eipcp Policies A Critique of Creative Industries
11 2006

Digital Opportunities, Real Impossibilities

The Mismatched Promise of the “Cultural Industry” and Cybercommunism

Language editing Mike Garner

Tere Vadén

Tere Vadén




The fast-moving and somewhat unpredictable profusion of digital technology contains a mixed, if not contradictory, set of practises that affects many modes of production and many kinds of economies. If we consider the notion of égaliberté (the unconditional demand for equality-freedom that transcends any existing order) coined by the French philosopher Etienne Balibar in the context of digital technology, we could claim that, due to its unique nature, digital information does have tremendous revolutionary potential. As noted by US President Ronald Reagan in 1989: “Technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive. […] The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” All of this is due to one simple fact: anything that can be represented in digital code, as a series of ones and zeroes, can be copied at very little cost and with no loss of the original. Once the necessary infrastructure is in place, digital information is not a scarce resource. Consequently, the cornucopian digital economy supposedly transcends the physical limitations of traditional economies.

Correspondingly, on the social level the digital world has been seen as the first germ of new forms of organisation that will have radical political effects. Volunteer hacker organisations and the various civil-society activities organised with the help of the Internet have been seen, on the one hand, as providing fresh blood for the Habermasian ideal of democratic communication and, on the other hand, as completely new forms of civic self-organisation and self-management (for theories on hacker communities, see Castells 1996, Himanen 2000). For instance, while looking for examples of the new multitudes that they advocate as the basic self-organising models of future politics, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004, pp. 301ff) turn to free and open-source software communities and related activities. When the self-organising nature of hacker communities is combined with the observation that digital code is not a scarce resource, we get a cybercommunist utopia in which volunteer organisations and communities of non-alienated labour manage themselves in a post-scarcity economy (see, e.g., Zizek, 2002, 2006, Merten 2000) This is where the notion of égaliberté meets the political economy of digital resources: digital information as a raw material, tool and product can be abundant, providing for a digital economy of share-and-share-alike. Slavoj Zizek presents this idea with characteristic poignancy:

“However, does capitalism really provide the ‘natural’ frame of the relations of production for the digital universe? Is there not also an explosive potential for capitalism itself in the world wide web? Is not the lesson of the Microsoft monopoly precisely the Leninist one: instead of fighting its monopoly through the state apparatus (recall the court-ordered split of the Microsoft corporation), would it not be more ‘logical’ just to socialise it, rendering it freely accessible? Today one is thus tempted to paraphrase Lenin’s well-known motto, ‘Socialism = electrification + the power of the soviets’: ‘Socialism = free access to internet + the power of the soviets.’” (Zizek 2002).

Thus, we not only have the utopias of cybercommunism, but also the internal changes in the capitalist mode of production supported by digital technology. These utopias and changes are particularly relevant to the creative industries. The creation, circulation and commodification of cultural artefacts increasingly takes place by digital means and within digital environments. Within the capitalist mode of production this has led, first, to the recognition of the growing economic importance of creative production. Richard Florida's notion of creative class and the efforts that various nation states, including Finland, are directing towards boosting their exports of cultural products, are examples of this.

The second consequence is the increasing amount of attention being paid to the differences in the conditions and modes of operation between the traditional commercial economy and the “second economy” as brought to our attention by the digital sphere. A whole school of writers (for an overview, see Lessig 2004) has argued that, in addition to the “first” commercial economy, there is another economy, variously called the amateur economy, sharing economy, social-production economy, non-commercial economy, p2p economy, and even the gift economy. The problem that these thinkers want to point out is that the “second economy” works on principles of its own, and that any attempt to force it into the mould of the first economy would be disastrous. This discussion bears on the issues of the ownership of information, copyright and the design of information architecture.

The tension between the two economies escalates to become two competing world views that can easily be detected on various levels of society. Media researchers Colin Lankshear and Michelle Knobel (2006) have characterized these different mindsets, or attitudes. In mindset 1 the emphasis is on business-as-usual, whereas mindset 2 tries to come up with new concepts, vocabularies, and practices in capturing the reality of social-digital creativity.

