Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cultural Rights, the Internet, and Sustainability

Cultural rights are the inherent rights that social groups possess, rights which permit them to sustain their distinctive cultures—in other words, to sustain their ways of thinking and doing. UNESCO extends its proclamations of individual human rights to the distinct ideas and practices of indigenous societies, ethnic minorities, and other social groups whose ways of life are threatened with exploitation or alteration or even with extinction. In the intellectual worlds of folklore and ethnomusicology that I inhabit, Alan Lomax’s “Appeal to Cultural Equity” (1972) is cited as an early statement of cultural rights in the face of what he called “cultural grey-out.” By grey-out he meant that when indigenous societies modernized, they lost their cultural distinctiveness as their people began to think and behave like those in the developed world—for example, as consumers. For Lomax, cultural grey-out was most obvious in music. Western popular music, in particular, Lomax regarded as a homogenizing force.

    As Lomax’s cultural grey-out hypothesis was put to the test, it became clear that societies tended to resist homogenization, particularly in their expressive cultures—the folklife of traditional foodways, song, dance, habitation, myth, craft, and so forth. Nonetheless, Lomax’s proposed solution to musical grey-out was a “global jukebox,” freely available to everyone, and containing recorded (audio and film) examples of all the diverse music found throughout the world. The inherent force of these authentic expressions would overwhelm listeners and ensure their preservation. Lomax was working on this project until he had a stroke in the early 1990s. Nevertheless his dream became a reality in short order, and today the global jukebox is available here and there and everywhere on the Internet.

    Ironically, while the Internet works against cultural grey-out by delivering an enormous amount of distinct information, relatively inexpensive to mount on the world wide web and representing widely differing ways of thinking and doing, this very information revolution is pressuring us toward adopting new and, to some, troubling ethical principles with regard to privacy and intellectual property rights. This pressure affects cultures as well as individuals.

    On one hand, as consumers we want—no, we deserve—free access to information on the Internet, whether music, images, video, opinions, bank and credit card accounts, recipes, consumer guides, newspapers, books, not to mention people's personal information and their whereabouts, blogs and tweets. We envision a future in which all information is on the Internet—everything on an iPhone or an iPad viewed in the palm of the hand and plugged a-socially into the ears. Is this how music will be sustained? Cultures? People? (Never mind, for the moment, that it's all virtual representation, not live performance.)

    Free access is quickly achieving the ethical status of a natural right, a democratization of the information commons. No one will ever have to visit a library or a record or video store again, let alone attend a live performance. Bookshelves?—you don’t need them. Filing cabinets?—digitize what you have and move into the paperless world. Desks? Pens? Paper? Postage stamps? No way. You’ll feel good about it too because your stuff won’t take up so much of a carbon footprint (not to mention physical space).

    On the other hand, what happens to the rights of the creators of this information? International law grants creators intellectual property rights; no one can copy without permission. But the desire for free access on the Internet is changing society’s conceptions about intellectual property. People are talking about “creative commons” and other ways of changing the legal notion of “fair use.” What about cultural rights to traditional knowledge shared by an indigenous group? Doesn’t a social group, in other words, have the right to protect its way of life from exploitation in the marketplace? Instances of cultural robbery abound—songs that have been sampled and stolen without financial or other compensation; native medicinal plant knowledge that “big pharma” has exploited for profit; and so forth. What about cultural knowledge gathered by ethnographers and stored in archives under restricted conditions of access; can archives afford to safeguard this information without delivering it on the Internet?

    The Internet, then, is delivering virtual sustainability while pressuring ethical and legal conceptions of individual and cultural rights. A recent discussion on one of the listserves I follow is a case in point. An archivist who is well aware of the ethical obligations that ethnographers and culture workers feel toward the people and groups from whom they gather information, nevertheless maintains that archives should obtain both ownership and copyright of materials that are donated, so that they may decide without outside restrictions on how to care for and make accessible the information. Rather than act as stewards on behalf of the depositors, archives should give preference to those deposits they will be able to control. Control is one thing if the material is in a locked room and access is granted only to qualified individuals, but it is quite another when the material is on the Internet. As the Internet becomes the only cost-effective delivery system, it will be harder for archives to justify spending scarce resources on maintaining physical materials. It won’t be long before the cultural artifacts moulder away as surely as the objects that once filled the dry storerooms of natural history museums.

    In this way, the Internet enhances cultural rights and sustains culture, but it also diminishes cultural rights and fails to conserve that which cannot, or should not, be represented on it. In promoting free access it brings about the triumph of consumers’ rights at the expense of producers’ and moves toward the elimination of intellectual property rights, whether individual or collective. Nowadays the best way to preserve intellectual property is to give it away. Soon it may be the only way. But heaven help you if you wish to earn your living from it.


  1. A lot of the dichotomies you draw here -- consumer/producer, sustainer/exploiter -- seem, in many cases, false and clunky.

    And why keep talking about cultural grey-out despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? You seem to use it as a strawman of sorts.

    You imply that fair use and commercial exploitation are coterminous, and moreover that they are inherently inimical to the project of protecting the cultural heritage of some "social group" (including and excluding whom?). But how does this follow? How does fair use -- never mind commercial exploitation -- get in the way of a "social group" seeking to protect its "intellectual property." Wouldn't the classic Jeffersonian metaphor of a shared taper apply as well to such a hypothetical?

    It is easy enough these days, as you note, to preserve such a robust record of cultural practice that it can serve as a model for reproduction/preservation, if that's what one is seeking to do. So what's the issue?

