After a few weeks of our online course and thinking about open learning, it has become clear that nobody is advocating for completely free platforms and content anymore. We now know that free platforms always come with some kind of cost. As a rule, if a platform (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.) is free, the user is the product. Our data is piped into algorithms that try to modify our behavior in very clever ways. We have been told that ads make it possible to give these platforms to users for free, but a lot of us have become very aware of the fact that these ads are not like traditional ads we may see on television or magazines. Everything is tailored to the single user and the manipulation is very aggressive.
In his book Free Culture (2004), the founder of Creative Commons Lawrence Lessig says that his inspiration for the work came from the Free Software Foundation and free software advocate Richard Stallman. The book is an argument for the reduction of the scope of copyright laws. When I first read it, I was very much into free software and perfectly willing to challenge copyright laws. Now, things have changed.
Nine years after Free Culture was published, Jaron Lanier published in Who Owns the Future? (2013) In it, he wrote about Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram (who had only thirteen employees at the time) for a billion dollars: “Instagram isn’t worth a billion dollars just because those thirteen employees are extraordinary. Instead, its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to the network without being paid for it.” Why aren’t the people who make Instagram worth a billion dollars getting compensated for their efforts? This is just a single example, but it suggests that there is a whole other set of questions we have to address now that social media has really taken off. Wealth is concentrated and distributed between a few central operators. Most of the work is done for free. The platform you use not only takes your labor, but it also bombards you with algorithms aimed at modifying your behavior. While all this is taking place, your brain gets used to addictive behaviors and makes you miserable. But, hey, it’s free!
It’s safe to say that most of our idealism about free software and free content has disappeared. There are many problems that follow the business models that base their revenue on the digital enslavement of their users. Many of us actually would like to and do pay for the media we consume in order to avoid the negative aspects of free media platforms. For example, I am happy to pay for my news services and do subscribe to some I like. I pay them money, they in turn don’t inundate me with ads and pointless junk, and of course they deliver high-quality content.
Nevertheless, I sometimes need materials for teaching purposes where I don’t need to worry about copyright or pay too much to use them. This is where the Creative Commons license comes in. It may have begun from an idealistic pursuit of free culture for all, but it is now a parallel system covering shareable content. There may be a lot of rhetoric about how our culture is now a “remix” culture, but real life tends to be more complicated than buzzwords. In Free Culture, Lessig writes about the way wealthy corporations have been able to extend copyright and keep their products out of the public domain almost indefinitely, and it’s easy to agree with him on why this is not beneficial to society as a whole. Reduction of copyright laws as a whole may still be the goal, but a second system like the Creative Commons license has created a practical option for all who want to share their stuff with others.
I think I still want to support both ideas. But my support now comes with a number of ifs and buts.