Reconciling Marxist Leanings With Capitalist Doings

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Do you think that the open-source movement or Creative Commons licensing provide openings for community-based alternatives to capitalism?

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BS: No, not really. I’m a fan of [Lawrence] Lessig’s work, but Creative Commons doesn’t go to the core of the problem in any significant way. CC is a recognition of the fact that many of the institutions and mechanisms of contemporary society put obstacles in the way of change (e.g. the way that notions of copyright that arose during the age of print function today as deterrents to new forms of expression). But recognizing the problem is not the same as recognizing and attacking its source, which in this case is the manipulation of copyright law by big corporations. To make a long-term and fundamental difference, CC would need to openly oppose the increasing control of our culture and society by major multinational corporations.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: But could it? If you have material being put out there that can be shared in a way that Disney’s material can’t, couldn’t remix culture then become the basis for new kinds of collaborative creative products?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: Of course remix could be a key factor in the development of a new non-corporatist culture. But as long as the big media companies are in control, the new culture can’t become dominant. At some point, if we’re going to make important change, we’re going to have to challenge the domination of our society by big business.

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I don’t know if you’ve read any of Cory Doctorow’s novels; I think he’s a fantastic storyteller. My problem with Cory, though, is that while he is very good at describing many of the problems we face, he always seems to back off at the last moment from calling for the fundamental change that could actually make a difference. His recent novel, Makers, is a brilliant vision of young kids embracing the essence of remix culture as they launch a rebellion against Disney. However, as soon as Disney cracks down, the kids fold and fail to carry their revolution through to the point of real change. I think Cory is representative of “the progressives” and their core assumption that all that’s needed to usher in much-needed social change is the proper application of digital technology. From my perspective, big technological shifts set the stage for change, but the crucial factor in how this all turns out will be whether we can imagine a new vision of human society and take the action necessary to realize it.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: You said something similar at the Digital University Conference at CUNY recently.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: [laughs] My comments were roundly disliked.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Well, there was a lot of talk there about reshaping the university system and open peer review and new systems of publishing, and you said, flatly, “That’s all fine and good, but it can’t really exist under the current system of capitalism.” So, how have you reconciled your work with that attitude? You have your radical past informing your vision all the way through, but you’ve moved — well, maybe you haven’t moved on.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: I live with all the same contradictions as any upper-middle class white male with a shred of social consciousness. As of a few years ago, the U.S. accounted for a remarkable 25% of the resources consumed each year world-wide. And as a privileged member of this society, I live exceedingly well, even though I’ve never accumulated any money — no stock or retirement fund. The problem for well-off people in the U.S. is that there’s a natural tendency to resist acknowledging how much suffering occurs around the world in order for us to live the way we do.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Criterion and Voyager were profit-making enterprises. And I’ve been on the receiving end of very generous grants from several major foundations. I’ve no illusions about what I’m doing; I know I’m working comfortably from within, but I try hard to stay conscious of the fact that my comfortable life isn’t something I’m entitled to, but rather a function of having the luck to be born when and where I was. Perhaps the most important aspect of my Maoist background is a long-term view of social change which makes me reasonably comfortable engaging in projects which won’t come to fruition on a timescale that promises a quick payoff. When my interest in interactive media began over thirty years ago, I didn’t expect anything to happen quickly — thank heavens.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Maybe I’m trying to make myself feel good; I don’t know. But it’s a pretty complicated question. You can see how hard it is. For example, there was a meeting at CUNY, put on by the people associated with the American Social History Project, highly respected scholars, decidedly to the left of the center, and even there, saying some of the stuff I was saying was seen as too far off the grid. Part of me was glad to know that I was still saying things that were challenging in that way, but I think it’s indicative of how hard it is to have a discussion today that questions core principles.

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I was recently in Bogotá, and during a speech to 700 people at a big book fair, somebody asked me why the publishing industry is so resistant to change. I began my answer with the phrase “Look, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is capitalism.” The response to that idea in South America, just as in Europe, is so different than here. If I use the word “capitalism” in the U.S., people’s eyes just glaze over. This unwillingness to acknowledge the ambiguities of modern existence makes it nearly impossible to look at the future with eyes wide open.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 My sense is that the next two hundred years are going to be very, very strange. So many problems are going to come to the fore at the same time. Whether it’s the rise of smart machines, the collapse of the environment, and finally the material base of society getting to the point where something new will be born that won’t be capitalism . . . whether it’s going to be a really wonderful thing or a really terrible thing, I think that’s what we don’t know right now.

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