I will talk about cultural works, by which I mean non-material information produced by human beings and containing cultural significance (thus excluding physical goods and performances). I will argue that a significant source of the use value of these works – and consequently of their exchange value – derives from the work of the audience, who both promote works and use them to construct meanings. However, the commodification of these works by the culture industries privileges the ability of these industries to construct meanings, while limiting the meaning-making opportunities of the audience. This audience labor, and the power asymmetry between the audience and the culture industries, is particularly significant because of the role of such works in the public sphere, and because they are used to construct collective identities – important political institutions in the contemporary world.
I have a bias about cultural works: I believe that they are fundamental to democracy. My background developing Internet software has given me a close view of the debates surrounding the production and copying of digital works (e.g. copyright violations and the sharing of music online, for a discussion see Vaidhyanathan (2004)). My instinct is that that culture of all sorts is essential to the process by which people participate in a democratic society. The flowering of creativity and sharing online (of blogs, photographs, software, videos, and more) has led me to believe that creating and sharing are common human drives. Laws favoring the culture industries – especially stronger copyright legislation – threaten the scope of this activity. Yet my own enjoyment of culture makes me question the assumption that threats to this kind of cultural participation are politically important: maybe it just feels good, or maybe it's a relatively minor issue. The search for evidence to support my intuition is the thread that runs through my argument. I believe I have found some of that evidence. It starts with the audience, which in the era of mass media is the role in which people frequently find themselves experiencing culture.
Smythe's Cultural Commodity
It is difficult to determine the exchange value in cultural works. This exchange value is produced through the process of commodification. Marx described the commodity as a fetish: it appears to be one thing – a good which may be useful, and have a consequent use value – but it actually conceals within it the set of social relations which produced it. The process of commodification alienates the commodity from the capital and labor which produced it, making it appear to be an independent object (or service) exchangeable for a certain quantity of money, in the process denying the workers “personal fulfillment” and thereby reducing efficiency (Feenberg, 1995, p. 28).
This process of producing individual goods (or services) and assigning them an exchange value is possible because they are separable one from the other. This separation is possible because of a property of commodities: they are rivalrous. A good that is rivalrous is limited: if one person has more, that means someone else must have less. This applies to all physical goods (even renewable ones) and to services also, for labor time is limited. For these, the competition of the market serves as a mechanism for determining how such goods are distributed. The problem in the case of cultural works is that their essence is the work or idea itself, not a material object. Their use value, therefore, is non-rivalrous.
Cultural works may appear to behave in a rivalrous manner, as in fact they have done for much of the past century. A physical book, for example, can really only be read by one person at a time. However, the physical object is not the cultural work. Shakespeare's sonnets are words, not particular pieces of paper. As I use the term, “cultural work” refers to the creative and intellectual content of a work, not a particular physical book, movie reel, etc.
Because of the non-rivalrous nature of these works, classical economic theory is difficult to apply: prices are not set by supply and demand. If they were, the near-zero cost of duplication could result in near-infinite supply capable of meeting any demand, and prices could fall close to zero1. In the event, commercial works are protected by copyright, which assigns an artificial monopoly to the copyright holder. Because there is a monopoly there is no competition and no “invisible hand” to set market prices for an particular work. The only way the market can be seen to set prices is by comparing heterogeneous works, but this is unhelpful, and leads to the absurd notion (for example) that all feature films have the same exchange value because their ticket prices are the same2.
The other approach to determining value is to examine the relation between labor and production. From this perspective, the exchange value of a work is related to the labor invested in its production at the behest of capital. But this doesn't seem reasonable either: it implies that the exchange value of a cultural work is greater if the labor that produced it was greater. This can be rejected both from a demand perspective (expensive movies have been known to flop, just as inexpensive ones have gone on to great success) and from a reasonable assessment of merit: it seems to result in an exchange value autonomous of artistic quality, inspiration, etc.3 Garnham (2004b, p. 192) rejects the application of any labor theory of value to intellectual works. But what if the labor that goes into the institutional production of the work (creativity, publishing, distribution, etc.) is not the only labor involved in the process?
Dallas Smythe (2001) found a way to address this problem with his theory of audience labor. He suggested that, rather than selling cultural works (and their embedded ideologies), the culture industries sell audiences to advertisers. They provide the audience with a “free lunch” - a television show, stories in a newspaper, music on the radio. This free lunch is combined with advertising. Thus, the labor of the audience is commodified: by watching the advertising, the audience performs labor for the advertiser, which ultimately pays the advertiser through the choices by audience members to buy a product. Smythe's argument solves the problem of commodification by treating the audience as the commodity. This audience is a rivalrous resource: its potential size is limited, as is its attention (audience members can only watch one television show, listen to one radio program, or read one newspaper, at a time).
