Felix Stalder, Toronto

Creators & Users

Why did Lars Ulrich, Metallica's drummer, go out on a limp to defend the record industry, being vilified in the process and alienating many of his own fans? Ignoring stupidity and greed - socially powerful but analytically rather dull motives - we can focus on another, more overlooked, aspect of the whole file-sharing saga: the electrification of culture - brought into stark relief by the meteoric rise (and corresponding fall) of Napster - undermines well-established, comfortable identities of cultural producers. It questions, rather rudely, their sense of self. This process is not new but has hit mainstream only recently.

The identity of the record industry is based on its ability to control the flow of music, in the form of commodities, and to derive substantial profits from doing this. This ability is currently called into question. McLuhan's quip that "inflation is money having an identity crisis" can easily be applied to the record industry these days. For artists, on the other hand, conventional identity is shored up by flattering cultural stereotypes, clichés about their unique creativity, their giftedness, the quasi ontological differences that separate the artists from non-artists. Through Napster, Ulrich saw, Metallica would lose control over its creative output, and this, one must assume, has piqued his ego as much as his wallet.

All cultures, including ours, are held together by a set of widely shared assumptions that synchronize its various, otherwise very heterogeneous, aspects. The communality of these assumptions facilitates its many differentiated segments to interact with one another despite their apparent divisions. One such assumption, prevalent today, is that of the difference between producers of culture - by which I mean in this context informational objects - and its users. In terms of creativity, the relation between producers and users is thought to be a one-way street. Everything flows from the former to the latter, no creativity returns.

This assumption is reinforced in a myriad of ways, through the law, market and the culture of everyday life.

It underlies IP law which is based on the assumption that creation is a process very different from consumption. In terms of the law, creation occurs in a void, by virtue of the extraordinary abilities of the author, creator, inventor. The assumption of such an isolation is the moral basis to award him/her the absolute control over the creation, including the right to sell it to a third party for exploitation.

It infuses the business models of the cultural industries, record companies, movie studies, and software companies. It's because Microsoft produces "Word" while the masses merely use it, that the former has the right to hide the source code and charge whatever it wants for the privilege of using it. Because, as Microsoft sees it, users contribute nothing to the development of Word, it is justified to demand money from them as a compensation or prosecute them as thieves and pirates.

For artists of the conventional ilk, this separation is the basis for their claim for social status, for being regarded, for the better or worse, as different, an identity that is often as much projected as it is imposed. It is this status that artists can use as their cultural capital - in Bourdieu's sense of the term - and thus compensate the usual lack of financial (money) or social capital (relationships to people in high places). The assumption of such a difference ensures the "privileges" that artists enjoy in our society, and if its only that an inflated sense of self is part of a socially acceptable role.

It is, perhaps most powerfully, reinforced through the very tools we think with, our language. We customarily use dichotomous pairs - developer/user, artists/audience or author/reader - to describe cultural exchanges. We do not really have any good concepts that would frame their relationship other than as the above mentioned one way street. The awful new economy term of the 'prosumer' has, thank god, never caught on. Nevertheless, there is a void here and this void contributes to a reinforcement of our belief in a separation of the two sides of cultural exchange.

Like many of our base cultural assumptions this one, too, has received it current pattering under the influence of print. In an oral culture where exchanges of ideas occur in the form of dialogues, there is very little private thinking. Hence creativity is also not private. It doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, but it cannot be attributed to an individual person. It is indicative that there are still disputes whether Homer, to whom the great Greek epics of the Trojan War and the Iliad are attributed, actually existed as an individual person, and if so, if it makes sense to call him an author, rather than a story teller, a bard, or a narrator. Let's assume he existed and wrote down this epic himself. Being "just" an narrator this does not diminish his historic achievement, but it would question is ability to demand royalties since he, most likely, cannot be regarded as the original creator.

Gutenberg has severed the direct, intimate relationship among many different actors involved in the realization of culture and separated them into distinct categories of producer and user whose only relationship was that cultural object flowed in one direction, money into the other. A rapidly evolving cultural industry helped to diffuse such conceptual categories into virtually all social institutions and cultural forms. Modernity took shape.

Restless artists have long thought to undermine this separation of producers from users. Dada, Situationists, Punks - to name but a few - all rejected the privileging of artistic creativity and tried to blur the boundaries between the two groups. However, these struggles were largely symbolic, limited to small groups, isolated by the grip which the cultural industries - having perfected this separation into a highly profitable business - held over the means of distribution, necessary to connect creator and audiences.

This, of course, changed in the mid 1990s, when the Internet exploded into a mass medium. For the first time, an open distribution mechanism could rival the efficiency of the closed, controlled channel that the cultural industries have spent billions assembling.

The genie is out of the bottle. But on unholy alliance of money and ego is trying to get it back in. Their battle cry is piracy, what they really mean, though, is the end of privilege given to them by print culture. If they succeed in making everyone understand what's going on in their terms - theft and piracy - they will win. New concepts that reframe the relationship between producers and user focussing on their mutual dependence are urgently needed. And, no, prosumer won't do.

(August 2002)