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Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Indian “fables suffer from a yearning for perfection. While the first promises a seamless transition to globalism, the second offers a world that is autarchic. Both are ideological, in the old, 19th century sense of the term, which makes one a little uncomfortable.”

This quote brought me back to the lecture in class on Monday the 11th and the (Social Factory). Experiment and transformation between communication really only takes the shape or form of those that the information is going to or intended for. It may be translated, but I think there is a very different relationship between experiment/transformation and replication. Also, the quote above made me question the knowledge + creativity = innovation, and work + play = productivity. Can you really have the option of being creative and have play when there’s a continuous pressure and yearning for perfection?

Terranova describes the digital economy as “an important area of experimentation with value and free cultural/affective labor.” (38) By “labor,” she is pointing to forms of production like web design and multimedia production. There are also “labor” that seem less obvious at first, such as chat, real-life stories, etc. (38) Terranova argues that such labor “is not exclusive to the so-called knowledge workers, but is a pervasive feature of the postindustrial economy,” meaning that virtually anyone can provide free labor to the digital economy through different means (35). They are voluntarily pursuing in those activities, “not only because capital wants them to; they are acting out a desire for affective and cultural production that is nonetheless real just because it is socially shaped.” (37) In other words, capitalism is not the only drive for the free laborers, but other social reasons are behind their voluntary “labor” efforts. These days, I began to realize how Facebook could become a powerful marketing tool. Facebook users are never forced to join Facebook. Instead, they join voluntarily, simply to stay connected with friends and other networks of people. Every once in a while, they update statuses and post photos of themselves at a fun party, at a restaurant, at a school event, at a family gathering and so forth. Once, my friend and I were looking at our mutual friend’s profile, where she posted a photo of cupcakes she bought at a bakery in New York. I immediately commented on her photo, asking where the bakery was located at so that I can visit there the next time I go into the city. She commented in response to my comment, and now, anyone who sees the picture would know where to go for those delicious-looking cupcakes. The next time I visited the city, my friends and I went to the bakery. We all posted photos of the cupcakes, and now more people knew about the bakery and wanted to get some. It suddenly became a trendy activity among our friends to visit that bakery. From our perspective, we wanted to post the photos because we somehow feel compelled to share photos of our daily lives and sometimes even flaunt about the fancy restaurants we go to; this is the cultural and social aspect of the Internet. As a byproduct of these activities, we are providing free labor to the producers and manufacturers. We are marketing the products by sharing personal photos on Facebook, Twitter, and other blogs “voluntarily and unwaged.” (33) In a capitalistic society, the producers exploit these free labors to extend marketing and make improvements on their products.

In class this week we discussed the notions of piracy on the internet. To introduce the subject, we pondered the question of “What is a Pirate?” The term “pirate” holds two connotations: one good, and one bad. The “good pirate” refers to the romanticized idea of a Jack Sparrow, a Robin Hood — a hero, per se, who lives his life in leisure and good fun, and who steals from the excessively haughty rich to, so to say, even things up a bit. A “bad pirate,” however, is attributed to the Somalia pirates or terrorists of the modern era — entities who are so disdainful in society that they are not even given a name.

So in the modern digital media world, what pirates are we?

I use the personal pronoun “we” because very rarely do you find someone who has not pirated something from the internet: that is, someone who has not watched a tv show or movie illegally to avoid paying for movie tickets to watch it in the theatre. I and everyone I know have committed this seemingly trivial, seemingly commonplace crime of “piracy.” What difference does it make if I, just one individual, save a few bucks to watch something online instead? It hurts no one, right? Well, one individual has a very small effect, but when everyone does it, the actual film industry suffers and loses immense amounts of profit. I remember on my trips to China when I would see vendors on the street selling hundreds and hundreds of pirated movies, wrapped in cheap paper cases and ready to watch. These pirates have the potential to be detrimental to the movie industry — they are illegally mass producing and selling property that does not belong to them for a profit. In a way, these acts are very similar to those of the Somalia pirates — these street vendors are committing theft for the benefit of themselves, even if it means that others are harmed. Piracy, although we all love it and it is trivialized in society, has the potential to be detrimental, and thus should be kept an eye on.

Liang raises the concept of an illegal city in his essay “Porous Legalities and Avenues of Participation” claiming that the essence of an illegal city stems from an illegal housing supply. Yet the word illegal caries many negative connotations, especially within the context of piracy.

The illegal city can be physical; slums built illegally, people living in buildings that have not met code, stealing basic amenities like water and electricity. Or the illegal city can be a mindset, an underground economy where people persist by engaging in illegal technologies. Perhaps the most overt example of this would be cities infiltrated by the mob or mafia, but increasingly it is by those who are pirates.