This is a powerful model for understanding many kinds of cultural consumption. The dominant media of the modern era – the newspaper, radio, television – have all been transformed to fit this model. However, this model cannot be applied to all cultural works. Books and recorded music, for example, are largely free of advertising. Smythe (2001, p. 257) largely ignores these works in his categorization of capitalist production into “homogenous packaged goods” and durable goods. But as the success of the recorded music industry and the experience of the Internet have shown, these have become profitable enterprises in themselves. Even where the culture industries rely on advertising, the work itself is often a significant or dominant source of profit. The film industry, for example, has historically relied on sales, not advertising. In 1947, the main Hollywood studies made 95% of their revenue from ticket sales (Epstein, 2005). In 2004, Walt Disney made 20% of its revenue from home entertainment (the sale of DVDs and videos) (Economist, 2005). If books, music and so on are actually being sold, then they are commodities.
In order to address the problem of commodification of works themselves (rather than of the audience), the culture industries have tried a number of approaches. These can be mapped to four means of regulating technology proposed by Lawrence Lessig (1999): law, norms, architecture, and code. Copyright and similar laws define such works as property, divided into discreet units (copies). Social norms propagate the idea that intellectual works are naturally property. Architecture – i.e. physical forces – is used when works are embodied in objects like CDs or paper books. Finally, on the Internet, code programs technology to make certain operations possible and others impossible; it corresponds to the social construction of Galloway's (2004) protocol. These mechanisms have all been applied by the culture industries in order to commodify cultural works (and other intellectual works). But commodification conceals something: as with Marx's physical goods, the cultural work as a commodity is a fetish, a concrete representation that conceals the relations of its own production. This commodification can break down – for example, with piracy on the Internet, in which the audience begins reproducing works. In fact, audience labor is not unique to piracy, but essential to the production of cultural works: it is only concealed by the fetish of the cultural commodity.
Audience Production of Culture
For cultural works not reliant on advertising, Smythe's (2001) argument that the audience is the commodity which is sold to advertisers cannot be applied; unless, that is, the works themselves are considered advertising for themselves. This is supported by the multiple media through which the same or a similar work can be sold – such as a movie shown in the cinema, sold on DVD, and shown on television. Self-advertising is also a form of promotional audience labor: the audience becomes a commodity sold to itself (a model made explicit by night clubs, bars, and dating services). I argue that audience labor plays a critical role in the production of these works also (the argument can be extended to material cultural goods and services, but I will not deal with them here). This kind of audience labor can be broken into two related categories: promotion and meaning-making.
These phenomena are particularly apparent on the Internet. Many online retailers for cultural works allow the audience to provide reviews and commentary about the products they sell. This information transforms their online shops into sources of information for people who may then go on to buy their products. The work is performed by the audience; the retailer serves as a central location which appropriates the financial benefit of this promotional labor. Clever retailers, such as Amazon, can go one step further: by automatically compiling statistics about shopping behavior, they can fine tune their business and offer recommendations to customers. For example, a site can use the history of a shopper to suggest other books which might interest that person. All of this information derived from the labor of customers increases the value of the business, and servers as a barrier to competing businesses lacking a similar mine of data. While this kind of application of customer data is not unique to the Web (it is, for example, critical to just-in-time delivery systems made famous by Wal-Mart), the Internet makes it visible and concrete.
In fact, audiences have always provided promotion for cultural works in the form of word-of-mouth advertising. This audience activity can promote works, creating surprise hits, just as bad audience reviews can relegate others to obscurity and failure in the market. In this case, audience labor can be both beneficial and detrimental to the seller: some word-of-mouth reviews are bad.
However, promotion is not the only labor performed by the audience. At least as important is the role of the audience in creating meaning and interpreting works. Musicians create music, embedding their own skills and meanings in their work. When listeners hear that music, they construct their own interpretations and meanings. These are not independent of the work itself, but neither are they determined by it. Stewart Hall (2001) describes this process, in which the meaning intended by the creator is embedded in a medium in process of encoding, then decoded by the listener; because the properties of the medium (e.g. the two-dimensional physical limits of film or the grammar of language) take precedence for an encoded communication, the recipient is not only free to interpret the message, but obliged to do so. Furthermore, an encoded message is isolated from its context, then re-contextualized in a different context by the recipient. Consequently, there is what Hall calls an “asymmetry” between the meaning intended by the encoder of the message and the meaning understood or read-in by the recipient. Not all of this asymmetry is a product of misunderstanding either: recipients choose to interpret communication according to the context of their own needs, desires, and lifeworlds. For example, someone might associate music with an experience or period of their life corresponding to when they first heard the music – falling in love, perhaps. The viewer of a movie might relate the story to contemporary social phenomena, even though the makers of the movie had no such intention. The very term misunderstanding is often inappropriate, for it assumes the creator of a message has a privileged objective understanding of its meaning.
