Delayed because I suspect my views may upset even some of my friends. Thus when thmarn posted her entry praising Tina Fey for her participation in the strike I never posted anything here on the same subject, even though I really wanted to.
But yesterday I received an email from another friend on the subject of the WGA strike, and I decided I needed to write up my thoughts.
Let me begin by saying that, as a solution to a short-term problem, I support the Writers' strike. The profits being realized by distribution companies for online content, or the potential future profits on that content ought to be shared with the writers that helped to create that content.
In the long term, however, I'm conflicted. The Writers' demand makes sense in a world where the production of culture is professionalized. I'm just not sure such a world can ever be a just world.
My reasoning is simple: professional culture (this includes the music, publishing, and film/TV industries, as well as the educational industry that I myself work in) = exploitation. Everyone who gets to make a living writing, singing, teaching, researching, etc. is - in our current economy - fed and clothed with the surplus labor of others.
During the summer of my 17th year, I spent two weeks on the floor of a plastic factory in Elbridge, New York. I meant to spend the whole summer working there, save up for a vacation, but I just couldn't hack it. After two weeks I chickened out and quit. The factory was a windowless corrugated aluminum box. It reeked of molten plastic - a thick, strangely sweet stink. My tasks included counting and boxing parts, and removing parts from molds. The presses moved so fast you couldn't think while you worked on them, any half-formed thought was destroyed by the need to watch for the next part, perform your tiny task at the right moment. Time seemed to stand still. I worked second shift. I would get home at 11pm wired, unable to sleep. I would finally pass out around 2 or 3 am, wake up again at 11 or noon. Just in time to get ready, and drive myself in to report to work at 2:15. I spent two weeks only seeing the sun for an hour and a half a day. I couldn't do it. I had the luxury of being able to quit. So I did.
Some do not have that luxury. Some must stay. Those who stay, both there and in other places around the world, make all the things that take care of me. Their being trapped in a place like the one I fled frees me to spend my days writing, researching and teaching. Morally, I am indebted to them.
The only way I can think of to repay that debt is to work on scholarship and pedagogy that tries to imagine a world without these class stratifications, tries to imagine a world where some are not fated to toil while others are fated to sing.
Thus, when I read Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, write of how he hoped his work could lead towards a vision of a "post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard to make a living." I thought it was an interesting idea to investigate.
Stallman's language is naive, and he underestimates the difficult task he has imagined, but I think the goal remains a worthy one. Free Software Foundation was one of the earliest organizations to work on the GNU/Linux operating system. The GNU/Linux operating system was one of the first prominent and successful Free Software Projects. Free Software was one of the earliest examples of what is now being called, "user created content."
Do you see what I'm getting at here?
In my opinion the technologies that enable "user created content," wikipedia, youtube and the like. Can be developed in one of two ways, depending on the social, political, and economic choices we make as a culture.
In one scenario, they can be developed in such a way as to use users as the ultimate low-payed labor. To exploit them as free labor while the profits and control decisions remain in the hands of distributors. This scenario sees capital use the idea of user creation as an ideological tool. A mere cover for its continuing exploitation. The post-scarcity society would be assumed, rather than created.
In the other, user created content could be used as part of a larger movement to explode our society's contemporary caste system and open up the possibility of creativity to everyone. The larger, more democratic field of meaning making could help transform ideology and open up the social imagination to begin working out ways we could have a world in which "everyone's life could be a work of art." This scenario sees social movements and activists get on board with user-created content projects, pushing their boundaries and motivating users to become politically and socially active in helping to redefine the meaning of intellectual property and extending the reach of these projects beyond the elites they currently serve.
This entry is a mess of thoughts in the process of being worked out. I hope I've made at least some sense.
In short, I support the Writers' in the sense that I don't think that the distributors should be allowed to hog the profits they are making on distributing their intellectual property online. However, in the end I don't believe a system of cultural production based on profit and property can ever be just. We need to start imagining a new one. User-created content models could be a place to start, if we get involved and keep them from being used as an ideological cover for continued profiteering.
So, that's me. What do other folks think?