Free Culture

One semester in my undergraduate program at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, I took a GE psychology class. And one weekend we took the KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway) out to the New Territories to participate in a “Mother Earth Fair.”

We were not normal participants selling food or crafts or whatever: we set up a giant, human-sized “Skinner Box” (those, typically little, boxes that rats spend hours in pressing levers to get food pellets)

Our box had a lever with a little delivery cup beneath it, and about 20 centimeters over from that a slot with another cup beneath it. The only words on the wall that was our “display” were “Sweets, 5 Tokens” (in English, Cantonese, Mandarin)

Young kids eventually found our wall, pressed the lever, and a “token” (poker chip) dropped into the first cup. If they collected 5 tokens and put them back in the slot, then we dropped a little bag of sweets in the second cup.

The “trick” was that the 1st lever was on a “DRL-6” “schedule of reinforcement.” “DRL” means “Differential Reinforcement of Low-rate responding.” Which means if you do what any excited, prize hungry person, rat, or other creature would normally do – press the lever a lot – then you never get anything. But if you wait 6 seconds between presses, then you get another token.

This is a hard “schedule” for a rat, or a human, to “learn” because it’s counter-intuitive. However, it’s a very “extinction-resistant” schedule, because you never quite give up… you always wander back for one last press… which is exactly when it works, and then you’re excited all over again…

On a lovely April day, when cold Hong Kong winter had not yet turned to ridiculously humid Hong Kong summer, we sat behind our wall and watched kids “suffer” with our cruel, maniacal, DRL schedule. It took the kids who showed up a couple of hours to figure out how to be persistent without being insistent… to find the sweet spot in behavior that functionally synced up with the “schedule” that was simple to the junior psychologists who “knew” what it was, but baffling to the “animals in the wild” who had to grapple with it’s consequences.

After a couple of hours, one kid got it to work.

What did he do next? Did he whip out building materials, or just an old cardboard refrigerator box, erect a building around the “fountain of treats,” use his “trade secret” to extract the treats, and then sell them to the other kids for a few Hong Kong Dollars?

He did not.

He did something rather different.

He did something extraordinary.

He did something that none of the millions of rats across the globe who have toiled in these torture chambers in the 79 years since B. F. Skinner invented them, had ever done.

He took the accumulated knowledge from his 2 hours of blood, and sweat, and tears, turned around to the kid behind him, and said in little-more than 2 seconds, “you just press the lever, count to ten, and press it again.”

This young boy probably thought that his great achievement that spring afternoon was cracking the code of this strange machine.

For me, his achievement was in inventing Free Culture.

The boy came to a wall he couldn’t climb, so he went and built a ladder. What did he do once he got to the top of the wall? Did he take his ladder so that others would have to build their own ladders? He did not.

Then, did he leave the ladder there so that others could climb the wall as he had done? No! He did not!

What he did, was to make the top of the wall the new starting place, so that those who followed him, instead of repeating the past, could go forward and scale new walls.

He invented Free Culture.

He could have used that moment to say that anything the Walt Disney Company ever touches will be locked-down culture until the universe dies in a whimper… instead he used it to say that any high-school kid, anywhere across the globe, can perform any work of Shakespeare, any time they like, and any way they like. Hamlet can be the Prince of Denmark; Hamlet can be a Hollywood movie producer. Culture is free.

Through works like Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig, The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler, Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, and others, contemporary thinkers have been defining a creative world that is in-sync with the networked existences we live today, rather than the the top-down hierarchical paradigm of culture from the last century.

In Second Life, everything you create has those three little checkboxes: COPY-yes/no, MODIFY-yes/no, TRANSFER-yes/no.

By making something NO-Modify, NO-Transfer, you do your best to ensure that your creative vision is never, for the remainder of existence, altered in any way. You also improve your shot at a revenue stream, by guaranteeing that anyone who wants what you’ve created has to see you to get it. You also lock-down culture, innovation, and creativity for all eternity.

For me, there is no greater crime that to provide someone with a NO-Modify Shape. I say “provide,” because I don’t really care whether you give it to them for free, or sell it to them for L$10,000, either way, you have asserted your control over their body. It is obscene.

In RL we not only allow corporations to patent your DNA, but we even give them government millions to help them develop the work they will then “own.” When a corporation is allowed to own my DNA, when an SL retailer is allowed to control my body, these are acts of IP slavery.

In SL, your shape is just about the single most defining element of your avatar, of how you appear to others, of how you present yourself, of your identity. That your identity can be someone else’s property without you even having the right to adjust it, is a dystopic nightmare.

If you provide something YES-Modify, NO-Transfer, that’s obviously much more flexible, but it still ensures that while individuals can expand on your creativity, while they can adapt old tools to new, unforeseen circumstances, their creativity will always die with them. Their contributions to culture will always be lost. Everything they create, even if it should dwarf the original bit, can never be shared, can never benefit another living being.

I love the idea of a little bit of integrity to an artistic work, and I definitely love the idea of an artist making a little rent and food money. But I love the idea of of culture freely flowing from Euripides to Shakespeare to the Poetry Salons and Haiku Speedbuilds of SL, even more.

In RL, where artists need “rent money” to survive, I still want culture to be reusable and remixable and owned by the members of the culture. In SL where artists do not need rent money to survive, the idea of locking down culture seems even more oxymoronic to me.

The idea that RL musicians might give their music away, and then try to make some cash by selling t-shirts is, I agree, kind of crazy! I don’t know the way through this complex paradigm shift. What I do know is that there isn’t anything more important than allowing culture to be manipulated by the members of the culture.

Speaking personally, our performance art company would love some cash! If you’d like to sponsor or donate, you should definitely be in touch with Seasprite Destiny, our Director of Community Development. We’d love your lindens, and we’ll put them to immediate good use. But much as we’d love financial support, it’s not as important as taking the chains off culture. I don’t ever want to distribute any of our work with restricted permissions.

So, what are OUR guiding principles?

The work that this company produces typically evolves from a consideration of identity and individuality. As a performance art company, we may produce 2D documentation or artifacts of an event, but our creative product is live performance / installation.

In terms of the larger culture that we at least aspire to contribute to, let me state here that:
1. No Vaneeesa Blaylock performance will ever charge an admission fee.
2. No Vaneeesa Blaylock IP, be it a performance concept, a body shape or animation pose, photographic performance documentation, or anything else, will ever carry restricted rights or permissions.
3. We will always allow derivatives and reproductions of our work: currently all of our IP carries a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Netherlands License, and everything we make in SL is YES-Copy, YES-Modify, YES-Transfer.

Words like “no,” “never,” “ever” are, of course, begging to have you prove yourself wrong. What I can say is that these statements hold true for the 7 performance works, 3 flashmobs, and 2 stitch ‘n bitches this company has performed so far. And for all the associated materials to that work.

I believe that all of our future stand-alone work should be able to hold to these principles. Will we ever want to participate in a university colloquium or charitable event where these principles are not entirely in place? Perhaps the worthiness of the event will not trump the sacredness of these principles, but perhaps we will want the option to participate…

To simplify a bit, let me boil down the Guiding Principle of Vaneeesa Blaylock to 5 words:

My name is Vaneeesa Blaylock, and that is what I believe.

As a virtual public artist my work invites avatar communities to express their identity, explore their culture, and demand their civil rights.

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