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

1999 > 1968 ?

In history, politics, post-piratical on April 29, 2009 at 12:14 pm

The politics of the net contain the remedy to its own inherent populism. These politics are arguably more about an “us-against-us” than an “us-against-them”.

The net is boiling and the sentence against The Pirate Bay has raised the temperature. Online civic mobilisation is bubbling throughout Europe, regarding the possible amendments to the EU Telecoms Reform Package which can guarantee better rights for everyday users, in the face of increasing commercialisation, segmentation and regulation. As the political mobilisation regarding all this has swelled very rapidly over the last months, in Sweden it has recently been suggested that this online civil movement is beginning to reach some predictable states, where self-appointed spokesmen and pre-written party manifestos appear. This is a translation of my response to those suspicions, recently published on the Swedish debate site Newsmill.se.

Something is in the air. Spring is blooming, online as well as offline. However, the roots of today’s online political mobilisation are arguably found in the digital revolution of 1999 rather than in the political turning point that was 1968.

I often get the impression that those who actually experienced 1968 do recognise the commitment and hedonism of today’s post-piratical tumult. Many baby-boomers who were involved in the events of ’68 seem to be in favour of the innovation, the potentials for strengthened citizenship and the challenging of established society that the copyleft movement carries.

Western middle-class baby-boomers are a materially well-heeled generation. Still fresh-faced and suntanned, I am sure that many of them sympathise with the individual, peremptory impulse that reverberates throughout the sociality of the net: I want to take part of the information that I want, no one can stop me. I want to link together those pieces of information that I want to, no one will steer me in any direction. I want my private life kept private, no one can monitor me.

As with the laws of the market, individual selfishness is not really a problem, as it is the driving force for society as long as the desire is channelled so that it doesn’t create disaster for everyone else. Isn’t file-sharing actually quite compatible with capitalism at large, if the overall, total effect of file-sharing is good?

A lot of societal benefit is created right now, as we speak, thanks to the multiplication of connections, and overall network effects that we can’t really measure…yet. Sure, some actors are on the minus side of this overall balance sheet, but if we take a bird’s eye view we can infer that there is also a huge plus side which is most likely to outweigh the negative side by far. Newspapers complain, for example, that Google are “leeching” their material, but in the same breath they completely forget the huge, free benefits that Google itself gives said newspapers. Some of these positive network effects we may not see directly, but we can feel them in the air.

***

I believe that even the old ’68 acolytes can feel this. They see the dynamic changes that have happened only in the last ten years. However, there are things that this class of ’68 might not perceive in the same comprehensive way.

When talking to people in my parents’ generation about file-sharing, I am often asked (especially in conflict-shy Sweden): “Will there never be an end to this row? Can’t they all reach an agreement?”

Realising that we are facing more of a latent, ongoing conflict doesn’t seem to be very comfortable or even fully comprehensible for many people. For those who grew up during student’s union occupations, Maoist indoctrination and placards against the U.S. war in Vietnam, political issues tend to be perceived as more of a linear process with a beginning, a middle and an end. Something is wrong, you protest, the opponent retorts but finally recoils at least a little bit, a compromise is reached, and the matter is considered to be resolved. This is the common dramaturgy of the mass media. One issue on the agenda, one at a time.

The politics of the net don’t really work like that.

We are seeing an ongoing brocade of legislative proposals, lobbying campaigns, various forms of policy, innovations and interventions that are all aimed to balance and counter the morass of innovation, development, encryption, copying and shifting of responsibility that takes place online.

It is more of a bustling, bubbling condition than a series of isolated cases. Moreover, almost every individual issue is about possible scenarios. It is a politics of imminent possibilities. On both sides of the debate, projections about the potential impact, the potential opportunities and threats are made. File-sharing may weaken cultural production – best to keep an eye on it. The harshening regulation of all things digital may perhaps create a new 1984 – best to keep an eye on it.

If one wants to be mean, one could see the emerging cascades of engagement and affect among Internet users as a rampant frenzy, where heightened, potential horror scenarios are inflated and run like a blaze across the blogosphere. This while MEPs and legal experts are trying to calm the masses and mean that proposals such as the Telecoms Package are really rather mundane and have largely positive elements to them, and that what the citizens are so fired up about are really only a few, potentially flammable elements of said policies.

In that sense, the blogosphere’s own affective storms follow a logic which is not totally unfamiliar to the traditional mass media – with the difference, however, that the defenders of Internet freedom and openness constitute a fire brigade that is more consistent in its problem analysis than traditional media often are. While traditional media have a commitment to “let both sides be heard,” network mobilisation can focus on emergency-campaigning in defence of those values that it prizes the most.

