Part 1: It’s a peer-to-peer world
The rise of electronic peer-to-peer networks has thrown global entertainment industries into panic mode. They have been clamouring for more expansive controls over personal computers and corporate and university networks. They have proposed radical re-engineering of basic and generally open communicative technologies. And they have complained quite loudly – often with specious data and harsh tones that have had counterproductive public relations results – about the extent of their plight.
But the future of entertainment is only a small part of the story. In many areas of communication, social relations, cultural regulation, and political activity, peer-to-peer models of communication have grown in influence and altered the terms of exchange.
What is at stake?
This is the story of clashing ideologies: information anarchy and information oligarchy . They feed off of each other dialectically. Oligarchy justifies itself through “moral panics” over the potential effects of anarchy. And anarchy justifies itself by reacting to the trends toward oligarchy.
The actors who are promoting information anarchy include libertarians, librarians, hackers, terrorists, religious zealots, and anti-globalisation activists. The actors who push information oligarchy include major transnational corporations, the World Trade Organisation, and the governments of the United States of America and the Peoples’ Republic of China.
Rapidly, these ideologies are remaking our information ecosystem. And those of us uncomfortable with either vision, and who value what we might call “information justice”, increasingly find fault and frustration with the ways our media, cultural, information and political systems are changing.
The most interesting thing about these challenges and battles is that we can observe how ideologies alter our worlds. Ideologies are, to use a phrase from Pierre Bourdieu, “structuring structures”. Ideologies are lenses, ways of thinking and seeing, that guide our perceptions and habits. They are permeable and malleable. They are not determinative. But they make a difference in the judgments we make and the habits we develop.
In recent years we have seen the rise of anarchy as a relevant ideology in many areas of life. Our ideologies affect the technologies we choose to adopt. And using certain technologies can alter our ideologies. Anarchy is not just a function of small political groups and marginal information technologies any more. Anarchy matters.
This is more than a battle of ideologies. It is also the story of specific battles. There are dozens of examples of recent and current conflicts that arose out of efforts to control the flows of information:
- The story of the “Locust Man,” an imprisoned dissident democratic activist in China who distributed political messages by attaching them to the backs of locusts.
- The ordeal of the public library in Arlington, Virginia, at which two of the hijackers of 11 September 2001 used public terminals in the days preceding their attack. An increasing number of American librarians have had to endure federal law enforcement agencies asking them to violate their code of ethics and their patrons’ privacy since this incident.
- The controversy over the complaint that some Canadian women can no longer get tested for genes that indicate a predisposition for breast cancer because an American company has patented those genes and charges too much for the test.
Through such incidents, we can examine the following issues:
- The battle to control democratic sources of information such as public libraries, which are suddenly considered dens of terrorism and pornography. Libraries are under attack through technological mandates and legal restrictions.
- Efforts to radically re-engineer the personal computers and networks to eliminate the very power and adaptability that makes these machines valuable.
- The cultural implications of allowing fans and creators worldwide sample cultural products at no marginal costs through peer-to-peer computer networks.
- Futile attempts to restrict the use and distribution of powerful encryption technology out of fear that criminals and terrorists will evade surveillance.
- Commercial and governmental efforts to regulate science and mathematics, including control over the human genome.
- Attempts to stifle the activities of political dissidents and religious groups.
- The information policy implications of recent United States policies including the USA Patriot Act, Total Information Awareness, and the Department of Homeland Security.
This essay is the first of a series for openDemocracy that will consider these battles for control of information. This introductory piece will examine the proliferation of peer-to-peer systems.
The nature of peer-to-peer
Peer-to-peer electronic networks such as Napster, KaZaa, and Gnutella, solve two communicative problems and create two more.
The first problem is somewhat trivial. Where do we find a convenient index to files on other people’s hard drives? Or, in the case of Napster founder Sean Fanning, a Boston-area university student, how can I find music on other people’s computers without asking them to expose themselves to threats by copyright holders?
The second problem is more substantial. How do we exploit two of the great underused resources of the digital age: surplus storage space and surplus processing power? More significantly, how do we do this in a way that is effectively anonymous and simple?
Fundamentally, peer-to-peer file-sharing systems such as KaZaa, Gnutella, Freenet, and the dearly-departed Napster attempt to recapture or at least simulate the structure and function of the original internet, when all clients were servers and all servers were clients.
This original vision of the internet, call it Internet 1.0, arose in the 1970s and devolved around 1994 with the rise of ISPs and dynamic Internet Protocol (IP) numbers. The handful of netizens of Internet 1.0 worked with mainframe computers linked to each other through the Domain Name System (DNS), which helped direct packets of data to the proper destination. Each sender and each destination had a discreet and constant IP number that identified it to the network hubs.
But as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) proliferated in the mid-1990s and connected millions of personal computers to networks for only several minutes or hours at a time, it became clear that rotating and re-using IP numbers would allow many more users to share the internet.
Thus began Internet 2.0, in which increasingly personal computers allowed their users to receive and consume information, but allowed limited ability to donate to the system. This extension of the network cut off personal computers from the server business. Most users donated information only through e-mail. And it became clear that while the internet once seemed like a grand bazaar of homemade goods and interesting (albeit often frightening) texts generated through community dynamics, it would soon seem more like a shopping mall than a library or bazaar.
Two new problems
Peer-to-peer file-sharing technology is a set of protocols that allow users to open up part of their private content to public inspection, and thus, copying. In the digital world, one cannot access a file without making a copy of it. From this fact arose the first peer-to-peer problem: there is no way to enforce scarcity on these systems. The popularity and common uses of these protocols produce massive anxiety within the industries that rely on artificial scarcity to generate market predictability.
The second problem is less well understood because there is no special interest constituency complaining about it. So states have stepped up to take the lead in confronting it. That problem is irresponsibility. Because most of what happens over peer-to-peer networks is relatively anonymous, servers and clients are not responsible for the ramifications of their communicative acts. Using widely available forms of encryption or networks that assure privacy, one may traffic in illicit material such as child pornography with almost no fear. In many places in the world, the availability of adult pornography or racist speech through peer-to-peer systems undermines a decade of efforts to cleanse the more visible and therefore vulnerable World Wide Web.
