Free Culture

It has been said that possessions can be bad for the soul. A strange by-product of the first time I “left college” was that I had acquired a second-hand filing cabinet to hold countless photocopies I had made for a larger-than-life thesis. It weighs a ton, look like it belongs in a 1950s bank vault and…was it really necessary? The thing is: I left college just a year or two before nearly every scholarly article was made available as a pdf download via libraries. “Back in my day”, you could see dozens of students perpetually hovering in and out of those mile-long shelving units of journals and books in college libraries…and making countless trips to a photocopier. That created a funny cloistered warehouse vibe, like the end scene of Raiders of The Lost Ark. A year or two later, however, all those journals and books were gathering dust and they still are. College libraries are empty because everyone is doing remote downloads instead.

I was not even aware at the time of the “free culture” movement, if it is indeed a “movement”. I suppose it is all “old hat” now. But, then again, I tend to like hats, even old ones. Lawrence Lessig set up an Internet site to make his book on the theme a free download. In short, the idea was that “culture”, or access to knowledge, should always be as free “as possible”. Lessig actually knew the guy, Aaron Schwartz, who “went a little too far” and decided that for people to have pay thousands of pounds just to be entitled to enrol in course and begin their downloads was unjust. He attempted to download “everything” and distribute it for free until the FBI decided that this was “not on” and caught up with him. An old story perhaps. But still a relevant one, perhaps, because it is still necessary for people to have pay thousands of pounds just to be entitled to have “access” to scholarly texts in a college library. “Unfair”. When I last wrote a book, it took a few years and–it may have been a disadvantage–I had no access to such libraries. More recently, a social-welfare inspired enrolment in a digital humanities course allowed me to access college material as downloads. A noticeable difference has been that ease of access to such material makes it possible to research much quicker. As a result, within a year, I have written a new book. The next step, within the next month, is for me to print it all out on paper to assess its readability; do a final edit at this end; and then approach some publisher and…see how things go. Or should I simply make the text available for free as a pdf download instead?

There is another surprising development, most evident in online forums like, where people can distribute their research, articles and books for free. Or can they? If one has a pdf of a published text, the copyright for that text still lies with the publisher. So one cannot distribute that pdf for free. But it seems people do. Part of the reason for this is that, “in my day” and probably still, if one published an “academic” work, academic books are often printed in no more than about 400 copies. The author may be entitled to about a euro per copy as royalties, nobody buys them and many are just automatically distributed to library shelves. That’s the material reward for “X years” worth of mental effort. But if a work is made available online, download counts can reach into thousands surprisingly quickly. And downloads can be shared and re-shared too. A work of any kind gets a much greater audience, or “distribution”, that way. One can see in “online academic journal” hosting sites (still available only through college libraries) that the number of downloads, like a number of citations, is not only counted but also seen as a reflection of the degree to which a work is “significant” (ahem). People use forums like, as well as social media sites like facebook and twitter, to create not only a profile for themselves but also to build up publicity and an audience for their work that way. I suppose that is all fine. But the process seems too alien to me to follow that line of action. Even sharing a sound file of a lecture seems too “vain” to me, for whatever reasons.

I will stick to my “old hats” like a stubborn mule…not that I know exactly what that “means”. It is more of a feeling than a thought, perhaps. But the world of online publications can create a funny sensation. On one hand, it is truly great that more people and institutions than ever attempt to make information as freely available as possible. As I attempted to get my head around the subject of international relations, it was valuable for me to be able to access for free relevant government publications at the touch of a button. A rather cool-looking online “official” (if that is the word) history is evidently in the works too to recognise the fact that January 2019 will be the centenary of Ireland’s declaration of independence. I would like to see that project up and running soon. It will probably be much nicer in style than my own book, which I hope does not prove too heavy going to make a good read. Even if it proves to be a “super read” and it is accepted by a publisher, it still might not see the light of day for a long time (such is the publishing business), which makes the possibility of my being able to contribute something personal to a broader “centenary vibe” audience, whether online or elsewhere, approximately nil. O solo mio. But anyway…

What can one expect? For language to be as streamlined as a neat download is not a bad ideal for writing, but “thinking out loud” in a blog like this is hardly a good example. As Humphrey Bogart once said, “I can still speak English sometimes, when my business demands it.” Substitute “write” for “speak” and you may catch my editorial drift. In my experience of looking for work in a few different fields in the past, a mere mention of ever having been “a writer”, or having written, or being interested in writing a book, usually evokes a bemused grin, as if you’ve just got caught with your pants down without realising it. I think that is something to do with the fact that writers are often seen to be “jacks of all trades but master of none” because, let’s face it, what practical purpose do they serve? If one acts as a selfless sponge of words in an effort to absorb and then re-express and yet better express “everything”, it is “your” or my own fault if you end up with some kind of employment blues. Or at least….“so they say”.

But to return to the idea of “free culture”: one development that I think is “really nice” is the existence of things like soundcloud where people can self-publish (or maybe I should say “self-release”) their own musical creations. An example of “cloud storage” via the Internet “at its best” and it is actually over ten years old now. Although a music fan, I’ve never actually bothered with it. But I think it is a great idea. Another amazing thing, which I’ve only discovered in the last year or two, is the existence of Midi Controllers. Inexpensive keyboards with access to different instruments’ sounds aren’t new: they were there even when I was a child. But midi-controller keyboards are ones that can be plugged into a laptop and come with a software that allows one, by a very simple process, to record and edit whatever one does, like a mini multi-track recording studio, and, in turn, produce a sound file that can be played back or shared anywhere. So buy yourself a little Midi Controller keyboard for 50-100 quid, plug it into a laptop, fool about a bit and next thing you know: you can actually create your own album of tunes that could be burnt onto a cd, or just played back on your laptop, or actually published for free on soundcloud. Wow.

Of course, the thing is that coming up with some good tunes is no easy thing. I’ve always been a bit of a frustrated musician at heart. I can’t sing. My fingers are like butter, so I can’t handle string instruments (guitars, fiddles etc.), which are my favourite instruments by far. Boo-hoo. And I do not have a good pair of lungs, which isn’t ideal for playing wind instruments…amongst other things. And I don’t seem to have the discipline to learn to read or study music “properly”. So what the %$* can I do? Well, I can take out a midi controller, see where my imagination takes me and, through trial and error, learn about scales and harmonies and all sorts of things first hand “through doing” and, hopefully, learn how to construct a few tunes in the process. So, even if I do not have some texts I can share…perhaps I can share a few tunes? At present, that’s about the extent to which I can think of making a contribution to the world of free culture. Let all your tunes be as free as the wind. “Amen” to that, whatever it means. And keep your eyes on the wood rather than the tree(s) if at all possible.