Culture Circulatory System
Mirek Filiciak and Alek Tarkowski (with Richard Avedon in the background), photo: A. Słodownik

Culture Circulatory System

Talk with Mirek Filiciak, Alek Tarkowski

The greatest risk involved in the whole debate is absolute polarisation and utter simplification, while forgetting that freedom entails responsibility. It would be a shame to waste the opportunities offered to culture by the internet, but if that does end up happening, it won’t be the fault of just one side.

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AGNIESZKA SŁODOWNIK: Imagine the power goes out. We can’t look up the mash-up version of your report Circulations of Culture. I’ve brought with me some paper and crayons, and I’d like to ask you to tell me about the report using analogue visual methods.

ALEK TARKOWSKI: Let’s start by saying that there are media such television and radio, telephones and computers that are connected to the cloud, also known as the internet. To round out the image, let’s add cultural institutions and personal circulation channels such as people sharing content on flash drives. And in the middle of all that, of course, we have the actual users.

MIREK FILICIAK: The users can be represented as nodes in the network — the many dots linked by colour-coded connections that correspond to the different media in our drawing.

Why is your drawing of Poland split down the middle?

AT: About half of Poles are online, and the other half aren’t.

photo: A. Słodownik

How does content circulate through these media among Poles?

AT: There’s two things we mean when we talk about circulation. The first is the individuals who acquire and consume cultural content. But circulation also refers to the circulation of content. Most instances of circulation involve, to a greater or lesser degree, some sort of middlemen. But informal circulation only takes places in certain media: mainly online and in face-to-face encounters. However, some of the content in official circulation channels makes its way onto the internet and spreads from there. That was beyond the scope of our research, but we might try to find an answer to the question of how much of the content found in informal networks is itself informal, and how much of it is formal. Many people consider this to be a key factor in the debate over whether or not “culture is dying”. One argument is that culture “isn’t dying, because new content is constantly appearing”, to which media broadcasters usually respond by saying, “true, but we’re the ones producing that content.”

MF: What we wanted to do — with full awareness of the inherent margin of error involved — was to understand informal processes. The processes that are skimmed over in other studies. The sheer scale of this informal circulation turned out to be gigantic. We believe that this changes the way we ought to be talking about cultural policy.

photo: A. SłodownikWhy is there a drawing of Africa?

MF: In the early 70s, white researchers showed up in Kenya and Ghana to help the UN conduct an analysis of the local economy, among other reasons. The idea was to adapt aid plans to conditions on the ground. They wanted to help, as white people always do [laughs]. It quickly turned out that when you observe the economic activity of people living in these two countries in formal categories such as the number of employment contracts, you don’t really see much. Judging by such formal criteria, few of the people there even had the means to survive. And yet their main sources of income were such activities as trading goods on the street, home gardens, loans, etc.

AT: And that remains true today. Take for example Robert Neuwirth’s book about the DIY economy, which he calls System D, where “D” stands for the French word débrouillardise, meaning resourcefulness and cunning. He writes about what’s going on in Africa, but he also talks about people making expensive organic food in New York without applying for permits or paying taxes. In Poland it’s the economy of unofficially employed babysitters, grandparents helping out around the house, women who spread their wares out on a cot outside the gates of legal marketplaces, farmers who drive in from the country to sell their meat and so on.

Circulation of Culture. The Social Circulation of Content. 01

The study was designed to analyse and understand new cultural practices by examining an area that is often overlooked in statistics, namely informal circulation networks. The quantitative study was conducted by a team of researchers from Centrum Cyfrowe Projekt: Polska in two stages: 19 to 26 May, 2011, (pilot survey on a sample of 1,004 people) and 20 September to 2 October, 2011 (on a sample of 1,283 people).

MF: The irony is that all of these phenomena are things that we associated with “backwardness” or communist times, if not with dysfunctionality. But if you simply change your perspective a bit, you’ll realise that this is also a crucial part of our free market world.

Is it a widespread belief that activities of this type are redundant in capitalism, where official channels of circulation satisfy all our needs?

MF: It is, as is the belief that this simply isn’t going on at all, that it’s just a disappearing fringe. Shortages were commonplace in the communist era, and so people had to find ways of getting by. It was believed that once all those niches had been filled by the market, the “de-economy” would become nothing more than a holdover from the past. In terms of research, that perspective changed in the mid 80s, when it was demonstrated that these informal channels had taken on different forms, but continued to be a constituent part of the economy and remained important.

So you decided that informal channels of circulation had been ignored and warranted closer examination?

AT: It’s true that the next logical conclusion is that something similar might be going on in culture.

MF: It’s always been a part of culture. What we wanted to find out is whether the means made available by the internet were making that informal network even larger. It turns out that the sharing that once went on between friends and at swap meets has now grown to a near industrial scale.

AT: Another key goal was to examine whether the phenomenon exists beyond the internet. It turned out that although people do download content and share it on flash drives, CDs and DVDs and hard drives with others who don’t have internet access, this doesn’t actually occur on a wide scale.

