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Monthly Archives: March 2013

In “Porous Legalities and Avenues of Participation,” Lawrence Liang argues that “porous legalities” often are “the only modes through which people can access and create avenues of participation in the new economy” (8). By this, he means that “porous legalities” provide liminal spaces within which individuals can navigate and engender new venues for economic (re)integration. Liang provides the example of “music companies” in India that “worked with illegally obtained components to ensure cost effectiveness of their product” (10). Such a company thus circumvents legality through this enclave of illegality and does so throughout with an “elastic idea of legality” (10). A company in Delhi, T-Series, subscribed to such a notion of “elastic illegality”, and eventually made the cassette into “a bazaar product” (10). This measure managed to produce “a mass commodity” through their idea-in-action of “networked production” (10). And, in the aftermath of such navigations of liminal spaces of law, “the ad hoc world of innovation” is certainly “based on very porous ideas of legality” (10).

In the conclusion, Liang writes: “Social struggles can then be seen also as struggles for the redistribution of legalities and illegalities produced in social conflicts, and porosity serves as a metaphor to understand the continuous struggle for the appropriation of the means of production of legality and illegality.”

But is such a condonation of illegality warranted? Should we bypass the laws in place if they yield economic prosperity and profits? Why does the author willingly condone these porous legalities? Even if we might argue that “copyright endangers the free flow of information within the public domain”, does that give license people to commit digital acts of piracy?

In her article “What is a techno author,” Kavita Philip interrogates the concept of an author in the context of modern rip/mix/burn culture, asking “who can speak as an author at the precise time that authorship emerges as an attribute of autonomous subjects?” (Philip, 207) She is questioning understandings of authorship, of authors existing as autonomous subjects. For this she draws from Michel Foucault’s work “What is An Author.” Foucault’s discussion of the author challenges the notion of the author as an origin. In this decentered theoretical understanding, the author emerges as a variable and complex function of discourse. Philip applies this understanding to the pirate, suggesting that “at this historical moment, a particular confluence of digital coping, its affiliated modes of creativity, a ‘crisis’ in bourgeois legalities and culture apparently precipitated by the telecom and digital revolutions, and the space-time compression of global cultures and economies, creates the conditions for the public recognition of the fragmented ‘author functions’ that Foucault identified.” (Philip, 205)

In this regard, we have two interpretations of the pirate. There is the pirate as autonomous subject, and there is the pirate as a function of this historical moment in discourse. What is at stake in both considerations? I would like to consider these questions specifically with regards to contemporary art practices, for so-called “pirates” are not the only individuals engaging in this digital rip/mix/burn culture. A number of contemporary artists use digital material in their works. For example, the artist Cory Arcangel created a work of Nintendo game cartridge hacks. Indeed, many new media artists appropriate material from the digital world. Are they considered pirates? Where do we draw the line between sampling and stealing? How does appropriation and hacking for artistic practices differ from appropriation and hacking in so-called “pirating” practices? In what ways do such new media artists further complicate the notion of the author-function?

 

In his piece “Porous Legalities,” Liang argues that a new configuration of the liberal binary of legal/illegal in regards to intellectual property must be developed – a new theory of “porous legality” that takes into account the complex economic and social forces that have led to the massive rise – and public indifference – of software piracy. For Liang, the discourse surrounding Internet piracy has been simplistic and reductive, reducing it to a predominantly legal – or even worse, moral – issue; however, in Liang’s conception, the rise of piracy, particularly in non-Western countries, must be analyzed in relation to the growing tide of globalization that has left legality in flux. As Liang expounds, here the field of urban studies becomes a telling window into the issue; for Liang, the metaphor of the “illegal city” – the unplanned, unaccounted for, and illegal residences that crop up around the “old city” in countries such as India, lends a key answer to the complex question of piracy. In these planned cities, only 15-20% of the housing need is met by the planning authorities – meaning the existence of the “illegal city” starts to stretch the limits of the concept of “illegality.”  Faced with no access to legal housing, migrants and other inhabitants of the “new city” are part of what Ravi Sundarum calls “a bleeding culture” – placed into the arbitrarily illegal sphere by the imbalance of power and control in the housing sector.

 

These same principles can be applied to the rise of “the illegal media city”; for Liang, the rise of piracy in these non-Western countries must itself be analyzed in light of the structures of imbalance of control over and access to technological and cultural products. This techno-inequality, a product of rapid globalization that has been spurred by broader access to the Internet, means that piracy becomes a much more complex issue than a simple legal and moral black or white. Indeed, like the planned “old city” and the illegal “new city,” for Liang the rise of piracy can be read as a means “through which people ordinarily left out of the imagination of modernity, technology and the global economy find ways of inserting themselves into these networks” (Liang, 12).

