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Digital Culture: The Changing Dynamics

Edited by Aleksandra Uzelac and Biserka Cvjetičanin
Culturelink Joint Publication Series No. 12, Institute for International Relations, Zagreb, 2008, 202 pp., 30 €, ISBN: 978-953-6096-46-6

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Digital Galaxy

Review by Colin Mercer

We are all hitchhikers in what a number of the authors in this very useful collection (and guide) call the 'new digital territory'. But the answer here to the 'meaning of life, the universe and everything' is not '42' [The answer, after 7.5 million years of research, given to a question that is not known.], but the binary code '01' which apparently covers everything from Morse Code through Braille to ASCII and beyond. (Don't ask me what that means – I know it without understanding, just like most of us who use the internet or drive cars which only computers can diagnose and repair). And we won't need the Babel Fish inserted in our ears to simultaneously translate intergalactic languages but, rather, Coase's Penguin [The penguin is the logo of the Linux open source software system which Yochai Benkler uses to counterpose 'commons-based peer production' to traditional theories of industrial production developed by Ronald Coase's transaction cost based theory of the firm developed in the late 1930s.]. And we won't call on the services of 'Ford Prefect' (apart from the alien character in the novel who guides the hero, Arthur Dent, around the galaxy, this is a popular, stereotypical, pre-computer, British family car of the 1950s and 60s, the cultural meaning of which is lost to most people outside the UK and born after about 1975) to guide us around the galaxy, because we have Web 2.0 portable devices, normally inserted, like the Babel Fish, but without the 'iurgh', in our ears, to make our way around, even to the extent of getting Google Earth from our iPhone or car SatNav to zoom in on the exact place in the galaxy where we are googling them from to show us the nearest convenience store, restaurant, launderette, pub, library, etc., (noting that 'to google' is now officially a verb as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary). Noting also that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is nearly 200 years old and based on that number of years of research, and that Google, this year, is 10 years old, based on teenage garage-brilliance, and with a much larger database of what its users do and purchase – and like – at any particular time of day if they are online in any form. Their lifestyles. Ask anybody in the street or the workplace when, if ever, they use the OED (or even know what it is) and then ask them when they used or know of Google and you get a sense of the 'communications revolution' that is going on and some of its implications. I, for one, tend to use Google more often and for more reasons, than I do the OED. I also know that the OED can know nothing about my lifestyle and preferences but I still use Google.

So, as Hervé Fischer, our own Ford Prefect, suggests in this collection (p.143), the internet probably is a 'planetary hyper-cortex'. But it is without, as yet, a reasonable balance of guides and drivers, in policy and practice, which is what Fischer's commendable hyper-humanism would require. So what are these guides, drivers, policies and practices to which this collection points us?

Well, there are the dystopian, the utopian, the policy-wise, and the practical/creative. None of these are mutually exclusive and that is large part of the value of this well-edited, well-balanced, and well-organised collection which I have found very useful – its productive tension in this strange new territory.

The dystopian, for example, includes Rob van Kranenburg's 'New Realities, New Policies' (to which I am eternally grateful, among other things, for explaining the technologies of Radio Frequency Identification [RFID] which tells your refrigerator to tell your supplier that you are out of tomato juice, and then captures you shoplifting tomato juice from your local store if you are so inclined). This is a stimulating piece but perhaps a little hyperactive. Quoting Gramsci, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, Lacan, Eurobarometer and Eurostat within a couple of pages is a bit much even for somebody who has read all of them, as I have. And, coming from a country which has more CCTVs per head of population than any other in the world, I am personally happy that the existence of these technologies on buses and trains mean that I no longer have to sit in or on urine-soaked and vandalised seats and, because of their existence in public places, worry unduly about my 11-year old son who is skateboarding or BMX-ing there. I don't live in a John le Carré novel anymore. Call me old-fashioned if you will, but I agree strongly with von Kranenburg that 'we … [is] … an information space' (p.30). How precise.

The utopian includes Joost Smiers' (virtual, I hope) call/prediction for the abolition of copyright. When I hear or read this from (relatively) level playing-field economies well-endowed with both dystopian and utopian thinkers and writers, and much as I admire Joost's work, I revert by default to my nitty-gritty experiences with Aboriginal visual artists and craft workers in remote and rural Australia, whose only source or real income is based on copyright or other patent rights, or to my knowledge of what is happening in piracy or value chain distortion (in production, reproduction and distribution – not in creation) in Africa, South East Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Balkans (in all of which regions there is now, variously, 70-90% of 'content-theft' on a regular basis which is then sold by exploited Thai and Polish and Romanian and Bulgarian women and men (but mostly women) in the English pubs that I go to at 10% of market price), in which copyright or, let's give it its proper and more appropriate name of 'intellectual property', is absolutely crucial to sustaining a balance between creators and consumers and allowing creators to be consumed and consumers to be creative. These people, the creators especially (but let's not forget the pub vendors who have similar interests and are a crucial stage in the black market value chain), want to know where the money to feed their families or themselves is coming from and not 'how artists are to make a living' or 'how to define ownership' (p.91). Digital rights management is just that: the management of rights in a digital environment by those to whom those rights belong, individually or collectively, and for whom they can be negotiated. Property is not theft, pace Proudhon. Intellectual property is not intellectual theft. That is a cultural right enshrined in every relevant UN document from 1947 to 2005 and The Universal Convention on the Promotion and Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions would be a nonsense without it. Critical and supportive as I can be of 'creative commons', 'copyleft', and related initiatives, we have not reached '42' yet, let alone '01' in that context.