This second problem is actually a solution to another communicative problem that exists primarily in illiberal communicative contexts. Many of the same states that hope to quash pornography also want to quash the speech and organisational communications of democratic activists. So the very existence of these communicative technologies creates moral panics throughout the illiberal world as well as the liberal world. While some worry about the erosion of commerce, others worry about the erosion of power. And the same technologies that liberal societies would use to protect commerce might find more effective uses in Burma or China.
Listening to Napster
But most of the popular discussion about the rise and effects of peer-to-peer technology has read like a sports story: who is winning and who is losing? Some has read like a crime story: how do we stop this thievery? I am more interested in looking at peer-to-peer communication in its most general sense. How do we explain the peer-to-peer phenomenon? How do we get beyond the sports story or the crime story?
Peer-to-peer communication is unmediated, uncensorable, and virtually direct. It might occur between two computers sitting on different continents. It might occur across a fence in a neighborhood in Harare, Zimbabwe. What we are hearing when we listen to peer-to-peer systems are “bruits publics”, or public noises – not the reasonable, responsible give and take of the bourgeois public sphere.
This is very old. What we call ‘p2p’ communicative networks actually reflect and amplify – revise and extend – an old ideology or cultural habit. Electronic peer-to-peer systems like Gnutella merely simulates other, more familiar forms of unmediated, uncensorable, irresponsible, troublesome speech; for example, anti-royal gossip before the French Revolution, trading cassette tapes among youth subcultures such as punk or rap, or the distribution of illicit Islamist cassette tapes through the streets and bazaars of Cairo.
Certain sectors of modern society have evolved with and through the ideology of peer-to-peer. Academic culture and science rely on an ideal of raw, open criticism: peer-to-peer review, one might call it. The difference, of course, is that academia and science generally require a licensing procedure to achieve admission to the system. The Free Software movement is the best example of what legal theorist Yochai Benklercalls “peer production”, but what we might as well, for the sake of cuteness and consistency, call “peer-to-peer production”.
This form of speech has value. But it has different value in different contexts. And while peer-to-peer communication has an ancient and important, although under-documented, role, we are clearly seeing both an amplification and a globalisation of these processes.
That means that what used to occur only across fences or on park benches now happens between and among members of the Chinese diaspora who might be in Vancouver and Singapore, Shanghai and Barcelona. As cultural groups disperse and reify their identities, they rely more and more on the portable elements of their collective culture which are widely available through electronic means.
The clampdown strategy
Several technological innovations have enabled this amplification and globalisation of peer-to-peer communication:
- The protocols that makeup the internet (i.e. TCP/IP) and the relative openness of networks that make up the internet.
- The modularity, customisability, portability, and inexpense of the personal computer.
- The openness, customisability, and insecurity of the major personal computer operating systems.
- The openness, insecurity, and portability of the digital content itself.
Understandably, states and corporations that wish to impede peer-to-peer communication have been focusing on these factors. These are, of course, the very characteristics of computers and the internet that have driven this remarkable – almost revolutionary – adoption of them in the past decade.
These are the sites of the battle. States and media corporations wish to:
- Monitor and regulate every detail of communication and shift liability and regulatory responsibility to the Internet Service Providers.
- Redesign the protocols that run the internet.
- Neuter the customisability of the personal computer and other digital devices.
- Impose “security” on the operating systems so that they might enable “trust” between a content company and its otherwise untrustworthy users.
These efforts involve both public and private intervention, standard setting by states and private actors. The United States Congress, the Federal Communication Commission, the Motion Picture Association of America, Microsoft and Intel have all been involved in efforts to radically redesign our communicative technologies along these lines. And they are appealing for complementary legal and technical interventions by the European Union and the World Trade Organisation.
These moves would create Internet 3.0, although it would not actually look like the internet at all. It would not be open and customisable. Content – and thus culture – would not be adaptable and malleable. And what small measures of privacy these networks now afford would evaporate. These are the dangers that Lawrence Lessig warned us about in 1998 in his seminal work Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Only now are we coming to understand that Lessig was right.
These regulatory efforts have sparked an arms race. The very suggestion of such radical solutions generated immediate reactions by those who support anarchistic electronic communication. Every time a regime rolls out a new form of technological control, some group of hackers or “hacktivists” break through it or evade it in a matter of weeks. The only people who really adhere to these controls are those not technologically proficient: most of the world.
It might surprise casual observers of these battles that the important conflicts are not happening in court. The Napster case had some interesting rhetorical nuggets. But basically this was classic contributory infringement by a commercial service. KaZaa is a bit more interesting because it is a distributed company with assets under a series of jurisdictions and a technology that limits its ability to regulate what its clients do. KaZaa might collapse and only fully distributed, voluntary networks might remain: namely, Gnutella and Freenet.
The real conflicts will be in the devices, the networks, and the media products themselves. And there seems to be few areas of healthy public discussion or critique about the relationships between technology and culture.
Meanwhile, the strategies and structures that limit peer-to-peer communication also quash dissent, activism, and organisation in illiberal contexts – that is, oppressive, totalitarian and authoritarian states. And for this reason, p2p systems like Freenet – encrypted, completely anonymous, and unquenchable – are essential tools for democratic activists in places like Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Burma and China.
The lessons for the public sphere
Where there is no rich, healthy public sphere we should support anarchistic communicative techniques. Where there is a rich, healthy public sphere, we must take an honest, unromantic account of the costs of such anarchy. And through public spheres we should correct for the excesses of communicative anarchy.
Still, we must recognise that poor, sickly, fragile public spheres are more common than rich, healthy public spheres. And the battles at play over privacy, security, surveillance, censorship and intellectual property in the United States right now will determine whether we will count the world’s oldest democracy as sickly or healthy.
Anarchy is radical democracy. But it is not the best form of democracy. But as a set of tools, anarchy can be an essential antidote to tyranny.
Part 2: ‘Pro-gumbo’: culture as anarchy
In much of the American South before the Civil War, drums were illegal. Slaveholders were aware of the West African traditions of “talking instruments” and tried everything within their means to stifle free, open, unmediated communication across distances. Drums could signal insurrection. And drums could conjure collective memories of a time of freedom.
