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

Summary of my thesis

In BitTorrent, file-sharing, media ecology, media history, p2p, politics, Sweden on October 26, 2010 at 6:35 pm

As I have now had my Ph.D. recently registered with University of London, I want to take the opportunity to present a brief summary of it here.

Obviously, in 346 pages, there is a LOT more to draw on from it. The subject of p2p-based file-sharing is a complex one, and one challenge was to concentrate all this complexity into a comprehensive – yet not overly simplifying – account.

Please email me if you want a copy of the thesis. See my personal webpage or this blog for contact details.

My thesis is about Swedish file-sharers’ own arguments and motives. I analyze how they justify their habits, and what they refer to. I interviewed Swedish file sharers and analyzed blogs, newspapers, debates and web comments. I placed great emphasis on connecting the arguments to various sociological theories of representation, agency, justification and morality, as well as to the actual technical, economic, historical, demographic and geographical conditions. As the actual p2p protocols (especially BitTorrent protocol) are so central to the drama, the sociologist’s role is to determine: What is BitTorrent? How shall we understand the “nature” of a network, and the way the users themselves constantly invoke this “nature”? Ontology – how reality is described and defined – becomes the crux of the debate.

The thesis is a monograph, but its different chapters address different elements of the phenomenon. In my literature review I describe how the “copyfight” – the alleged clash between “pirates” and “industry” – has been established through the years, and how it has, in part, been reinforced by a strong activist bias among the contemporary critics of copyright. I also describe how copyright critique has tended to equate file sharing with gift economy, which I argue is a somewhat unfortunate metaphor. I suggest some better metaphors in its place, arguing for example that file-sharing is better characterised by a de-personalised exchange rather than a dyadic friend-to-friend exchange.

My historical and technical overview of file-sharing explains how the p2p architectures work, and provides a historical overview of the various networks, protocols and applications that have become popular. I discuss the lack of transparency and the lack of demographic overview and describing the phenomenon in simple metaphors. I place great emphasis on comfort and acquisition as driving factors, and I note how the network architecture precludes regulation in its entirety, allowing only for local crackdowns, something which explains the file-sharers’ own arguments about the phenomenon being “unstoppable”.

One of the chapters that my examiners appreciated the most was my discussion of a typical Swedish late modernity, and the social contract that file-sharing world in fact share with the Swedish Social Democratic model of society: The fact that one’s own personal freedom is directly dependent upon and made possible by a universally over-arching collective. The “blind” file-sharing network as well as the state’s supposedly “blind” functionality as a system is what allows the individual, molecular actors their flexibility and choice. I also provide several historically based explanations as for why file-sharing has been such a popular force in Sweden, and what we can social trends we can discern in file-sharing, as it allows for strong self-interest, expediency and personal independence (something which the innovative system design “harnesses” in order to benefit the overall collective).

My overall conclusion is that the file-sharers’ own justificatory arguments are based on ontological assumptions about the “nature” of the network. As far as I can see and duly confirm in my technical and historical overview above, several of these assumptions are well-founded, given the observed network architecture. Interestingly, this also means that the question of “blame” becomes distributed to fall on not only one, but a range of numerous actors involved: the thousands of human users who participate, as well as the non-human actors that the machinery, computer programs and protocols comprise. This was also clear in Pirate Bay trial, in which the blame could never be entirely attributed to the accused persons. Their involvement could only be defined in terms of varying degrees of “complicity”.

The difficulty of regulation “from above” leads me to conclude the thesis with an argument for self-regulation among file-sharers. This increases rather than decreases the need to further explore the norms and standards that are emerging, and the personal moral considerations of Internet users.

Many of the arguments found in the thesis are found in a more brief form in my and Pelle Snickars’s introduction to our recent Swedish anthology, Efter The Pirate Bay. In the reader, I contribute with a chapter on network architecture (“The stupid net”) which is based in part on my technical and historical background chapter in the thesis. Further, much of what Lars Ilshammar describes in his chapter in the same reader are confirmed in my thesis chapter on Swedish late modernity.

  1. Congratulations Jonas, please send me your thesis, same old email
    armin

  2. I interested in piracy as resistance and mediaecology also researching. Id like to have a copy too… for my lit review although im interested in piracy from an aesthetic pov….

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