Remixing Democratic Discourse - New Media and the End of 'Read Only'
By Heather Stilwell
" 'Read only.' Passive recipients of culture produced elsewhere. Couch potatoes. Consumers. This is the world of media from the twentieth century. The twentyfirst century could be different."
—Lawyer and political activist Lawrence Lessig on his hopes for a more engaged and free creative culture.1
As you are most likely reading this article online, a world of possibilities is instantaneously at your disposal. Do you wish to share this paper with your friend across the globe? Send her the link. Do you want to use it to start a debate that includes people you have never met and with whom you share little in common save your internet connection and a desire to communicate? No problem. Attach a blog with your own thoughts and ideas, and watch the comments as they accumulate in real time.
It is this ability to access, post and share information globally that has led to the establishment of new and innovative forms of online discourse. The internet and online dissemination of ideas and works are not all that new, but they are no doubt still in the process of changing all facets of how our society communicates. Whether we benefit from the changes will depend on how we as a society evolve alongside them.
Cut to Canadian activist and filmmaker Brett Gaylor. His new documentary film RiP: A Remix Manifesto looks at the new ways in which p2p file sharing and cutting edge digital technologies are opening the doors to a new creativity within our culture.2 For Gaylor, it is not just the ability to share innovative ideas and works that is important, but the freedom to transform them. According to him, it is precisely this empowering and democratic freedom that is under attack by media companies who wield excessively lengthy periods of intellectual property ownership. These companies see p2p file sharing and the collaborative opportunities to which they give rise as a dangerous practice resulting in the dissolution of their ability to profit. To summarize his analysis, Gaylor presents us with what he calls The Remixer's Manifesto:
Culture always builds on the Past.
The Past Will Always Try to Control The Future.
Our Future is Becoming Less Free.
To Build Free Societies You Must Limit the Control of the Past.
Backed throughout the film by the legal prowess of academic and activist Lawrence Lessig, Gaylor challenges our society to re-evaluate the existing intellectual copyright laws that are not only outdated for our current information age, but that have a stranglehold on the potential for artistic creativity and transformation within our culture. As Lessig states in his book Free Culture, "We have never seen the power to innovate spread so broadly among our citizens and we have just begun to see the innovation that this power will unleash."3 However, "Overregulation wastes the extraordinary opportunity for a democratic creativity that digital technology enables."4
Refusing to accept the status-quo, Gaylor challenges us to take control of the future of ideas and re-engage a society that has lost control over its intellectual and artistic creativity. The most admirable aspect of his stance is that he simultaneously practices what he preaches. His documentary is completely accessible online5 and, throughout it, viewers are encouraged to contribute and remix footage for the eventual re-release in its new form. Even if one is not particularly savvy with complex editing techniques, the website offers step-by-step instructions on how to upload a media file for others to view or mix themselves. Not burdened by an overriding desire for profit or control, Gaylor is more concerned with using his creation to engage people and inspire ideas.
It is calls to action like these that are inspiring hope for the future of democratic expression and contribution. Creators from all disciplines are responding to the critical opportunity to create an online forum where the distinction between the producer and consumer of ideas becomes increasingly blurred and citizens take on a more active role in the shaping of ideas.
Bridging this gap further are the increasingly popular interactive news websites, for example Huffington Post, which have led many to predict, perhaps too hastily, the ultimate demise of journalism in its traditional forms. The newspaper is most frequently targeted; increasingly viewed as an archaic form of media that is much too slow to respond to rapidly evolving events. For a society that has become accustomed to immediate news updates, not only is the internet quicker to disseminate information, it has the ability to do so using a variety of media options from print and audio to TV and film.
However, to say that the issues plaguing journalism today stem solely from the relatively restrictive structure of print is to ignore the already existing issues concerning its content. Commenting on the current state of national news in all its forms, sociology professor Erin Steuter of Mount Allison University states, "Monopoly media in Canada has resulted in a situation where we are left with generic news content in which contextualized and critical discussions of important social and economic issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of Canadians are addressed in a skewed and self-serving manner."6 This means that we may hear different versions of opinions, but they are generally presented as variations within a polarized discourse established by those who control the media. This leaves little room for viewpoints that are openly critical or challenging to the simplified narrative of right versus left.
In response to this abysmal state of affairs, one would expect the independent and interactive aspect of the internet news site to be welcomed quite favourably. In fact, as an article in the New Yorker states, "The birth of the liberal blogosphere, with its ability to bypass the big media institutions and conduct conversations within a likeminded community, represents a revival of the Deweyan challenge to our Lippman-like understanding of what constitutes 'news' and in doing so, might seem to revive the philosopher's notion of a genuinely democratic discourse."7
On the other hand, the very same article speaks of the "parasitical" relationship of these news sites to traditional news forms, referring to the fact that, often, articles posted on independent sites have been extracted from existing mainstream news sources. This way of framing the relationship between traditional sources of news and interactive websites illustrates the reluctance of many traditional journalists to recognize the legitimacy of this up-and-coming mode of democratic discourse. It is exactly this type of thinking that Gaylor's Remix culture is trying to expose and contest. Is it really parasitical to take an existing piece of work and have ordinary citizens reshape it and build on it? How can it make sense to exclude open and diverse voices from the daily discussion of ideas? The answer is simple: it doesn't. According to Huffington herself, "Traditional media just need to realize that the online world isn't the enemy. In fact, it's the thing that will save them, if they fully embrace it."8
Societies have not always been quick to welcome new technologies that could potentially supersede the practices to which we are accustomed. Take for example media critic Neil Postman's timeless polemic, Amusing Ourselves to Death – Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,9 which focused on the destructive effects that the shift to a TV-based from typography-based culture had on news production and consumption. Few would believe more than he in the profound power of the medium to shape discourse. In his analysis, he posited that the medium determines not only how we talk about the news, but exactly what news we will talk about. Typography allowed for a certain level of intellectuality and reflection that was all but lost in the sensationalized extremism of glossy TV images and theatrical personalities.