Table 1: Some Dimensions of Variation between the Mindsets (Lankshear & Knobel 2006)

Mindset 1 Mindset 2
The world is much the same as before, only now it is more technologised, or technologised in more sophisticated ways. The world is very different from before and largely as a result of the emergence and uptake of digital electronic inter-networked technologies.
• The world is appropriately interpreted, understood and responded to in broadly physical-industrial terms • The world cannot adequately be interpreted, understand and responded to in physical-industrial terms only
• Value is a function of scarcity • Value is a function of dispersion • An ‘industrial’ view of production • A ‘post-industrial’ view of production
– Products as material artifacts – Products as enabling services
– A focus on infrastructure and production units (e.g., a firm or company) – A focus on leverage and non-finite participation
– Tools for producing – Tools for mediating and relating
• Focus on individual intelligence • Focus on collective intelligence
• Expertise and authority ‘located’ in individuals and institutions • Expertise and authority are distributed and collective; hybrid experts
• Space as enclosed and purpose specific • Space as open, continuous and fluid
• Social relations of ‘bookspace’; a stable ‘textual order • Social relations of emerging ‘digital media space’; texts in change

The hope brought about by the emergence of the second economy lies in the promised post-scarcity and non-alienated mode of labour. Even if a cybercommunist utopia is still far away – What will the hackers eat? Will everyone be a hacker? – a change can already be felt inside the first economy. By adopting aspects of the second economy, the first economy tries to present itself “with a human face”. Again, this imitation is felt on many fronts: schools and universities want to expand their scope by providing access to informal learning using social-media tools, presenting themselves as hubs of social interaction, rather than as formal institutions of power; nation states want to shift attention from traditional industries to competition in terms of design and high-quality experiences; and companies invite their customers to co-create their future products in a process in which innovation itself is supposedly dispersed and equalized. Again, Zizek (2006) has his finger on the pulse when he discusses a new form of business, in which “no one has to be vile”. One step removed from the utopia of cybercommunism, Zizek calls this new ideal of the first economy in the guise of the second economy “liberal communism.” These are the rules of the new nomadic, frictionless capitalism, geared toward the cultural industry:

1. You shall give everything away free (free access, no copyright); just charge for the additional services, which will make you rich.

2. You shall change the world, not just sell things.

3. You shall be sharing, aware of social responsibility.

4. You shall be creative: focus on design, new technologies and science.

5. You shall tell all: have no secrets, endorse and practise the cult of transparency and the free flow of information; all humanity should collaborate and interact.

6. You shall not work: have no fixed 9 to 5 job, but engage in smart, dynamic, flexible communication.

7. You shall return to school: engage in permanent education.

8. You shall act as an enzyme: work not only for the market, but trigger new forms of social collaboration.

9. You shall die poor: return your wealth to those who need it, since you have more than you can ever spend.

10. You shall be the state: companies should be in partnership with the state.

(Zizek 2006)

This is all well and good, as far as it goes. But like many other forms of the first economy simulating or appropriating features of the second, the liberal communist economy conveniently forgets the essential structural conditions of its own existence. For Bill Gates to give away in charity huge sums from his fortune, he first had to collect it using ruthless monopolistic practises. More generally, “Developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc.), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World. [O]utsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production – disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution – to ‘non-smart’ Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World).” (Zizek 2006). What liberal communism hides, deliberately or not, is the structural violence inherent in global capitalism.

Zizek points out that liberal communism can work only by masking the structural (economic, social and political) violence on which its outsourced practises are based. Against this he insists on a true universalism that transcends all local (ethnic, national, gendered, etc.) identities. Local identities are not, for Zizek, a force against global capitalism, as it is only too happy to manipulate, create and commodify such identities. We might ask, however, does not the utopia of cybercommunism itself contain a certain amount of structural violence, a violence that is familiar from earlier stages of cultural change?

Let us proceed according to the hypothesis that the areas designated by the phrase “creative industries” are precisely the places where the structural bias and consequent violence of the cybercommunist utopias may be discerned. Since the free/open-source software movement is so often presented as the paradigm of the new forms of intellectual labour, let us consider for a moment the crown jewel of that movement, the GNU/Linux operating system. Linux is available free for anyone to use, modify and redistribute on the net. In 2002, it was estimated that a typical GNU/Linux distribution (Debian) contains more that 55 million lines of source code, and if it were to be created using traditional proprietary methods of software development, the cost would be 1.9 billion US dollars (Gonzáles-Barahona & al., 2002). That was in 2002, by now, it will have grown further. It is easy to see that this kind of value created and distributed freely is indeed something not previously seen: germs of non-commodity exchange, indeed. The fact that GNU/Linux does have a tremendous use value for thousands of people around the world shows how freely co-operating and self-organising communities can do real work. The transfer of skills and knowledge happening in the Linux-community may be one of the best examples we have of a global volunteer organisation.