Piracy now refers to the stealing of digital content and intellectual property, rather than sailing around looking for ships loaded with gold to plunder. Pirates are not readily identifiable by their appearance, but are now an integral part of the informal economy and of growing importance to the formal economy. When they sell counterfeit media they are fostering their business and their neighborhoods, but also hurting the legitimate owners and sellers of the media. Further in the age of globalization, the reverberations of their actions are felt worldwide.

The culture of the illegal city is also interesting and emerging. It is reminiscent of the culture and atmosphere of nighttown, and especially of the pit featured in Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic. The illegal city is at once outside the realm of traditional society and completely dependent on it.

 

Continuing the discussion introduced in lecture on Wednesday, I ponder the intricacies of piracy and Lessig’s ethical qualms regarding “taking value from someone else” without their permission. Indeed, a huge emphasis has been placed on tackling the problem of copyright, plagiarism, and piracy; to the moral end of protecting the liberal, Western idea of property rights. In anticipation of Locke, I wonder at the circumstance of Shakespeare, who evidently, or at least allegedly, stole much of his work from other playwrights:

However much one cannot measure the counterfactual of this hypothetical, what if Shakespeare had not stolen those ideas? Is it possible that maybe if he had acted ethically that none of his great plays, which have deservedly entered the canon of English literature, would have come into existence and that none of those stories would have been passed down for the great benefit of society? Similarly, the example of Mickey Mouse was offered in class. What if something as iconic as Mickey Mouse never came into existence? I’m by no means advocating for or endorsing plagiarism, but it is apparent that at some arbitrary point plagiarism works in fact to contribute to humanity and to society. In as much as the pirate “renders impossible the difference between the authorized and the unauthorized copy, spreading information and culture, and devaluing intellectual property at the same time,” the pirate also proliferates the opportunities that some next great contribution to society might be discovered.

To exemplify this consequence, open information, as Philips suggests, functions as a sort of “electronic commons.” This necessarily connotes the problematic Tragedy of the Commons, giving rise to the idea that regulation is necessary to maintain resources. The difference, however, is that in the case of electronic space, there is no shortage of resources to exploit and to make bare. Philips contrasts the idea of “localizable content” with this forum-esque, seemingly infinite environment of “electronic commons” that allows for the development of “shared meanings.” Suggesting the vastness of interpretation and criticism, the shared meanings that result from analyzing open information, which is made available by the pirate, are a critic’s way of translating into “another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things” (to quote Oscar Wilde). Piracy, for all its negative associations, creates an environment in which information can be expounded upon, and I find it difficult to find the expansion of knowledge as an objectively problematic circumstance. Perhaps a more passing concern for property protection is the better perspective to accept in order to expand the knowledge base, necessarily for the betterment of societal strength and consciousness.

Kavita Phillip’s essay is ambitious. She takes both Lawrences to task on their constructions of the pirate, all while developing a theory of the pirate within the context of nationalism, gender, race, and the very nature of authorship. I’m pretty compelled by her argument, especially since the pirate-function now permits those who have degenerated from the national body to use their subjectivity against their own oppression (ding ding ding, Barthes anyone?).

I’m thinking about Phillip’s writing within the current apoplexy surrounding writing-as-paid-work among all these NYC media types, including industry doyens like Choire Sicha and Nick Denton. What has been so striking to me about the debate is its tardiness; it is perfectly clear now that the bloated managerial class of the various media industries in the US is still populated with people thinking about the new things in old ways (not a digital native among them, I guarantee you). But on the other hand, the debate is most damaging to those not included in it: the young writers trying to get their start in the industry (full disclosure, I’m one of them). Taking Phillip’s ideas into consideration, I’m wondering to what extent the young are among the oppressed classes that ought to make use of the pirate-function, if not to enrich ourselves by making cultural objects but rather to disrupt an industry that has since its beginning exploited young people as they attempt to “establish their market value.” Change, after all, is a temporal process. Generational revolution seems to me to be the only way to salvage an industry convulsed by its own confusion over its relevance.

In any case, what would enacting the pirate-function look like in a world that still operates within late capitalist logics? I mean, what would it really look like? There seems to me to be a limit to the power of the pirate-function without there being a broader societal recognition that we already live within Liang’s illegal media city, that there is more than one type of capital that can be accumulated (social vs. cultural vs. symbolic, for example).

Terranova suggests that the internet convinces the masses of online users, or “knowledge workers,” to engage in a network of “continuous innovation” (Free Labor, 39). He writes: “After all, if we do not get on-line soon, the hype suggests, we will become obsolete, unnecessary, disposable. If we do, we are promised, we will become part of the ‘hive mind,’ the immaterial economy of networked, intelligent subjects in charge of speeding up the rhythms of capital’s ‘incessant waves of branching innovations.’”

How are we so pressured into participating in this never-ending, enslaving capitalist machine of production? Why are we so eager to buy into the myth that human self-worth is the same as the economy’s and that to be someone we first need to invest our lives in the “hive mind?” Is it because our society offers no other alternatives, philosophically, for self-actualization?

