Monday, November 9, 2009

Terranova - That's just too convenient a name

(caveat: I have not finished the book)

It is almost certainly true that the internet (or the network, or whatever) is creating a new culture. It has fundamentally shaped how we think, organize, search - there is, in a way, an argument to be made that the internet, access to the internet, and the interface with which we perform routine and extraordinary tasks with the computer, has fundamentally altered how we interact, process, distribute, and create information. It might even be said that the network has integrated so fully with our lives - that it somehow wheedled its way into the very way we view the world - that we have become, in the process of creating it, networked individuals ourselves.

And yes, this means fundamental changes in our culture. And yes, this means new and exciting ways to organize ourselves into units or identities. And yes, this means taking collective action on a wider scale. And yes too, this is possibly epoch-making - the Information Age has been a concept that has been around for some time now, after all.

And so with any great societal change, we suddenly find the old analogies and examples that we used, the old assumptions we made about society, the old ways we used to think, are suddenly looking not so hot anymore. How can we look at political behavior in the contemporary world when we still assume that voters in a democracy have little access to information and are not involved in constant dialogue? How can we say that the youth no longer matter in political debates? (both Howard Dean and Pres. Obama have clearly proven that is false) How can business models predicated on physical locations and differentiated labor on the work floor matter when labor flow models stretch across the globe and when the product is differentiated across virtual skill levels? How can societies be studied when participants plug in from across the world to perform rituals based on items of constructed virtual value? Terranova's book clearly suggests that, hang on a minute, this culture we're experiencing is fundamentally different; if we thought any different, we wouldn't be in this class now would we?

And so, we have a new commodity - information. Or rather, information in itself has always been a valuable commodity in commerce, politics, and romance (aren't they all, in the end, one and the same?) but the way we consume it (voraciously), distribute it (rabidly), and produce it (amateurishly) is very very different. Which means, previous models of analyzing and understanding the place of information in the world would be somehow... wrong. Or they would make false assumptions, or that we just simply can't measure all the parameters because we don't know what they are.

Take, in this case, digital piracy. We find information - bits and bytes with no tangible existence - taking on a whole new significance. At any given time, gigabytes (or more) of illegally streamed information flows in massive multi-directional traffic across the globe. Now, in the old model of copyrights and information protection, every video and song being downloaded represents a breach of copyright and hence, lost revenue. In that same logic, there is the assumption that somebody else is making something of it - hence, the mockery of justice that was the Pirate Bay Trial (they, perhaps, made some money off advertising but nowhere near as much as they could have). Instead, we find pirates who share information freely.

There are those, like aXXo, who have become unto the bitTorrent community as gods - they freely and very readily share their videos and songs with no gimmicks at all. Torrents, distributed through trackers, have next to nothing in terms of advertising - websites hosting them may put up advertisements but unless one ventures to the really seedy underworld of torrents, they are relatively clean and as unobtrusive as your typical MSW (mainstream website). If one goes through private forums, then there are even less. Once the torrent file is downloaded, there is no more outside interference - what you do with that torrent is simply connect to a whole other web of individuals sending and receiving packets of chopped up data that will be compiled by your machine's torrent client.

So why does aXXo do it? aXXo makes no money off of this - given the eclectic uploads, aXXo must live next to quite a great video store though - and could not possibly do so even if he/she wanted to. Once the file is uploaded, copies of it are sent across the world and all aXXo has left is a little signature at the end of the file - that may be freely modified when downloaded. Immortality and fame, you say? As far as the world knows, aXXo may be a lone wolf, part of a cabal of information pirates, a consortium dedicated to taking down the "consciousness industry", or a collective of sentient hamsters. aXXo is famous by not being famous.

So how would economics or sociology explain the largest phenomenon in the (pirated) network culture? It can't. aXXo has no social cache beyond a signature; aXXo has no political motive; aXXo has no religious purpose; and aXXo makes no money. Instead, what torrents represent is a new way of formulating what ideology is.

There is enough in aXXo (and other pirate's actions) to indicate that the network culture has spawned a fundamentally different idea on what information and participation to individuals mean. There are legitimate pirate parties (that sit on parliaments and everything!), pirate scholars (although he'd call himself a copyright scholar), and its own shared historical narrative (proving, once again, that whatever we think of, somebody else did it first).

Given their relatively secretive nature, it would be difficult to understand why it is pirates do this - yes, there is that narrative about  how information should be free but I don't believe that is sufficient. There seems to be enough motivation and buy-ins to suggest that there is more to it than just a belief in the freedom of information - there are also claims to what ownership means and how access might be governed. It is more than a reproduction of anarcho-syndicalism and yet it falls significantly short of any political ideation.

Is this a new ideology? Is this a new stance on how governable the network culture is? Or is this, the sheer driving force to overcome barriers, to bring about enlightenment, to share in a global commons, part of what is means to be a member of the network culture?

huzzah --
aaron wee

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