Proposal: book club for freetarians

There are lot of people who, for various reasons, prefer to consume food whose creation did not harm animals. (This is not always clear, but for the most part there is consensus on which foods are harmful.) Much (maybe most) food in our society doesn’t meet this standard, so seeking out food that does requires some effort, but it is not tremendously difficult. Many people succeed in eating their preferred food some of the time, when the effort they are willing to expend is greater than the amount required. Some people (vegans) are willing to make enough of an effort that their meals will always meet the criterion.

There are a lot of people who prefer to consume media that are licensed to users on terms that do not harm their freedoms. (This is not always clear, but there is a surprising amount of consensus on the matter.) Certainly most popular media don’t meet the standard; most recorded media, printed works, and live performances are licensed in ways that prevent us from embracing and adapting the work, so seeking out freely licensed works requires some effort.

But that’s where the parallel ends. There are no* free culture vegans (let’s call them “freetarians”). In my opinion, the reason for this is pretty simple: artistic works are cultural works. They are made to be shared. We watch movies, read books, and listen to music with the expectation that we will be able to share the experience with our friends. This shared experience is not just enjoyable in the obvious sense; it’s also crucial for maintaining our membership and status in the social networks that lay the foundation of our lives. Reading the right novel or watching the right movie provides common ground for dropping or catching the right offhand reference that marks you, to the right person, as the right kind of “cultured”. At US high-tech companies, that means science fiction, from Asimov to Stephenson and Star [Trek|Wars]. Among urban hipsters it’s an ever-rotating cast of up-and-coming musicians. Among the devout these works of art are religious, in which case they may actually be freely licensed!

The desire to share a cultural base with others is what makes media marketing so powerful. The purpose of the marketing is not really to convince us that, say, a movie, will be enjoyable on its own merits. No one goes to the movies alone! The purpose of the marketing is to give us the feeling that everyone else will go and see the film, and so we have to go in order to keep our cultural capital up to date. In fact, we should go now, because it’s going to be way popular and our investment will pay off (Ponzi-style) if we see it first.

Hollywood-scale marketing effectively crowds out alternative works. In my free time (and with my free dollars), I will of course choose the work that represents the best investment in cultural capital. That almost always means the one that I can most easily discuss with my friends, which in turn means the one that they’re most likely to consume as well.

I have not spent this long blather trying to prove that centralized control of culture is inevitable, although it might sound that way. There’s an escape hatch: if a social network is willing to join together and select collectively which works they will consume, then the global popularity becomes much less relevant. As long as several of my friends also consume the work, I can safely consume it myself, knowing that it will be a good investment in building foundations for my relationships. This is especially true if I know that we will have an occasion on which to discuss the work, in which case the discussion is actually my entree into a scene that I could not otherwise access.

This kind of collectively directed consumption has a name: it’s called a book club.

If you want to support the creation of free culture, the easiest way would be to start a free culture book club. There are plenty to choose from: the 7 novels of Cory Doctorow, to the magnum opus of Jonathan Zittrain, and countless others. That’s just books. We could also mention feature-length films like Sita Sings the Blues and TV series like Pioneer One.

I tried to watch Pioneer One, but found that despite the engaging storyline, I simply couldn’t muster the effort to spend time on something that I would never be able to share. In a sense I was prototyping the free culture book club when I convinced Sarah to watch it with me. Together we watched the entire 6-episode series and were sorely disappointed that there wasn’t more to see.

There are a million ways you could set up such a club. Here’s one: get some friends together and put together a list of works, then vote (by Selectricity, of course). People who like the winner enough to participate also agree to make a non-zero payment to the author, but the amount need not be disclosed. Set a date to meet at a public establishment (quiet enough for a good discussion) to talk about the work. Do it a little and you’ll live in a happy bubble of free cultural works. Do it enough, and that bubble might grow.

So who’s in? Oops, BTW I live in Seattle.

*: ok, maybe not none. Exactly who would qualify is a sticky question.

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