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Digital anarchy

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Wednesday, Jun 17, 2009

Generation Bubble reports on the UCLA Mellon Seminar in Digital Humanities and its most recent manifesto, which proposes an aggressive assault on intellectual property: the digital humanists movement “believes that copyright and IP standards must be freed from the stranglehold of Capital, including the capital possessed by heirs who live parasitically off of the achievements of their deceased predecessors.” Thus, the manifesto proposes we “pirate and pervert materials by the likes of Disney on such a massive scale that the IP bosses will have to sue your entire neighborhood, school, or country” and “practice digital anarchy by creatively undermining copyright, mashing up media, recutting images, tracks, and texts.” By these lights, Girl Talk is not a lame DJ but a Trotskyist firebrand leading the revolution from his laptop mixing board, one mashup salvo at a time. The manifesto regards media miscegenation as an inherent expression of freedom rather than a perhaps lamentable indication of the trap we are in, at a few stages removed from original creation, doomed to fabricate our material culture from shopworn digital remnants.


The manifesto suggests that eradicating intellectual property will lead to more cooperative intellectual labor, mediated by internet-distributed open-source software tools, while facilitating the “reinvention of the solitary, ‘eccentric,’ even hermetic work carried out by lone individuals both inside and outside the academy”. That sounds somewhat sinister—fomenting an effort to re-educate decadent individualists, perhaps through some rigorous self-criticism and a few self-denunciation sessions, and make them into better-functioning members of the collective, content to have their anonymous contributions to the new society recognized through its success at maintaining total control.


One need not be especially cynical to question the utopianism the manifesto trades in. Intellectual property is not merely some conspiracy cooked up by Capital but a flawed expression of the individual’s pursuit for social recognition, which under capitalism is expressed through wages, salary, or payment of some kind or other. Perhaps we are to believe that in the future everyone will be content to disappear into the mass, to be mashed-up in the grand sociocultural remix to end all remixes, but I doubt it; the would-be technoutopians out there also seem to be those most highly networked, those who are most plugged in to the contemporary means of publicity. And it is not like academics in the humanities eschew recognition; their reputational squabbles seem to matter more to them than any aspect of their scholarly contributions.


So doing away with IP, society’s current mode of administering recognition, serves only to alienate the creators the manifesto’s writers seek to liberate. What must be found is a way to replace IP with a different system for doling out that recognition—the attention economy’s currency. Generation Bubble points out IP’s enforcement problems, which have the tendency to invalidate the concept’s moral grounding.


The age of virtual reproduction, where the costs associated with making cultural artifacts have in many cases become negligible (just about anyone can, with a little bit of know-how, record studio quality music on a desktop, for instance), has engendered an unprecedented situation. Gatekeepers of intellectual property now appear as veritable dogs in the manger. Each time they encode a sound-file to prohibit its copying, or each time they install crippleware on an electronic device to inhibit its full functionality, they betray the fact that scarcity is now more a matter of insistence than fact.


That’s well put. But the fact that scarcity is is always going to seem poorly manufactured suggests that we’ll move on to a different tack: encouraging the deluge and enhancing the value of reliable editor and filters. In such a world, an individual’s reputation for discernment will become even more valuable, and the economy within which they exist more hierarchical. 



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