I enjoyed the Japan in a Digital Age conference today, keynoted by the cultural anthropologist Ian Condry. He took an ethnographic approach to the decline of the recording industry, drawing on fieldwork in Tokyo, Boston, and Berlin to illustrate how musicians are adapting to the steady unwinding of the familiar commodity form for the production, circulation and consumption of music.

That was the promise at least but there was little detail about the social and economic conditions of cultural producers. His argument was a theoretical one with a bit of ethnographic detail thrown in to illustrate his claims. In essence, Condry attacks the notion of value as something to be found at the moment of exchange, instead arguing that value is a complex phenomenon which waxes and wanes over time.

If we see the value of music as embodied in musical commodities, we obscure the vast undercurrent of social activity upon which this depends. This passionate activity seems to be a world away from the economic interests of the musical conglomerates. But this notion of ‘passion’ can lead us to construct  commodification as something inherently  destructive of social value, taking an activity undertaken for its own intrinsic value and subordinating it to an exchange relation. From this perspective, the evisceration of music as a commodity (such that the exchange-value tends to continual shrinkage) seems like an opportunity to liberate the craft of music from the tyranny of exchange, as well as the apparatus of audit and accounting which surrounds it.

However this simplifies the relationship between economic and social value, obscuring how the commodity form of music facilitates modes of social engagement with profound cultural value. In a nutshell: being able to make a living from producing your music facilitates a form of engagement with it that might not otherwise be possible. It could also constrain this, for instance by creating pressures to maximise sales even at the cost of cultural decline, but these cultural costs are contingent constraints rather than a necessary feature of the commodity form. What matters is the broader ecology within which this form is reproduced or transformed. The problem is the concentration of the existing music industry, rather than the organisation of musical production through making and selling work to an audience.

I suspect the dichotomy of closed/open is part of the problem here. When we see one form of closure eroding, this dichotomy can lead us to assume it will be replaced by openness. Whereas in reality we can see one form of closure (musical conglomerates) being replaced by another (musical streaming, sales and crowd funding platforms). This engenders a certain naïveté about the challenges of cultural production in the gig economy, made worse if you have too much faith in your own ethnographic immersion in musical scenes.

If you’re going to advocate for ‘free’ and ‘open’ as intrinsically valuable, it’s important to spend some time getting to grips with social ontology underlying these terms. It’s much trickier to grasp than it might initially seem.

To talk of ‘openness’ conveys a sense of lightness, gesturing towards a world without self-interested boundaries. In a world dichotomised in terms of open/closed, barriers are seen as obstacles to be surmounted in order that we might have free exchange. Overcoming these obstacles becomes a moral project, imbued with a sense of historical change: barriers are fleeting constructions, inevitably eroded by the force of openness. As the futurist Peter Schwartz once put it:

Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead. Apply it to technology standards, to business strategies, to philosophies of life. It’s the winning concept for individuals, for nations, for the global community in the years ahead.

These categories are embedded in narrative forms, facilitating certain roles (e.g. the disrupter of closed industries) which elevate business activity to a heroic plane, as Audrey Watters conveys on loc 184 of The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology: 

“The Silicon Valley Narrative,” as I call it, is the story that the technology industry tells about the world—not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be. This narrative has several commonly used tropes. It often features a hero: the technology entrepreneur. Smart. Independent. Bold. Risk-taking. White. Male. “The Silicon Valley narrative” invokes themes like “innovation” and “disruption.” It privileges the new; everything else that can be deemed “old” is viewed as obsolete. Things are perpetually in need of an upgrade. It contends that its workings are meritocratic: anyone who hustles can make it. “The Silicon Valley Narrative” has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. (“ The factory model of education” is one such invented history that I’ve written about before.) “The Silicon Valley narrative” fosters a distrust of institutions—the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes. “The Silicon Valley narrative” draws from the work of Ayn Rand; it privileges the individual at all costs; it calls this “personalization.”

My instinct as a qualitative researcher is to immerse myself in these stories, seeking to appreciate how they operate to make sense of one’s own actions. But the reason this is so pressing is that the action they serve to elevate is so often problematic, as Franklin Foer points out on pg 89-90 of his A World Without Mind. They have a vested interest in ‘openness’:

There’s no doubt that they believe in their own righteousness, but they also practice corporate gamesmanship, with all the established tricks: lobbying, purchasing support in think tanks and universities, quietly donating money to advocacy groups that promote their interests. The journalist Robert Levine has written, “Google has as much interest in free online media as General Motors does in cheap gasoline. 13 That’s why the company spends millions of dollars lobbying to weaken copyright.” Google and Facebook penalize companies that don’t share their vision of intellectual property. When newspapers and magazines require subscriptions to access their pieces, Google and Facebook tend to bury them; articles protected by stringent paywalls almost never have the popularity that algorithms reward with prominence. Google, according to documents that have surfaced in lawsuits against the company, is blunt about using its power to bend the media business to its model. Jonathan Rosenberg, the vice president of product management, told company brass in 2006 that Google must “pressure premium content providers to change their model to free.” 14 It’s a perfectly rational stance. The big tech companies become far more valuable if they serve as a gateway to free knowledge, if they provide a portal to an open and comprehensive collection of material.

We have to be critical of ‘openness’ as a concept. But nonetheless I think there’s a reality to openness as an ethos that we shouldn’t forget. This is my favourite articulation of it:

When my daughter was born, I became keenly aware of how much stock we mammals put into the copies we make of ourselves (yes, a child isn’t a “copy” exactly, but go with it for a moment). Mammalian reproduction is a major event, especially for us primates, and we want to be sure that every “copy” we make grows up healthy, strong and successful. 

