Lawrence Lessig and the Remix Culture

I've been reading Lawrence Lessig's book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Lessig is a lawyer and law professor who has been at the forefront of questioning copyright controls in the digital age. He presents a number of ideas about how the internet, crowdsourcing, and artistic remixing are the modalities for economic and cultural development in the 21st century.

Unlike other books that I've read about the digital revolution,* Lessig comes down squarely on the side of technological innovation and all that it has spurred: presenting a picture of the internet as a vast frontier of fodder for art, music, activism, education, and altruism. His primary objective with Remix is to demonstrate why 20th century copyright law and the uncompromising definition of property serves neither company nor consumer in the 21st century.

In Lessig's "hybrid" economy consumers are not just consumers, they are empowered to take an active role in shaping and advancing the things they consume. Images, music, movies, text: all are easily rendered into binary and therefore easily mixed up (or mashed up, for those of you who prefer more contemporary lingo) into a potentially cross-cultural and interdisciplinary form of new creative expression. This "remixing" is taken on by the very people who formerly just bought such entertainment to be entertained. It is, in some ways, the ultimate triumph of fan fiction** (just applied to every art form in addition to writing).

But Lessig isn't espousing a world where passive consumers simply become more active consumers and the wheels of the free market just fall into the fresher ruts formed by the digital world. Lessig believes that remix culture is a means by which democracy is enriched and ensured because it honors the way a new generation has learned to "write." As writing was fundamental to formulating our democracy (July 4th is ultimately about a written document, not beer or fireworks), democracy can only be ensured so long as a culture continues to be free to write. It's his definition of writing that is so intriguing:
Text is today's Latin. It is through text that we elites communicate . . . For the masses, however, most information is gathered through other forms of media: TV, film, music, and music video. These forms of "writing" are the vernacular of today. They are the kinds of "writing" that matters most to most. (68)
So, in my reading of Lessig's definition, it isn't an issue of the modern world becoming less text based so much as redefining what we mean by text. Like so much in contemporary life, access to more information and more context forces the critical mind to accept broader definitions for previously accepted ideas. At heart, that is a very democratic thing to do.

Whether or not you should read Lessig's book depends on your interest in contemporary culture or if you're in the profession of projecting business models into the future. It isn't a difficult text to read but it can be a bit dry and, for those of you who've subscribed to Wired magazine for the past ten years, you might be disappointed by the lack of material that hasn't already been a part of information-age-discourse. Thus far in my reading, the most salient points in Remix have centered around the need for an updated approach to copyright law. As this is Lessig's area of expertise, it only makes sense that his best moments are devoted to the ways in which new forms of copyright could benefit both artist and audience. As a founding member of the Creative Commons he has already done much to prove that he practices what he preaches.

** I recently read a short little article about the birth of fan fiction by Scott Brown. It had some real resonance after watching J.J. Abrams' Star Trek film the other night.

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