The Wealth of Networks:
How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
by Yochai Benkler, Yale University Press

© Copyright 2006, Yochai Benkler.

Chapter 8
Cultural Freedom: A Culture Both Plastic and Critical

This online version has been created under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike license - see - and has been reformatted and designated as recommended reading - with an accompanying Moodle course - for the NGO Committee on Education of CONGO - the Conference Of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations - in conjunction with the Committee's commitment to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World and related international Decades, agreements, conventions and treaties.


"Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing."

"Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable."

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

Chapter 8
Cultural Freedom: A Culture Both Plastic and Critical

Gone with the Wind

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.

-MGM (1939) film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's novel (1936)

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

- Billie Holiday (1939)
from lyrics by Abel Meeropol (1937)

In 1939, Gone with the Wind reaped seven Oscars, while Billie Holiday's song reached number 16 on the charts, even though Columbia Records refused to release it: Holiday had to record it with a small company that was run out of a storefront in midtown Manhattan.

Cultural freedom occupies a position that relates to both political freedom and individual autonomy, but is synonymous with neither.

The networked information economy makes it possible to reshape both the "who" and the "how" of cultural production relative to cultural production in the twentieth century.

Throughout the twentieth century, the making of widely shared images and symbols was a concentrated practice that went through the filters of Hollywood and the recording industry.

The practical capacity individuals and noncommercial actors have to use and manipulate cultural artifacts today, playfully or critically, far outstrips anything possible in television, film, or recorded music, as these were organized throughout the twentieth century.

Building on this work, this chapter seeks to do three things: First, I claim that the modalities of cultural production and exchange are a proper subject for normative evaluation within a broad range of liberal political theory.

A nine-year-old girl searching Google for Barbie will quite quickly find links to, to the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO), and to other, similarly critical sites interspersed among those dedicated to selling and playing with the doll.

We cannot, however, take for granted that the technological capacity to participate in the cultural conversation, to mix and make our own, will translate into the freedom to do so.

Cultural Freedom in Liberal Political Theory

Utilitarian and rights-based liberal political theories have an awkward relationship to culture.

Culture represents a mysterious category for these types of liberal political theories.

Culture has, of course, been incorporated into political theory as a central part of the critique of liberalism.

As a practical matter, treating culture as a black box disables a political theory as a mechanism for diagnosing the actual conditions of life in a society in terms of its own political values.

The point is not, of course, that Gramsci was descriptively right or that any of the broad range of critical theories of culture is correct as a descriptive matter.

The efforts of deliberative liberal theories to account for culture offer the most obvious source of such an insight.

the lifeworld embraces us as an unmediated certainty, out of whose immediate proximity we live and speak.

In other words, our understanding of meaning - how we are, how others are, what ought to be - are in some significant portion unexamined assumptions that we share with others, and to which we appeal as we engage in communication with them.

Culture, in this framework, is not destiny.

In this story, culture is open to interpretation and manipulation, but not infinitely so.

Culture changes through the actions of individuals in the cultural context.

If culture is indeed part of how we form a shared sense of unexamined common knowledge, it plays a significant role in framing the meaning of the state of the world, the availability and desirability of choices, and the organization of discourse.

The Transparency of Internet Culture

If you run a search for "Barbie" on three separate search engines - Google, Overture, and Yahoo! - you will get quite different results.

Table 8.1: Results for "Barbie" - Google versus Overture and Yahoo!

Google Overture Yahoo! (Mattel's site) Barbie at
Barbie Collector: Official Mattel Web site for hobbyists and collectors Toys and Leisure at QVC-Barbie Barbie Bazaar Magazine A Body Image for Every Body (site created by women critical of Barbie's projected body image) Barbie on Sale at KBToys Barbie Collector
Barbie Bazaar Magazine (Barbie collectible news and Information) Barbies My
If You Were a Barbie, Which Messed Up Version Would You Be? Barbie: Best prices and selection (
Visible Barbie Project (macabre images of Barbie sliced as though in a science project) Barbies, New and Preowned at NetDoll Barbie History (fan-type history, mostly when various dolls were released)
Barbie: The Image of Us All (1995 undergraduate paper about Barbie's cultural history) Barbies - compare prices ( Mattel, Inc. (Barbie and Ken sex animation) Barbie Toys (complete line of Barbie electronics online) Spatula Jackson's Barbies (pictures of Barbie as various countercultural images).
Suicide bomber Barbie (Barbie with explosives strapped to waist) Barbie Party supplies Barbie! (fan site)
Barbies (Barbie dressed and painted as countercultural images) Barbie and her accessories online The Distorted Barbie

A similar phenomenon repeats itself in the context of explicit efforts to define Barbie-encyclopedias.

Only two encyclopedias focus explicitly on Barbie's cultural meaning: Britannica and Wikipedia.

The relative emphasis of Google and Wikipedia, on the one hand, and Overture, Yahoo!, and the commercial encyclopedias other than Britannica, on the other hand, is emblematic of a basic difference between markets and social conversations with regard to culture.

Unlike market production of culture, meaning making as a social, nonmarket practice has no similar systematic reason to accept meaning as it comes.

The distinction I draw here between market-based and nonmarket-based activities is purposefully overstated to clarify the basic structural differences between these two modes of organizing communications and the degree of transparency of culture they foster.

The claim I make here, as elsewhere throughout this book, is not that nonmarket production will, in fact, generally displace market production, or that such displacement is necessary to achieve the improvement in the degree of participation in cultural production and legibility.

Two other dimensions are made very clear by the Wikipedia example.

The flexibility with which cultural artifacts - meaning-carrying objects - can be rendered, preserved, and surrounded by different context and discussion makes it easy for anyone, anywhere, to make a self-conscious statement about culture.

The Plasticity of Internet Culture: The Future of High-Production-Value Folk Culture

I have already described the phenomena of blogs, of individually created movies like The Jedi Saga, and of Second Life, the game platform where users have made all the story lines and all the objects, while the commercial provider created the tools and hosts the platform for their collective storytelling.

People have always created their own culture.

A Participatory Culture: Toward Policy

Culture is too broad a concept to suggest an all-encompassing theory centered around technology in general or the Internet in particular.

A liberal political theory cannot wish away the role of culture in structuring human events.

Understanding that culture is a matter of political concern even within a liberal framework does not, however, translate into an agenda of intervention in the cultural sphere as an extension of legitimate political decision making.

A systematic commitment to avoid direct intervention in cultural exchange does not leave us with nothing to do or say about culture, and about law or policy as it relates to it.

By comparison to the highly choreographed cultural production system of the industrial information economy, the emergence of a new folk culture and of a wider practice of active personal engagement in the telling and retelling of basic cultural themes and emerging concerns and attachments offers new avenues for freedom.


1. Karl Marx, "Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right," Deutsch-Französicher Jahrbucher (1844).

2. Bruce A. Ackerman, Social Justice and the Liberal State (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 333-335, 141-146.

3. Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 29.

4. Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 76, 83.

5. Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 22-23.

6. is a part of Highbeam Research, Inc., which combines free and pay research services.

7. Jack Balkin, "Digital Speech and Democratic Culture: A Theory of Freedom of Expression for the Information Society," New York University Law Review 79 (2004): 1.