Mostly, slaveholders realised that to subjugate masses of people, they had to alienate them from their culture as much as possible. They had to strand them in a strange land and try to make that land seem stranger than it was. They had to strictly regulate slave culture. They had to outlaw slave literacy. They had to commit social and cultural homicide to keep otherwise free people from rising up and taking charge of their own bodies.
That the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean still set the time for American culture speaks to the determination and courage of African American slaves. The slaveholders outlawed the tools. But they could not stop the beat (see Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans and Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue)
As oligarchic forces such as global entertainment conglomerates strive to restrict certain tools that they assume threaten their livelihood, they should consider that throughout the history of communication, people have managed to use and adapt technologies in surprising and resilient ways.
Once in a while, a set of communicative technologies offers revolutionary potential: peer-to-peer networks do just that. They are part of a collection of technologies – including cassette audio tapes, video tapes, recordable compact discs, video discs, home computers, the internet, and jet airplanes – that link diasporic communities and remake nations. They empower artists in new ways and connect communities of fans.
The battle to control these cultural flows says much about the anxieties and unsteadiness of the power structures that had hoped to exploit cultural globalisation. It also teaches us much about the nature of culture itself.
Global culture by the download
A couple of years ago, a journalist friend of mine put me in contact with a gentleman who does consulting work for the World Bank. This gentleman called me to see if I was interested in participating in a meeting in New York that June which would enable cultural ministers from a handful of African countries – including Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa – to meet leaders from the American music industry. The goal was to brainstorm about how African musicians might exploit digital music distribution systems to market and deliver their songs directly to diasporic communities.
He had no way of knowing what I thought of this idea. I had yet to publish anything on the subject. So my opinions were not widely known. So he was not quite prepared for my reaction.
“Why do they need record companies?” I asked. “The artists can do it all themselves for less than $10,000.”
He was stunned. Having a World Bank perspective on development, he assumed that the artists of the developing world would need and welcome the giant helping hand of Bertelsmann or AOL Time Warner. So he responded with an appeal to technological expertise. The artists would need the major labels, he said, because the labels are working on incorporating digital rights management software into digital music files. Without watermarking or copy-protection features, the artists would just be giving their music away.
Then I explained to him that it was too late for all that. The power of digitisation and networking had beaten him and the record companies to it. I didn’t even touch the subject of the complications inherent in asking African musicians – who are often dissidents – to work with government culture ministers. I just made it seem like he had missed a technological moment. He had the best of intentions. But he had not considered that certain technological changes had fostered a new ideological movement as well. And that these trends might change the nature of global music and creativity.
All music will be ‘world music’
One of the great unanswered questions is how file sharing and MP3 compression will affect the distribution of what music corporations call “world music”, tunes from non-English-speaking nations, offering rhythms that seem fresh to Europeans and Americans who have grown up and old on the driving four-four beat of rock-and-roll.
Now, rhymes and rhythms from all corners of the Earth are available in malleable form at low cost to curious artists everywhere. Peer-to-peer has gone global. Of course, there are some big economic and technological hurdles to overcome before it can affect all cultural traditions equally. As the differences narrow, how will the availability of a vast and already stunningly diverse library of sounds change creativity and commerce? Won’t all music be “world music?”
The riches of ephemera
On any given day, on any peer-to-peer file sharing system, one can find the most obscure and rare items. I have downloaded some of Malcolm X’s speeches, Reggae remixes of Biggie Smalls’ hits, various club dance mixes of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and long lost Richard Pryor comedy bits that were only released on vinyl by a long-defunct company. Through nation-specific and general “world music” chat rooms on the now-defunct Napster, I had been able to find Tamil film songs, Carnatic classical music, and pop stuff from Asian Dub Foundation, Ali Farka Toure, Orisha, and Youssou N’Dour. The most interesting and entertaining phenomena of the MP3-peerto-peer is the availability of “mashes” – new compositions created by combining the rhythm tracks of one song and the vocal track of another. (The best example of a popular “mash”, currently, is Genie’s Revenge, a combination of vocals by Christina Aguilera and a guitar riff by the Strokes).
This is a phenomenon that ethnomusicologists are just starting to consider. During the 1980s and 1990s, anthropologist Steven Feld raised some serious questions about the future of global cultural diversity as “world music” gained market share and generated interest among western producers and labels.
Feld published some of his thoughts as an article called A Sweet Lullaby for World Music. The article traces the development of marketing efforts for this new genre of “world music”, which meant anything from drum beats from Mali to the ambient sounds of lemurs in Madagascar.
Feld expressed concern early on the very term “world music” made some forms of music distinct from what academics and music industry figures call “music”. Since the rise of the world music genre as a commercial factor, music scholarship has been asking the question, “how has difference fared in the new gumbo?” Feld wrote that recent world music scholarship has revealed the “uneven rewards, unsettling representations, and complexly entangled desires that lie underneath the commercial rhetoric of global connection, that is, the rhetoric of ‘free’ flow and ‘greater’ access.”
“Free flow” is a buzzword in north-south communication policy debates. Stemming from 1970s arguments in Unesco forums, the United States argued that the world community should establish standards that would encourage the free flow of information across borders, ostensibly to spread democracy and ensure civil rights.
Many oppressive states – chiefly India under Indira Gandhi – argued that the doctrine of “free flow” was merely a cover for what we now call the neoliberal agenda: sweetening American corporate expansion by dusting it with the sugar of enlightenment principles.
The “free-flow” vs. “cultural imperialism” argument (which has since been supplemented by another approach that emphasises the complex uses to which all audiences put cultural elements) has unfortunately limited our vision and stifled discussions about what we might do to encourage freedom and the positive externalities of cultural flow while limiting the oppressive and exploitative externalities of the spread of American and European modes of cultural production and distribution.
Feld also outlined the reaction to scholarship that embraced this “cultural imperialism” model. In contrast to those who raise concerns about the spread of new loud noises, “celebratory” scholarship emphasised the use and re-use of elements of American and European musical forms in the emerging pop sounds flowing from the developing world. It also celebrated the new market success that artists from the developing world were achieving. This scholarship emphasised fluid cultural identities and predicted an eventual equilibrium of the power differences in the world music industry.
