Communication Creates Culture

This interview excerpt of Siva Vaidhyanathan from Paul Schmelzer’s Eyeteeth Blog (link above – you need to scroll down the page a bit) gets at the root of why community communication systems are so crucial. It is about preserving the ability for culture to happen.

Siva Vaidhyanathan: Both democracy and creative culture share this notion that they work best when the raw materials are cheap and easy and easily distributed. You can look at any cultural development that’s made a difference in the world—reggae, blues, crocheting—you can look at any of these and say, y’know, it’s really about communities sharing. It’s about communities moving ideas between and among people, revision, theme and variation, and ultimately a sort of consensus about what is good and what should stay around.

Later he writes:

This sort of creative circle–the drum circle or the blues-singing circle–is simply the most vivid image we have of these sort of creative communities. These creative communities are all over the place. Anyplace artists gather, any place musicians just jam for the fun of it… I think that this is a powerful form and a powerful habit. It’s also an important part of being human. It’s the essence of being cultural.

We’re not missing those communities; we’re just not investing in them and celebrating them like we should. Because the form of cultural production that this country and therefore the world has decided to celebrate, protect and promote is the industrial form. It’s the form that says: it’s gonna start with a piece of paper by a scriptwriter, it’s going to go through a series of meetings, it’s going to be produced step by step with the contribution of hundreds or thousands of people with hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars and then be distributed to millions of people, perhaps billions of people, in a form that the institution that produced it dictates.

And of particular relevance to community communication centers, like LTC:

Nonetheless, it’s this notion of working from the common cultural phenomena that we share to build new and special things. That’s what we have to focus on. That’s why we need a low barrier of entry to creative processes. That’s why we need free and cheap access to cultural materials. Free and cheap access can come a number of ways: through electronic networks, through networks of friends sharing material, through public libraries, through universities, through schools, through churches. These are all institutions built for sharing. One of the things I’m concerned about is this ideology of the industrial production and dissemination of cultural products is infecting some of those institutions as well.

And to support the idea of building infrastructure that is open and able to be used by all:

Culture is anarchistic. Culture builds itself without leaders. Culture proliferates itself through consensus and revision. Culture works best when there is minimal authority and guidance.

And then in terms of supporting local control and diversity:

First of all, the very fact that so many media companies have merged into so few, has increased their political power or the political power of each one of them, that has radically altered all of these regulatory systems and phenomena. Secondly, our goal should be diversity and distribution of culture. Our goal should be cultural democracy. Our goal should obviously be real political democracy. We can’t have either one of those if we have a limited number of voices on our airwaves. We can’t have either of those if there isn’t some sense of the local, some sense of the specific. ….

So, we need to ask bigger questions about all of these things. Shouldn’t our priority be diversity? Shouldn’t our priority be some sort of local input on matters of culture and politics? Shouldn’t we allow churches across the United States to set up small radio stations to serve their constituents? Shouldn’t we allow activist groups to do the same? Shouldn’t we allow Native American groups, whether they are on their own nation’s land or not, to operate in the same ways? Shouldn’t we actually be looking for lower levels of regulation? Shouldn’t we be chopping up our spectrum in such a way as to maximize the number and variety of voices? The FCC and Congress are doing just the opposite. This does speak to the same problem. We need to examine all of these issues as cultural policy, and we need to come up with a set of principles about the cultural policy we choose to live under.

Selected Commentary to Media Tank Posts

Senate bill bans P2P networks
By Declan McCullagh, CNET, 6/23/04
Popular file-trading networks such as Kazaa and Morpheus would be outlawed under a new bill that enjoys broad support from top Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Their legislation says “whoever intentionally induces any violation” of copyright law would be legally liable for those violations, a prohibition that would effectively ban file-swapping networks and could also imperil some consumer electronics devices.

If we think P2P will remain as an open system, this clearly begs the question. Jeff Chester (Center for Digital Democracy), Lawrence Lessig, and Siva Vaidhyanathan all have written on these corporate and regulartory trends.

Media companies take wireless route to consumers
By Sinead Carew, Reuters, 6/23/04
Time Warner Inc. and Walt Disney Co. already ply their wares in cinemas, on television and over the Internet. Now they’re reaching into the mobile phone in your pocket. Some phones can already display pictures and replay video clips, but as networks get faster, it will be possible to watch live newscasts or even a whole movie on wireless gadgets. With such advancements, at least half a dozen media companies are looking at new ways they can use wireless to boost their profits and extend the reach of their brands.

Clearly the corporate sector is eyeing the currently unregulated 802.11 WiFi spectrum. If community activists are not careful, this public resource will go the way of other spectrum resources.

Should Comcast get tax break? Not without public-access TV By Dan Berger, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/21/04 As the state Senate considers a proposal for establishing a Keystone Opportunity Improvement Zone in downtown Philadelphia for Comcast Corp., it bears noting that Comcast has not been a good corporate citizen for the residents of Philadelphia on several issues, including the establishment of public-access cable television. Philadelphia, Comcast’s flagship city, remains the only large city in the nation without this community-based form of communication. It’s time for the cable giant to live up to promises it made to Philadelphia in 1983.

Philadelphia has had an incredible group of media activists working over the last couple of years to confront these sorts of control.

. . . begin

In 2003, I drafted a brief piece on community technology and its relationship to public discourse. This piece can be found at: Community Technology and Public Discourse.

I have just reread this work. It is interesting to see where my thinking on this has progressed. In the last year, infrastructure development at LTC has progressed dramatically. The Community Software Lab continues to expand its tools and activiites and with the recent re-launch of the MVHub plans are in place for a community web portal. The tools are there, the challenge now is to harness them for further community development. [Dan MacNeil, David Seigal, and Eric Milosevic] should be appauled for their work in pushing these activities forward.

Also during the last year, LTC has launched the Digital Bicycle as a means explore methods for sharing and distributing media content via the Internet. Initiated by Daniell Krawczyk, this work was prompted by the need to more efficiently share youth media generated at the various Youth Channel members (the Youth Channel is a group of communtiy media centers working to create a youth media culture within these centers). One of the first concrete projects prompted by the Digital Bicycle is a BitTorrent project initiated in collaboration with the Commonwealth Broadband Collabortive.

To date the CBC has used Internet distribution to share three of its “First Tuesday” programs. In addition to BitTorrent, FTP access has also been used. At the CBC, Nettrice Gaskins, Saul Baizman, and James Fishwick have been critically engaged. Ginny Berkowitz and Jim Youll at Cambridge Community Television have also actively worked to think through these mechanisms.

I hope to use this space to continue exploring (and sharing) my thoughts on new opportunities for what I am currently calling Community Communications.