Free As In Culture, Free As In Ride

The week before residency I stumbled across Lawrence Lessig’s ‘Free Culture’ in a used bookstore. Mentioned by Robert Levine as a key player in the online privacy/piracy/copyright battle I’ve become oddly intrigued by, I couldnt resist its small size and $2.99 marked-down price, thinking it might make a good in-flight read.

I say ‘oddly intrigued’ as the topic is outside my area of expertise and not in line with much of my graduate study. Yet regardless of where the discussion falls on the spectrum of “immediate need to know,” its effect on our futures as professional creatives grows obvious, the more I read on the subject. Even as this may be “a great time to be a designer,” an ominous cloud could end it all if certain conditions proceed.

Pecking away at Lessig’s summary since returning home, making notes of the most shocking and horrifying facts he brings to light, I have to guard myself to stay critically distant from the text, to not let the foreboding news break my stride. I’m experiencing the best years of my career right now and enjoying graduate school, and so could easily find myself turning into yet another designer who waves off the impending dystopia described by Lessig, Levine, Lanier and Morozov as someone else’s problem. A lifetime of protectionist cynicism tells me to not get too comfortable. Being an informed designer in the modern age, it seems, is finding a balance between blissful ignorance and a tin-foil hat.

One of the key aspects Lessig brought to my attention is the American precedent of trampling creators’ rights (as a lawyer, Lessig focuses on copyright violation) in favor of corporate expansion. Historically, as each technological turn further removes the individual creative from the making process, economic and political powers that should represent them as individual citizens opt instead to ‘democratize’ and devalue creative value. Although we generally think of Napster and mp3 sharing as the beginnings of music piracy, the debate began with sheet music, continued to record pressing, then radio broadcast for over a century. (22 min.)