  2. It is wrong to imply that archivists who seek to obtain ownership and copyright are not acting as stewards on behalf of the depositors. Many archivists would probably argue that they are in fact acting as stewards on behalf of the depositors and that their efforts to obtain legal and physical control over a collection are only means to further the core objective of an archive - to preserve and provide access to cultural heritage. And many would also argue that obtaining ownership and copyright are necessary actions for the archive to effectively act as stewards for the donor (or the cultural group represented in the collection).

    I also think it is wrong to imply that publishing cultural materials on the internet automatically "diminishes cultural rights." As Bruno pointed out, this is a false dichotomy. In many cases, open access is the best way to enhance cultural rights. So while it is certainly true that these new dynamics are pressuring ethical and legal considerations of ethnographers, they are also opening up new frontiers for the preservation of culture and heritage that traditional approaches fail to make possible.

    Underlying all of this discussion is the fact that in the United States, copyright legislation often acts against the groups it is supposed to protect. Copyright, intellectual property, and patent law are all human-made constructs that attempt to fit bottom-up cultural processes into a legal system that is top-down by nature.

    That is perhaps the least sustainable dynamic here. The concept of moral rights (which, unlike copyright, cannot be transferred) barely exists in the U.S. legal framework yet American ethnographers and anthropologists may be among the most concerned about social or cultural groups losing their rights. If copyright legislation is the framework for ethnographers to act in the best interest of their consultants, then the legislation needs some major improvements before it can be relied on to serve that purpose.

  3. In response to Creighton Barrett, I don't mean to imply that archivists don't act as stewards; they often do, and almost always intend to. But acting on behalf of others' interests can be fraught, whether it's medical interests, or being a trustee of an estate, etc.

    My point about internet publishing is that it both enhances and diminishes rights. As I understand it, a dichotomy is either/or, not both. So this is not an attempt to posit a dichotomy at all.

    Certainly US copyright law is flawed and badly needs reform. Copyright and stewardship don't always act in tandem; if stewardship is the goal, copyright is not always the best way to protect.

    There are instances when "giving it away" is the best way to ensure the sustainability and survival of expressive culture, and I want to be sure to mention those as well.

    In response to "Bruno Nettle," first, a few things regarding the dichotomies you mention. Producer/consumer is a time-honored distinction from economics, used by classical, neoclassical, marxist, and environmental economists. It is in this sense that I'm using it here, and I'll leave it to readers to decide whether it is false and "clunky."

    Second, I agree that sustainer/exploiter is an oversimplification, and although I'm not trying to claim that these are the only possible stances one can take toward cultural rights, I can see how someone reading this might take this away. I hope to make these ideas clearer in subsequent posts.

    Third, Derrida didn't teach us that all dichotomies were false, only that they are embedded into Western metaphysics and that inevitably one term is privileged over the other. So, for example, with your nickname, "Bruno Nettle," you enter into a distinction between the nickname and your real name. The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl does not write the way you do, nor does he spell his name as you did. And so by using that nickname and by choosing to make it known (to ethnomusicologists, at any rate, who know how Bruno spells it) that it is not a real name, you yourself generate a classic dichotomy, appearance/reality.

    Regarding fair use and exploitation, I do not imply that they are coterminous. "Fair use" is, as I have noted, a legal concept in copyright law. In practice it has served pretty well, it seems to me, for quotations from prose works; it has not served well for poetry or song. It doesn't usually get in the way and it isn't meant to get in the way of groups seeking to protect their cultural rights.

    You end by asking "What's the issue?" Evidently I've failed to make that clear to you. I'm curious why some people immediately comprehend what's at stake here and others just can't or won't see any problem. I suppose that you may be among those for whom free circulation of all information on the Internet should be added to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This post-Napster, post-privacy generation views the Internet as an enabler of individual and cultural rights, not a threat. As I said in response to Creighton Barrett, above, I believe it is both.

  4. Hi Jeff,

    Interesting reading your posting and the responses. Another way of framing the internet's paradoxical effects on cultural sustainability - the way it seems to both open up and limit people's options (creative, economoic, or otherwise) - would be using Ivan Illich's concept of "radical monopoly", first presented in the book "Tools for Conviviality" (1973).

    In some ways, the internet would seem the realisation of Illich's proposals for learning webs in place of centralised education systems, within his "deschooling society" idea. Yet by the end of his life Illich was quite critical of the internet: it was, he saw, part of the techno-Moloch" of modern life, a flight from the actual into the virtual.

    Illich's "radical monopoly" differed from a normal monopoly. Whereas the latter was an instance of one producer dominating a market or need, a radical monopoly was the domination of one kind of product - or technology - serving the need. Inherent in the radical monopoly was that it prevented the use of other, usually older technologies. Illich's classic example was the motor car, its required infrastructure(motorways), and the resulting urban-planning (fewer shopping centres located ever greater distances from residences) was displacing the options of bicycling and walking. Roads then got built without footpaths and eventually became too dangerous for cycling. The motor car became indispensable: it imposed a radical monopoly on individual transport needs.

    This is what seems to be happening with the internet. It is imposing a radical monopoly on information sharing, cultural creativity, and music distribution. As you have pointed out, for all groups, it seems to have both pros and cons. But perhaps the internet's most pernicious negative effect is in making itself indispensable, imposing its own particular logic on pre-existing activity. Thus, for example, it makes most sense to archive material digitally so that it can go on the internet and "reach" the maximum number. Physical archiving is like the bicycle gradually being forced off the road because it's so clunky and gets in the way of "the future".

    I must admit I'm not entirely sure of how this argument stands up. But it helps explain something of my sense of unease about where the internet is taking us. In some ways it allows us to have conversations like this, but then seems an all-too-powerful trap in other ways, what Illich would call "unconvivial", promoting unequal relationships between people (producer-consumer, etc.).

    Illich posed various other reasons too, why lighter, smaller, less energy-consuming, and environmentally-damaging technology was preferable.