Steven Feld, who belongs to that group of scholars who utilise what he calls “anxious narratives”, sees little possibility for resisting the commodification of ethnicity and musical styles. For the anxious, “global” becomes “displaced”; “emerging” become “exploited”; “cultural conversations” become “white noise”. To make his point that we should not ignore the effects of the cultural violence that is primitivism, Feld writes, “The advertisement of this democratic and liberal vision for world music embodies an idealism about free-flows, sharing, and choice. But it masks the reality that visibility in product choice is directly related to sales volume, profitability, and stardom.”
Even though I celebrate sharing, free flows, and gumbo, I must concede the gravity of Feld’s concerns. But my question now is: how does peer-to-peer change these issues?
Feld is really writing about the anxieties of ethnomusicologists. He is not so concerned with the effects on the actual music and how it works in the lives of musicians and fans:
“In the end, no matter how inspiring the musical creation, no matter how affirming its participatory dimension, the existence and success of world music returns to one of globalization’s basic economic clichés: the drive for more and more markets and market niches. In the cases here, we see how the worlds of small (UNESCO and Auvidis) and large (Sony) and major independent (ECM) music owners and distributors can come into unexpected interaction. We see how production can proceed from the acquisition of a faraway cheap inspiration and labor. We see how exotic Euromorphs can be marketed through newly layered tropes, like green enviroprimitivism, or spiritual new age avant-garde romanticism. We see how what is produced has a place in a larger industrial music zone of commodity intensification, in this case artistic encounters with indigeneity, as made over in popular Western styles. In all, we see how world music participates in shaping a kind of consumer-friendly multiculturalism, one that follows the market logic of expansion and consolidation.”
The peer-to-peer solutionPerhaps the spread of peer-to-peer libraries should allay the concerns of anxious critics. Peer-to-peer music distribution – so far – has been all about decorporatisation and deregulation. Music corporations do not control the flow, prices, or terms of access anymore. Music distribution has lower barriers of entry than ever before, and offers the potential of direct, communal marketing and creolisation.
We should acknowledge some key concepts about cultural globalisation:
- It’s happening, but it’s rolling out in ways that are alarming to those who hoped to profit the most from it.
- The prices and profits of globalisation are falling unevenly and unpredictably.
- Culture is not zero-sum. Using something does not prevent someone else from using it, and does not degrade its value. In fact, it might enhance it.
Culture is anarchistic
Culture is anarchistic if it is alive at all. It grows up from the common, everyday interactions among humans who share a condition or a set of common symbols and experiences.
We often mistake the collection of end-products of culture – the symphonies and operas, novels and poems – that have survived the rigorous peer review of markets and critics as the culture itself. Culture is not the sum of its products. It is the process that generates those products. And if it is working properly, culture is radically democratic, vibrant, malleable, surprising, and fun.
These two different visions of culture explain much of the difference between the assumptions behind information anarchy and information oligarchy. Anarchists – and many less radical democrats – believe that culture should flow with minimal impediments. Oligarchs, even if they seem politically liberal, favor a top-down approach to culture with massive intervention from powerful institutions such as the state, corporations, universities, or museums. All of these institutions may be used to construct and preserve free flows of culture and information. But all too often they are harnessed to the oligarchic cause, making winners into bigger winners, and thus rigging the cultural market.
What Matthew Arnold thinks of P2P
In 1867 the English critic Matthew Arnold published a treatise called Culture and Anarchy. The book was an extended argument with the cultural implications of John Stuart Mill’s 1859 book On Liberty. Arnold took Mill to task for endorsing a low level of cultural regulation. Culture, to Arnold, was all the good stuff that cultural authorities such as himself said it was. And culture, in the Arnoldian sense, was preferable – was in fact and antidote to – anarchy.
Samuel Huntington expresses this same oligarchic theory of culture in his simplistic yet influential book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington sees cultures as grounded on certain immutable foundations. He sees the emphasis on cultural transmission, fluidity, and hybridity as “trivial” when compared to the deep, essential texts and beliefs of a culture. Huntington affirms the role of the Bible in what he calls “western civilization” and the role of the Analects of Confucius in what he calls “Confucian civilization.”
In this way, Huntington disregards how people who live in these cultures actually use the texts and symbols around them. “The essence of Western Civilization is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac,” Huntington writes, despite the fact that most residents of the nations he labels “western” have no idea of the history or significance of the Magna Carta, yet no one can underestimate the cultural power of the Big Mac. Huntington is arguing against cultural globalisation, against fostering flows and exchanges of ideas and information. He looks at a dangerous and angry world and prescribes walls instead of paths.
Huntington’s preferred world might be quieter, but it would also be darker and dumber. The fact is, cultures change, grow, and revise themselves over time if they are allowed to. And cultural life is healthier when cultures are allowed to grow and revise themselves. Only during the European “Dark Ages” (5th to 12th centuries CE) have we seen a large portion of the world sever its cultural arteries and rely on internal and local signs and symbols. Europe was stuck in a time of crippling cultural stasis while the rest of the world, led by Persian and Arab traders, moved on. The Dark Ages in Europe were a time of mass illiteracy and not-coincidental concentrations of power among local elites.
As Tyler Cowen explains in his book Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures, cultural exchange generates cultural change. Exchange might make disparate cultures more like each other, but it also infuses each culture with new choices, new ideas, and new languages. Every area of the world becomes more diverse in the local sense as long as people are free to borrow pieces of cultural expressions and re-use them in interesting ways.
Culture as process
This idea of culture as temporal, contingent, dynamic, and Creolised best describes how culture actually works in people’s lives. No one lives in Matthew Arnold’s “culture”; and few would want to live in Samuel Huntington’s. The fact is, most of us don’t have a clue why the Magna Carta as a document is important to us, if it is at all any more. Many more of us can wax about how Madonna is important to us. And she is important to our culture in different ways to different people at different times.
Madonna, like the culture that rewards and follows her, is temporal, contingent, and dynamic. As Lawrence Levine explains in Black Culture and Black Consciousness, “culture is not a fixed condition but a process: the product of interaction between the past and the present. Its toughness and resiliency are determined not by a culture’s ability to withstand change, which indeed may be a sign of stagnation not life, but by its ability to react creatively and responsively to the realities of a new situation.”
