evolving ecological media culture(s)

Week 4 – Mental & cultural environmentalism


With this week’s readings we move to another meaning of “media ecology” — something that Adbusters magazine calls the “mental environment” and that law professor James Boyle calls the “information environment,” the “informational commons,” the “commons of facts and ideas,” and the “intangible commons of the mind.”

A “commons,” as many of you know, is something that belongs to all, something that is freely available and neither controlled by nor the property of any one individual or group.

Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” argued that treating natural resources as a commons leads inevitably to their depletion. After decades of debate and scrutiny of Hardin’s thesis — including extensive work by 2009 Nobel Laureate political economist Elinor Ostrom — it’s fair to say that commonly held resources (“commons”) have often been managed, and sometimes quite successfully, through complex social arrangements, and that privatization or state ownership/management — the two solutions Hardin had proposed — not only aren’t always better, but sometimes are manifestly worse than the collective management of public goods. It all depends on… well, numerous factors.

In retrospect, what Hardin described wasn’t at all a tragedy of the commons; it was a tragedy of unregulated, open access. The commons, as they evolved over time, was a commons regulated by mutual understandings, checks and balances, and rules that people followed because they were responsible to others who also followed them.

Treating media and “mind” as commons is not a new idea. Radio waves are typically considered public commons, though they are generally distributed (in this country) to those with money and resources to broadcast over them. Should the internet be treated as a commons? How should access to it be distributed?

And what about ideas, creations, products of the imagination? Should they all be treated as “intellectual property” or should some or all of them be publicly accessible to everyone? How long should copyright be extended over intellectual property? What if words were designated the property of their inventors (i.e. their first users and coiners): imagine creating a system whereby anyone who spoke anything would have to pay fees to everyone who thought up every word that person used, or at least to the copyright-holding descendants of those who “invented” those words?

What’s the proper balance between open, public access to ideas, words, and cultural creations, and proprietary ownership of mental and creative objects?

This week’s readings and themes take us in two primary directions. The first of these — “cultural environmentalism” — has arisen with the growth of digital media. It includes the open-source movement (which promotes free public access to the source codes and designs of software and other products), the open-access movement (which advocates for the free availability of scholarly information), and the “free culture” movement, which builds on and extends the previous two.

James Boyle and Lawrence Lessig will be our two main guides to this terrain. Their arguments tend toward the view that intellectual property laws are biased in favor of those with political-economic power in our society, and that those laws stifle creativity and democracy.

The second direction in our readings — “mental environmentalism” — emerges out of a tradition of critical thinking about the mass media associated with left-wing traditions of social critique, including the Frankfurt School of critical social theory (of which Jurgen Habermas was a leading representative) and the French “Situationists,” who influenced the revolutionary events in France in 1968. (We’ll read more about them in a few weeks.) The primary thrust of these movements was the notion that mass media in our society promote passivity in its consumers, a passivity in the face of a “society of the spectacle,” and that this serves the needs of consumer capitalism very well. (In the terms used by Lawrence Lessig, outlined in the video below, mass media have promoted a “read-only” culture, as opposed to the “read-write” culture of earlier eras.)

The idea of “mental environmentalism” begins from a recognition that the public spaces in which thinking and imagination occur  — spaces that have become highly technologically mediated in our society — have become dominated by commercial entities (mainly, corporations) and saturated by their messages: by brands, logos, and marketing strategies. Critics of the commercialization and branding of the mental environment — such as Naomi Klein, Kalle Lasn, and Adbusters magazine — advocate resistance by various means leading to the reclaiming of public space.

We will focus on some of these means of resistance when we get to the topics of “tactical media” and “culture jamming.” This week we will only consider the implications of thinking of the mental and cultural environment as a commons — versus thinking of it as a market for buying and selling, owning and consuming.

What’s at stake in this difference? In particular, what’s at stake for those who would like to develop and share ideas that would change our relationship to the natural environments around us?


Assigned readings

1. James Boyle, Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Longon: Yale University Press, 2008).

Read the Preface, chapter 3 (“The Second Enclosure Movement“), and chapter 10 (“An Environmentalism for Information“). Click on the links to read the book or individual chapters. If you like it, feel free to buy it.

2. Micah White, “What is Mental Environmentalism,” 9 Dec 2010, Adbusters.org.

3. Bill McKibben, “The Mental Environment,” 1 June 2010, Adbusters.org (originally published in Adbusters issue 38, 2001).

Assigned viewing

1. Lawrence Lessig, “Laws that Choke Creativity” (TED Talk):


Please let us all know if you are interested in writing the lead post for next week’s topic (“Mental and cultural environmentalism”), or if you would like to do a short background post on any of the following:
(a) James Boyle and the Center for the Study of the Public Domain
(b) Lawrence Lessig and Creative Commons
(c) the Frankfurt School of critical social theory
(d) the French Situationist International (especially Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneighem)
(e) Kalle Lasn and the Adbusters Media Foundation.
These should include a carefully chosen link or two to other useful and relevant web sites.

Also: don’t forget that your media analysis proposals will be due next week. Further instructions will be provided.


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