Reflecting on the Definition of Definition

In his latest talk Lawrence Lessig spends time defending the use of non-commericial use clauses and goes into detail about how the free culture movement does not need and should not have definitions of freedom. In doing so, he was referring to a public discussion the two of us had most recently in September. While my name was not mentioned until the questions, he implicitly criticized both my freedom definition and my call for any definition at all. As usual, his criticism has made me think a lot about what it is that I’m trying to do.

I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with Aaron Swartz recently where he was also criticizing me for focusing too much on definitions. He was skeptical about my assertion that social movements and freedom movements needed "definitions." I thought about it and told him then that I thought I’d been making a mistake by saying I want free culture movements to have definitions. More accurately, what I want are goals, standards, or ideals. I want to be able to say, "music when will be free when every producer can do A, B, and C and every listener can do X, Y, and Z." I want the possibility of a shared utopianism.

I want these kinds of goals because I believe that these images of what what things might be like if we win is what motivates us to win in the first place. I believe that the idea that, "things might be better" is simply never as powerful as a strong, perhaps even unattainable, ideal that challenges people and gives them something to strive for. The leaders of other successful social movements I know can tell you exactly what they are trying to achieve — although few of them ever will realize it completely. No free culture movement leader can do this with any authority. For reasons I’ve talked about in the past, I think that fact may ultimately make us less successful.

In the free software movement, our most important goal (free software itself) is documented in the Free Software Definition. Even the most ethically motivated among us aren’t perfect — most of us use some proprietary software — but we have an ideal to hold our behavior up to and a method by which we can always improve. Inspired by free software, I unimaginatively said that I thought free culture needed a "definition." I probably could have found a better way to describe what I wanted and I’ll do so in the future. I suppose I should have thought a little more about the definition of definition.