If we use some instrument of technology or law to dampen that vibrancy, malleability, or dynamics, of culture, we risk cultural stasis. Deployed carelessly, such instruments can freeze-in winners and chill losers – or those merely waiting to play.
Part 3: The anarchy and oligarchy of science
During the cold war, scientists behind the ‘iron curtain’ yearned for life in the United States. Not only were basic needs and conveniences better met in the ‘free world’, the principles of open dialogue and frank examination created fulfilling intellectual communities. Because Soviet scientists were among the few citizens allowed to travel frequently to Western Europe, North America, and India, they were among the first to see through the lies and exaggeration of Soviet tyranny.
In early 2001 Russian scientist Elena Bonner gave a speech about the recent lurch back toward authoritarianism in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. In the speech, she pointed out that if not for Soviet scientists in the 1960s, anti-Soviet dissidents would not have had a sense of the shell of lies in which the government had encased Soviet society. Soviet scientists had communicated with the outside world. They had the power to let a little light and a little air into an otherwise blind and suffocating nation.
Science is the most successful, open and distributed communicative system human beings have ever created and maintained. The cultural norms of science, and by extension academia in general, are anarchistic in the best sense of the word. Science and academia should be radically democratic. Although membership in these communities is effectively closed to a select few, the papers and books that come out of these communities are more often than not open to public perusal and commentary. And the traditions of blind peer-review do allow for motivated amateurs to participate occasionally in discourse and discovery, even if they can’t get past the guards protecting labs and libraries.
Science is a culture. It’s also a method. And it’s an ideology that supports the method and maintains the culture. But it’s also an industry (or set of industries) through which billions of public and private dollars flow every year. The stakes of science have never been higher nor its justifications clearer. The second world war, we are told, was won because one side had a group of well-funded immigrant scientists who developed better radar than the other side did. And, ultimately, it developed a better bomb as well. The challenges of the 21st century – poverty, security, and disease — can all be addressed with advances that start in the laboratory or computer and flow out to the market, the farm, the school, or the clinic.
The great river of science…
Scientific knowledge often moves from a spring of open discourse into a stream of adoption and exploitation. The stream often moves from the public arena to the private sector. We have developed complex rules that guide this process. And each step embodies a tangle of values and ideologies. The rules and terms of discussion evolve from consensus-seeking processes within scientific communities. They then consider the demands of market forces to create and enforce scarcity and state demands for security.
Different ideologies, habits, and rules govern the “upstream” source of knowledge and the “downstream” deployment of it. But the first step, the action in the lab and the library, depends very much on the academic devotion to radical democracy and openness. The essential question in this matrix of rules and norms is this: at what point in the knowledge stream should we install controls and restrict access to generate incentives and protect people from bad actors who would exploit dangerous knowledge?
…and its dams
Within scientific communities, of course, members face significant real-world barriers to true and ideal openness and equality. The first is the relatively soft barrier of expertise. The rare amateur in theoretical physics must spend years mastering the body of work that preceded her or his curiosity. Without such mastery and the luxury of the time spent pursuing it, a potential contributor would not know where the gaps in knowledge lay or which questions are particularly interesting.
Such time-intensive immersion, of course, would prevent someone from pursuing work that would pay the rent. So while scientific discourse is open to experts only, becoming an expert demands such an investment of time and money that it tempers the potential excesses of information anarchy: the persistence of rumour and error, and the cult of personality.
The second, harder barrier is one of credentials. In a messy, crowded, busy world, degrees and titles serve as imperfect proxies for knowledge and connections. You might not know whether it is worth your time listening to a dissertation on the virtues of genetic engineering given by the person seated next to you on the train. But if she introduces herself as a professor of molecular biology at Rockefeller University, you might decide to listen.
Of course, ‘credentialism’ is inherently oligarchic. Admission to the academy of credentials is severely restricted, as its members prefer to limit competition for jobs and resources. Credentialism can be self-fulfilling. A board of credentialed experts reviewing grant applications is likely to dismiss applicants who lack the same basic credentials they have earned and reward those who went to the right schools, regardless of more subtle measures of knowledge or expertise.
Credentialism embodies all the potential excesses of oligarchy. That professor on the train could be full of crap, as many professors generally are. Even very bright, educated, licensed professionals can be wrong. The chief problem with credentialism comes from the synergy of status anxiety and arrogance: such professionals might be less willing to admit error than an amateur or novice might. Fortunately for scientific progress, any group of credentialed experts is likely to contain significant disagreement on the burning questions of the day.
So credentialism trumps credentialism and real debate can occur. It’s impossible to know which conversations and debates don’t happen because of the inherent conservativism of communities of the credentialed. Despite some elements of oligarchy, science as a practice succeeds because of, not despite, its ideology of relative openness. Credentialism is more an imperfection rather than a corruption of science.
A community of amateurs
Science, as an ideology and culture, is supposed to be open to contributions from the non-licensed. Unlike the humanities, where credentialism is a much bigger problem and necessity, science can be somewhat free from the tyranny of credentials. It’s supposed to be disinterested in questions of nationalism or commercial gain.
While the public hails legends like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein who have broken open scientific fields and rewritten textbooks, the truth about science is that it is most often done within and among teams of researchers, collaborating among even larger communities across borders and oceans. Science has always been global, cosmopolitan, messy, inefficient, and troublesome. And with the rise of global communicative technologies and more sophisticated methods of computer modeling within areas as diverse as cell biology and nuclear physics, the barriers of entry should be lower than ever and collaboration and criticism should be easier and cheaper than ever.
Significantly, one community of researchers and creators – the Open Source or Free Software movement, has adopted radically democratic academic principles to its guiding philosophy. While professional and degreed computer scientists make significant and notable contributions to the evolution of free software, the amateur matters greatly. It’s more often the community of amateurs that de-bugs and improves a piece of code, or finds a new way of using it in the new context.
Computer science is new enough and its tools are cheap enough that thousands of amateurs who lack credentials are able to gain expertise through trial, error, experimentation, collaboration, and communication. It’s the ideal scientific community, one Francis Bacon would have envied and Aristotle could not have even imagined. And recently it has emerged as a place-holding metaphor for values and habits that have much older currency in the sciences. Open source has become a model and an argument, yet its principles used to be unarticulated because they were the default within science.