Nevertheless, the structures of inequality quickly kick in. Most Linux-kernel developers are male and relatively young. Moreover, most of them come from North America or Europe. In the case of Debian, this holds true. The developers have typically received some academic education, the number of PhD holders in the group is quite high, over 10%. Again, most of the developers come from the global North (see, e.g., Mikkonen & al., 2006). This geopolitical bias is not just a historical fact, a fossil created by the initiation of these projects in the North. During the 15 years or so the projects have been in progress, only minor change has occurred, with individual programmers from Brazil, India and some other Southern countries getting involved. Indeed, there is as much reason to believe that the economic divisions in the real world are exacerbated in the digital world as to believe that there are grounds for hoping that digital technology could bridge these gaps. If we consider the fact that, during the year from summer 2005 to summer 2006, the Linux kernel took in more code from the .mil (US military) domain than from most third world countries, we instantly get a feeling of the old colonialism continuing in new guises.

Or let us think about another celebrated project, the free on-line encyclopaedia Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org). The English Wikipedia has almost 1.5 million articles (4.10.2006), and other language versions are developing quickly. Again, the work is done on the basis of voluntary co-operation on the terms of the “second economy”. Currently, Wikipedia has a policy of “Neutral Point of View” (NPOV): when discussing controversial issues, Wikipedia articles “must represent all significant views fairly and without bias.” The NPOV is self-consciously a view, not the absence of all views. This means that like the Encyclopaedias of the Enlightenment, the Wikipedia does have a rationality of its own. The excessively scientific-positivist rationality of the Enlightenment has been amply criticised over the last 100 years or so. We have learned that, far from being a boon to all humanity, as it believed itself to be, Enlightenment rationality meant the suppression, if not worse, of different rationalities and the people who believe in them. While Wikipedia's NPOV is not as rabid as the most virulent forms of Enlightenment rationality, it is clear that the growing prominence of Wikipedified information will be corrosive with regard to certain types of communal, religious and other rationalities.

Likewise, in order for a wikipedia to work, it needs a certain critical mass (to resist vandalism, to promote increased content, diversification of contributor roles, etc.). The smaller the (linguistic) community, the slighter the chances of a vibrant Wikipedia. Furthermore, critical mass means normalization, which in itself works against certain types of communal identities. From the user’s point of view, the fact that the English Wikipedia is so much better than, say, the Finnish one, provides an additional pull towards the hegemonic language and its values.

These two small examples should serve to indicate that the cybercommunist utopia is by no means neutral with regard to local identities. Indeed, we might suspect that the power structures of the first economy are visible in the digital sphere. If this is the case, the drive towards culture as the playground of global commerce reveals a new side. The possibilities for small linguistic areas like Finland to make successful business out of the creative industries look bleak, notwithstanding the digital opportunities. The Sibeliuses and Aaltos of previous generations learned their trade from Europe, and by cleverly infusing it with “local” colouring, sold it back to the source. Being a classical composer or being a modern architect are European occupations, and a Finn can succeed in these only in so far as she is able to become European. Why would things be any different with regard to digital creation? Finland, to be sure, is a wealthy, highly modernised nation, with a well-educated population. This is one of the reasons why advanced technology has been one of our success stories. But what is the “Finnish culture” in, say, Nokia mobile phones? Precious little. Again, even the design of the phones is recycled global style, with minor improvements, and production is outsourced to the point where nobody wants to know about the toxic trail leading to illegal mines in Nigeria. If the promise of “creative cybercommunism” is as an empty one, as in the case of Finland, what can it be like in other, equally small, but less wealthy cultural areas?

Corresponding to the demand for stylish mobile phones in the market, there is zero demand for the non-European parts of Finnish culture, such as eräkirjallisuus (“wilderness literature”), in which hunting and fishing trips are described in endless variations on the short-story formula. This type of literature is not politically correct, since it involves the killing of animals, is mostly read and written by non-elitist males, and in a ritual way always revolves around the same narrative: leaving home for nature, hunting or fishing, and gaining something in the process. No amount of digital revolution will wash away this political incorrectness and make eräkirjallisuus desirable for the European or Global public. Better to write detective novels – a European genre – with a local flavour; the rise of the Scandinavian detective is already in evidence.

All of this points to the fact that, in the case of small cultures and linguistic areas, the problems and possibilities of the digital era are significantly different from those of the bigger, more dominant players. It also means that attempts to understand intellectual labour or the creative industries cannot rely exclusively on the tools created in critical discussions in the heart of Europe. The post-post-isms springing from Italy or France have only so much purchase in a landscape that is only now entering the phase that cultural critics like Adorno described in their classic postwar writings. In Finland, the first generation that likes to shop, and which has never really worried about spending money and not saving it, is only now emerging. Likewise, a mass public for soap operas is a very recent phenomenon. Consequently, the critical analysis of a mass society and cultural industry is becoming topical at the same moment that it is also being left behind. This brings into sharp relief the insight expressed by the American Indian leader Russell Means in a speech in 1980: “You cannot judge the real nature of a European revolutionary doctrine on the basis of the changes it proposes to make within the European power structure and society. You can only judge it by the effects it will have on non-European peoples.”


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