Culture Without Commodities:From Dada to Open Source and Beyond
Felix Stalder<>
Toronto, July 2002

Only a handful of movements in the West's recent cultural history were innovative enough to actually disrupt the status quo. Exploding out of their normally small niche they threatened, for some short moments, the established (symbolic) order and thus opened spaces of unforeseen possibilities. Greil Marcus, in his wonderful Lipstick Traces [1], connects the subterranean links among some of these movements. In particular he made audible the resonances between the blast of dada at the end of WWI in Zurich and Berlin, the gust of the Situationists on the rive gauche in Paris in the 1960s, and the explosion of Punk Rock in London and NYC in 1976/77. To this list, we can add the Internet in the mid 1990s.

Suspending all rules
As Marcus tells it, these movements achieved, at least briefly, what is usually unattainable: they suspended all rules. Suddenly everything was up for grabs, nobody held any authority over the future anymore. Each of them, in their own way, fought a heroic guerilla war to liberate the future from the oppression of the past. Or, as the Sex Pistols screamed, there is no future in England's dreamland. With the bourgeois dreams exposed as a sham, the emperor was stripped naked and authority voided: God save the queen, she ain't no human being. Everything was to be reinvented, here and now. The emptiness and absurdity of the spectacle was revealed. Reality imploded and the void was teeming with the promise of the new.

These were short-lived moments, though, not only because of the (self-) destructive potential of the vacuum they created. More importantly for the purpose of this essay, they were short-lived because they were torn apart by a tension that characterized much of the Western cultural production in the 20th century: the conflict between "commodity cultures" and "cultures without commodity."

Commodity Culture
Cultural innovation was driven by the uneasy coexistence of two modes of production. Commodity culture was dominated by powerful cultural industries [2] which created and packaged media objects to be sold in national, and later global, mass markets. The operational motive of these industries was, quite naturally, profit. The basis of their power was the oligopolistic control over the means of production and distribution. Whereas the control over the means of production began to erode with the spread of cheap but powerful microelectronics in the last quarter of the century, the control over the means of distribution increased during the same period of time. The cultural markets became dominated by an ever dwindling number of integrated media conglomerates. This concentration process occurred first on a national and later on a global scale [3].

While the power of these corporations grew vast, their creativity became ever more constrained. The need to predict profits - what economist call 'rational investment', i.e. investment in ventures that have a high certainty of positive return - made the cultural industries (or any other established industry, for that matter) adverse towards hard-to-predict, real innovation [4]. In other words, the profit imperative, intensifying under the pressures of the global capital market, turned the cultural industries - and mainstream culture - more and more conservative. The ideal Hollywood film is not the surprise hit, but the well-planned sequel, or, if the story line has been exhausted, prequel. The most valued form of the cultural industries is the franchise. Anything to reduce risk.

Culture Without Commodities
Cultures without commodities [5], on the other hand, have always organized themselves quite differently. Their operational motive was not primarily selling of media objects - although that sometimes played a role, too - but recognition by an often small number of people who matter, usually members of the same cultural niche. This recognition rewarded the creator's skills in experimenting with the means of expression, rather than the skills to command large audiences and deliver a positive cash flow. The vitality was based on the free exchange among (relative) peers, on which both experimentation and reputation depended. The producer/consumer distinction was blurred, with fans producing their own magazines - fanzines. After all, Dada praised the creativity of children and punk tried to destroy the myth of the artists as specially gifted by claiming that anyone who can play three cords on a guitar can create a band. And, indeed, some of the greatest icons of punk had very limited musical talent. Sid Vicious barely knew how to hold a bass.

However, the lack of access to efficient means of communication kept these cultures in the margins, that is, in a small niche of dedicated enthusiasts. Sometimes, this was highly valued, a kind of self-marginalizing, sometimes not. The unequal access to means of communication of commodity and non-commodity cultures created the paradoxical perception that the former, despite its strict internal controls, was open, i.e. accessible to everyone, whereas the latter, despite its relatively free flow of information, seemed to be closed because it was difficult to access for most people.

These two cultures were often opposed to one another. Mainstream culture labeled the non-commodity producers elitist, obscure, "l'art pour l'art", or ivory tower, whereas from the other point of view, crossing into mainstream was often condemned as "selling-out," i.e. producing media objects that could be sold easily.