As in so many other areas of life – from music to political action – just as communicative technology has allowed the flowering of a new scientific revolution, the oligarchic concerns of commerce and national security have crowded out these democratic values at their sources – the university and laboratory.
Government against enlightenment
Now, more than a decade after Elena Bonner and her husband Andrei Sakharov helped end the cold war, we must start questioning how much of a scientific haven United States will be in the future. Citing legal threats against encryption researchers and the criminal prosecution of Russian computer scientist Dmitry Sklyarov and nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, and increasingly strict visa restrictions governing students and researchers, many scientist and mathematicians have been frightened away from traveling to or working in the United States.
And scientists are finding it harder to do their jobs in the new security environment since 11 September 2001 and the still-mysterious anthrax attacks that quickly followed. Over the past two years, the US government has severed important links on federal World Wide Web sites, deleted information from other government websites, and even required librarians to destroy a CD-ROM on public water supplies. University of Michigan researchers lost access to an Environmental Protection Agency database with information they were using to study hazardous waste facilities. Unclassified technical reports have disappeared from the Los AlamosNational Laboratory website.
Rules regulating the use of dangerous materials or the distribution of information potentially open to abuse traditionally evolve slowly through the scientific process. Groups of scientists, in concert with government officials, will examine risks and propose restrictive protocols. Some are encoded in law. Others remain part of the self-regulating culture of science. But since 2001, the US government has taken to dictating the new security rules, regardless of the scientific merit of the restrictions.
Many of these rules have generated criticism among scientists who fear a chill on certain essential research (on bioterrorism, for instance) and on the review process that requires other researchers to replicate previous experiments. If some data or conclusions are kept secret, then science cannot proceed in a self-correcting fashion.
Most alarming, the US government has decided to restrict and monitor contacts with non-US scientists and graduate students. The global, cosmopolitan nature of science is at stake if the world’s largest source of basic research explicitly favors its own citizens instead of letting the best American scientists collaborate with the best non-American scientists (see Peg Brickley, “New antiterrorism tenets trouble scientists”, The Scientist, 28 October 2002).
Yet even before the attacks of 2001, something serious was changing in the relationship between science and the United States government. Since the early 1980s, increasing emphasis on the potential profitability of publicly funded basic research and concern for the perceived security risks that open networks, open journals, and open discussion afford have pushed scientists to re-assert their principles and defend their peers.
There have been battles over the content of journal articles, the control that journal publishers exercise over material, the role of foreign-born and ethnically suspect scientists, and the ethics of privatising basic information about the world and the human body. In other words, scientists are having to argue for the enlightenment all over again.
The copyright economy: commerce and control
As molecular biologist Roger Tatoud has written, “It is widely accepted that science should be an open field of knowledge and that communication between scientists is crucial to its progress. In practice, however, everything seems to be done to restrict access to scientific information and to promote commercial profit over intellectual benefits.”
Tatoud is most concerned with the increasing influence of two systems of regulation on the culture of science: copyrights and patents. Copyrights directly affect the price of scientific journals and thus their availability to researchers in developing nations, at poorer institutions, or those unaffiliated with a company or university.
The absurd copyright economy forces scientists to assign all rights to a major commercial journal publisher for no remuneration, then buy back the work through monopolistic subscriptions. As a result, many scientists are forming free and open collaborations to distribute peer-reviewed scientific literature outside the traditional commercial journal system.
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is sponsoring the “public library of science” and the George Soros’ foundation funds the Budapest Open Access Initiative. The website for the Budapest project declares:
“An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”
While the copyright system benefits the publishing oligarchs at the expense of scientific openness, it has not had nearly the restrictive effects that the patent system has had on science. Since 1980, when the United States Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which encourages universities to patent work generated with public funds, and the US Patent Office approved the patenting of living things and the genes that operate in them, there has been a mad rush to control information that might be medically relevant.
An American company, Myriad Genetics Inc., that has managed to wrest control of two mutant genes that influence breast cancer in a small number of women has been able to reap immense monopoly rents from medical care providers who must pay the company $2,500 each time they screen a woman for these mutations.
As British biologist John Sulston has written, “By claiming proprietary rights to the diagnostic tests for the two BRCA genes and charging for the tests Myriad is adding to total health-care costs. Even worse, once scientists really understand how the BRCA 1 and 2 mutations cause tumors to grow, they might be able to devise new therapies. But because of these patents, Myriad has exclusive marketing rights.”
In other words, researchers have a financial disincentive to act as free agents when developing new tests and therapies for these mutations. And throughout the world, these tests remain beyond the financial reach of billions of women (see also Sultston’s ‘the heritage of humanity’).
The privatisation of science
While favouring centralised information control and efficient short-term commercial gain over openness and the long-term accumulation of knowledge is the major theme of this story, it’s not the only one. In fact, in many of the battles between openness and control of processes and information, over-control has had a perverse effect on commerce.
Proprietary control of databases of essential genetic information, for instance, raised the specter of redundant, imperfect, competitive private databases that would simultaneously lower the profits for companies that maintain them and raise transaction costs for companies that wish to use the information to develop drugs or therapies.
For this reason, several pharmaceutical companies have joined with the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom to form a free, public database for SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), the markers of difference among individuals who share a genome. By identifying the location of SNPs, researchers can pinpoint factors that might signal susceptibility to specific diseases that have genetic influences.
Before the public SNP database obviated the “gold rush” to identify and patent hundreds of SNPs, lone companies were trying to hoard the information and patent the SNPs. Had they succeeded, research on particular SNPs would have been more expensive and potentially monopolistic. So the public SNP database is an example of companies heavily invested in a healthy and reliable patent system overtly avoiding the abuse of the system and investing in public domain information. They realised that too much control was bad for business.
The United States government had nothing to do with the open public database, besides funding some of the research on SNPs. US science policies heavily encourage universities, public sector researchers, and private companies to file for patent protection on every step of the knowledge-producing process, upstream and downstream. These policies have generated an exponential increase in the number of patents owned by universities for work done with public funds.
