Part 3 is fresh off the press, read the first part here and part two here if you need to catch up.

Section Two – Democracy, Autonomy and Copyright.

I argue that a purely market-focused information policy—in particular one focused on exhaustive propertization of the physical, logical, and content layers of the information environment—exacts a significant normative social cost in terms of personal autonomy”.

-Yochai Benkler –SIREN SONGS AND AMISH CHILDREN: AUTONOMY, INFORMATION, AND LAW.


The mixed model of both a permission based copyright and a free digital commons would be a boon for personal autonomy and democracy.  The irony Yochai Benkler exposes in the drive towards a property based copyright system, is that the Lockean conception of property rights is supposed to mitigate conflict, not intensify it.  Benkler expresses concern about the equivocation of intellectual property and real property.  He says, “We are relying more heavily than ever before on property. We are increasing the costs of information production and concentrating that social function in the hands of organizations that aggregate consumer preferences and sell their products to the groups that will pay the most.”[1] The current system is concentrating control of our cultural outputs and is homogenizing our choices as to what cultural inputs are available to us.  Autonomy can be thought of as not only the direct rules that limit ones choices, but also the rules and the attendant cultural structure that proscribes the range of potential options to choose from in an individual’s world.  Media corporations place limits on our autonomy through restrictive copyright legislation and as a result, our ability to participate democratically in society is reduced.  Making and having access to choice is what democracy is all about.  Richard Ryan summarizes the negative implications of reduced autonomy as he says, “To the extent one’s experience of being self-determined is limited, one’s creativity will be reduced as well.”[2]

A disturbing trend in our western democracies is how our autonomy and participation in the democratic process is being limited to just voting in elections.  Voting is just one aspect of democracy.  Reasoned, thoughtful debates are becoming artifacts of the past even though they are key elements in participatory democracy.  In a democratic society, autonomy must be protected, Benkler argues, “In order to sustain the autonomy of a person born and raised in a culture, with a set of socially embedded conventions about what a good life is, one would want a choice set some of whose options represent unconventional, nonmainstream (if you will, critical) options”[3] Access to conflicting, antagonistic points of view then can be considered crucial to making meaningful decisions about one’s life; yet we are moving away from this notion of autonomy and choice by letting the media corporations enclose our culture behind proprietary walls.  Enclosing information and culture is at its root an anti-democratic practice.  Benkler foresees a coming crisis as corporations extend their influence through our culture, “a pure private property regime for [information] infrastructure allows owners to constrain the autonomy of users. The owners can do so by controlling and manipulating the users’ information environment to shape the users’ life choices so as to make them play the role that the owners prefer.”[4] The prospects for the future are decidedly not conducive to citizens wishing to be autonomous, and participate effectively in democracy.

Democracy is on the wane; however, the Internet has proven to be a remarkable tool for an atomized citizenry to find their voices and regain some of their lost autonomy.  The burgeoning blogosphere has opened a new avenue of access to the public discussion and debate of our culture.  Within the blogosphere one can find the diversity of views necessary to more fully realize one’s autonomy.  Using the blogosphere effectively requires a critical evaluation of the sources and editorial bias one selects when getting information.  Blogging forces readers to “triangulate”[5] their news reading – effectively looking for similar stories with different points of view that greatly increase their potential for critical thought and reflection.  Blogging is not the entire answer to the problem of our waning democratic potential; however it is a promising step in the right direction.

The potential of blogging is just one element of what could be thought as an evolutionary process the Internet and digital revolution is undergoing.  Our autonomy is under attack from the corporate media who wish to enclose our knowledge behind proprietary walls.  Limiting choice, limiting participation in our culture is a structural feature of the corporate mandate.  Corporations are simply fulfilling their legal mandate to be profitable enterprises.  Free cultural expression, democracy, and autonomy join the long list of externalities which necessarily receive little corporate attention.   The serious threats to autonomy and democracy that Benkler outlines may have possible solutions as the law struggles to catch up with the evolutionary leaps in communications that the digital age has brought to our culture.


[1] Benkler, Yochai.  “Siren Songs and Amish Children: Autonomy, Information, and Law.” New York University Law Review Volume 26:23 (April 2001): 30.

 

[2] Raymond, Eric. “Homesteading the Noosphere – Gift Outcompetes Exchange”.   Last Updated August 24, 2000.  http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/homesteading/ar01s19.html (Accessed August 10, 2008).

[3] Benkler, Yochai.  “Siren Songs and Amish Children: Autonomy, Information, and Law.” New York University Law Review Volume 26:23 (April 2001): 52.

[4] Ibid. 72

[5] Lessig, Lawrence.  Free Culture. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004, 44.

Part 4 here.