Despite their somewhat antagonistic relationship, both cultures were, to some degree, dependent from one another. Marginal cultures provided the space for innovation that was absent from the highly controlled commodity culture. The cultural industries, on the other hand, provided the means to reach beyond the relatively small niches that non-commodity cultures were locked into. For the cultural industries, this was a very lucrative arrangement. As long as they controlled the means of communication between creators and large audiences, they could ensure that nothing could reached the mass markets that would upset their lucrative position as gate keepers. The price for radical culture to reach large audiences was, most often, a toning down of the message, the transformation of politics into fashion. Punk, in the hands of the industry, became New Wave, the celebration of rebellion was turned into a cult of depression.

Bypassing the gatekeepers
The explosion of the Internet in the mid 1990s can be understood as another of these rare moments in our cultural history. A new space of unforeseen possibilities was opened up, the future, once again, liberated from the past. The old dreamland - meat space, as it was now derisively called - was unmasked, like the Sex Pistols' England, as a dead end. The great powers were stunned. Everything was up for grabs and values characteristic for cultures without commodities - personal freedom, free flows of ideas, innovation over perfection - suddenly ruled the day.

The slogans of those years are of an ecstatic beauty worth remembering, even as we might now cringe at their naivete. They are a testimony of the sincere excitement over opening of a new cultural space. In early 1996, Barlow wrote famously in his Declaration of Independence: "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather"[6]. Barlow turned the Sex Pistols upside down. Instead of no future, he declared, there is nothing but future.

However, in important ways, things were radically different this time. The cultural explosion was no longer contained in a few isolated places, a theater here, or a performance there. The Internet's open cultures were no longer locked into small niches. On the contrary, its practitioners were highly advanced producers and users of a communication medium that could rival, and even exceed, the global reach and efficiency of the distribution mechanism of the cultural industries. The new radicals no longer needed to pass gatekeepers to reach large audiences, they could simply bypass them. The iron grip of the cultural industries was broken and culture seemed to be liberated from the commodity dictate - information wants to be free, another slogan from these heady days.

This, in turn, not only rattled the established order symbolically, but, for the first time, seriously threatened its economic foundations. Thanks to the World Wide Web, it was no longer difficult to distribute information to global audiences. Thanks to newsgroups, email lists and other collaborative platforms, programmers could work together without having to organize into hierarchical firms. They could develop software code outside of the commodity structures of the traditional market place. Their code was just as good, sometimes even better, than one developed by the industry. Thanks to Napster, a super-efficient distribution infrastructure was available to everyone. Any kid could share his music with his two million closest friends, for free!

This does not mean that overnight the playing field was leveled. There was, and still is, the question of how to get attention from world wide audiences. Indeed, capturing the attention of oversaturated audiences has become so critical - and difficult - that some saw the emergence of an "attention economy" in which products are abundant but attention from consumers is scarce[7]. There are many aspiring celebrities, many lonely web sites and unrequested .mp3 files.

However, one of the most important assets of cultural industries - the infrastructure for connecting cultural producers to large audiences - had slipped out of their control. The established cultural industries had to realize that they could no longer simply repackage real innovation as fashion statements, like they did so successfully with the Rock Music. They were no longer in a position of gate keeping.

Freedom of creation vs. control of consumption
The old tension between the open cultures and the cultural industries no longer appears as a trade-off between small, isolated but innovative cultures of freedom on the one hand, and large, ubiquitous but stale cultures of consumption on the other. Both now have powerful means of connecting to global audiences / users / contributors. The old superficial tension has been, almost overnight, rendered obsolete and has revealed a much more fundamental: The conflict between open and closed cultures, between an emphasis on freedom of creation and one on control of consumption.

After a few years of being blinded by glare of the new, the cultural industries have recognized the threat they are facing. They buckled up and are now engaged in a ferocious fight to put the genie of free distribution back into the bottle of controlled consumption.

Central to this fight is the attempt to criminalize what used to be legitimate, or at least tolerated, behaviour central to innovation and creation: the appropriation of existing cultural objects either for purposes they were not intended to (for example non-commercial distribution), or as raw material for the creation of new cultural objects. As long as the cultural industries controlled access to mass audiences, these practices could be tolerated because they happened at the economic margins and could only enter the mainstream with the approval of the gatekeepers.

This is no longer the case and, consequently, the cultural industries, if they want to keep they dominance, have to outlaw ANY and ALL unauthorized use of their content. They have to get into the nooks and crevices of even the marginal cultures, because they too, can have global reach now. Having lost the control over the means of production a long time ago, and over the means of distribution with the Internet, the last area they still control is the content they own. In a context of cheap and efficient means of world wide distribution accessible to millions of users/producers, the control of content needs to be airtight, since once released into the open, content is very difficult to bring back under control. IP is the new gate which the cultural industries want to erect in order to regain their strategic - and highly profitable - position.