Constructed meanings can be very private (as in the case of the music), or they can be shared with others, creating collective identities constructed from meanings built up over time. Examples of this abound, from snappy lines of dialog which have entered the language from Shakespeare, to “cult” films which have acquired the status of popular institutions (e.g. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has been transformed into an experience in which the audience participates). Such meanings can tremendously increase the use value of cultural commodities, resulting in a corresponding increase in their exchange value and profit for the culture industries.
Steven Weber goes so far as to describe one class of works – open source software – as anti-rival: it is actually to the benefit of producers and users to share the software, because its value to them increases with the size of the community4. The Internet also provides a platform for this phenomenon in the cultural sphere. Grimes & Shade (2005, p. 12), for example, describe how users of an online children's entertainment service, NeoPets, “create characters, artwork, storylines, and websites that are then extracted, compiled, and sold by the NeoPets corporation.” Many successful computer games have provided toolkits with which users can create now scenarios and challenges and share these with others, thereby increasing the value of the game to others, and producing more sales. Another innovative use of computer games has created a new creative form. Machinima is the name given to movies created using computer games as animation engines. Machinima creators capture the on-screen visuals from a game, then edit it and add sound to create video. A recent game, The Movies, deliberately provides a movie-making toolkit in order to promote this practice.
A more traditional illustration of audience meaning-making is the song Happy Birthday. This little ditty has become a ritual for the birthdays of children and adults alike across continents and cultures. The song is clearly meaningful to the people who sing it; this meaning has led to its incredible spread. Amazingly, although the tune itself is in the public domain, the words to the song are under copyright, owned by Time Warner.5 The song clearly has an exchange value: Time Warner reportedly collect $2 million annually in license fees (snopes.com, 2002). Yet the song itself consists of only four lines, with only eight distinct words (seven really, the eight word is the name of the lucky celebrant), and the melody derives from an earlier song, Good Morning To All. The immense use value – and the consequent exchange value – of this commodity can hardly be explained by the lyrics or the melody. Rather, it is the activity of the audience who have transformed a few words into a tradition. Granted, Happy Birthday is something of a degenerate case: the creativity and labor involved in producing its lyrics seems minimal compared to that of most cultural works. However, it demonstrates the ability of the audience to create use value, which in turn contributes to exchange value.
Given a virtually unlimited supply, the exchange value of the work as a whole (i.e. the total income generated by the work) is determined by demand and the price set by the holder of the copyright. The rights holder can be expected to set the price that will result in the highest income, so that can be discounted as a factor differentiating the exchange value of different works. Demand, however, is a product of the size of the audience. There are three obvious factors that contribute to audience size: the work itself (its appeal or quality), advertising, and audience labor6 (and price, but again this can be discounted). Under copyright, all rights to the work vest in the copyright holder; this implies that none of the exchange value of the work is an independent product of the audience. But this seems unlikely given the importance given by many culture industries to word-of-mouth advertising and generating “buzz”.
Network theory offers further evidence for the role of the audience. Many (perhaps most) works, including Internet pages, films, books, and scholarly papers, follow a power law (Sinha & Pan, 2005). The popularity of these works is not a bell curve: there are a few extraordinarily popular works, a few more moderately successful ones, and a huge number of undistinguished works. Network theory suggests that this relationship will apply in networks if there is are mechanisms for growth and for preferential attachment (Barabási, 2003, p. 86). The potential for audience growth is a property of virtually all cultural works. Preferential attachment means that a successful node in the network (web page) attracts more links (audience) if it already has more links than other nodes: popularity compounds. This means that the inherent qualities of cultural works (a product of budget, creativity, etc.), while it can contribute to their success, cannot be the primary factor7. Either the audience is somehow reacting to the existing popularity (existing audience) of a work – I argue by publicizing the work or constructing meanings which broaden or deepen8 its appeal, or there is another mediating factor which compounds. In either case, the audience is performing labor – in response either to other audience members or to an third factor.
