It may seem counterintuitive at a time of information overload, viral media, aggregation, and instant commenting to worry about our cultural supply. But we are at risk of starving in the midst of plenty. A decade ago few would have thought a book with a title like In Defense of Food was necessary. Food, after all, had never been cheaper or more abundant; what could be wrong with the picture? A similar shift of perception needs to happen in the cultural realm. Culture, even if it is immaterial, has material conditions, and free culture, like cheap food, incurs hidden costs.
One positive step may be something deceptively simple: an effort to raise consciousness about something we could call sustainable culture. “Culture” and “cultivate” share the same root, after all: “Coulter,” a cognate of “culture,” means the blade of a plowshare. It is not a reach to align the production and consumption of culture with the growing appreciation of skilled workmanship and artisanal goods, of community food systems and ethical economies. The aims of this movement may be extended and adapted to describe cultural production and exchange, online and off.
The concept of sustainable culture begins with envisioning a cultural ecology. New and old media are not separate provinces but part of a hybrid cultural ecosystem that includes the traditional and digital and composites of the two. Our virtual and physical lives are intertwined, inseparable, equally “real.” Whether their work is distributed by paper or pixels, creators never emerge fully formed from the ether. Individuals are buttressed by an array of plinths and braces, by families and friends, patrons and publics, and institutions that include universities, foundations, community centers, publishers, distributors, libraries, bookstores, rock venues, and cinemas, as well as the ad hoc networks that comprise scenes and subcultures, digital and analog.
We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant. The notion of sustainable culture forces us to recognize that the digital has not rendered all previously existing institutions obsolete. It also challenges us to figure out how to improve them.
Many structures of the old-media system, however flawed, relieved some of the burdens now borne solely by individuals. Institutions provide capital, legal protection, leverage, and also continuity, facilitating the transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. At their best, institutions can help support challenging efforts through a process the musician Damian Kulash calls “risk aggregation.” Though his band OK Go left their record label and found a following online, Kulash still believes labels–though “greedy and shortsighted”–played a crucial function in the cultural land- scape, one we have not figured out how to replicate or improve upon within the digital realm: like publishing houses, newspapers, and film studios, they funnel revenues from more successful acts to less successful ones.
Scale allows institutions to fight the kinds of legal battles investigative journalism requires or weather a string of losses until the odds finally deliver that blockbuster hit, an arrangement that looks grossly inefficient from one angle, or almost socialist from another. Labels “invest in however many young bands a year and most of them fail,” Kulash told an interviewer. “Those bands go back to their jobs at the local coffee houses without having to be in tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal debt for having gone for it.” He credits this process with making his career possible. “If we don’t want to be just a domain of the independently wealthy and people who can take time off from their jobs for a couple of years to see what happens, or finance their own world tour while they figure out exactly how to make the number at the end of the column black, then somebody has to be doing this risk aggregation.”
The frame of sustainable culture has other benefits as well. In stark contrast to the emphasis on newness and nowness of most online platforms, it encourages us to think long term. Inherent in the concept of sustainability, after all, is the element of duration, of time and also depth of attention, for both creators and consumers. To escape the cycle of churnalism and expendable content in favor of sustainable culture, we need to develop supports that allow for the prolonged immersion and engagement artistic and journalistic endeavors often require, nurturing projects that are timeless rather than timely.
We also need to provide reliable means of preservation. Too often people assume that digital content will last forever, immateriality and reproducibility encouraging the false impression that anything uploaded to the cloud is safely stored for posterity. In reality, we lose an estimated quarter of all working links every seven years and digital files can quickly become incomprehensible due to the swift churn of technological obsolescence. Sustainable culture includes building archives that will allow people to explore their cultural heritage for years to come.
Additionally, the concept of sustainability poses a direct challenge to both the fixation on rapid growth and quick profits and the fantasy of sidestepping the issue of finance altogether. Material factors cannot be ignored or wished away. Free culture advocates have it right that excessive copyright regulation can inhibit creativity, and the current copyright regime is in urgent need of reform. But “free” is not the answer: too many creative endeavors fail due to lack of investment; countless creative experiments go untried; important investigations never get off the ground; voices that refuse to peddle or pander go unacknowledged; truth seeking and beauty making are undervalued, all while mediocre ideas prosper, aided by the fertilizers of advertising dollars and manufactured desire.
A vision of sustainability acknowledges the damage incurred by the sole pursuit of wealth while trying to build an equitable system that can enable the production of socially valuable goods. The proliferation of crowdfunding Web sites, which allow people to back creative projects without expectation of financial return, are an encouraging development and a critical source of support to artists and tinkerers–yet they are no panacea. There are limits to individual, one-off fund-raising campaigns, which cannot substitute for broader, more stable support structures.
Finally, a sustainability movement would harness new communications tools to shift the current conversation from free culture to fair culture. Established fair trade principles, known to anyone who has purchased coffee with the telltale label, include transparency and accountability, payment of just prices, nondiscrimination and gender and racial equity, and respect for the environment.
These principles speak to many of the problems raised in my book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age: the secretive methods of many Internet companies, the feudal business model of Web 2.0, the increasingly common expectation that people work without compensation, the persistence of inequality and intolerance online, and the disastrous consequences of high-tech manufacturing techniques and the constant upgrading and disposal of still functional, but no longer fashionable, gadgets on our natural world.
The shift to sustainable culture is possible, but implementing the necessary changes cannot fall to individuals and the marketplace alone. The solutions we need require collective, political action. Not unlike American agriculture businesses, which receive billions in federal aid while flooding the market with processed food, heedless of the effect on small farmers, today’s corporate media and technology firms depend on substantial and unacknowledged public subsidy, putting them at an unfair advantage at all of our expense.
Strengthening our cultural commons requires profound changes in policy, animated by the same spirit as the 1965 congressional resolution that established the national Endowment for the Arts: “While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.”
The dominant idea today is that the Internet, by lowering barriers to entry, will do this work for us, creating a free market in art and ideas and ushering in a “utopia of openness.” A free and open web will spark innovation and competition and a cultural revolution will result. This assumption channels political activism to the fight for network neutrality and against regulation like SOPA (where the interests of the public and of large technology firms are generally compatible), while explicitly progressive causes that push back against business interests–battles against consolidation, commercialization, unfair labor practices, and the lack of diversity–take a backseat.
Yet, as we know, open systems can be starkly inegalitarian and open markets cannot be counted on to provide everything people want or need, which is why there are many areas we strive to at least partly shield from capitalism’s excesses, such as scientific research, health, and education. A laissez-faire system will inevitably underinvest in less profitable cultural works, no matter how worthy, enriching, or utterly vital they are. No matter how technically “disruptive” or “revolutionary,” a communications system left to the free market will not produce the independent, democratic culture we need.