This post was meant for last week – I just realized it I only hit preview but hadn’t actually clicked publish – sorry about that.

In her piece, Bucher explicates the way in which the algorithmic architecture of Facebook both revamps and rejects Foucault’s notions of visibility and surveillance. For Bucher, the algorithms that compose the “news feed” – the software that makes some stories and people visible and leaves others invisible – acts as an inverted panopticon, a cyber-architectural structure that maintains order through its layering of different visibilities, such that “there is not so much a ‘threat of visibility’ as there is a ‘threat of invisibility’ that seems to govern the actions of its subjects” (Bucher, 1171). Indeed, like Foucault’s panopticon, the Facebook news feed also serves to obscure and decentralize its central power source – the underlying software – naturalizing the hierarchized layers of visibility such that the algorithm remains out of sight and out of mind and the logic of this “threat of invisibility” becomes internalized by the users of Facebook.

 

In this respect, Facebook’s use of the EdgeRank algorithm in conjunction with the “top news” stories on the news feed becomes a way to obfuscate and subvert the traditional notions of surveillance and constant visibility being threatening and disempowering. Instead, by utilizing the EdgeRank algorithm to select specific users and actions to highlight, a process that remains shrouded in mystery to the average Facebook user, Facebook is able to instill its users with the notion that “becoming visible on the default News Feed is… something to aspire to, rather than feel threatened by” (Bucher, 1174). Thus, Facebook is able to reward behavior and actions that “conform to the inherent logics of participation” – compelling its users to interact more, to use Facebook more, or risk falling by the wayside and becoming obsolete.

 

Thus, Facebook can be seen to construct a new “regime of visibility” that is both diametrically opposite and yet paradoxically in line with Foucault’s panopticon. In both cases, the subject is governed by a specific logic of visibility – of who is visible to who and when. In this respect, in the way that Facebook “[makes] the subject ‘the principle of (its) own subjection” the EdgeRank algorithm becomes a disciplinary structure like the panopticon, the architecture of the software constructs a very real “threat of invisibility” that becomes internalized by its subjects and comes to shape their use of Facebook (Bucher, 1175).

Drawing from Wednesday’s lecture on piracy, something that caught my attention was the issues that authorities faced when trying to consolidate a world-wide anti-piracy law or act. Given the different laws governing property in different countries, I can imagine the difficulty in attempting to prosecute someone in a foreign country for having stolen property registered elsewhere or by a citizen of another country. Should these people be tried and prosecuted in their home country? Should they be tried in the country where whatever they stole is registered? How does the international organism in charged of regulating this act in these situations, especially when this type of property may not necessarily be tangible?

 

Additionally, something else that caught my attention was the idea of the romanticized pirate. These Robin-Hood like characters who want to release what they believe is everyone’s right to have. I wonder if this is actually the essence of a pirate or if they should be viewed under another light, one with a more negative connotation. This also relates to my first point, maybe this piracy issue is not as big a deal in certain countries, so therefore it may make it even harder to take action against it.

On the formal level this film was funny.  I struggled to decide whether it’s aesthetic was a choice and regardless of whether it was choice, whether it was effective.

Title: Steal this Film Part 1

An illusion to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal this book, and to sixties counter culture. Fine. Pretty straightforward.

Format, various forms primarily distributed via bittorent, which is coherent, but also available for streaming on youtube which is a bit less conceptually satisfying, but at least is hasn’t been taken down.

To me this is undeniably a work of propaganda, a word with negative connotations  i know, but regardless.  So the next question for me is was this effective propaganda?

which bring me back to the question of form,  the movie was ugly, poorly edited, poorly lit, and with a strange recurring  closeup on people faces. plus strange voice modulation and montages from hollywood films. it looked like it was made in imovie.

it begged the question of how a movement couldn’t find a decent editor, filmaker.

 

I was interested in the aspect of the digital economy that is predicated on fan cultures and a desire for inclusion. The proliferation of fan-based production on websites, blogs, social media, etc. forms both a productive labor pool and a community engaged around a cultural product, as Brandy talked about in relation to “My Little Pony.”

This type of relationship becomes especially problematic when the “free labor” of fans is turned into profit either for the corporate entity whose product they are engaged with, or for the producers themselves. 50 Shades of Gray seems like a fitting example example of the latter, where the author produced the work originally as fan-fic, but she ended up becoming enormously successful from the book.

For me, this also exemplifies Terranova’s claim that the type of production that goes on in the digital economy does not necessarily fall into the class or socio-economic divisions used to critique forms of material labor.  That is, the internet is an open labor pool of anyone who has access, and enough free time and interest to operate in it.