This model of preferential attachment was developed in investigations of the World Wide Web (Barabási, 2003, pp. 79-92). The popularity of web pages, with popularity measured by the number of links to a page, follows a power law distribution. For the sake of this argument, the audience is treated as that portion of the web-browsing population which not only browse the web, but also create links. Given the participation of users online in creating blogs and other forms of web content, the distinction between creators and audience (which is so clear in the mass media) breaks down. The link-creating audience appears to be reacting to other members of the audience. However, there is a third factor: search engines, like Google. Google's PageRank algorithm treats links to a web page as votes for the popularity of the page, thus as a measure of its relevance for searches. Popular pages are ranked higher. Audience labor is involved in the process by which web page authors find other pages and link to them (for the purposes of this example, it is reasonable to exclude users who do not create links to pages). The influence of mediating factors (such as search engines) reduces the autonomy of the audience (e.g. by ranking pages presented to the user), but does not eliminate it (the user chooses the search term, and must still choose which link is meaningful to him or her).
Sinha and Pan (2005) examined the popularity of movies, and found that it also follows a power law. This suggests that when members of the audience decide what movie to see, they are indeed reacting to other members of the audience. However, there are two problems with this approach. The first is that movies do not form a network: they don't link to each other. The second problem is that Sinha and Pan found that opening week ticket sales are a very good prediction of total ticket sales. This leaves very little time for communication to potential audience members, leading Sinha and Pan (2005, p. 4) to conclude that it is “unlikely” that the power law distribution results from “information exchange between moviegoers”. I will address each of these issues in turn.
Although movies are not a network, the power law distribution still suggests that there is some interaction within the audience causing popularity to compound. Sinha and Pan address this with reference to Sinha and Raghavendra (2004), who developed a model for collective decision making – e.g. in elections, or choosing movies. In their model, a member of the population (or audience) making the decision takes into account not only the choices of other members of the population (“neighbors”), but also the past correspondence between him or herself and the overall trend of the whole. For example, in the case of movies, Sinha and Raghavendra suggest that moviegoers consider the opinions of their neighbors, but also “how well such neighborhood information agreed with media reports and reviews of movies indicating the overall or community choice” (2004, p. 4). Therefore, according to this model, the audience is still performing labor, including both communication within the audience and assessment of overall trends9.
There is a possible alternative explanation for audience activity generating compound popularity for cultural works: it is a result of increased spending on advertising, promotion, distribution, etc. for works that are successful: success compounds because producers promote successful works. There is some truth to this, but it cannot be the whole story. There are numerous counter-examples: some works succeed despite low expectations from producers; others fail in the face of expensive advertising. Some buck the trend entirely. In the case of movies, a few (referred to as “sleepers” by Sinha & Pan) are unsuccessful at first, but gain in popularity over time; as in the case of independent cinema, this can be a conscious tactic. There is no predictable, consistent relationship between advertising and success, despite the financial incentives for industry to discover one. Compounding popularity (or the greater part of it) must be a consequence of audience activity. But this leaves unanswered the question about the ability of opening week ticket sales to predict total ticket sales of movies.
Films are exceptional in their dependence on opening week sales, and the intense advertising efforts to sell them. Web pages, books, and scientific papers also exhibit power law popularity distributions. In fact, Sinha and Pan (2005) report that the Pareto exponent describing the popularity distribution of movies – approximately 2 – is the same for book sales and scientific papers. This, they say, is suggestive of “a universal exponent for many different popularity distributions” (2005, p. 2). This also suggests, however, that the particular characteristics of the movie industry (promotion and the opening week) do not explain the pattern. Again, this points back to the role of the audience, common to all of these media.
It may be that Sinha and Pan are mistaken: a week could be sufficient time for moviegoers to communicate with each other, especially with modern technologies such as cell phones, email, blogs, and so on, including reviews in mainstream media and the press. I suggest, however, that the communication may be occurring before the film opens. The aim of the advertising industry for films is to create a “buzz” of anticipation amongst the potential audience. Advertisements are themselves cultural works, for which the audience constructs meanings, and which may encourage moviegoers to promote a film to their friends (“Are you going to the new Star Wars film on Friday?”). This could predict the overall success of the film if the audience finds a correlation between the expectations (meanings) they constructed from the advertising and the film itself – a phenomenon would appear to be compatible with Sinha and Raghavendra's model.
The role of audience labor affects the exchange value of the work – i.e., the audience performs unpaid labor whose value is appropriated by the copyright holder. This is not a zero-sum game: the copyright holder receives the financial benefit, but there are clearly other social (and probably indirect financial) benefits and increases in the use value of the work. Similarly, there could be adverse effects; cultural production and reproduction can be a virtuous cycle – or a vicious one. Popularity can spread an email virus, just as word-of-mouth can diminish the success of a work. Worse, as previously mentioned, audience meaning-making and promotion can propagate oppressive meanings.