Postman's media critique was not limited to TV. As an historical example, he similarly examines the effects of the telegraph, by which new and seemingly advantageous ways of communicating and connecting were made possible. However, as Postman describes, these advantages were overshadowed by the nature of the messages predominantly characterized by "irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence"10 and therefore offered little social or political utility.
One might use his critique to draw an analogy from the inherent weakness of the telegraphic messages of the past to the overindulgent and often irrelevant nature of status updates on Twitter or Facebook that we see today. Certainly, as one user commented in the Montreal Gazette, Facebook can be riddled with posts that are "superficial to the point of banal."11 However, to see it as only that would be to miss the potential for its wider more advantageous application. In a recent post on his website, activist filmmaker Robert Greenwald gave thanks to those who sent him encouraging messages and suggestions via online social networks while he was filming a political documentary in Afghanistan. In his post entitled Twittering from Kabul, Greenwald states, "Being in a dark room in Kabul while being able to post on Facebook and Twitter truly speaks to the connected universe."12
Greenwald is taking further advantage of the online medium to shape his new documentary "both as a film and a campaign."13 Bypassing the delay period from preliminary filming to official distribution, Greenwald now posts his documentary online in instalments as they are shot so that his ideas can reach a worldwide audience "at the speed of YouTube," that can be continuously updated "as events in the news change and as policy changes." Ultimately, the fragmented parts of what Greenwald calls a "real-time documentary," will be put together for official release.
We are no doubt still in the midst of an exciting revolution in the way our communication system is shaped. However, what is most promising about the present state of afairs is that we, now more than ever, have a powerful medium to give more citizens a voice within that system; one in which we need not speak apocalyptically of "the death" of traditional media, but where we instead look towards the future to a newer, freer media. A future where we no longer remain passive recipients of news and culture – the content of which was chosen and framed for us by a concentration of media companies
whose interests may lie less with encouraging democratic freedom of expression, and more with their own financial
success. A future where we are no longer told what to think, but where we are inspired to contribute to the discussion. A future that is no longer 'read-only.
1 Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture. (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 37.
2 RiP! A Remix Manifesto. Directed by Brett Gaylor. Eye Steel Film, 2009.
3 3 Lessig, 181.
4 4 Lessig, 199.
5 Gaylor, Brett. Open Source Cinema. 2009. http://www.opensourcecinema.org/
6 The Dominion Newspaper Cooperative. The Dominion. "Dr. Erin Steuter, professor of Sociology, Mount Allison University." http://www.dominionpaper.ca/ node/1689
7 Alterman, Eric. "Out of Print – The Death and Life of the American Newspaper," The New Yorker, March 31, 2008. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/31/080331fa_fact_alterman?currentPage=all
8 Alterman, 2008.
9 Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death – Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. (New York: Penguin Press, 1985).
10 Postman, 65.
11 Schwartz, Susan. "Facebook Vultures." The Gazette. March 28, 2009. http://www.montrealgazette.com/Life/Facebook+vultures/1437860/story.html
12 Greenwald, Robert. "Brave New Films Blog." Brave New Films. March 28, 2009. http://bravenewfilms.org/blog/
13 Stelter, Brian. "Docs can air on the Web in 'real time.'" The Gazette. March 28, 2009: E11.
Alterman, Eric. "Out of Print – The death and life of the American newspaper." The New Yorker. March 31, 2008. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/31/080331fa_fact_alterman?currentPage=all
Gaylor, Brett. Open Source Cinema. http://www.opensourcecinema.org/
Greenwald, Robert. "Brave New Films Blog." Brave New Films. March 28, 2009. http://bravenewfilms.org/blog/
Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death – Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Press, 1985.
RiP! A Remix Manifesto. Directed by Brett Gaylor. Eye Steel Film and National Film Board, 2009.
Schwartz, Susan. "Facebook Vultures." The Gazette. March 28, 2009. http://www.montrealgazette.com/Life/Facebook+vultures/1437860/story.html
Stelter, Brian. "Docs can air on the Web in 'real time.'" The Gazette, March 28, 2009: E11.
The Dominion Newspaper Cooperative. The Dominion. "Dr. Erin Steuter, Professor of Sociology, Mount Allison University." http://www.dominionpaper.ca/ node/1689