We see, almost daily, how the new gates are being fortified. New laws are being proposed and passed in the US and in the EU, leading the way to a world wide extension of intellectual property regimes in which copyright periods are becoming longer and longer, and an ever growing range of ideas can be removed from the public domain by being patented (patents on business methods, software patents, patents on organisms, etc).

But laws alone are not enough. In some areas, new technologies are introduced - under the name of Digital Rights Management (DRM) - that restrict what users can do with their digital content. While there are some legitimate applications of such systems, due to the efficiency of the Internet as a copying machine and distribution channel, these new system do not only have to ensure that there are no copies being made for illegitimate (i.e. commercial) purposes but that there are no copies being made under any circumstances. This not only goes against the expectations of users who assume that they own the content they paid for, but it voids long established and socially important fair use provision that ensured that even copyrighted content could be used freely for educational or artistic purposes. As Lawrence Lessig argued, this threatens innovation across the board. It stifles the new in favour of the old [8].

In the paranoid vision of the industry, pirates and thieves multiplying and as are the areas in which they need to be battled. Listening to the pronouncements of lobbyists - some are even trying to connect what they call piracy to terrorism - we almost seem to be engaged in the Internet version of Huntington's Clash of Civilizations [9], with barbarians (users and independent creators) crashing the gates of civilization (the walled gardens of protected content). To win this battle an increasingly invasive and repressive regime is being installed in which all actions of individuals that are not expressively sanctioned are made illegal. The result is mass criminalization not seen since the US prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s.

Of course, these increasingly totalitarian tendencies of the content industries are not unchallenged. There is a growing coalition of cultural producers - artists, scientists, engineers etc - who realize their common interest in opposing this trend. They understand that the cultural industries' approach is motivated by nothing than narrow self-interest of a small but powerful group. It becomes clear that it constitutes a dead end in which everyone loses, this, again, is similar to the US prohibition. Criminalizing behaviour that seems natural to the large majority is incompatible with a democracy and ultimately disastrous for a civil society.

However, the cultural industries are vetted to a business model that is, by and large, obsolete due to social and technical changes in the society at large. Rather than adapting, the industries are trying to fight these changes. They are slow - and given their investment in the old - unwilling to see that the new offers chances, also on an economic level.

In order to free the new from the old and allow new models of open production of cultural objects to mature, two things are vital. On the one hand, the emerging repressive legal regimes must be fought, otherwise they will suffocate the new before it has a change to grow. This is slowly, perhaps too slowly, happening. It is a good sign that the discussions over copyright have moved from legal departments into the mainstream.

At the same time, however, it will be necessary to develop new modes of production that encourage cultures of freedom which are sustainable in the long term and through high growth. This means that they have, in some way or another, to intersect with the existing money economy without falling into the trap of the commodity culture. Open Source/Free Software is a good example that this can be done. By abandoning commodity model (one time sale of fixed products) in favour of a more open service model that supports DIY freedom as well as professional reliability, a new mode of production and maintenance of cultural objects (software code) is emerging that combines elements of the culture of freedom with production efficiency, hence making them are sustainable for the long term and on a very large scale while keeping it open at the same time.

We need, however, time and freedom to experiment much more. This is precisely this freedom that threatened by those who profit from the status quo. I'm optimistic that, if - and this is a big if - the repressive hammer yielded by the cultural industries doesn't come crashing down too soon, the experience from the field of free software can be transported into other sectors of cultural production.

Writer's note: Thanks to Brian Holmes for a substantive critique of an earlier version of this essay.

[1] Marcus, Greil (1989). Lipstick Traces: a Secret History of the Twentieth Century.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
[2] I use the term "cultural industries" more broadly that the Frankfurt School theorists, to include also the producers of informational products such as software.
[3] Schiller, Dan (1999). Digital Capitalism. Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press, Herman, Edward S.; McChesney, Robert W. (1997). The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Global Capitalism. London, Washington: Cassell
[4] Christensen, Clayton M. (1997). The Inventor's Dilemma. When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press
[5] I use the term broadly to include all forms of innovative cultural production that are not oriented towards selling objects, including, the artistic avant-garde, underground, DIY-movements, parts of academia and Open Source movements.
[6] Barlow, John Perry (1996). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. February 9.
[7] Goldhaber, Michael (1997). The Attention Economy and the Net. First Monday Vol.2, No.4
[8] Lessig, Lawrence (2001). The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House
[9]Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster