Felix Stalder on Wed, 25 Jan 2006 00:34:53 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Stuff of Culture

[This is the opening essay of a new book of mine, called "Open Cultures and 
the Nature of Networks" which was published in English and Serbian by the 
lovely people of kuda.org, late last year. It is being distributed by 
Revolver, Archiv fuer aktuelle Kunst. Hard copies are available from the 
distributor (http://revolver-books.de/w3NoM.php?nodeId=675) and a pdf with the english 
portion of the book can be downloaded via my website 
(http://felix.openflows.org/pdf/Notebook_eng.pdf). Felix]

The Stuff of Culture

Today, we are confronted with a strange, hard-to-categorize question: what is 
culture made out of? Our answer, I am convinced, will have a profound impact 
not just on future culture, with a capital C, but on the entire the social 
reality of the emerging network societies. Today, culture, understood broadly 
as a system of meaning articulated through symbols, can no longer be 
separated from the (informational) economy, or, thanks to genetic 
engineering, from life itself.

Historically, there have been two different approaches to culture. One 
approach to culture would be to characterize it as object-oriented, the other 
as exchange-oriented. The first treats culture as made out of discrete 
objects, existing more or less independently from one another, like chairs 
around a table, or books on a shelf. While such things can be arranged in 
relation to one another, their meaning and function remains the same 
regardless. One person can sit on one chair, no matter how many chairs there 
are in a room, or how they are arranged. The content of a book does not 
change when re-shelving it. The other view takes culture to be made out of 
continuous processes, in which one act feeds into the other, in an unbroken 
chain. Like "la ola", the wave people do in stadiums when the game they are 
watching becomes boring. By looking at the individual act in isolation, one 
cannot differentiate between whether someone getting up to stretch their 
tired bones, or they are participating in collective entertainment. The 
function and meaning of such an act are not self-contained in the act, but in 
its relation to others. It is not only what people do, but also, perhaps even 
more importantly, what happens between them, what flows from one to the 
other. The two perspectives create different sets of concepts for 
understanding culture: the timeless work of art versus the process of 
creation, the individual inventor versus the scientific community, the 
statement versus the conversation, the recording versus the live performance, 
and so on. These two perspectives, and the practices through which they are 
expressed, are currently coming into deep conflict with one another, hence 
the new urgency to the question: what is culture made out of?

Of course, culture always consists of both, that is of stable objects (such as 
furniture, cloths, works of artifice, timeless tunes, written laws) and of 
ongoing, fluid exchanges (for instance spoken languages, values, customs and 
routines). The issue is not an ???either/or???. We do not have to choose one over 
the other. The dichotomy just sketched is an analytical device to highlight 
the differences. The real issue is how these two aspects relate to one 
another. Put simply, is the fixed a local, temporary hardening of the fluid, 
or is the fluid nothing but a residual aspect of the fixed? These are not 
only philosophical questions, but also political and economic ones. How do we 
organize society, to facilitate the creation of objects, or the creation of 
exchanges? How do we value the work of keeping the conversation flowing, 
versus the work going into the production of discrete units? 
It is no coincidence that this question is pressed upon us today because the 
issue is eminently technological. Before the invention of writing it was 
difficult to fix ideas on to material objects. 

Culture was oral and the way of maintaining culture was to keep exchanging it, 
to re-tell stories far and wide. In the process story tellers, bards and 
other traveling performers, some more talented, others less, created infinite 
versions of the same basic material and these versions dissipated as quickly 
as the performers moved on. The technology of writing allowed for the first 
time the transfer parts of their fluid performances into fixed objects. The 
earliest work of Western literature, Homer's Odyssey, is exactly that: an 
oral epic written up. The earliest written philosophy, Plato's, is mainly 

Slowly, culture began to gravitate towards objects, both in terms of 
production and reception. Yet, until the development of print, the 
difficulties of (re)producing manuscripts put serious limits on the extent to 
which the object-orientation they contained could spread throughout culture. 
With print, and later with the mechanical recording of sound and images, the 
balance shifted decisively. Culture became re-made as a series of stable 
objects. With these objects came a distinct class of producers: artists. Now, 
one could think of speech without a speaker. Thus, the question of authorship 
became an issue. Who is speaking was no longer self-evident, as it was in 
oral cultures where speech and speaker were one and the same. At the same 
time, the new producers began to free themselves from the dependence of 
wealthy patrons who treated them as mere servants, like other talented 
artisans: cooks and gardeners for example. Instead they came to rely on 
dedicated apparatuses of specialized services to stabilize authorship and to 
organize the reproduction and distribution of the cultural objects they 
produced: texts, music, images, and the things in between. These organizers 
of (re)production and distribution were the cultural industries, born in the 
18th Century, and coming into their own during the 20th  century.

Initially, however, mechanical (re)production of culture, for all its 
improvements over manuscripts, was still cumbersome and its objects did not 
fully penetrate society for a very long time. An uneasy balance emerged 
between the new object-oriented and older exchange-oriented aspects of 
culture. Copyrights, turning fluid expressions into fixed objects, were 
introduced, but on a very limited scale. Most culture remained as fluid as 
its materiality allowed. One way or the other, this was an issue of relevance 
only to specialists. The lack of education restricted the number of producers 
and consumers of cultural objects and hence the size and influence of the 
cultural industries intrinsically tied to them; but not just that. The 
balance also reflected the fact that the movement from the exchanges to 
objects was strictly one way. Once fluid culture was realized as a fixed 
material object, for instance a book or a painting, it was almost impossible 
to convert it back into a fluid exchange because they are made to be passed 
around as objects. Of course, we still had exchanges about the objects. The 
question of interpretation and critical reading became important such as 
commentary upon original, unchanging texts. However, the texts themselves 
were always understood as objects: discrete, fixed, and final. During the 
19th and 20th century, an interlocking complex of legal, moral, and social 
practices was put in place to support and expand this view of culture. They 
managed to enshrine into common sense what was already in the material 
reality of objects: culture as a collection of discrete and stable objects. 
The most valuable of these were housed in museums, to be removed from the 
flow of time and context for good and frozen for eternity.

Now, today, all of this is changing. The old balance is no longer manageable 
and the common sense it embodied is challenged. We are in the midst of a 
struggle of how to establish a new balance. For one, media literacy has 
spread through societies at large, expanding the range of people able consume 
cultural objects. Thus the markets, and the industries dedicated to serving 
them, have grown immensely. The spread of literacy has also enlarged the 
range of people able to produce culture accessible beyond their immediate 
environment. In fact, the self-conscious production of culture, high and low, 
is now an everyday activity of a large number of people, not just artists. 
Secondly, digital technologies have made cultural production cheap and 
distribution virtually free of costs. Equally as important, the materiality 
of many cultural objects has been transformed: from analog objects to digital 
flows. As an effect, the fixed and the fluid, the objects and the exchanges, 
are becoming harder and harder to differentiate. Email is blurring the 
distinction between spoken and written language, after centuries of hard work 
establishing the difference between the two. Copy and paste, remixing, 
sampling and other basic digital operations make it trivial to take fixed 
objects and reinsert them into fluid, ongoing exchanges. Just think of the 
difference between what a literary critic does (writing about literature to 
produce criticism) and the work of a DJ (using music to make new music). One 
is additive, the other transformative. One refers to the source material, the 
other embodies it.

The distinction between an object-oriented and the exchange-oriented 
conception of culture is not the same as the artificial and, from this 
approach, a useless distinction between material and immaterial culture. 
There are material objects defined by the exchanges they structure, and there 
are fluid processes rendered into distinct, immaterial objects. The first 
type is hard to imagine because it has been so thoroughly exorcised from our 
culture. Yet, there are still some remnants. One example is trophies, such as 
the ones given out in tournaments like the football World Cup, where the 
winner has only a temporary hold. These are, basically, objects made for 
circulation. Not even Brazil owns the World Cup (they have in their permanent 
possession only a replica). The value of the World Cup, then, is not in the 
cup itself but in the fragile and contested social relationships it embodies. 
It is valuable because it is so hard to get, and impossible to keep. If there 
were no more football world championships, the title would become meaningless 
and the cup reduced to the value of the gold is contains. Of course, the 
ultimate object made for circulation is money. We usually think of money as 
something sitting, or not sitting, in our wallets. However, it is much better 
to think of it as a means of communication. It moves and, like a rumor, it 
can shift its shape, form, speed, and direction at any time. Money is a very 
particular form of language; the more money you have, the louder speak your 
actions, at least in the markets. Its value is precisely its fluidity, that 
it can be translated into (virtually) everything. The moment it can no longer 
circulate, it is reduced to its material value, which is close to nothing. In 
short, there are still several objects which are made for circulation rather 
than possession and whose value depends on the entire chain of circulation, 
as opposed to their value as objects alone.

