MC433 - week 7

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These are my notes from November 09 for MC433 at the London School of Economics for the 2017-2018 school year. I took this module as part of the one-year Inequalities and Social Science MSc program.

The usual disclaimer: all notes are my personal impressions and do not necessarily reflect the view of the lecturer.

Content Production, Human Development, and Participation


The wealth of networks (PDF) by Yochai Benkler (introduction)

A fairly breathless (but, unfortunately, foundational) 2006 text on the promises of peer production. I think he’s on the right side of things ethically, but he’s waaay too optimistic about the potential of technology to resist capitalism (and fairly naive about the totalising abilities of the latter). See week 4 of 4AAVC101 for more notes on Benkler’s theories.

From Goods to a Good Life by Madhavi Sunder (chapter 3)

Starts with an anecdote about Solomon Linda, who created the song that later became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” but didn’t receive any royalties from it and died poor (even though he theoretically would have been entitled to at least something, under IP law at the time). As someone who is very opposed to IP law in its current form, I felt like this anecdote completely backfired on me—the problem is not that he should have received $$ as a result of creating this song, the problem is that he shouldn’t have had to create a song in order to maintain a livelihood. Her claim that intellectual property law incentivised his creation is, imo, absolute crap. Using an instance of IP law failing someone in need as a justification for greater IP protections is absolutely inane and an excellent example of undialectical thinking. The problem is a structurally unfair distribution of resources, and extending the reach of intellectual property law will not get us any closer to fixing that.

On the other hand, her approach is at least better than the narrow economic-centred, utilitarian one, given that she does look at the effects of law on “structuring cultural and social relations”, and recognises that IP law doesn’t apply to everyone equally (fairly). She criticises Lawrence Lessig’s seminal 2004 book Free Culture (PDF) (which, incidentally, I fell in love with as a teenager), noting his failure to address real-world inequalities in the ability to exploit common resources. Which is a good point, but her solution doesn’t exactly address that failure, either. Her position is inspired by Sen/Nussbaum whereas Lessig’s is more in the rms mold (quasi-libertarian).

My biggest point of contention with her take is on economic grounds. At one point, she says that “cultural participation secures livelihood” (p.90); my counter would be that it shouldn’t, and any proposal that tacitly accepts that statement as valid is immanently flawed. She also proposes microfinance as a solution to capital deficits in developing countries & educating local “innovators” on how to commercialise their inventions which is just UGH because we need LESS commodification not more :’( Basically this seems like it was written in an attempt to convince classic libs/libertarians that fairness matters, so while I agree with her qualms with the moral implications of the current economic order, I find her proposed solutions to be extremely insufficient (not nearly radical enough).

Later on, she talks about the “politics of recognition”, which is about who has the ability to shape or be represented in cultural production. This stems from the recognition that media representation affects our collective imagination of the realm of possibility—like Obama’s election being influenced by Hollywood previous depictions of black presidents. This concept stems from Charles Taylor (of Hegel fame). She admits that you can’t elevate this concept (which one might call “identity politics”) above that of social/economic power (i.e., class), but, with Young, affirms that recognition can sometimes be a problem independent of other socioeconomic elements. Kind of a counter to Fraser, who thought identity politics was a distraction that would lead to ignoring material inqualities.

Summary: she sees IP as a tool, not a right; it should incentivise cultural production and sharing on “fair terms”. Defines “maximalist” IP law regimes as too totalising/restrictive (not enough fair use or public domain allowances). She does briefly consider tax redistribution but then quickly dismisses it, saying there’s a difference between giving people a “handout” and recognising their contributions by paying them. Which is true, but only under capitalism … Her heart is in the right place imo, but she has so deeply internalised capitalist ideology that she can’t see beyond it and into a better world. Her desired closure for the Solomon Linda case would have involved Linda’s descendents getting royalties in order to stave off poverty, which is fucked up on multiple levels—for one, the idea of inheriting IP rights is repugnant, and for another, how is this a good substitute for global economic redistribution (which she never really mentions)??? She focuses on a tiny symptom of the problem and thus misses the big picture, as current IP law is just an emergent phenomenon of Western economic hegemony.


Much shorter than usual (the first 25 minutes were spent discussing the formative essay).


The question: can commons-based peer production (as proposed by Benkler) help us get to Baker’s goal of a more decentralised media landscape?