The Threat of Open Content

Its been an interesting few days in digital activism.  First on Wednesday Wikipedia, Reddit and BoingBoing shut down together with very public protests from Google, Craigslist and Mozilla over the proposed SOPA and PIPA acts, this was rapidly followed by a raid on MegaUpload, a file transfer system for large files, accused of internet piracy.  In retaliation Anonymous shut down fourteen websites, including the FBI under a distributed denial of service attack.

It would appear that the protests over were quite a success with 4.5 million signing Google’s online petition, 162 million seeing the protest message on Wikipedia and 8 million people looking up their elected representatives address, and indeed both SOPA and PIPA have now been withdrawn – for now at any rate. Yet it is still worth looking carefully at the drivers of the desire for content control .

Most of the sites involved in anti-SOPA/PIPA actions on Wednesday were factual sites, with Wikipedia leading the charge.  Ten years ago, Wikipedia was in its infancy, started just the year before by the following year it had a definitive web-presence of 150, 000 articles and growing exponentially; it now has over 4 million covering all reaches of human knowledge, all sourced from a multitude of mainly unknown and unseen authors, its accuracy regulated not by committee or editorial approval but by community and collective regulation.

Attempts to deliberately insert flattering profiles of politicans, to talk up companies, or do down rivals, have backfired spectacularly.  The transparency of IP address tracking, informing people where edits have come from, allows a level of oversight over the content and the perspectives of the editors, while collectively aggregating edits gives an insight into their agendas.

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.

The quote above from Stewart Brand is an interesting phraseology, attributing desire to information – that it “wants” to be free or expensive.  Information has no consciousness and no will, it is an external representation of the internal schemata of human knowledge in a reified form.  It is valuable because within the information is power; but cost is indeterminate – both quantitatively and in its attribution.

Information is data interpreted: the raw facts and observations obtained through the senses, converted into communicable units and put into a pre-existing context.  Data on labour relations in China, aggregated in a relevant manner becomes the information that Apple abuses its workers.  This information is hetero-topically valuable.  It is valuable for anyone who want to know if workers rights are a business issue China; for other companies seeking a PR move over Apple; for human rights activists mapping labour abuses; for Apple itself when exploring how labour costs can be reduced by re-locating production.  It also has a cost: who knows the information determines the cost of the information and who that cost is borne by.  This information in the hands of other companies seeking to exploit workers may cost workers increased exploitation; in the hands of human rights activists may cost Apple valuable public relations and consequent sales.

The value and cost of information intersect: control over that information then becomes control over the exploitation of value and the minimisation of cost.  Ownership, access and control of data and of information then becomes enormously valuable at the macro level.  Beyond mere information tho, comes narrative – information put within a story, contextualised and structured with a distinctive will to power.  These stories, factual or fictional take information and transmit it to the consumer through an appropriate medium.  Narrative is powerful: not for nothing do they burn books, but fire is a crude technology and there are usually more subtle means of narrative suppression.  When these subtle means break down, more robust methods must be used.

The shutdown of MegaUpload must be seen within this context.  Promoted as a necessary intervention to prevent intellectual property crime, to stop the downloading of copyrighted materials, it has significant support from content producers, who produced a music video defending and promoting the service.  Without so much as a nod to irony, the video was removed from YouTube on copyright grounds.  Yesterday, in what would seem to be part retaliation and part pre-emptive strike over in SOPA, it was shutdown.

This is old media versus new.  The content producers reliant on the essentially physical distribution services of picture houses and television sets, pitted against the distribution producers reliant on essentially ephemeral content production services.  If you can control the distribution channel, you can control what is shown, what is watched, what is talked about and what is made. And therein lies the danger.  Control over data has been lost through Wikileaks; control over information through Wikipedia; narrative is the next to go.

Lyotard talks of the collapse of the Grand Narrative, that universal hegemony was being undermined by the development of “petit recits”, localised and context specific narratives which reflect different theoretical standpoints from different holistic viewpoints.  The net has massively contributed to the provision of these, by the same incident being pictured and filmed from (literally) a variety of viewpoints, information from the incident being relayed in different forms and alternative narratives constructed around it. Such is the power of distributed content production…if we can obtain it.

Suppression of their radical potential has muted technologies in the past, from print to radio – only once neutralised, neutered and safe may they be unleashed, but this time there is an awareness – the narrative of  protecting content has been challenged, and the true content of narrative protection is becoming exposed.

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