talent who did not have other means to access the listening public. Perhaps more importantly, they helped lead to a more educated listening public, as any decent library should. Both of those services were important to my development as a person and a music fan, and both of them were pioneering services that enabled independent artists to reach the public without having to sell their souls to a record label. I didn’t understand why there hadn’t been more of a public effort to defend these communities, and I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten a chance to fight for the revolutionary potential that they offered. Argue as much as you like about the ethics of filesharing, it’s a complex issue that cannot be boiled down to a simple “right” or “wrong.” Peer-to-peer is bigger than filesharing anyway, and while Napster awakened me to the power of the internet to circumvent existing avenues of distribution (and control), the internet is not a one-trick pony. Writing off the power of the internet to change the world, and the power of the people who grew up with it, would be a grave error.
Any history buff could tell you that in 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, a pamplet which inspired the colonists to continue with their revolutionary fight against the British. Any geek or Super Bowl fan could tell you that in 1984 – the year I was born – the first Apple Macintosh went on sale, helping to start the computer revolution. The free culture movement is a different type of revolution, but a revolution nonetheless. Free culture is, after all, like print culture squared; it represents a shift from one-way broadcasting to two-way communication. And leading the fight for a participatory culture is just Common Sense.