Free Culture 2008: After The Party

Been thinking and rethinking this post for about a week now, waiting and watching how the emerging front has been developing as the SFC reps have gone home. I blogged previously on the USBFB about the worries about the upcoming national conference, so figured it was only appropriate to put together some kind of wrap-up. Besides, reading and re-reading the remarkable product offerings in Sky Mall on the flight back from San Francisco gets boring around hour number four. 

October 12th, 2008 — it turns out, would be an unprecedented, out-of-control day in the history of Free Culture. No wars got concluded, we didn’t radically decide to kidnap RIAA representatives, Lessig didn’t get into a fistfight with anyone. In fact, it was a pretty boring, hot late summer day in San Francisco. I had a headache. I sat outside and gossiped with Christina. I pulled a ROFLCopter in the hallway. I smoked a cigarette with the FC-Berkeley folks. Protip: I have discovered that this will give you a bigger headache.

But it was remarkable nonetheless. What happened was simple: representatives of Students For Free Culture chapters from around the world got into a room with one another. And, then they agreed with one another. No kid. They agreed. Kevin Driscoll deserves a special place in Free Culture history for being the steady hand on the tiller for moderating the session.

And then, honest to god: Students For Free Culture signed an agreement affirming a non-exclusive Free Culture agenda in the next 12 months.

What they agreed on was the Wheeler Declaration — and it says this:

An open university is one in which:
1. the research the university produces is open access

2. the course materials are open educational resources

3. the university embraces free software and open standards

4. if the university holds patents, it readily licenses them for free software, essential medicines, and the public good

5. the university network reflects the open nature of the internet

where “university” includes all parts of the community: students, faculty, administration.

This simple action is amazing on several levels. First, of course, is that some consensus was achieved at all. Never has the group been so together.

But more importantly, it’s also a huge shift away from what Free Culture is. True to the “Student” name, SFC remains focused on the University and changing how it works. We’re not charging out to fight the Net Neutrality battle against lobbyists in Washington, and fair use in music is faded here as a major issue in the next 12 months.

(N.B.: on the ongoing “student” thing — from the conference, it’s clear to me that the swirling politics around a broader 501c3 foundation continue to evolve among four credible, ambitious contenders in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston — and the alliance-building/competition is on. Post to follow on USBFB commenting on these folks)

However, while the school setting remains the focus — the tired agenda of being “just kids who want to download illegally” is gone. The narrow inward-looking idea of activism to change the consumer lives of kids going to schools like some kiddie-corral student government is receding into the foreground in the Wheeler. It’s been replaced by activism for promoting real changes in the outward relationship of the university to the broader world. There’s a real social justice agenda here. Development, broader availability of educational resources, and anti-filtering all make appearances. It’s clear that this is the new focus — and that’s great: screw complaining about whether you can download this or that on the iPhone, it’s been time to work on more important things for awhile.

This agenda is also the end of an era on how Free Culture approaches activism more generally. Free Culture doesn’t seem to be making the grasp for an absolute ideological consensus a top priority anymore: as a group, it seems we’re tired about the ceaseless ideological conflicts that have blocked constructive action for years. The sense of the conference was action-centered, mostly concerned with looking for real targets to act on, as Lessig suggested, “to pick fights.” So for the time being, it looks like the word of the day is pragmatism. We’re more interested in what common ground for action exists than defining what Free Culture is and how it applies in every case. The Wheeler Declaration reflects this: it’s a statement of values in the sense that it affirms the Open University, but it’s framed humbly and tightly around action and the goals that are worth achieving. This rebuilds Free Culture as an alliance, and not an ideological movement: we don’t have a Stallman-esque absoluteness of meaning across all issues, but are willing to come together as independent entities to attack mutually accepted aims and share a looser, more general understanding of common values on openess.

Words aren’t action, of course. The statement by itself doesn’t mean anything. But the culture of Free Culture seems to be changing in this direction in the weeks after the conference. After a worrisome debate on the national list that recalls the Bad Old Days of Crosbie Fitch — the name “Open University Campaign” came under fire on the usual “free” versus “open” contest. But, ultimately, a slew of e-mails later, the consensus was, who cares? We need to make the name of the campaign understandable, and people are willing to get down to work to do things and defer the semantic (mostly cosmetic) quibbling of naming to the board.

Only the coming months will tell, but for the time being, it looks like Free Culture has bought itself some more time.

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