Where’s the bottom-up brilliance?

opened09 – follower relations shared CC by psychemedia

One of my semi-regular listens in my weekly podcast rotation is Douglas Rushkoff’s weekly show on WFMU, the Media Squat. Rushkoff describes it as “freeform, bottom-up, open-source radio dedicated to solving some of the problems engendered by our increasingly top-down, closed-source culture.” Typically the hour is an eclectic and mildly countercultural mix of monologues, profiles of grassroots activity (I think the concept of the learning party would fit in), interviews with people like Jonathan Letham, the Yes Men, or archives of talks (like Terence McKenna discussing Marshall McLuhan).

Rushkoff has gotten better at working the medium of radio since he started the show last spring, but one element that has not really taken hold is the “open source radio” piece. Despite weekly invitations from Rushkoff for the audience to submit audio and video work for the show or the website, there really hasn’t been much uptake. (I actually mulled submitting something in response to the disappointingly pedestrian Rebooting Education program. If anyone is interested in doing that, I’m open to ideas.) This resulted in something of a frustrated rant to open last week’s program, excerpted below:

[audio:http://abject.ca/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/RushkoffOpenSource.mp3]

MP3 link

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Two assertions are of particular interest to me:

1) Rushkoff describes his dissatisfaction with the framework of Creative Commons licenses, on the grounds that people can do what they like with his work without any communication with him. Ideally, he would like a choice with regards to prospective remixers: a) “yes, remix it, great idea, I approve”; or b) “yes, remix it, but I don’t like what you are doing with it and I want people to know that.” That’s an objection to CC that I had never heard before… that it forgoes potentially fruitful interactions between a creator and the downstream reusers of her/his work. Strikes me as a reasonable point, though the requirement of asking permission flies in the face of the ‘frictionless adaptability’ that is one of CC’s best selling points, not to mention a necessary condition to getting things done quickly.

2) He goes on to make a point we have heard elsewhere, though having it coming from a true believer like Rushkoff I find myself thinking on it with added attention. He suggests that open source efforts are hamstrung by the act of replication that is at the heart of its activity.  The best open source efforts essentially copy existing artifacts (so Linux mimics Unix, Wikipedia does Britannica, Firefox carries on the paradigm of the web browser). Open source communities do not really yield unique original output, and have trouble accommodating “individualized unique expressions.”

In effect, Rushkoff argues that open source culture is unlikely to do justice “the experience of a single complex consciousness over time” – and I’m having a hard time coming up with a clear counter-example. The various pieces here could stand some elaboration and definition, but if indeed this argument holds merit, we might be facing a thornier problem in moving toward a culture of reuse than I usually tend to think…

2 thoughts on “Where’s the bottom-up brilliance?

  1. Wikipedia isn’t “just a group copy of Britannica” – it’s a radical transformation that undermines all of Britannica’s assumptions about knowledge and author-ity. You could easily make the argument that Wikipedia is a much greater feat of originality than anything by Nabokov.

    There’s plenty of reason to believe that large-scale collaboration can produce something as rich and meaningful as a single great mind. Rushkoff provides an interesting counterpoint to his own argument in a recent post on Boing Boing:

    People spend maybe ten or twenty hours with one of my books. They spend thousands of hours in a gaming universe, and moving through it with a level of awareness and expectation for novelty that people used to approach, say, James Joyce.

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