MF: So the content is being shared, but the way it works is that people who download stuff share it with other downloaders.

AT: That’s an example of sharing on disks rather than over peer-to-peer networks. The absence of “real world” channels was a surprising discovery.

photo: A. Słodownik

Yet another study showed just how important sharing outside the internet was. Aren’t these findings contradictory?

MF: It’s not that sharing over physical media is rare, it’s just that it almost never happens among people who don’t use the internet. There’s another problem inherent in this issue. People who actively seek out culture other than that broadcast on TV usually turn to the internet. That correlates with income, education and age. One of the sadder parts of our report, particularly the conclusions of our pilot study, is that most Poles aren’t particularly keen on acquiring any content whatsoever, be it through legal or illegal means, the official market or the black market, formally or informally. The culture industry is dead set on herding users of informal channels into the formal ones, but what it completely fails to notice is that a vast majority of society has no interest in culture at all.

AT: Hold on. My first instinct is to agree with that, but then I realise that that’s just how skewed my way of thinking is. These people do consume culture, it’s just that it comes from TV and the radio.

Circulation of Culture. The Social Circulation of Content. 02

The results of the study show that:
— Only 13% of Poles buy books, music or films. A total of 33% acquire them in digital form, for free and via informal means.
— If we include “physical” sharing, such as exchanging CDs, as an informal method of circulation, the percentage of participating Poles is 39% — three times the number taking part in the sales-based market distribution network.
— Participants in informal circulation, including that taking place outside the internet, are almost exclusively internet users.

Your study pays particular attention to a group that you describe as “active internet users”. Do they watch TV and listen to the radio?

AT: Everyone watches TV. 97% of the general population watches TV, and the number is only slightly lower among internet users, at 93%. It’s just that the latter spend much less time in front of the TV set. The national average comes out to about 20 hours per week, compared to only 5-8 hours a week for active internet users. Internet users share flash drives and disks with each other, but that doesn’t cross over into the offline population: “Hey Grandma, I downloaded some songs off the internat and burned you a mix CD.” Of course non-internet users share books, legal CDs and records bought from street vendors. But if you’re culturally active in Poland, then you use the internet at least to some extent; the world of people with no internet is a cultural wasteland.

Aside from radio and television, which they do listen to and watch.

AT: Religiously, in fact. Perhaps “wasteland” isn’t the most apt term.

Did your study reveal anything about internet users that would undermine the scale of their activity?

MF: Whenever you hear about the changes brought about by the internet, there’s always mention of the clichéd “blurring of the boundaries between producers and consumers”. Consumers are supposed to be content producers as well. But the truth is — particularly in a Polish context — that not all young people shoot videos, post them online, make their own music, etc. The percentage of internet users doing that is a single digit number, rather than the 10-20% you might expect. One thing that is often overlooked — for reasons that include its illegality — is the issue of the redistribution of content made by other people, by professionals.

photo: A. SłodownikAll those activities with the re- prefix.

MF: We wanted to demonstrate the circulation of cultural content in society because we believe that culture is a sort of social glue. That obviously doesn’t mean that we’re saying: “Go ahead, copy and share all your files. That’s the best thing that could happen to culture.” We’re just describing what’s actually going on. But you have to keep in mind that it costs money to manufacture that glue.

The problem is that we lack the right vocabulary, a common language with which to accurately describe these new processes, subjects and relationships.

MF: We don’t like to use the word “piracy” because of its strong connotations, so instead we say “informal circulation”. Still, our impression is that we’re entering the realm of the artificial language of theory. Our study was merely a preliminary assessment of the problem. There was a need for a quantitative study, but there are things you just can’t measure with a questionnaire. What we also need to look at is the shift that has taken place in people’s values.

In the debate over file-sharing, we have people over 50 saying: “What’s there to talk about? What public consultations? We don’t talk to thieves.” And then you have twenty-somethings thinking: “What are you talking about? Evil corporations are calling us thieves? That’s absurd. What good is the internet if we can’t use it the way we want?” It’s hard to find any middle ground. Centrum Cyfrowe ran a questionnaire survey in with SMB/KRC some time ago to study the ACTA protests. We found out that most people aged 44 and younger believed that citizens have a right to access content online, even in violation of copyright. Obviously we’re not saying that we have to accept that just because people think that way. But it does show us that something has changed. It won’t be easy to strike a balance between the rights of businesses and the expectations of the people. Especially when it comes to “old business”; companies in the IT sector see what’s going on and are much better about adapting to it.

The question remains whether we can come up with a common vocabulary: for example, a word that can be used both by a content producer who feels that he’s being cheated, and the downloader who doesn’t want to be insulted by a disparaging term.

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The study enabled the researchers to determine that:
– Internet users are more active culturally than non-internet users. They buy lots of books, music and films even though they also acquire free content online.
– 89% of active internet users had read at least one book in the past year.
– 82% of active internet users go to the cinema at least once a year. The most active among them are those who download films off of the internet.
– 29% of active internet users had bought a CD within the past three months.
– Nearly a quarter of all active internet users had bought a film on DVD within the past quarter.
– Three fourths of all active internet users cited better price and selection as the most important reasons for choosing informal circulation channels, while two thirds cited the availability of more current content through informal channels.