But here are other life forms for whom copying is a lot more casual. Dandelions produce two thousand seeds every spring, and when a good, stiff breeze comes around, those seeds are blown into the air, going every which way. The dandelion’s strategy is to maximise the number of blind chances it has for continuing its genetic line – not to carefully plot every germination. It works: every summer, every crack in every sidewalk has a dandelion growing out of it

Cory Doctorow, Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free, Pg 143

Dave Beer makes some interesting points in this short article which frames current debates about open access in terms of trends within music culture, which have been driven by broadly similar structural processes and have been playing themselves out for much longer. Some people argue that rendering academic publishing more ‘open’ could prove hugely problematic, as unrestricted access to the means of ‘making public’ could lead to an even more confusing mass of literature than exists at present:

 Kirby points out that the ‘footprint’ of academic publishing has grown ‘exponentially’ since the 1960s. His point appears to be that even in the current system we are already faced with an unwieldy mass of journals and journal articles. This, as the statistics indicate, already represents an unfathomable amount of published resource. Anecdotally we can probably reflect here on how hard it is to keep up with the articles published in our own specialist areas let alone across entire disciplines and cognate disciplines. The point, it would seem, is that this situation could very well get even worse if we adopt an unlimited open model of publishing. The implicit observation is that academic publishers limit and classify the output of academics and thus filter and order the content. Kirby’s suggestion is that with open access we will be opening the floodgates whilst also losing some of these ordering mechanisms. As such we might well end up, Kirby (2012, p. 259) claims, with even more material and with ‘no obvious means to make any sense of it’.

There’s a certain plausibility to this argument though I think it, as well as Dave’s response, ignores the significance of network filtering (as happens through social media) and correspondingly overestimates the significance of bureaucratic filtering (as happens through publishing corporations). Journals are becoming less important to discovery and perhaps less important as cyphers of quality, at least in terms of the reading decisions individuals make (clearly this is untrue in terms of institutional use of prestige as a cypher for quality and associated decisions about the distribution of scarce resources). Nonetheless, it’s unrealistic to imagine that a socially networked academia could, as an unintended emergent effect of sustained online communication, “limit and classify the output of academics and thus filter and order the content”. Which is why the mechanisms being deployed within the music industry to filter content and aid discoverability are potentially so relevant:

Against this backdrop of cultural cacophony, music cultures have found ways to organise content so that it might find an audience. The broadcast model, despite the recent changes, remains relatively powerful in music. And so we still have large organisations shaping consumption at the top end of the market through TV shows like The X Factor. Amongst the chaos in music we also have systems that enable people to locate new music that they might like to listen to. Here predictive analytics are increasingly beginning to rule. Music fans are often told what music they are likely to want to listen to by machines. Software applications built in to iTunes, Last.fm and the like are predictive of tastes. These predictive systems provide a means for managing the chaos as the music automatically ‘finds’ its audience. This is an era in which, as Scott Lash (2006) has put it, the data ‘find us’. The practices of tagging music with metadata and the accumulation of personal profiles combine to enable this form of ‘knowing capitalism’ (Thrift, 2005) to operate. If this were to happen in academic research then one of the solutions to the intellectual din of open access might be apps that enable research articles to ‘find’ their desired audiences. This app might well predict what type of thing you might want to read and recommend it to you. An early version of this type of recommendation system, although based just on links with individual articles rather than one’s comprehensive browsing history, is provided by Elsevier’s ScienceDirect platform. It sounds nice and convenient, but as with music we are forced to question the underlying algorithmic infrastructures that will then be so powerful in shaping the formation of knowledge (Beer, 2009Hayles, 2006). These algorithms will shape the knowledge we encounter and will in turn then impact upon our ideas.

I just read an interesting (though slightly depressing!) post from Nick Hopwood giving useful advice to PhDs and ECRs. I’m not quibbling with his advice per se and I genuinely enjoy his blog but I took issue with this paragraph:

I had vague ideas that academics, with a few obvious exceptions, get on in their careers by doing good, solid research, teaching effectively, and making quiet contributions to institutional and disciplinary life. The quality of their ideas, discoveries, pedagogy and colleagueship would ensure that their recognition. If that was ever true (which it may not have been) it certainly isn’t now. You get, and get on in, an academic career by actively (perhaps aggressively at times) peddling your ideas, your effectiveness as a teacher, and your value to the uni or your field. You have to push. This comes from having the vision and courage to apply for grants when you’ll probably get rejected, to aim for top journals, to try out new teaching approaches, and to step up in working groups, push new ideas through committees, take on roles in your disciplinary organisation. But it also comes from capitalising on those achievements when you make them. An academic life is pretty much a constant sales pitch (see below). Here, I mean you’re selling your work to others.

I completely see what he’s getting at. But I’d like to make a (potentially naive) argument against it. His case rests on the suggestion that, in the contemporary academy, people won’t receive recognition through the intrinsic virtue of their scholarship. There’s a certain plausibility about this claim. But does it hold for open scholarship? I suspect not but I don’t wish to suggest that ‘openness’ somehow ameliorates all that is wrong with higher education. However I do think that when the development of ideas becomes, via social media, an open process then Nick’s argument largely ceases to be true. This could be construed cynically: perhaps social media is intrinsically self-promotive? Or more positively: genuine openness in academic life would make it much more likely that people receive recognition in virtue of “the quality of their ideas, discoveries, pedagogy and colleagueship”. Thoughts on this  would be much appreciated, as I’m not entirely sure whether I’m convinced by my own argument. I guess the intuition underlying it is that ‘doing work in the open’ cannot be equated to self-promotion even if, in practice, the former leads to the latter.