In 1979 American universities received 264 patents. By 1997, that number had increased tenfold, to 2,436. In that same time, the total number of US patents issues per year only doubled. US science policies have also erased any functional difference in the ways universities regulate and license basic science and commercially exploitable technology. Perhaps most importantly, the American people are paying at least twice for any research that generates a marketable technology or treatment – through the grant and through the market price of the procedure or drug).
What if during the second world war the United States had considered scientists of German, Italian, or even Danish descent too suspicious or untrustworthy to be involved in code-breaking, radar development, or weapons research? What if during the cold war the United States had restricted – instead of encouraging – scientific communication between its scientists and those behind the iron curtain? What if Leibniz had had to ask Newton for permission to work on the calculus?
Part 4: The nation-state vs. networks
Just yesterday, it seems, influential thinkers were imagining a world in which the nation-state would wither, and many decisions that affect everyday life would be shifted up to multilateral institutions or down to market actors. Technologies were to play a leading part in that change – linking cosmopolitan citizens and transnational markets in a way that would enable more direct forms of governance, cultural creolisation, and efficient commercial transactions. Human beings were on the verge of finding new and exciting ways of relating to each other. Arbitrary barriers of ethnicity and geography would shrivel. Through technology, we were in the process of mastering the dynamics of, and therefore controlling, our “cultural evolution.”
This vision was informed by a sort of soft anarchism and techno-fundamentalism. It assumed that the state would slough away eventually. But in the mean time, we would have to push and prod it to relinquish centralised control over daily matters.
The tautology worked as follows. This sort of radical globalisation is going to happen anyway. The technology would determine it, so we might as well make personal and policy choices that would guarantee it. In the meantime, if those outside the global, technocratic, educated elite suffered a bit, that would be the price of cultural evolution. We could wire their villages and gently inform them of the impending changes.
Of course, in practice, the instruments of this particular form of globalisation did not actually serve the softly anarchistic vision of a decentralised species acting in concert. Like a Soviet-era ideologue’s permanent deferral of rule by the working class until it was ‘ready’, this approach required a centralisation of authority within corporate boardrooms and multilateral confederacies until all the villages were wired.
Of course, now we see that the nation-state is not going anywhere. And ethnicity and geography still matter quite a bit within and among states. We might even be experiencing some sort of “cultural devolution.” If anything, the nation-state has capitalised on the mania of “globalisation” and “information” to reinforce its powers and jurisdictions. We might have had a moment of techno-globo-utopian idealism in the 1990s. But it should be clear by now that the nation-state is back with thunderous fury. And the dominant form of globalisation is oligarchic, not anarchistic. So the most pronounced forms of opposition to that dominant model are understandably informed by anarchism.
That’s not to say that the nation-state is what it was, or that it will behave the same ways in the future. The pressures on state sovereignty, identity, and security are significant. People, currencies, culture, and information are more portable and malleable than ever, and this has increased the anxieties that nation-states endure concerning identity and security.
These pressures come from inside and outside: reactions to and from immigrant groups that retain interest in the politics and culture of their homeland, and expatriate communities dispersed around the globe, willingly funding and enabling new challenges to state security and integrity.
Different pressures on sovereignty also come from above and below: from multilateral governing institutions and from teeming mobs of techno-libertarians and disgruntled rebels. The triple forces at work here are the “Washington Consensus” and a strange synergy between the “California Ideology” and the “Zapatista Swarm.”
Soft oligarchy: the Washington Consensus
The Washington Consensus is a form of market fundamentalism complicated by some serious bad faith. Although its advocates claim to champion “free trade” and “open markets”, there is nothing free or open about the Washington Consensus. It’s more Washingtonian than consensual. It’s a consensus among major institutions located in Washington, D.C., and represents the vested interests of developed nations. While it intends to empower market forces, it depends on coercion by institutions that resemble super-states, yet have no direct democratic accountability.
In practice, increasingly powerful multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank determine policies for many nation-states. And clearly the multilateral institutions that enforce the Washington Consensus are only serving the interests of a handful of already rich and powerful states, chiefly in North America and western Europe.
Techno-libertarianism: the California Ideology
From roughly 1981 to 2000, the Washington Consensus represented the potential of a new political order: a weakened, less relevant nation-state in the 21st century. Meanwhile, on the left coast of the United States, a revolution was brewing that encouraged the passive erosion of state influence on markets and people’s lives. At least, everyone involved thought it was a revolution, declared it a revolution, and acted as if it were a revolution.
It turned out to be less revolutionary in real terms than many hoped. Yet its ideological influence was undeniable. Political economist Christopher May has called it the “California Ideology”, but it might more properly be called the “Northern California Ideology”.
The California Ideology predicted that the new communicative technologies that linked consumers directly to producers (without middlemen) and allowed consumers more and faster information with which they might make decisions that would radically alter global capitalism. Transaction costs would fall. Consumers would demand better quality and service at lower prices. The smartest firms would offer them just that. Workers would no longer be tied to offices and plants. Managers would slough away as corporate hierarchies collapsed. Employees would find greater satisfaction working contract-to-contract for a variety of firms on individual projects rather than latching their fortunes and reputations on one firm. Firms would “outsource” much of their work, from printing to data storage, to shipping, to research, to accounting.
At every level – consumers, labour, management, and the firm itself – everyone would be a “free agent.” Firms that worked better with their minds than their muscles would win. Work would be flexible and workers would be free. Social needs would be better served through private ventures that capitalise on quick applications of knowledge and networks of experts. The nation-state would not only wither in importance because private firms would serve consumers, (what used to be called citizens) better, it would be actively dismantled because its interventions in many areas of life perverted the flows of information that would fuel this revolution in the first place. Every transaction would be a lot like shopping on eBay.
The rise of caffeinated anarchy
Anarchy – in some ways growing directly out of the new communicative technologies fostered by the California ideology, in other ways brewing up from the disgruntled subalterns in developing nations – burst into relevance and importance in 1999.
It filled the streets of Seattle and shut down a round of negotiations at a meeting of the WTO. Taking inspiration from the 1994-1995 Zapatista uprising in the southern state of Chiapas in Mexico, activists from all corners of the earth had been communicating about ways to challenge the Washington Consensus.