The other case, immaterial processes treated as objects, used to be much 
harder to imagine, until quite recently. How can something as fluid as an 
idea be fixed, counted and owned? Much less, how can a tune that has already 
been sung in public be stolen? However, today, we are witnessing major 
attempts to establish exactly this conception of culture at the core of 
global, informational capitalism. The basic argument is simple: the 
immaterial and the material need to be treated in the same way. There is no 
difference. An idea is like a cow. In the same way that the owner of a cow 
can freely decided whether to sell the milk, the live animal or chunks of 
dead meat, the creator of an idea is free to do whatever she wants with it: 
license it for one time use, license it perpetually for certain uses, sell it 
altogether, keep it to herself, or give it away. As with cows, any use what 
is not specifically authorized is prohibited: clear and simple.

Crucial to maintaining the object-oriented view of the immaterial is to 
fortify the boundary between the fixed and the fluid. Fluid exchanges, the 
ongoing processes of telling, re-telling, changing and transforming are, 
almost by definition, uncontrollable. Objects, on the other hand, with their 
distinct form and shape, with their clear beginning and end, can be numbered, 
measured, and controlled. Only then can they be bought and sold in the 
markets. This seems to make sense when thinking of the immaterial in material 
metaphors. For example, the folders on a computer are deleted by throwing 
them into the trash bin. What such metaphors mask is that the immaterial and 
the material are very different in important ways. While it is possible to 
steal a music Compact Disc from a store, depriving the rightful owner of its 
possession, copying a song from someone's hard drive does not deprive the 
original owner. Digital technologies enable infinite, perfect copies. Within 
a digital system, moving a file is, in fact, always a process of copying (and 
later deleting), rather than of displacing.

An open, digital, networked culture is profoundly exchange-oriented. It is 
much less like a book, and much more like a conversation. That is, it is 
built upon a two-way relationship between the fixed and the fluid enabled by 
new technologies. No longer all that is sold melts into the air, as Marx 
famously put it, but now, digital air can be turned into solids any time. 
Yet, fortifying the boundary between the two makes precisely this impossible. 
A two way relationship, a give and take between peers, is artificially 
pressed onto a one-way relationship where one side does all the giving, that 
is selling, and the other does all the taking, that is, buying. Instead of 
the creation of culture, we have the culture of consumption. 

This situation, per se, is not new and not bad. Rather, distinction between 
the creator and the audience is at the core of conventional cultural 
industries. Yet, there is a substantial difference between the culture of 
consumption created by old media, and the culture of consumption to be 
enforced through networked media. There are two main differences. Firstly, 
one-way broadcast media were restricted to relatively few channels each in 
their own, self-contained medium: books, newspaper, radio, television. In 
other words, these media were pervasive, but still relatively isolated 
instances. A television was for watching television and not much else; it was 
the same with the radio and newspapers. Secondly, the analog quality of these 
media supported the object-character of the products. There was not much a 
television viewer could do with what he saw, based on the materiality of the 
broadcast. He could react to it, interpret it, but not really change it. So, 
there was no need to control the media user. Now, both of these aspects are 
changing. Networked communication technologies are expanding, creating a huge 
network of multi-media hypertext bringing together what used to be entirely 
separate communication universes. Private and public communication, work and 
play, business and social activism are all based on the same technological 
platform, the Internet. It becomes harder and harder to get away from the 
communication networks without abandoning some of the most fundamental tools 
of social participation. Today, turning off the computer is far more 
consequential than turning off the television. With the growth of wireless 
access and the connection of all sorts of objects (such as cars, 
refrigerators and implants) to the Internet, this is only getting more 
pronounced. This, by itself, is not necessarily a problem. 

However, because of its digital, two-way nature, this new global communication 
platform does enable anyone to transform fixed cultural objects into fluid 
cultural exchanges, undermining a core aspect of contemporary capitalism, 
which, as we have seen, is tied to an object-oriented view of culture. 
Consequently the boundary between static one-way distribution and dynamic 
two-way communication needs to be reinforced where it is being eroded: at the 
level of the individual user. Given the pervasiveness of the communication 
networks, it means that all users need to be controlled, everywhere, all the 
time. Contrary to television channels, communication networks are used in all 
aspects of life. This means that control will have to extend into the 
capillaries of mediated communication, that is, into every aspect of social 

