Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Democratizing Culture

[Part Two in a series: Reading Benkler's Wealth of Networks.]

"Culture, shared meaning, and symbols are how we construct our views of life across a wide range of domains—personal, political, and social. How culture is produced is therefore an essential ingredient in structuring how freedom and justice are perceived, conceived, and pursued. In the twentieth century, Hollywood and the recording industry came to play a very large role in this domain. The networked information economy now seems poised to attenuate that role in favor of a more participatory and transparent cultural production system." (p.274)

Networked culture is more participatory because anyone can contribute:
The radically declining costs of manipulating video and still images, audio, and text have... made culturally embedded criticism and broad participation in the making of meaning much more feasible than in the past. Anyone with a personal computer can cut and mix files, make their own files, and publish them to a global audience. (p.275)

When anyone can produce and share information, bypassing industrial bottlenecks, the resulting culture is far more diverse:
[H]owever one wishes to discount it to account for different levels of talent, knowledge, and motivation, a billion volunteers have qualities that make them more likely to produce what others want to read, see, listen to, or experience. They have diverse interests—as diverse as human culture itself. Some care about Viking ships, others about the integrity of voting machines. Some care about obscure music bands, others share a passion for baking. As Eben Moglen put it, “if you wrap the Internet around every person on the planet and spin the planet, software flows in the network. It’s an emergent property of connected human minds that they create things for one another’s pleasure and to conquer their uneasy sense of being too alone.”

It is this combination of a will to create and to communicate with others, and a shared cultural experience that makes it likely that each of us wants to talk about something that we believe others will also want to talk about, that makes the billion potential participants in today’s online conversation, and the six billion in tomorrow’s conversation, affirmatively better than the commercial industrial model… (p.55)

It also has the effect of making culture more transparent, by opening commercially imposed meanings to criticism. Benkler (p.277) points out:
A nine-year-old girl searching Google for Barbie will quite quickly find links to, to the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO), and to other, similarly critical sites interspersed among those dedicated to selling and playing with the doll. The contested nature of the doll becomes publicly and everywhere apparent, liberated from the confines of feminist-criticism symposia and undergraduate courses. This simple Web search represents both of the core contributions of the networked information economy. First, from the perspective of the searching girl, it represents a new transparency of cultural symbols. Second, from the perspective of the participants in AdiosBarbie or the BLO, the girl’s use of their site completes their own quest to participate in making the cultural meaning of Barbie. The networked information environment provides an outlet for contrary expression and a medium for shaking what we accept as cultural baseline assumptions. Its radically decentralized production modes provide greater freedom to participate effectively in defining the cultural symbols of our day. These characteristics make the networked environment attractive from the perspectives of both personal freedom of expression and an engaged and self-aware political discourse.

To reiterate: networked media enable citizens and other non-commercial actors to contribute to our shared understanding of the world, and to respond critically to existing cultural symbols. These characteristics of participation and transparency make a culture fundamentally more democratic than is possible in an exclusively mass-mediated environment.


  1. I for the most part agree, but one hint of caution, while the net is a huge tool for democratisation, the barriers of entry still exist, not everyone has access to a computer nor the internet.

  2. Yeah, that's an important point. Moreover, Benkler's analysis implies that universal internet access is no mere "luxury" (on a par with television and video games, say), but a vital prerequisite for citizens to have the capacity to fully contribute to modern society.

  3. Hmm, I hadn't thought about it like that, but given not only the democratic aspects, but also the efficiency of finding information on the web (particularly those sites which use communities to generate and assess knowledge) along with the zero cost aspect that you mentioned in your other post, and there is an excellent argument for the subsidisation of access to the internet as a public good.


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