The exchange value of an entertainment commodity actually embeds Marx's relationship between capital and labor, Smythe's relationship between the advertiser and the audience, and – perhaps most importantly for popular creative works (hits) – the relationship between members of the audience, which is to say the position or role of that work within the wider culture (itself composed of human beings in the society). This last point raises the related point that works are part of a cultural web of meaning mediated by the audience, which both communicates meanings and constructs them; hence works can increase each others' value.
In terms of classical economics, all of this audience labor has consequences for copyright, especially if the aim of policy is to promote cultural production and consumption. If most of the value of a work is produced by the audience, one immediate consequence is that copyright addresses the wrong part of the equation. It targets the creator (there are many unsuccessful artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers who may never have the chance to demonstrate the quality of their work) but creates friction for the audience, thereby resulting in a net decrease in the exchange value of creative works. Modern copyright was written into the U.S. constitution with the goal of encouraging cultural production for a new country uncertain of its identity (see US Constitution, Article I Section 8); now it is supported primarily for economic reasons. My argument suggests that excessively strong copyright may be counter-productive. The issue here is the degree to which audience meaning-making and advertising is autonomous of the work. If popularity is simply a response to artistic genius, then policies like copyright which support (at least in theory) the creator are more sensible. But if popularity is largely an independent product of the audience, then such policies are destructive to the growth and success of culture.
This purely economic argument takes for granted that cultural works and their success should be maximized, regardless of the works themselves. It ignores social implications, such as the role of culture in producing, reproducing, or opposing social relations of dominance. A more powerful argument addresses the political significance of cultural works and their production. At a basic level, this is because, as Raymond Williams (2001, p. 155) credits Marx, “the most important thing a worker ever produces is himself, himself in the fact of that kind of labor, or in the broader historical emphasis of men producing themselves, themselves and their history”. So the most important product of audience labor is the audience. In an economic relation in which cultural works are the property of a capitalist or copyright holder, the laboring audience reproduces itself as consumers alienated from their own production. This goes beyond the Marxist conception of the industrial worker, first because the audience consumes the (specific) products of its own labor – and these are unique to the producer, unlike mass produced material goods; second because of the particular characteristics of cultural works and their importance in a democratic society.
Affect and Democracy
Audience labor is important not only because of its role in economic production, but also because of what is being produced and its role in democratic society. I will therefore outline the role of affective works in the public sphere, and in the construction of collective identities in democratic society.
I have emphasized cultural works, privileging those with affective merit over those whose qualities are primarily rational, such as journalism or scholarship. Neither have I discussed cultural artefacts whose value lies largely or primarily in their materiality, such as automobiles or fashion, despite the fact that much of my argument could be applied to these objects (furthermore, the boundary between these material works and non-material cultural works e.g. in the case of fashion design). There are several reasons for my emphasis. First, cultural works as I have defined them here are non-rivalrous; this makes them particularly relevant – and the implications easier to illustrate – during a time of conflict over digital technology, copying, and piracy. Second, the political relevance of mass media journalism is obvious; the role of what McGuigan (2005, p. 435) calls “affective communication” is less so. Again, it is chiefly works which fall broadly into the category of “entertainment”10, containing an essential creative component, are at the center of debates about online music sharing, piracy, and so on.
I have argued that process of commodification of cultural works, supported by mechanisms such as copyright, places the culture industries in a privileged position vis à vis the audience labor which contributes significantly to the value of these works. I will examine this asymmetry in more detail later.
Habermas (2001) developed a powerful conception of the role of public communication in democracy. He described the public sphere as a “sphere which mediates between society and the state, in which the public organizes itself as the bearer of public opinion” (pp. 102-3). Emerging as a product of the enlightenment, this sphere provided a space through which private citizens were able to represent themselves and their interests to the state. Habermas' concern was that this sphere has been “refeudalized”, with private institutions competing for influence and excluding the genuine public sphere as a competing interest. Criticisms of Habermas' original conception include its exclusion of all but a privileged elite. However, it is powerful as a conception of a space for democratic participation; critiques of the contemporary mass news media often focus on how the dominance of elite and market interests restrict the participation and representation of a wider public and of oppressed groups in society (for example, see Hackett & Zhao, 1998). This focus on rational communication at the expense of affective forms, was shared by Habermas himself (2001, p. 102), who focused on what he called the political public sphere, distinguishing it from the literary public sphere by its focus upon “the activity of the state” (Habermas, 2001, p. 102).
McGuigan (2005, p. 429), acknowledges that these spheres are “not separate . . . [but] their functions diverge in a significant manner”, but suggests (2005, p. 430) the literary public sphere had a different time horizon:
The literary public sphere was not about transient news . . . Typically, complex reflection upon the chronic and persistent problems of life, meaning, and representation, which is characteristic of art, works on a different timescale11.