Between the dystopians and the utopians of the Netherlands there are rich pickings here. Being a digital cultural policy 'wonk', I could not help but be attracted, after the excitements, enervations, and innovations of the Netherlands, to the 'policy-wise' contributions of Biserka Cvjetičanin and Vesna Čopič, both of whom have distinguished academic and policy profiles internationally and in their respective countries of Croatia and Slovenia. Both of these contributions give real substance to the rather vague idea of intercultural dialogue and what it means in the new European context (eg. new creative economy production, new jobs, and consolidation of identities in a hybrid, diasporic, and globalised international environment). It is indeed the case, as Cvjetičanin argues, that 'digital culture can bypass cultural policies' (p.105) because it has; that there are negative features of a traditional focus on heritage rather than new forms of cultural production (p.106), and that it is 'high time to rethink cultural policies' (p.106) in this context. Amen!

Cvjetičanin's case study of 'Connecting Croatia' shows some of the ways in which this can be done for both civic purposes and consolidating the local in the global. Vesna Čopič argues that 'digital technology has conquered cultural production' (p.112) which is absolutely true from my point of view as a 'mapper' and occasional theorist of the field, and this is true along the value chain from creation, through production and reproduction, marketing and promotion, to distribution and consumption. Convergence is no longer simply a technological issue – it provides strategic advantages from point of creation to point of sale and consumption, from the desk top to the pocket and the ear. The computer, in the context of convergence, is no longer simply a business machine: it is a platform, as Aleksandra Uzelac makes clear in her admirable introduction to the collection, and as Popović and Hromadžić nicely historicise and contextualise in their contribution arguing for a conceptual and practical shift from a 'transmission' to an 'exchange' model of cultural communication.

In a wider geo-political context Čopič argues that 'we are outgrowing the correlation between cultural identity and a certain territory, and thereby autochthonism' (p.114) and, as someone who has worked recently on policy frameworks for cultural understanding in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I hope that we can outgrow that quickly.

And then we come to the practical and creative dimensions of the new digital territory which are probably, even for a policy wonk like me, the most interesting. The big multinational companies responsible for the pipes, wires, and principal forms of navigation of the internet used to say that 'content is king'. Then they said that 'the consumer is king'. Now they, and we, know that somebody called the 'prosumer' has emerged, as Tomislav Medak puts it in his contribution. The prosumer lives in a world which has experienced a 'transformation of culture from a production model based on scarcity to one based on abundance' (p.60). Wikis, blogs, creative commons, co-creations – the entire web 2.0 generation and their portable cultural technologies – are all the day to day evidence of this, reforming us into 'thousands of cultural tribes of interest' as Primorac and Jurlin put it (p.71) while pointing out, clearly, that legislation (and therefore policy) lag behind. If the computer games industry can understand the importance of collaboration and peer-production to their great economic and social advantage, why can't we in the policy community?

In the cultural field, practice will probably (almost certainly) get us there before policy does. This is absolutely clear from the contributions by Jane Finnis and Lidia Varbanova; both on the frontline of the online.

'Has the online revolution [of Web 2.0] hit the cultural sector yet?' asks Finnis (p. 151). Do we know how to engage those scandalous and cultural sector frown-inducing practices of 'assembling products not for, but with, customers' (p.173). Do we know how to smile, make jokes, even make money! in this context without the stern-faced severity of the 'bulletin' governed by the logic of the grant, the subsidy, the deficit, and the perennial complaints of well-funded arts organisations with their snouts in the trough?

The three variables, as Varbanova puts it, of 'fun', 'easy to digest' and 'make the user feel important' (p.177 – with a truly justified positive reference to Peter Inkei's always wry and articulate Budapest Observatory Newsletter, the only European newsletter that makes ME smile) are missing. This is not just about a communication style: it is about a logic of communication and it is about a new logic, a new cultural ecology, a new creative economy in which historical policy settings on funding and prioritisation will change dramatically. The trick is to know where and how these changes will, and should, take place and this collection is a very important guide to this – if we can recognise it.

Finnis, with practical and policy experience of the UK's Culture24 family of websites, points to the examples of 'hijacking', through social networking sites like Facebook and Flickr, of images and text from the Online Museum 'of people appropriating an aspect of culture in personal ways… an aspect of engagement.' (p.160). Varbanova asks if 'European cultural organisations and networks [will] watch or participate in the new game?' Game, jeu, or stake, indeed.

It may be that those kids in Stanford, working in a garage, only a decade ago, who went on to found Google, had hitchhiked their way into a territory where, as Yochai Benkler (the fabulator of Coase's Penguin) puts it: 'the value of a globally distributed skill set will loosen the grip of the richest countries on innovation'. But that will depend on recognition of the new mode of commons-based, peer-production in which we are all involved, whether we know it or not.

And then we will understand and appreciate Vogon poetry, and other things, without being sick.


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