In the dichotomy of postmodern Internet “piracy,” there is the good and the bad, notwithstanding a buffered gray area.  In digital works such as Steal This Film, Part 1, there is an enormous emphasis on the free culture and the free media movement. The importance of being able to acquire, distribute, and network copyrighted works has become a staple of the 21st century generation. Yet, some issues come about in the push for a completely unrestricted anti-regime of digital media.

The main problem I see with Internet piracy is the casualties wrought by the “good” kinds that send shockwaves in the form of “bad” piracy. In short, by deconstructing the frameworks that have for so long protected the individual right to creative license and originality (i.e. copyrights, trademarks, patents, etc.), to what extent does this new pirate public devalue creative enterprise?

Overall, there seems to be a definite sense of entitlement and disrespect surrounding the abusive distribution of copyrighted materials. Indeed, there are definite benefits associated with freedom of press and a more liberal fashion of distribution and networking. In contemporary terms, these modes of piracy (e.g. nonprofit, small-scale, etc.) would be considered “good”. Yet, the problem arises when this power is abused, and I fear that too much of a good thing has wrought a negative outcome throughout the Pirate community. In what can be seen as a “Myspace-ing” of postmodern free distribution (using the outdated, unreliable, and corrupted social network Myspace as an analogy of things to come), the Internet public must be wary of the circumstances. What will happen (or what has already happened?) when we allow the “bad” to outweigh the “good”?

Liang brings up the physicality of the illegal person, as they exist in cities all over the world. This group lives in the shadows, either ignored or invisible to their government. But the fact is that they exist in physical space means that if someone wanted to find them, they could. The Internet provides a way for certain illegal practices to exist in a virtual space instead of a physical space, but things like where people live can’t be virtualized in that way. Even on the Internet illegal activities are sometimes traceable, and though many people pirate intellectual property anyway, the same sort of situation is happening: the eyes of an authority, governmental or otherwise, could track people’s piracy habits if they so chose. While the physicality of life forces people into this situation, illegal activities on the Internet can fairly easily get around it via technologies like TOR. TOR allows users to anonymously send requests over the Internet via a complex, untraceable encryption algorithm. I won’t go into the technical details here, and they can be accessed on the TOR website. Anonymity provides an easy way to look at and purchase illegal items, like illicit drugs. We’ve been looking all semester at various analogs between different media and the physical versus the virtual. Is there an analog for TOR in the physical world? Is it possible to have true, untraceable anonymity in the physical world? What are the consequences of that for the people that Liang writes about?

I found Steal This FIlm to be both incredibly interesting and highly problematic, mainly at the intersection of its role as both an informative document and a work of art. The film presents some of the key issues in the fight for free culture, where cultural artifacts such as films are not traded with respect to the value of their production, rather the principal that culture should be shared as long as it does not degrade the original product. More than the Jackie Chan commercial, I think of this one.

I remember the jokes about this commercial, whose assumptions are fundamentally traditional, part of the established industry, which seemed almost unintelligible to the generation that was actually pirating. “You wouldn’t download a car.” Well, why not? That was the general response. If I could download a car, make a copy without exploiting the labor of those who produced it, why wouldn’t I? There was a fundamental disjuncture between the traditional corporations – who failed to establish any nuance in piracy – and the pirate generation – who failed to make any connection with theft.

 

To be honest, I understand both sides. The case against piracy is easy to see when piracy is taken to the extreme – in the film, Dan Glickman, the head of the MPAA, is asked why he has a problem with giving movies away for free. His answer is blunt and realistic, something along the lines of, are you kidding me? I would just give my product away for free? That would erase the production money of movies across the globe. Part of the piracy debate stems from the fact that we assume movies can only be made by huge corporations with incredible budgets. This is, of course, not true. Piracy can propagate a movie’s cultural impact and relevance, even add to its importance. With the music industry, it wasn’t just that people weren’t buying CDs. That was a result of another fact – people didn’t need big record deals to make music. It undercut the power structure while maintaining music in our culture.

 

The flip side of this, however, is apparent in the aesthetic of Steal This Film. It was ironic to watch a movie about the people in control (by which I mean, the pirate distributers) of more movies than anyone else, but the movie seemed as if it was made by someone who’d never seen a movie before. Its aesthetic was irritating, filled with awkward pauses and poorly framed head shots. I felt an extreme sense of cognitive dissonance; I feel strongly that current copyright laws strangle creativity, but if this is the future of movies, I’m not necessarily happy about that. Of course, this movie served more crucial informative purposes than aesthetic ones, but separating those purposes is quite problematic.

 

It seems as if the corporations are trying to meet the pirates halfway, with the proliferation of sites like Hulu and the fact that most major networks stream their own TV shows online, erasing a need to pirate TV shows. The film industry seems like its lagging in this development.