This extended essay, Digital Solidarity, responds to the wave of new forms of networked organisation emerging from and colliding with the global economic crisis of 2008. Across the globe, voluntary association, participatory decision-making and the sharing of resources, all widely adopted online, are being translated into new forms of social space.
This movement operates in the breach between accelerating technical innovation, on the one hand, and the crises of institutions which organise, or increasingly restrain society on the other. Through an inventory of social forms – commons, assemblies, swarms and weak networks – the essay outlines how far we have already left McLuhan’s ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ behind. In his cautiously optimistic account, Stalder reminds us that the struggles over where we will arrive are only just beginning.
Uschi Reiter: With the Snowden affair the Internet as space for surveillance has reached a wider public. This incident and the excitement it caused hasn’t brought about any major withdrawal from the social network Facebook, for example. What impact does this knowledge of control have on the way we culturally act and communicate on the net?
Felix Stalder: As long as there is no real alternative to the ever expanding parts of the Internet, that act as surveillance spaces, the current discussion about the way we should act on the net will remain quite limited. Cryptoparties and such are more symbolic acts. As long as the infrastructure of surveillance is optimised, creating individualised private spheres later will remain a highly complex matter. So it will always be a minority activity.
On the other hand, what we can see already is a shift in general assumptions. Extensive surveillance is considered normal, defending yourself against it naive. In the case of legal actions taken against Google’s data mining, Google justified itself recently by saying that Gmail users can’t expect that their e-mails and private information will not read and analysed (“a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties”).
Uschi Reiter: Encrypting e-mails and anonymisation services such as Tor is more of practise of geeks. Do you think this practise will spread?
Cultural producers should be relaxed about digital technology's erosion of copyright. A weak copyright regime offers a chance to re-embed cultural production in concrete, personal relationships out of which new economic models can and do emerge.
If you want to know why and how this is the case, you'll have to read the whole article.
For those with very little time, here's the conclusion, and, very important in my view, how to avoid the argument about new opportunities to be high-jacked by the conservatives who want to cut public cultural funding.
One way to understand copyright is as an abstracting mechanism. Copyright stabilizes a work so that it can be lifted out of concrete social relations – between the author and her cultural environment – and made to circulate as a commodity in abstract, impersonal markets. The more innovative alternative models re-embed cultural works in concrete, personal social relationships. This is made possible through social media of all sorts, which allow personal relationships to grow beyond the small and the immediate. Strong copyright is not helpful in this process. Indeed, it is detrimental to it, because of the strict separation between author and audience, where one is entirely active the entirely passive. Re-embedding cultural production into concrete social relationships requires that all parties actively contribute to creating the particular environment. Their contributions are highly differentiated – not all people are, or need to become, an artist.
Here's the abstract of my planned contribution to Platform Politics: A Multidisciplinary Conference, - Cambridge 12-13 May 2011.
The Pirate Bay and WikiLeaks. Platforms for radical politics of access
The two defining stories of radical media activism over the last few years have been The Pirate Bay (launched in late 2003) and WikiLeaks (launched in late 2006). The former's aim has been to highlight in the most drastic fashion the inadequacy of the current copyright regime. In order to do so, it established an alternative distribution platform based on free access to media products. WikiLeaks was founded to make possible access to insider information by encouraging whistle-blowers around the world to bring their material to the public, protected via WikiLeaks. Beyond protecting whistle-blowers, WikiLeaks aim has been to transform journalism by forcing it to publish – as much as possible – its sources so that the public can check the veracity of the claims. Its founder, Julian Assange, called this “scientific journalism”.
In my contribution to the conference, I propose look at the politics of these platforms in three ways. First, by analyzing how it has been articulated by the activists themselves. They are distinct from most previous media activists, in so far as they are not directly connected to traditional social movements and their political agendas, but are rooted in the hacker culture and its specific political culture, centering around access to (public) information, transparency of institutions and individual empowerment.
Second, I will look at the politics of the infrastructures. Each was built using open source software that has been adapted with very considerable technical skill. Each has been run by a very small number of people, using very little money (in comparison to what they achieved).
Recently in my Bittorrent client! I'm all for decentralized infrastructures. It's more obvious than ever why we need them.
In an attempt to connect filmmakers with the distribution power of the file-sharing community, Steal This Film director Jamie King has launched VODO. The project includes partners well known to the file-sharing community like Mininova, The Pirate Bay, isoHunt, Miro, Vuze and Frostwire, who have pledged to promote the works of VODO films.
Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf (Harvard Business School) have a paper out in which they examine whether file sharing (and thus a weaker copyright) does negatively impact on incentives to create, release and market cultural works. Their answer is no (to the extent that data is available). Both for empirical reasons (considerably more music, books, and films have been released in 2007 and in 2000) and theoretical reasons (substitutes vs complements; artistic motivations vs financial motivations).
NYT has an article on the fears of the book industry about e-book piracy. There are numerous parallels to the music industry, including that the business model is under pressure even without piracy. The music industry remains dismal.
Since music sales peaked in 1999, the value of the industry’s inflation-adjusted sales in the United States, even including sales from Apple’s highly successful iTunes Music Store, has dropped by more than half, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
Janko Roettgers writes about a release of an open source bittorrent streaming apps:
GoalBit uses a hybrid approach that combines the best of the BitTorrent world, with features from the likes of P2P networks such as Gnutella and KaZaA’s FastTrack network. Its network features a tracker similar to the one used by BitTorrent clients, but it also makes use of so-called super-peers. These are computers with fat pipes that help to distribute the initial signal until it trickles down to users with ordinary DSL connections and limited upload speeds. Super-peers can be run either by the broadcasters themselves, or self-selected based on the connectivity of the individual end user. The idea of this multilayer approach is to prevent too many direct connections to the broadcaster while at the same time making the system scalable.