McGuigan (2005, p. 435) extends the conception of the literary public sphere to that of a cultural public sphere: “the articulation of politics, public and personal, as a contested terrain through affective (aesthetic and emotional) modes of communication”. This encompasses the affective communication prevalent in everyday contemporary life, in which entertainment (the dominant type of affective communication) – television, film, music, even video games – far surpasses the scale of the news media.
On one hand, theorists have pointed to the oppressive ideological potential of affective communication, from Horkheimer and Adorno's (2001, p. 96) radio, “the universal mouthpiece of the Führer”, to Benjamin's (2001, pp. 63-4) discussion of aesthetics, fascism, and war and Milosz's (1981) sad description of the role of artists and art in the Soviet domination of intellectual life in his post-war Poland. On the other hand, these writers recognize the potential of art for liberation: Benjamin praises film for diminishing the dominant “aura” of unique works of art, Milosz explains the the desire of the artist to make a meaningful contribution to society – even though this was used by an oppressive ideology to turn the artist into an ideological mouthpiece. The political relevance and importance of these forms, and the ability of people to construct their own interpretations in opposition to the dominant meanings embedded by dominant forces, is central to Culture Studies.
Dahlgren (1995) draws on a number critiques of Habermas' devotion to a conscious and rational political public sphere. For Dahlgren, an understanding of rational discourse is necessary but not sufficient for the constitution of a public sphere: “if our horizons do not penetrate beyond the conceptual framework of communicative rationality . . . we will be operating with a crippled critical theory” (1995, p. 109). Indeed, affective communication is essential to the construction of identity, both individual and collective. He explains (1995, pp. 114-5) that “implicit knowledge . . . is the prevalent epistemic mode we use in the construction of our identities . . . [e]xplicit knowledge certainly comes into play, but it is not this which maker our identity 'come alive.'” Thus, affective communication is essential to politics: “The poetic commitment to storytelling may well prove indispensable to the ethical commitment to history-making. Ethics without poetics leads to a censuring of imagination; poetics without ethics leads to dangerous play” (Kearney in Dahlgren, 1995, p. 119, emphasis in original).
Dahlgren makes clear that the the role of affective communication in constructing identity is an important means by which these forms can contribute to democracy. Eco (2002, p. 3) has pointed to the importance of literature in creating “a sense of identity and community”.
The importance of identity also emerges from Manuel Castells' The Information Age (2000; 2004; 2005). In it, he describes the emergence of a “network society” in which networks (of nations, businesses, business units, other groups, individuals) supersede the organizational forms of the industrial age12. These networks are global but placeless, their power exercised in flows – of currency, information, even narcotics. The information technologies on which they depend overturn the regime of clock time and the cycles of biological time as operations are performed simultaneously, instantly, or out of sequence. In the face of these networks, individual actors – corporations, nations, individuals – are included in a network only in so far as they help the network achieve its goals; otherwise, they become “switched off” and excluded. In the face of the “power of flows”, even the sovereignty of nation states dissolves as they are unable to reconcile obedience to network goals and participation in network logic with the need to represent their populations rooted in place and history.
Instead, people turn to other sources for their identities. Castells (2004) examines a number of these: religious fundamentalism, doomsday cults, terrorists, the anti-globalization and environmental movements. Identities – constructed through communication, particularly affective communication – therefore become the primary basis for opposition to the dominant networks in society.
The participation of people in the cultural public sphere, and the construction of identity through meaning-making, are limited by the commodification of cultural works. As Garnham (2004b, p. 192) acknowledges, there is a contradiction here between the openness required for the culture industries to take advantage of audience labor and the process of commodification which appropriates these works and their meanings for these industries. Copyright, allied with social norm of creative and intellectual works as property, is the primary mechanism that supports this commodification. Copyright allocates not only the exchange value of audience meaning-making and labor to the copyright-holder, but also a large portion of control over its use value. The “friction” created by copyright can then be understood better as an instrument of alienation, restricting the ability of people to create new meanings (“derivative works”) and to share the meanings they create. Just as Marx's commodification of industrial products alienates workers from the fruit of their labors, so too does cultural commodification alienate the audience from the meanings they have created, and isolates them from the ability to construct meanings over time.
