As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why digital culture matters, by Adam Stoneman.
Why Digital Culture Matters
by Adam Stoneman
During the Covid-19 pandemic, with cultural venues closed, the internet was a portal to a world of creativity; there was an explosion of initiatives offering free access to culture online, an acceleration of what had already been developing. Museums and galleries published virtual exhibitions; plays and concerts were made available to stream; thousands of ebooks could be downloaded for free as part of a ‘National Emergency Library’.
The internet has opened up new possibilities for culture to flourish. Never before has it been so easy to share music, video, text with people across the world in an instant. The digitisation of collections and archives has opened a level of access to culture and knowledge that would have been unimaginable only a generation or two ago.
Digital technology allows us to examine paintings in breathtaking detail, interact with museum objects in 3D, collaborate with others creatively to build systems, solve problems and experiment with new forms of digital media.
The internet does not replace physical experience - whether its enjoying a play with friends, visiting a museum, going to the cinema, when we have a cultural experience with others we create a sense of community. But digital technology can complement and enhance how we experience culture.
The principle of free access to information goes back to the earliest formation of the internet in the counterculture of the 1970s. It is a fundamental principle at the heart of the Open Access movement, which fights for transparency and to extend the public domain online.
Universal, democratic access through broadband communism
But ‘free culture’ internet ideology can also disguise unequal social relations, especially when it comes to production: digital giants offer free apps, email and content as bait to hook us and then sell our information to advertisers; and then struggling independent artists are expected to provide their work for next to nothing.
It is not illegal file-sharing that has made cultural workers so precarious, but a system designed to reward the shareholders of Spotify while it pays musicians as little as $0.0032 for every time their song is played. The promise of the digital era - a level playing field of universal, democratic access - turns out to offer little compensation to artists and cultural producers.
The distribution of culture is not equal either while the internet is dominated by five big tech firms that mediate our journeys online through hidden algorithms. The commercial logic of streaming services like Spotify and Netflix - now worth more than Exxon - privilege certain forms of culture to the detriment of others. Streaming is predicated on high consumption ‘bingeing’ and repeated playbacks and works better for creating certain moods (‘Netflix and chill?’) than widening access to more complex or intellectually demanding culture.
All this while so many in the UK continue to be excluded through lack of access to digital technologies. A recent survey found almost one in ten households with children did not have adequate home access to the internet. One solution is free fibreoptic broadband for all, paid for by a tax on tech giants, and implemented through the renationalisation of parts of the telecoms industry. The BBC calls this ‘Broadband communism’.
Culture wants to be free
Despite the limitations, we must draw on the possibilities opened up by the communal production and distribution of open-source software and systems of repudiated ownership to widen access to and participation in culture.
Cultural workers organising as part of the labour movement can ensure the post-pandemic world is one in which artists earn a decent and secure living. The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers recently organised worldwide demonstrations against Spotify, demanding increased royalty payments and transparency. Workers at Amazon are also fighting an uphill battle to unionise and achieve better, safer working conditions.
Alongside this, we must defend and extend publicly funded arts and arts institutions; privatised models of arts funding, reliant on philanthropy and sponsorship have been decimated by the pandemic while public institutions have been more resilient. Post-pandemic we have the opportunity to go further, to strengthen and extend public funding to ensure everyone has the same opportunities to participate or even make a career in the arts.
At local, regional and national level, public funding can provide artists with patronage that breaks from a commercial logic, allowing more radical and challenging forms of culture to emerge. Jennie Lee, Labour’s Minister for the Arts under Harold McMillan, wrote in her famous White Paper: “There is no reason why gaiety and colour, informality and experimentation should be left to those whose primary concern is with quantity and profitability.” Digital culture must not be beholden to the laws of the algorithm - the Netflixification of culture needs to be resisted.
‘Information wants to be free’, an expression used by technology activists to refer to the human urge to share information and collaborate freely. The digital domain is far too important to be left to private corporations; we must tackle the underlying forces that shape technologies and build a society in which culture and knowledge are shared for the common good. Culture too, wants to be free.