Philip discusses a paradox in her analysis of the pirate function:

 

“The discourse of network security, the anxiety about piracy, and the fear of terrorist hackers circulate around a perceived contradiction at the heart of technological and electronic progress. The very technologies that appear to embody post-Enlightenment modernity and progress seem to facilitate the destruction of Western civilization by those who ‘hate our values and freedoms.’” (Philip 201).

 

If we consider the proliferation of knowledge as an ideal of post-Enlightenment modernity and a prerequisite for progress, is not piracy necessary? What other discourses of progress might we connect the function of the pirate with? The progression of knowledge promised by the memex is reliant upon a form of piracy. Wouldn’t the creator of a memex need to break copyright laws in order to replicate articles, books, images, etc?

Something I found very intriguing about Brandy’s lecture was the set of dichotomies she listed, differences between the past and the present in terms of technology and Terranova’s Free Labor. These were:

  • atoms <=> bits
  • chemical reactions <=> algorithms
  • organisms <=> programs
  • real life <=> video games
  • nature <=> technology

These binaries are particularly compelling to me because I have been thinking extensively about the Mertonian ethos of science (as defined by Robert Merton), and the way it relates to the world of technology. Science, according to Merton, has certain key characteristics. These characteristics, which he calls “norms”, are institutional or community imperatives established and maintained by social learning. These norms uphold the internal structure and ethos of science. Specifically, they are communism (collaboration and sharing of work for the common good , universalism (the establishment of impersonal standards and criteria), disinterestedness (the lack of financial and emotional attachment to research), and organized skepticism (the idea that nothing is beyond scrutiny; this is the basis for critical discourse).

I have noticed, through my own experiences in and knowledge of computer science and other practices in technology, that most if not all of these Mertonian ideals are missing. In tech industry, the idea of sharing data or research is unthinkable because the industry is profit-based; therefore communism and disinterestedness are lacking. Additionally, the presence of global markets makes universalism meaningless; there need not be one universal standard of quality because with the help of targeted marketing, all quality is essentially made subjective (that is, consumers are not given any objective way to measure the quality of technological products). Organized skepticism is the Mertonian ideal most closely represented, because any innovation requires a constant rethinking of current ideas. But because of brand loyalty and the need to display confidence in one’s product, that mindset is often confined to the innermost workings of a company. Effectively, it seems, all the positive, necessary qualities of science are not practiced in the development of technology.

Brandy laid out the difference between Fordism and Toyotaism – this is essentially the move I am identifying. In Fordism, standardization and uniformity (Mertonian key terms) are important, as is physical or manual labor. In Toyotaism, however, workers are multi-skilled and communication and mobility are more important. So, then, if our society is transitioning from a scientific model to a technological one, as many of our readings might imply (such as those on control societies), what is the effect on the individuals within the system?

Terranova addresses exactly this point. In the age of free labor, culture is networked, affect is a primary source of labor, value is created through a mixture of knowledge and creativity. In fact, Brandy’s presentation even displayed a picture of Google’s headquarters (importantly called their “campus”) to make the point that productivity is now thought of as a mixture of work and play. But despite the flashy colors and positive imagery associated with this move towards digitally-based societies, new forms of exploitation are also brought into being. Terranova explains that unpaid “altruism” and labor as play blur the lines between producers and consumers and essentially mine labor from everyone, constantly.

Effectively, the move from a scientific society to a cultural one, from a disciplinary society to a society of control, from Fordism to Toyotaism, all culminates in the unilateral exploitation of all members of the networked community that Terranova identifies.

“Although the Grokster case is represented by film studios as a war of survival against rogues, thieves, and pirates, it is seen by a (largely western) technologically-imbricated public as a threat to emerging parameters of individual creative authorship, in amateur, educational, and entrepreneurial contexts. Thus a broad middle-class consuming population appears on the verge of being classified as inherently criminal.” (Philip, 203)”

Often when reading pieces for Modern Culture and Media classes I find myself violently scoffing at a sentence for a moment and having to spend a long time figuring out what was so viscerally discomforting or alarming about it. The final sentence of the above paragraph is one of those sentences. I was faced with a sudden realization, though perhaps obvious to others, that much of the liberal, anti-regulation of piracy outrage is not about technology or about freedom of speech. It is a basic objection to the mass criminalization of a certain group of people. P2P sharing represents a form of piracy that the middle class can get behind, that even the wealthy can take grand advantage of. The public is outraged that lobbyists are trying to criminalize such a large portion of the country that had as of yet remained innocent by default. As a young black male I felt immediately queasy when I saw this thread running through much of the pro-piracy rhetoric. Like Philip and Liang I agree that the forms of piracy that are often protected by liberals are those specifically used by primarily bourgeoise western (and therefore largely white) technology users.