I have presented the culture industries as the producers as culture, and the audience as consumers. Yet the the core attribute of these works is meaning, and the audience in many cases is also a producer of meaning. This meaning is constructed on the basis of existing works, but those works are in turn constructed on the basis of previous culture. Lessig (2004, pp. 23-24) presents Disney's use of fairy tales, such as Snow White, as examples of this process in the culture industries. In this sense, “audience” becomes a role taken on by people as they decode, in Hall's terminology, the cultural products of others. Disney is the audience of the brothers Grimm, who were themselves the audience of aristocratic women, storytellers passing on French and German folk tales (Zipes, 1992, p. xxiv). Similarly “producer” becomes the role in which people produce meaning and culture. The asymmetry between these actors as commonly understood, however, is made concrete in the commodification of culture and the consequent alienation of audiences from the fruits of their labor. For example, audiences cannot create new stories with existing characters, or use old news footage as part of documentaries or films without the consent of the copyright holder. The copyright holder suffers from no such restrictions. Because no work or meaning exists in isolation, but in the context of the works and meanings which have gone before, this creates a divide in the capability of people to participate in the cultural public sphere – which is to say, in time-based political meaning-making. In our society, production is aggregated in a few large media firms, while consumption – and hence participatory meaning-making by the audience – is disaggregated. Thus the capability to produce is restricted by commodification. Members of audiences can and do construct meanings, but these meanings must remain private; as derivative works they can only enter the public sphere under the control of the creator of the “intellectual property” upon which they are based. The retelling of Snow White ends with Disney, or proceeds without it. Although they are not the only producers of cultural works, the scale and wealth of the culture industries affords them opportunities to build on previous works in a way that smaller groups and individuals cannot.
I must point out that my intent is not to discount the creativity of creators or artists, or to claim equivalence between most creators of culture and most members of their audiences. There is no question that creators play the essential role of constructing works and meanings which form the basis for further meaning-making. These works have qualities which are (or in some cases are not) attractive to audiences, and that these qualities are a product of numerous factors in the production process, including the labor of the creators, their skill or inspiration, and their ability to draw on the meanings of the surrounding culture, and so on. Indeed, Hall (2001) emphasizes that the freedom of interpretation of the recipient of a message is not complete: the message determines – or rather, underdetermines – the possible interpretations of the audience, setting boundaries and exerting pressures.
Having said that, the firm division resulting in an asymmetrical capability to produce culture is particularly important now. The digital technology which makes works easy to duplicate also makes them cheap to produce and distribute. The high costs of production and distribution have isolated the cultural industries in the past. With globalization and deregulation many of these businesses have consolidated, in many fields resulting in a few powerful behemoths. This has been to the disadvantage of audiences, and of creators and artists who lack power when dealing with these corporations. Now, smaller groups and individuals have the technical tools they need to produce books, movies, and music cheaply and on a small scale. The Internet provides new avenues of distribution – even for physical goods, such as self-published books. This is not to claim that the Internet has leveled the field: the digital divide is as real as it ever was. Industry consolidation, global markets, and technology can also raise barriers to entry at the top of these markets, for example permitting Hollywood to spend stupendous sums on special effects, costumes, location filming, and star actors for both film and television. It may be that this leads to increased stratification in the ability to produce cultural works. Nevertheless, the potential for a diversity of production provides more points of contact through which people can express meanings and participate in the cultural public sphere. The Internet, with phenomena such as blogs and the collaborative Wikipedia encyclopedia, illustrates that there is a tremendous hunger to do exactly that. New forms, such as podcasts (a form of popularly-produced Internet-based radio), machinima (for example Koulamata (2005), made by a French youth explaining from his point of view the events that led to the riots around Paris in fall 2005), and mash-ups (combinations of music and/or video to create new works) reveal the possibility for a far greater role of a wider public. Despite all this, commodification of these works, supported by an ideology of property ownership which disregards the contributions of the audience and others, enforces the existing privileges of the culture industries. In the case of NeoPets (mentioned previously), this becomes a kind of cultural sharecropping: the end-user license agreement stipulates that any works created with the games belong to the maker of the game. The license agreement for The Movies, used by Koulamata, contains similar (albeit weaker) provisions (Walsh, 2005).
I should also point out that piracy – copyright violation – is, with few exceptions, a counterproductive form of resistance. Because piracy is illegal, any derivative works produced by the pirates must necessarily remain relatively private: their reproduction is excluded from the public sphere. Furthermore, while piracy may well reduce the income of the culture industries compared to purchasing copies of cultural works, meanings created by the pirates may actually increase the value of these works to those industries while increasing the dependence of the pirates upon the culture industries.
On the other hand, efforts in support of cultural and intellectual commons, such as Richard Stallman's Free Software movement and Lawrence Lessig's Creative Commons, do offer alternatives to reproducing the asymmetry of the existing state of affairs. The commons is a space of that offers the potential for symmetrical participation in culture by artists and audience.