***

So, what are these values? If one pays attention to Swedish commentators like Karl Palmås, Isobel Hadley-Kamptz, Christopher Kullenberg and those voices within the Pirate Party who have embraced the ’99 line of thinking, some central pillars emerge:

  • We are (re)building. There is something inherently wrong with the design of current copyright laws, patent laws, and repressive governmentality. There is something inherently wrong with the design of the EU. There is something inherently wrong with the actual representation and transparency of both government and MPs. Bring on the spirit level, the hammer and the saw! A hacker-influenced activism is engaged with reconstruction or altogether new construction. It seeks to build actual, functioning, alternative solutions instead of being stuck in a reactive grumbling over injustice. The Pirate Bay is a business model. See that potential!
  • The Internet is an extension of the brain. There is no real border between my brain and the network. On the Web we hardly know where our own brains end and others’ begin. New cultural products rarely have pre-given beginnings and ends. On the Web, authors become involved in conversations with the readers. The comments are sometimes as important as the body text. The citizen becomes a journalist. The researcher becomes an activist. Newspapers start living in symbiosis with Google. It is customary to speak of computer viruses as a bad thing, but exciting ideas act as infections spreading between humans, mutating into something completely new.
  • Kopimi. All creation is based on imitation. Not in a superficial way – this is a fundamental rationale for a novel way to think of economic values and entrepreneurship. Locking knowledge behind closed doors is no longer seen as an isolated practice, which is okay as long as this lock doesn’t have a bad impact on society. This can’t continue to be the case, if we really face up to the consequences of actually living in a “knowledge economy”. If knowledge is so important to society at large as it supposedly is, then such monopolies become obsolete. They become synonymous with protectionism: Favourable for some individual actors, but bad for all the rest of us.
  • Money can’t measure network effects. The economic war that has been declared on The Pirate Bay and the fundamental ambiguity about what a shared file is actually worth are both indications of this. There are values that capitalism in its current mode cannot see, and becomes deprived of, since it lacks the instruments to absorb them. Reputation, distribution, assessment, credibility, excitement – all of these values are still difficult to measure in terms of money. If the reader finds this a bit woolly, then recall how our valuation of brands and trademarks has changed only since the 1950s or how the notion of what ultimately drives individual consumption has changed since 1920s. The way we make economic valuations has changed fundamentally since then.
  • Many a little makes a mickle. “Aggregation” is more than a buzz word for joining together data streams. Almost all of the productive output of networks can be said to follow this idiom in that when numerous small, individual operators are working synchronously, something larger than the sum of its parts is created. Often one does not even know in advance exactly what this “something” will be. An ongoing adventure! We thus see how new institutional actors come to circulate in human consciousness and as actual powers in the world. Collective forces beyond simple individual control. This may seem daunting, and the regulatory legislation that we have seen recently is probably a response to this, based on the fundamental mistrust of these unruly collectives and unexpected synergies that the polity seems to hold. And we must remember that this isn’t new. The unruly crowds mobilised through grassroots processes constituted the basis for the nascent labour movement, but were quickly curbed and struck down by means of hierarchy, corporatism and pacification.

***

The Internet has a granular, molecular nature and its most significant accumulation of power, commitment, love and interest happens in its long tail of single, interrelated but rather modest actors. The sweeping, often unpredictable waves that emerge among these dispersed users is what creates the basis for a politics of the net. I often silently condemn the populism that the Internet makes possible in its unabashed quantification of all sorts of things – the number of hits, number of downloads, number of “friends” – as the nostalgic in me still believes in some form of independent authenticity that the masses tend to miss, or overlook.

The politics of the net have a frighteningly short memory, minimal attention span and often show reactions that are abrupt, sometimes even abrasive. But paradoxically, at the same time these politics carry an immense level of concentration, sense of detail and a brilliant awareness of the impact and consequences of various actions.

Its relentlessness means that its temporary spokespersons, like me in this text right now, can be chewed and spat out as fast as they are taken up. Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow – that’s one of the consequences of hacker logic. Trends towards sectarianism will always be present when large quantities of people are involved, but the mass is smarter than its self-proclaimed vanguard. If the veritable boy scout movements of the Pirate Parties or Creative Commons become too “scoutish,” this is noted almost instantly by a cadre of rapid, razor-sharp bloggers.

If political mobilisation traditionally takes place by invoking an us-against-them thinking or a designation of “alien powers,” it is in a sense reassuring that the network thus carries a power that’s very often quite alien to itself. It is less of an us-against-them and more about an us-against-us. Perhaps the network itself does contain the seeds of a new kind of populism, but then it becomes our shared task to – you guessed it – keep an eye on it.

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