AT: The other issue is that we can coin as many words as we like, but that still doesn’t change the fact that terms such as “field of exploitation” and “fair use” are bound to come up in formal contexts. That’s going to be hard to put behind us. We do want to point out that, from certain perspectives, the law is an obstacle, although I don’t want to get into the whole argument that we should just “scrap copyright”. Studies of the internet have long showed the existence of this techno-libertarian trend: the internet was born and technology changed the playing field, so now we can just forget about any laws. People just want to have things that are current and convenient, and that’s what our study shows. The formal just can’t compete with the informal. If you take shortcuts, you’re always going to be more up to date.

MF: The fundamental question is: how do we think about culture? I think that at least since the end of the Cold War, states have seen cultural policy as a tool that allows them to solve social issues. If you look at it that way, these informal channels of circulation are extremely important. That’s what we mean when we describe culture as social glue: it’s something that gives us a way to address certain issues, it creates different systems of values, and it’s a space that contains symbols. I don’t want to sound romantic, but from that perspective, the sharing of content is a very positive thing. Content is like a social token. It’s something that can be passed from person to person. With a nod to Manovich, we write that we have to remain open to a situation in which cultural content is not closed and complete; a situation in which I can take that content, pass it on, and it keeps growing like a social snowball.

In that case, I propose that we broaden the definition of good and bad circulation to include a method of evaluating new solutions — legal or technological — that would reflect how they translate into the intense circulation of cultural content. Good circulation as a desired state.

MF: That brings us to the issue that is the compatibility of different business models. Producers also have to keep in mind that releasing their content into circulation is a form of marketing. Henry Jenkins famously said, “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea being that you have to produce things that will grow and replicate online, making internet users the unpaid employees of the marketing department. The idea is to strike a balance between benefits to the internet user and the companies themselves. And I wholeheartedly believe that, in the end, the companies will have to be paid for what they do. It just won’t be the same model we used back when content was tied to physical media.

AT: The existence of alternative business models is no secret. In an information-based economy, the new labour to employee ratio might just make a general minimum wage feasible. It’s just that when you’re at the top of pop culture, it’s hard to switch to a completely new business model, especially when you know how profitable the current model is.

MF: A report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry on the music market shows that its value has increased. The number of people using services that offer unlimited access for the cost of a monthly subscription is rising by 65% a year. So we can see that this is a viable business model. Of course everyone is going to see whatever is most convenient for them in that report: I happen to see market growth as a result of new service models, but it could also be the effect of new and more radical copyright laws in France, where online sales of music have clearly increased. It’s also a question of the broader context. Western capitalism has found itself in something of a dead end. Suddenly it turns out that fantasies about cognitive capitalism, about what Krzysztof Nawratek called “cappuccino cities”, where we’ll all just produce added value while tapping away at our laptops in trendy cafés — none of this really seems to be coming true. And it might be too late for reindustrialisation now that the Chinese are manufacturing things more cheaply, more efficiently and with more flexibility. In this context, bills like ACTA and SOPA are an attempt to crack down and enforce copyright laws, because in the new global division of roles, the US and Europe produce more intellectual property than any other part of the globe. Desperate attempts are being made to make sure it all balances out.

photo: A. Słodownik

What about categories like favours, gifts and time banks?

MF: We have to strike a balance between our need to eat and drink coffee and the importance of money, and keeping everything from being about buying. We mention gifts in our study with great hesitation; the category actually makes just a brief appearance. Gifts as a category have always been tied to commitment and sacrifice, but nowadays you can give out gifts that cost you nothing, while an application (P2P software) regulates everything, making sure you follow the rules of the agreement.

I get the sense that thinking in terms of money is an easy trap to fall into. The point in blindly and hastily coining new terms of the missing vocabulary would be to somehow distance ourselves from those “old” terms.

MF: You introduce terms that gauge how well people associated certain practices with other values, how much of the value of a work lies in its circulation, in its being a process rather than a product.

And to what extent it’s true that the flexibility of distribution is in itself a goal.

MF: True, but our study shows that the fringe is not a fringe at all. Informal circulation networks are just as huge in Poland as they are in the States, in Sweden, and just about anywhere where the internet itself is “big”. In places where the internet is a niche, informal circulation networks remain substantial, it’s just that they tend to work differently. So it’s not just a matter of us being skewed by growing up in a communist country. The problem with flexibility is that everyone expects the other side to be more flexible. It’s easy for downloaders to demand that the producers be “more flexible”. Meanwhile, the business side keeps saying “be more flexible and give us your money”. The question is, how do we balance the two? The greatest risk involved in the whole debate is the issue we talked about at the beginning: absolute polarization and utter simplification, while forgetting that freedom entails responsibility. It’s easy to shout about freedom when that freedom comes at someone else’s expense. It would be a shame to waste the opportunities offered to culture by the internet, but if that does end up happening, it won’t be the fault of just one side.

translated by Arthur Barys