Using the slogan, “The Revolution will be Digitised,” activists all over the globe took direct inspiration from the issues and success that the Zapatistas generated. Anti-Washington Consensus parties in Venezuela and Brazil won elections in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile Mexican voters, many of whom have benefited from increased trade with the United States, elected a conservative president who had once worked for Coca-Cola and lived in the United States.
European anarchists and activists helped Zapatistas organise the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism in Chiapas in 1996. Through that and subsequent meetings in 1997 and 1998, the movement spread to include several important trade unions in Europe and Canada.
These activists sought true and complete globalisation. Partial, rigged globalisation, as promulgated by the Washington Consensus, served only to bind workers to one place. The Washington Consensus encouraged the movement of money, resources, and goods. Yet it did not allow for the free flow of people and ideas (unless these ideas were encased in Hollywood films and music, and then only under strict market, legal, and technological controls).
If there were such a free flow of people and ideas, then authoritarian states would sense deep threats grumbling up from their subjects and multinational corporations could not exploit wage differences effectively enough to undermine unions. These diverse groups forged a movement with a coherent message: that the appearance of incoherence was in fact coherent because it reflected the diversity of concerns and methods.
“We declare”, the founding document of the movement read, “that we will make a collective network of all our particular struggles and resistances, an intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism, an intercontinental network of resistance for humanity.” The sociologist David Graeber, an anarchist activist working against the Washington Consensus, wrote that this new global anarchism is not only pro-globalisation – in the sense that it hopes to erode borders and allow people to seek fulfilment wherever and however they might imagine it; it is the first major social and ideological movement to spread from the south to the north, from the developing to developed nation-states, in many decades. And, in this effort to define in their first principles a bond with humanity over nation, these activists were echoing a sense of Diogenic cynicism.
The Zapatista swarm hits Seattle
Diogenes found an ideal playground in Seattle, whose economic success in the 1990s made it the ideal showcase for the Washington Consensus.
The home of Microsoft, Boeing, and Starbucks was also a node of global communication and the flow of tourists and workers. But its proximity to Native American communities and old-growth forests made it a symbol of all that the Washington Consensus threatened. Moreover, the very technologies that the WTO celebrated in Seattle – intercontinental air travel, large quantities of cheaply grown caffeine, and unmediated global digital communication – undermined the institutions that supplied them.
When anarchists, environmentalists, labour union members, farm workers, and general critics of the Washington Consensus shut down a meeting of the WTO in Seattle in the fall of 1999, the ruling institutions of the world were shocked and found themselves completely unprepared. They had read anti-Washington Consensus activists as fragmented, unsophisticated, and unable to tap into widespread public support. Most immediate accounts of the protests falsely labeled the protest movements as “anti-globalisation” instead of pro-globalisation. And they were falsely labeled “violent” uprisings when they were most definitely anti-violent.
As in Chiapas, the government actually perpetrated the violence once the activists’ tactics overwhelmed their abilities to make sense of the situation. For the most part, the Seattle activists practiced “direct democracy”. The loosely-affiliated groups were themselves composed of loosely-affiliated members. They ruled themselves through protocols.
When a member proposed an “action”, she or he invited participation and criticism. After deliberation and debate, members who still opposed the revised proposal could still opt out of the action. In response to extreme proposals that violate the core principles of the group, members could propose a veto. And the group would then consider the validity of the concerns and decide whether to act.
Such loose consensus could degenerate into organisational paralysis. But the more urgent the issue and more reasonable the action, the more effective these organisations would be. Once these movements shifted from the conference and seminar rooms – and chat rooms and web pages – to the streets of Seattle, they were much more diverse, flexible, impressive, and effective than anyone in power (or in universities) could have predicted.
The Seattle activists were mostly, in Graeber’s term, “small ‘a’ anarchists”, as opposed to the more overtly ideologically-inspired “Anarchists”. Like the Zapatistas, they dabbled in anarchistic tactics and methods without overtly endorsing a stateless world vision.
A bend in the river
Efforts since 1999 to replicate the triumphs of Seattle have been frustrated by events outside the activists’ control. The protests in Quebec in the summer of 2001, intended to stop progress on a western hemispheric trade treaty on the model of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), were impressive. But those in New York who met up to protest the World Economic Forum meeting in early 2002 – when New Yorkers were in no mood for more chaos – were largely unimpressive and ineffective. Between these two events, of course, the World Trade Center fell and citizens and states around the world shifted their immediate concerns from freedom to security.
In Genoa in July 2001, an Italian policeman shot and killed a young man named Carlo Giuliani who was protesting the meeting of the G8, the leaders of the eight most powerful nation-states in the world. Amid 80,000 protesters who were calling for cancellation of third world debt, a police vehicle ran through crowds of mostly peaceful protesters, chasing and beating many, to strike back against a handful of violent protesters. InGenoa, the idealised vision of “anarchists with a small ‘a’” evaporated as more extreme and uncompromising anarchists reverted to violence against Italian security forces and world leaders, lobbing Molotov cocktails over barricades.
These violent anarchists did not seem to be part of the global movement inspired by the Zapatistas. Yet their actions – and the blowback by the conservative Italian government – have become part of the governing mythology of the battle over globalisation. The protesters basked in glory after Seattle. And Italian authorities had no interest in seeming as overwhelmed, surprised, or incompetent as Seattle police had.
This combination of hubris and militant defensiveness had fatal consequences for progressive forces in general, and Carlo Giuliani particularly. As global activist Nathan Newman explains, “There was, I think, a somewhat un-strategic overconfidence that developed among protesters post-Seattle. The Seattle cops were unprepared and played into the propaganda goals of the protesters. As Philadelphia and now Genoa showed, the cops are no longer unprepared and are developing both the repressive technology and propaganda to crush the Black Bloc-style protesters and the rest of the movement if we don’t develop some new strategies to control the escalation of violence.”
No future beyond the nation-state?
By 2003, these three ideological challenges to the power of the nation-state seemed stalled if not dead. Under the leadership of two very different powerful nation-states, the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, the 21st century would open with a clear call to think nationally first, and globally only if such strategies offered a clear and direct payoff to the nation-state. The ideologies and networks that seemed to threaten the nation-state all through the 1980s and 1990s faced challenges far greater than the nation-state ever did.
[Originally published on http://www.opendemocracy.net]
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