On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

The people who wouldn’t allow endlessly molecular slippage

In file-sharing, media ecology, philosophy, politics, post-piratical, Sweden on March 20, 2009 at 5:20 pm

In Sweden, we seem to prefer even the most nebulous, awesomely vast and non-overseeable phenomenon to be formulated in terms that carry at least a modicum of solidarity and national-corporatist coherence.

The state battles file-sharing using corporatist measures, but ironically the file-sharing world itself – as a product of the same society, the same morality and concept of liberty – is also construed in corporatist terms (albeit of a slightly different flavour than the strong-arm authoritarian state corporatism that the EU currently favours towards all things digital). But this is perhaps also what gives the Swedish file-sharing phenomenon its potency; pirates, warts and all.

Here follows some more excerpts/cut-outs from my thesis…

In Sweden, socio-cultural novelties and changes in habits tend to be commonly embraced – with fervour rather than with restraint. Here, the account of Swedish modernity anticipates the recognition by Anthony Giddens that utilitarianism, specialization and trust in experts and abstract systems has overcome the conventional notion of ‘tradition’ as close, gemeinschaftlich family obligations (see here, for example, Giddens’ work together with Ulrich Beck).

It is not surprising, then, that in the context of the file-sharing debate at hand, several of my respondents were partial to concepts that have been debated also in various public forums.  One central idea – the proposition of a form of remuneration system for recording artists, where Peter Jenner is a British advocate, and Roger Wallis a Swedish one – has led numerous commentators to advocate a form of extended ‘blank media levy’  or a possible ‘broadband tax’ serving a similar purpose.

However, a policy that seems directly incompatible with this proposition was briefly debated in late 2008, before being implemented in 2009: The EU-wide IPRED directive, ultimately being implemented in Sweden after a long delay, and embraced by a wide political majority including both social democrat and centre-right parties. This directive grants powers to the entertainment industry to enforce copyright policies more indiscriminately, at the expense of private individuals and ISPs.

What is interesting is that both of these propositions rely on state corporatism. The first one in a leftist, anti-authoritarian, economically redistributive way; the second one in an authoritarian way where actual judiciary powers are redistributed to private entities. State corporatism has always been inherent to social democracy, and has historically fluctuated between these two, ideologically quite different forms of state intervention and favouritism. Maybe the political appropriation of unauthorised file-sharing can be devised along a similar scale between authoritarianism (or vanguardism) on the one extreme, and corporatism (social democracy) on the other. Since both the traditional left and the traditional right contain both of these tendencies, a left/right divide seems to exist – but diagonally rather than horizontally across the traditional political spectrum.

The Swedish centre-right parties, for example, contain opponents as well as proponents to the EU-wide authoritarian policies like IPRED, ACTA and data retention. The same goes for the parties on the left.

One needn’t envisage the debate in such a polarised form, however. In my previous posting, an alternative conception of the different modes of sociality pertaining to file-sharing in a country like Sweden is considered. It presents a less dichotomised view, where the binary of either/or is analytically replaced by an organic notion of emergent processes from the molecular to the molar.

This notion of molecular and molar can be connected to Bruno Latour’s concepts of visibility, tracing and macro/micro. As is established in my thesis: with digital networks there is no panoptic overview. Any local instantiation of file-sharing would initially rely on a myopic interaction with one’s available local clues to the molar connectedness, universality and ubiquity of the network as a whole. There seems to be an inherently non-overseeable dimension to digital networks. The Internet is not panoptic, it isn’t a town square. It is a series of interconnected rooms, that are each traversed locally, by a means of a control which is oligoptic. See Latour’s Reassembling the Social (2005).

A way for my respondents to grapple with their own, molecular interaction with the wider world of file-sharing was to use the recurring metaphor of defining file-sharing as a veritable ‘people’s movement’ (‘folkrörelse’). This concept of ‘people’s movements’ (or, as was also noted, ‘folk sports’) appears to be a particularly Swedish concept.

However, it is a way of formulating the haziness and ubiquity of file-sharing as a valid collective; to give it a rhetorically powerful, molar form (albeit perhaps only appropriated in the abstract). It allows the phenomenon to be invoked alongside the already formulated macro entities or established institutional actors of the copyright lobby, thus serving an argumentative and legitimating purpose.

It lends an otherwise invisible, nebulous phenomenon a legitimising thrust; in some way sanctioning it, for example by pointing to its documented popularity and adoption among wider layers of the population, something which further asserts its supposedly ‘unstoppable’ nature. It is also a way of branding one’s own movement in market terms.

Central to the self-recognition of a ‘movement’ of file-sharing is the emphasis expressed by the slogan sharing is caring: an abstract, contractual “love” which counters the anarchy and egoism that a free-for-all system might be thought causing. Following Hobbes, the radically de-territorialising nature of file-sharing would imply a laissez-faire normativity which would spawn a war-against-all opportunism.

However, the  ethos of individual solidarity, that this ‘caring’ implies, works in direct opposition against such a destructive scenario, while still maintaining the scope for opportunism and individual utility maximisation. At the core of this slogan lies the very insight that what is common to all is also the source of happiness for the individual; something which directly connects to the core elements of a particularly Swedish concept of liberty.

Ironically, also the justification for file-sharing is thus seems to take on a corporatist form, albeit of a very different kind than the strong-arm corporatism of IPRED and the like. File-sharing in Sweden does not remain an impotent, endlessly fractured mass of molecular, atomised instances – it is shaped and moulded, not only discursively, but performatively – into interest groups, organisations, national arms and lines, unified under shared banners.

Hence, perhaps, the potency of the Swedish file-sharing phenomenon.

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