So, this is what is at stake: a profound struggle over the stuff digital, 
networked culture will be made out of. Will it be a culture of fixed object, 
circulating through an infrastructure of control, where everything that is 
not authorized is prohibited? Lawrence Lessig called this a ???permissions 
culture???. Before doing anything permission must be asked for which may, for 
no particular reason, be withheld. This is a culture that continues to make a 
hard distinction between production and consumption, between sender and 
receiver. There are a small number of producers and a large number of 
consumers and access to the resources of future cultures (the culture of the 
past ready to be embodied in the new) is restricted to a few, and controlled 
by even less. To bring this vision about, copyright law is being 
strengthened, seemingly without limits. The desire to control is enforced 
technologically through digital rights management systems, and propaganda 
campaigns, which are mounted to teach children that copying files is 
unethical and evil. 

This is the culture of the media conglomerates, and their global stars. In 
this culture, the place of artists is ambivalent. For most, it means 
difficult conditions, as independent production becomes more complicated due 
to the ever more stringent control controls being placed on source materials. 
But ensuing practice of cold, hard media capitalism is counterbalanced by a 
warm, soft story: the artists as the gifted individual and also the special 
social status that this position confers. To the lucky few, the capital 
accrued is not just social, but includes wealth and fame beyond imagination 
of artists of earlier generations. 

The alternative is a culture based on free access to the raw material of 
creativity, other people's work to be embodied in one's own. This is the 
culture of collaborative media production, of free and open source software, 
of reference works such as the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, of open access 
scientific journals and music that is being made and remixed by the most 
talented of artists (rather than those whose legal departments manage to 
clear all the necessary rights). Free access to the source material of 
culture is a precondition for creativity to flourish. Nobody knows this 
better than the creators themselves. It is not a coincidence that most 
writers have substantial personal book collections and spend much of their 
time in libraries. Not even writing is a solitary process. The promise of 
open access is matched by the promise of free distribution and of being able 
to actually reach the audiences who value what one is producing. This promise 
is particularly important for those who produce for audiences too specialized 
to be of interest to the commercial cultural industries. 

However, free distribution of works is a double-edged promise to artists and 
other creative producers. On the one hand, it enlarges the range of people 
who can appreciate the works; this is good in terms of reputation-building. 
On the other hand, it undermines a potentially important income stream: the 
sale of their works. As a result creative producers are forced to find new 
ways of generating income, and thus making their work sustainable. In the 
field of software, there are two ways this is being done. One is the growth 
of service companies which create customized adaptations of existing packages 
to fit particular client needs. Thus, programmers are paid to change existing 
software to make it better work for their clients. In the processes, they 
create code that released back onto the open source project, thus 
contributing to the advancement of the project as a whole. The other is that 
programmers are paid by their companies to contribute to a project, either 
because the company wants to use the software internally, or because they 
want to create a service based on that software. In both cases, the code thus 
produced remains open source, but paid-for services are derived from it. In 
the arts, a somewhat similar process can be observed. Artists are less and 
less 'autonomous producers' who create the works by themselves and then seek 
to sell it (say, as painters do). Avant-garde art, throughout much of the 
20th century, was moving away from the production of artifacts (see the essay 
Culture Without Commodities). Rather, artists are becoming providers of 
specialized services (or performances). Particularly in the field of new 
media art, most work is being done as commissions. Artists have to apply with 
a project and some form of jury decides which is being financed and which 
not. Such works are not dependent on markets where objects are sold, but are, 
again, becoming directly dependent on wealthy patrons, public or private 
institutions, that decide which art is going to be financed. This enables 
artists to produce works that are not in a sellable format (stable objects 
that can be passed around), but also creates new kinds of dependencies 
potentially undermining the freedom of art so crucial to the culture of 
modernity. As culture is infusing more and more aspects of contemporary life, 
and the range of producers is widening but the special status of the artist 
and the social capital attached to this position, is being eroded. Artists 
are becoming, again, artisans, not fundamentally different from others 
creative producers. 

The controversy between the object-oriented and the exchange-oriented visions 
of culture is currently being fought on all levels, legal (expanding versus 
narrowing copyrights and patents), technical (digital rights management 
versus distribution and access technologies), and economic (exchange of 
commodities versus provision of services). Crucially, however, it is also 
fought in the field of culture itself, in ongoing experimentations on how we 
can produce, reproduce, and interpret new forms of meaning. This is the 
native environment of artists and other creative producers, whose everyday 
practice puts them at the heart of this epic struggle.


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