Audiences increase the use and exchange value of affective cultural works by performing labor in the form of promotion or meaning-making. The self-reproduction of audience labor is politically significant, as is some meaning-making activity, for affective works are important for constructing collective identities. This phenomenon also weakens the distinction between producers and consumers of culture. However, that division is reinforced by the commodification of these works, through mechanisms such as copyright, which alienate audience labor from the work they perform and the meanings they create. In terms of cultural production and meaning-making, the culture industries are aggregated while audiences are disaggregated. The asymmetry of cultural production is enforced, confirming the culture industries as privileged participants in the cultural public sphere. The struggle over culture as property or commons is a struggle over the cultural basis for democracy.
1 In reality, prices would not fall to zero. Numerous other factors come into play, such as perceived quality, bundled materials (e.g. CD art and liner notes), convenience, promotion, branding, conspicuous consumption, and the desire to reward artists. Beyond this, there are other avenues of artist compensation, such as sponsorship and use in derivative works (e.g. the use of music in films and advertising). Finally, such a change could not happen in isolation: powers in the market would find ways to influence the commercial environment to their benefit – as indeed they are doing today.
2 Although related, exchange value and price are not the same, and there is no dependable way to convert between the two of them. My point, however, is to illustrate both the problem these works pose for a market which cannot evaluate their worth. Prices may also be set not to reflect value but to communicate with consumers. For example, movie prices may be set the same to signal to consumers that they are of equivalent quality, even though this is not the case (see Spolsky, 2005).
3 These measures are subjective, but no less real for that.
4 Reasons for the anti-rival nature of open source software include: A broader base of users of a product will increase the likelihood that it will continue to be enhanced and supported. The ability of to benefit from improvements made by others. The increase in quality brought by a wide base of users and testers – as Eric Raymond (1998) famously put it in his seminal paper The Cathedral and the Bazaar, “[g]iven enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.
5 The copyright for the lyrics to Happy Birthday will not expire until 2030 (they were copyrighted in 1935).
6 The appeal or quality of the work is neither wholly dependent nor wholly independent of the audience. However, I am distinguishing between these two inter-related factors analytically in order to clarify their relationship.
7 For the popularity of a work to be a product only of the quality of the work, that quality would have to itself follow a power law. This would be surprising. A normal distribution seems far more likely.
8 By “broadening” the appeal of a work, I mean that it becomes meaningful to more people. Deepening the appeal, on the other hand, increases its appeal to those who already find the work meaningful (i.e. having use value). This could lead audience members, for example, to see a film repeatedly, propel them over a threshold at which point they are sufficiently interested to spend money, or incite them to continue the cycle of audience meaning-making and promotion (as is done by groups of fans for various works, from Star Trek Trekkies/Trekkers to Shakespeare aficionados).
9 Interestingly, Sinha and Raghavendra state that their model leads to the conclusion that movies aimed at children are more likely chosen based on the opinions of friends, while the adult audiences of other films are more strongly influenced by media reports of overall popularity. Might this imply that children are more isolated from advertising and media messages, or that adults are more alienated from their friends (or both)?
10 A number of theorists – e.g. Marcuse (1969, pp. 23-48) and Horkheimer & Adorno (2001) – have developed theories for the unique political significance of art. However the distinction between art and entertainment is fraught with conflict. I will not pursue it here; rather I will focus on entertainment, which is the common understanding of most of the works involved in debates around digital technology and piracy. I will note, however, that the very term “entertainment”, with its instrumental emphasis on the use to which such works are put, obscures their political potential. Furthermore, there is no bright line between entertainment and journalism; each can contain elements of the other.
11 The importance of time is a recurring theme in theories of democratic communication. Castells (2004) argues for the potential for identities rooted in time to resist ahistorical dominant networks. Innis (1991) pleads for the recovery of time in a society whose balance has swung to far to the domination of space. And, as I argue, the commodification of culture through copyright cuts short the further development of meaning by audiences, reserving time for the culture industries. It is fitting, if ironic, that a lack of both time and space limit me from pursuing the subject further here.
12 Other theorists (Webster, 2002; Garnham, 2004a) have challenged Castells' (2000) contention that the network society constitutes a new historical era. I agree that the evidence Castells presents is insufficient to support such a claim; rather, his networks appear to be an extension of capitalist logic rather than a truly new phenomenon. It is nevertheless possible that the processes he points to are involved in epochal shift in society; if so, the change may not be inevitable, and I suspect it will only be apparent in retrospect. Regardless, Castells does present a compelling description of the world of today and of many of the forces in it.
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