Idealism and Pragmatism in the Free Culture Movement

[A review of Gary Hall's Digitize This Book! The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). Appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Museum.]

Beginning in the late 1970s with Richard Stallman’s irritation at being unable to inspect or alter the code of software he was using at MIT, and accelerating with 22-year-old Linus Torvalds’s release of the whimsically named Linux operating system and the rise of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, with its emphasis on openly available, interlinked documents, the free software and open access movements are among the most important developments of our digital age.

These movements can no longer be considered fringe. Two-thirds of all websites run on open source software, and although many academic resources remain closed behind digital gates, the Directory of Open Access Journals reports that nearly 4,000 publications are available to anyone via the Web, a number that grows rapidly each year. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health mandated recently that all articles produced under an NIH grant—a significant percentage of current medical research—must be available for free online.

But if the movement toward shared digital openness seems like a single groundswell, it masks an underlying tension between pragmatism and idealism. If Stallman was a seer and the intellectual justifier of “free software” (“free” meaning “liberated”), it was Torvalds’s focus on the practical as well as a less radical name—“open source”—that convinced tech giant IBM to commit billions of dollars to Linux starting in the late 1990s. Similarly, open access efforts like the science article sharing site arXiv.org have flourished because they provide useful services—including narcisstic ones such as establishing scientific precedent—while furthering idealistic goals. Successful movements need both Stallmans and Torvalds, as uneasily as they may coexist.

Gary Hall’s Digitize This Book! clearly falls more on the idealistic side of today’s open movements than the pragmatic side. Although he acknowledges the importance of practice—and he has practiced open access himself—Hall emphasizes that theory must be primary, since unlike any particular website or technology theory contains the full potential of what digitization might bring. He pursues this idealism by drawing from the critical theory—and the critical posture—of cultural studies, one of the most vociferous antagonists to traditional structures in higher education and politics.

Hall’s book is less accessible than others on the topic because of long stretches involving this cultural theory, with some chapters rife with the often opaque language developed by Jacques Derrida and his disciples. Digitize This Book! gets its name, of course, from Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 hippie classic, Steal This Book, which provided practical advice on a variety of uniformly shady (and often illegal) methods for rebelling against The Man. But Digitize This Book! reads less like a Hoffmanesque handbook for the digital age and more like a throw-off-your-chains political manifesto couched in academic lingo.

Those unaccustomed to the lingo and associated theoretical constructions might find the book offputting, but its impressive intellectual ambition makes Digitize This Book! an important addition to a growing literature on the true significance of digital openness. Hall imagines open access not merely in terms of the goods of universal availability and the greater dissemination of knowledge, but as potentially leading to energetic opposition to the “marketization and managerialization of the university,” that is, the growing approach by administrations to treat universities as businesses rather than as places of learning and free intellectual exchange—a development that has upset many, including well beyond cultural studies departments. Similar worries, of course, cloud cultural heritage institutions such as museums and libraries.

Despite his emphasis on theory, Hall knows that any positive transformation must ultimately come from effective action in addition to advocacy. As Stallman unhappily discovered after starting the Free Software Foundation in 1985 and working for many years on his revolutionary software called GNU, it was Torvalds, a clever tactician and amiable community builder rather than theoretician or firebrand, who helped (along with others of similar disposition) to break open source into the mainstream by finding pathways for his Linux operating system to insinuate itself into institutions and companies that normally might have rejected the mere idea of it out of hand.

Hall does understand this pragmatism, and much to his credit he has real experience with creating open access materials rather than simply thinking about how they might affect the academy. He is a co-founder of the Open Humanities Press, a founder and co-editor of the open access journal Culture Machine, and is director of CSeARCH, an arXiv.org for cultural studies.

Yet Hall sees his efforts as ongoing “experiments,” not the final (digital) word. Indeed, he worries that his compatriots in the open access and open source software movements are congratulating themselves too early, and for accomplishing lesser goals. Yes, open source software has made significant inroads, Hall acknowledges, but it has also been “coopted” by the giants of industry, as the IBM investment shows. (The book would have benefited from a more comprehensive analysis of open source, especially in the Third World, where free software is more radically challenging the IBMs and Microsofts.) Similarly, Hall claims, open access journals are flourishing, but too often these journals merely bring online the structures and strictures of traditional academia.

Here is where Hall’s true radicalism comes to the fore, building toward a conclusion with more expansive aims (and more expansive words, such as “hypercyberdemocracy” and “hyperpolitics”). He believes that open access provides a rare opportunity to completely rethink and remake the university, including its internal and external relationships. Paper journals ratified what and who was important in ways we may not want to replicate online, Hall argues. Even if one disagrees with his (hyper)politics, Hall’s insight that new media forms are often little more than unimaginative digital reproductions of the past, which bring forward old conventions and inequities, seems worthy of consideration.

A wag might note at this point that Digitize This Book! is oddly not itself available as a digital reproduction. (As part of the research for this review, I looked in the shadier parts of the Internet but could not locate a free electronic download of the book, even in the shadows.) Other recent books on the open access movement are available for free online (legally), including James Boyle’s The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press) and John Willinsky’s The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (MIT Press). Drawing attention to this disconnect is less a cheap knock against Hall than a recognition that the actualization of open access and its transformative potential are easier said than done.

Assuming things will not change overnight and that few professors, curators, or librarians are ready to move, like Abbie Hoffman, to a commune (though many might applaud the lack of administrators there), the key questions are, How does one take concrete steps toward a system in which open access is the normal mode of publishing? Which structures must be dissolved and which created, and how to convince various stakeholders to make this transition together?

These are the kinds of practical—political—questions that advocates of open access must address. Gary Hall has helpfully provided the academic purveyors of open access much food for thought. Now comes the difficult work of crafting recipes to reach the future he so richly imagines.

6 thoughts on “Idealism and Pragmatism in the Free Culture Movement

  1. Brad

    Thanks for this helpful review, Dan! I’ll have to check the book out soon.

    Re: Free Downloads
    For what it’s worth, several free culture authors have released their books online only after a sales window of a few months. Lessig’s Remix, for instance. Boyle’s book may have done the same, but I can’t quite recall. Perhaps Hall will release it for download later on. Is it licensed for free use, in any way? CC or otherwise?

  2. David Payne

    I’m not sure how much more theory we can take on this subject–especially postmodern prattle. Pragmatism provides its own critique against the old structures. It is the “big stick” that allows for soft speech.

    Interesting read. Thank you.

  3. Dan Cohen Post author

    @Brad: It’s licensed normally (i.e., regular copyright, U Minn Press) as far as I know. Penn Press allowed Roy Rosenzweig and me to release our book online at the same time it came out in print. Don’t think it hurt sales at all; in fact, quite the opposite.

  4. Peter Murray

    This is a compelling review of what sounds like an interesting book. I couldn’t help but to get hung up on one detail, though:

    In the United States, the National Institutes of Health mandated recently that all articles produced under an NIH grant—a significant percentage of current medical research—must be available for free online.

    It is, of course, more accurate to say “…must be available for free online after at most a one year embargo.”

  5. Jonathan Rochkind

    Good thoughts, thanks.

    I’m having trouble finding CSeARCH on google; perhaps that’s a hint that it hasn’t caught on much. Or just a testament to my poor google skills (I’m ashamed to be a librarian).

    Can you share a URL?

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