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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.