Law in the Internet Society

Commodity and The New Public Sphere

In Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas conceived of a sphere in between the private space of the home and the public space occupied by the state, where individuals could convene to critically reflect upon politics, culture, and identity. Though Habermas is speaking primarily about the public sphere of 18th and 19th centuries, his analysis and those of other Frankfurt School theorists, such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, are instrumental in understanding both the boundless promise and the tremendous waste of the Internet. YouTube provides a simplistic microcosm to explore these ideas and enhance our understanding of otherwise invisible industrial control.

Content and Control

Habermas lamented the decline of this so-called bourgeois "public sphere," blaming, among many things, the concentration of economic power. The engorgement of economic power, he observes, in turn produces a call from both the public and the conglomerations themselves to regulate, thereby shrinking the public sphere. The primary mechanism is copyright laws, which allow conglomerations to supplement the tremendous control they have over the production of content with the subsequent control of content.

YouTube has become one of the predominant mediums for amateur [1] expression. The premise of the site is very much one of a Habermas-ian public sphere. It is through participation and engagement with culture that allow us as a society to progress. YouTube provides the mechanism to translate personal projects into public ones, a process, as Habermas explains, that is crucial to any public sphere. Its mission to "provide a forum for people to connect, inform, and inspire others" is severely hampered by its Terms and Conditions, which provide an easy procedure that allows copyright owners to remove users' videos and, in essence, shrink our public sphere. YouTomb, a research project by MIT Free Culture, continuously monitored the most popular videos on YouTube and tracked how many were taken down. In a two-month period (December 2008-January 2009), YouTomb noted Warner Music Group alone had taken down over 4,500 videos.

A necessary assumption of Habermasian cynicism is that concentrated economic power implies control over the means of production. Luckily, we don't live in that world anymore. [2] The Internet generally, and YouTube specifically, have inched the world ever closer to the "utopian possibilities inherent in the technical and technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism" Marcuse discussed in An Essay on Liberation. Technological advances democratizing production in concert with the infrastructure of connectivity have amplified the effects and possibilities of sharing and participation. The Kahn Academy? is an organization dedicated to providing a free, quality education to anyone, anywhere, anytime. No longer are individuals dependent upon the beneficence of broadcasters for programming in the public interest. By posting free educational YouTube videos that teach an astounding variety of subjects from the most basic level to college level and using a Javascript problem generator to create an almost endless opportunity for practice and application, the Kahn Academy is able to educate even the most remote villages as long as there is one computer and internet access. In the arts, projects such as HitRecord? have embraced an open, collaborative production methodology. Remixing or editing another's posted video, image, or song isn't theft; it's the whole point. Video production has become something political in nature. In wresting away the control of the use of old content and the production of new content, individuals reclaim and redefine the rules of the public sphere as they shift among roles of viewer, analyst, and producer.

This, of course, only a fraction YouTube content. Yogi Berra famously said, "If people don't want to come out to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?" Content in the public interest is not driving most of YouTube's traffic. Instead, the most watched videos in the site's history are Justin Bieber's "Baby" video and a home video called "Charlie bit my finger - again!" In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse examines "advanced industrial societies" and the way in which ideology serves to wholly integrate and contain individuals as consumers. That is, to encourage consumers to avoid the ballpark. Mass culture, he observes, "takes care of the need for liberation by satisfying the needs which make servitude palatable and perhaps even unnoticeable." It is in the interest of the culture industry that Kahn Academy, HitRecord, and other public minded offerings are niche, almost obscure. By disseminating corporate-sanctioned cultural material that caters to superficial aesthetic tastes, mass media keeps people satiated while molding imaginative faculties through, at its manipulative apex, containment narratives that serve the motives of the empowered.

Commodifying Participation

Regardless of whether an individual is using YouTube to teach herself differential equations or to watch the latest Jennifer Lopez video, a startling truth remains constant: YouTube is a system that exists merely to quantify the viewer's viability as a consumer. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote presciently in The Culture Industry and Mass Deception (a chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment) that, to the culture industry, people appear "as statistics on research organization charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique that is used for any type of propaganda." These research organization charts have only become more sophisticated. In selling viewers to advertisers as dehumanized demographic indices (e.g., "male audiences 18-34" to "viewers earning more than $100,000"), YouTube betrays the trust of viewers by monetizing their interiority and encouraging a herder-cattle style approach to the market for goods and services. Providing advertisers detailed statistical analysis of the effectiveness of their ads, including click through rates and conversion, facilitates the next stage in the evolution of commodification, where advertisements have fully ceased to be static broadcast and have become closer to cognizant beings. It seems unjust that individual interiority, the cost of such improved and progressive advertising, should be so readily paid to watch a free video.

[1] In the sense that early users of radio and cable were "amateur"

A duck.

[2] Though we still do live in a world where patents on video codecs hinder the facility with which we can manipulate video content.

Putting this note here to reference something I said might reasonably be expected to make the reader want to know what the connection between these apparently disparate points is. You don't explain, and I've an intuition you're not in a position to do so. But if you can, you should. If not, you shouldn't make the note appear to promise that you can.

Improved in many respects, the essay now shows more clearly, however, the difficulty in reaching far and high for tools with which to interpret the near and the low. The text now feels too much like Frankfurt-school name dropping, as you pick a couple of Marcuse quotes and make them stand for a large lump of undigested complex criticism. Does Marcuse think what Habermas thinks, or if not how are the relevantly different or could we have left Habermas out? Is the quote from Horkheimer, which feels like it is a pompous way of saying the obvious, obvious? Perhaps the names are more intimidating to the reader than they are helpful, and it would be simpler to put a simple version of the ideas in the text, linking to the Frankfurt School writings that contain those ideas for those who want to see what you've been reading that's been making you think the thoughts you are presenting. Maybe authority isn't useful here?

Revising to take account of the fact that YouTube isn't only Justin Bieber, and that Warner Music is not likely to find a way to claim it owns the Khan Academy, presents some questions that, as I tried to say last time, it is only easy to ignore if one stops time now. How many years, even if YouTube remained the only practicable way for many or most users to distribute video on the Net (which it most certainly won't), before the educational and informative and politically activist uses of the network have been fully grasped, and are displacing the bullshit? If you do want to get Frankfurt School about it, commodities that make servitude tolerable or invisible must compete at price zero against the ubiquitous presence of commodities that make servitude intolerable and the alternatives visible. What happens then?



Webs Webs

r10 - 07 Sep 2012 - 16:50:10 - IanSullivan
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