Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The slow start of cultural environmentalism

Mike Madison doesn't think the metaphor of "cultural environmentalism" works.

"10 years after the inauguration of “cultural environmentalism,” I don’t think that the metaphor works. I read the blogged summaries of the presentations. I read the colloquies with the commentators. I’ve even read earlier versions of some of the papers. And I can’t help but come away with the sense that this project — the reinjection of social and cultural theory and non-utilitarian economic arguments into progressive readings of intellectual property law and policy — is just now starting to get off the ground. After 10 years. Moreover, it’s starting to get off the ground in a way that seems largely to leave the “environmentalism” metaphor behind...

Why doesn’t the environmental metaphor have more traction in information policy debates? I think that the reason goes back to Jamie Boyle’s introductory explanation of the initial importance of the metaphor: The “cultural environment” was a rhetorical device, a way to link seemingly disparate debates and to make invisible issues more salient. What the cultural environment didn’t and wasn’t intended to do, at least not on a broad scale, and at least not now, is connect with our everyday and ordinary experience of culture. “Cultural environmentalism” resonates for us because we recall environmentalism as a political movement. “Cultural environmentalism” is a call to arms. Au barricades! But my own mixed metaphors suggest why this hasn’t happened on a broad scale. “Culture” doesn’t resonate for us as “our environment.” Socially constructed it may be, but “the” environment is place and space. Culture, in a very basic and colloquial sense, is stuff. So, as some of the commentary points out, we need more metaphors and narratives and empirics about stuff. If the environmentalist metaphor is ever going to get stronger and take hold, it needs to be connected to stuff."

He's right about needing more metaphors, narratives and empirics but our information ecology, in a digital society, extends beyond culture to encompass our personal, social, organisational, legal, economic and physical environmental contexts; and the environmental metaphor is absolutely appropriate. It's vague and widely misunderstood which is why we need more stories about it. It does however pitch an idea at a level of abstraction which enables people to see connections between issues that might not otherwise be obvious. As James Boyle says, it is the articulation of a shared interest that beings that interest into being. The duck hunter and the bird watcher might not like each other but they have a shared interest in the protection of the ecology of the wetlands. Likewise a parent might be wary of the ID card protestor but they have a shared interest in transparent access to the process through which decisions will be made to deploy a pay per view digital educational system or an ID card system.

I'd probably agree with him that culture is stuff (much to the disgust of certain colleagues!) but our digital lives are getting played out in a digital place and space that is having a very real impact on our physical place and space. Perhaps it is 'digital environmentalism' that we are looking for? I don't really like the term but we can work on our language without throwing out the environment metaphor, which has too much powerful potential to jetison just because we haven't yet found a decent way to tell the story.

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