Free as in Culture.

Came across some ongoing debate regarding whether culture should be treated as software is.  That is, whether the licenses of culture can be equally free to those of software.  Thought I would write briefly on that subject.

Before continuing I will simply note my own guilt in licensing the contents of this blog.  Up until today I was using the Creative Commons 3.0 License with the Attribution and No Derivatives caveats.  Today I’m glad to relicense all of the works under the simpler, freer Attribution, Share Alike license.  This is much more in line with my general leaning toward the GPL.

Prehistory and History

In the time before writing, man did possess language.  While language has evolved further due to the intertext from written language, its core remains spoken.  And in that time before writing, culture was free.  If I told you a story, you would retell it in your own fashion.  You might or might not attribute the story to me, and I might or might not attribute it to its original author or influences.  But the central freedom to experience, modify, and redistribute the data was maintained.

Once writing came into play, the general pattern did continue.  Oral tradition became a bit more fixed (and in some cases the freedoms were lost due to lack of ability of more than the privileged to write and read), but even then rewriting occurred.  The new regime rewrote the old regime’s deeds, depending on their relationship.


One of the things that made the programming language LISP so powerful and notable was its treatment of data and code as equals.  With that ability in place, LISP informs this discussion.

If you see human language as a programming language for building memes, it becomes important to see that it’s a case where data and code are equals.  Otherwise, we might be stuck with a non-functional meme like, How come that bird we like to eat sometimes with the funny head and it lays eggs went all the way over that place people like to walk around on? instead of, Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why Culture is Free

Cultural freedom is essential because in order to be in a culture, one must participate.  Some cultures try to reduce that participation to being a member of an audience, but that is still participation.  The bystanders of the revolution are just as much involved as the victims, tyrants, soldiers, terrorists, police officers, attorneys, and so forth.

Recognizing that by reading this you are sharing a cultural experience, you automatically have some amount of shared ownership in that experience.


Ownership is a set of freedoms and restrictions over some given object.  In culture, most of those attributes are implicit.  If you attend a museum or a play, you implicitly have the right to experience your presence in that location.  You implicitly (explicitly in cases, by statute or contract (eg, ticketholder agreement)) may not take the artifacts with you or get on stage.

But you can tell people you were there, what it was like, what it cost you, etc.  And you own that experience.

As it Was

So the issue with culture that’s raised is the threat of someone taking a work and changing it in ways that misrepresent or otherwise diminish the original.  If I draw my own Mona Lisa then does that harm the original?  No.  Particularly not when I give attribution (“go see Leonardo’s version over there”).  Particularly not when I disclose the difference between the works.

That’s exactly among the requirements of the Creative Commons Adaptations section: that one must disclose that the work is not the original.

As You Wish

But that’s still my decision.  You might feel in some circumstances you want the work to get out there and don’t want anyone to make a buck on it or to change one iota (Ɩ, 0x0196).  Just as with software, that’s the creator’s right to decide.  That’s important, that free software and free culture never seek to coerce behaviors, only to provide the choices.

Think of the (Time When You Were) Children

When you were a kid, you hopefully had some pretty fun interactions with others.  They didn’t tell you that those experiences were restricted.  They didn’t say, “I own hide and seek,” or that you had to repeat their exact giggle when you splashed in puddles.

Some of the games even depended upon free culture, like the Lossy Encoding Game where you sat in a circle and whispered what you heard to the next person.

No one got mad when the lossiest encoding was something that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the original.  It was fun.  And no one really believed the first person had said that last phrase, either.  And everyone had their own set of phrases, the heard and the spoken, and they all differed from the initial and the final.


Incivil Disobedience

One of the problems that seems to get brought up quite often is the incivil behavior that happens when strangers interact on the Internet.

There are a variety of motivations for that behavior, and I will examine them in turn.  But here’s the general list to let you stop and think about ones I might have missed if you wish:

  1. Impress others
  2. Share a bad mood
  3. Genuinely angry at the situation
  4. Pyschopathy

After looking at each of them, I will argue that (with the possible exception of psychopathy) they all stem from a single problem.

Impress others

This antecedent is rather specialized.  It occurs when there is an existing social structure in place, and a person wants to improve their standing in that structure.  It’s one that’s sometimes seen around FLOSS communities, because they create a natural social structure.

They also offer help or discussion of their projects, which leads new users to their doors at which they may be mistreated because some other participant feels that their relationship in the community isn’t as strong as they would like and believes that tearing into the user could improve their standing.

This behavior is especially prevalent in communities where it’s become a cultural attribute.  There are online communities that fit this bill, but so does the political and media establishment at times.

But that’s not the only reason that behavior occurs in relation to project-based structures.

Share a bad mood

This is another reason that it happens, and also applies to project communities.  If someone in the community is having a bad day and didn’t manage to extricate themselves from the community for the day to cool their heels, they may lay into another user, even a peer or a superior in the structure.

This one is hard, because the person is simply on tilt, and if it’s recognized as such the situation doesn’t have to become a burden to the participants and community.  But it’s too easy to overlook, and the natural reaction is to feed back into the community and make things worse.

Genuinely angry at the situation

Again one that is seen in project cultures.  Most commonly this is a matter of either RTFM (Read The Fucking Manual) or LMGTFY (Let Me Google That For You), but it could be something else, such as a peer pulling the rug out on a change the user worked on, or a user that feels like a change made increases the suck of the project.

They have a valid position, but they handle that poorly.


Psychopathy is a relatively rare psychological disorder.  It’s almost definitely not this, but it could be.  Maybe one in a hundred.

You will need to inspect the microstructure of their uncinate fasciculus for signs of underdevelopment, damage, or other abnormality, but be aware that could be a sign of other various disorders too.

Memory and emotion exercises may help over time, though at present the condition is largely considered untreatable.


Aside from psychopathy, the other three stem in part from insecurity, but there are other forms where insecurity plays a role.

In the instance of impressing others, the insecurity is with regard to the individual’s place in the community.  If they feel like they will be included and their opinion matters, they will not see the need to try to dig in further.

In the instance of a bad mood, the insecurity is of their own emotional state.  They have taken an emotional hit, and it is causing their brain to fixate.  They need to understand that the other community members have bad moods and they can avail themselves of the community for support for their problems.  They also need to find a way to normalize the firing of their brain.

And, in the instance of genuine anger they are insecure about their time and the presence of people that may not be as conscientious as they wish they were.  The best result for this case would be to take a moment to suggest the manual or search options, but to explain that they are willing to help. In this case it’s also notable that they are trying to ensure the community does respond to those that need help, so there’s also a measure of insecurity with regard to the community’s role and ability in providing that assistance.

Pulling it all together, a few things are apparent.  The main thing is that people have motivation behind their behavior, and while their motivation may be based on bad information, that doesn’t make it go away.  In order to get past the incivility on the Internet, the participants must not let the behavior of others push them to continue the bad behaviors or make them worse.

The participants must disobey the prompt that incivility poses.  They must respond with care and defuse the situation rather than buying into the false story that the misbehavior is merely due to that person being an asshole or a troll.

In the case of genuine trolls?  It’s still an insecurity.  If it’s a Foo user going in to troll the Bar project, they aren’t secure with their choice to use Foo over Bar.  Note you can replace Foo and Bar with just about any sort of rivalry or difference of choice.  It could be Cat and Dog, Allah and Yahweh, Coffee and Tea, etc.  Or Vim and Emacs.