Thursday, October 7

"Anarchist in the Library" review — beyond the Anarchy

I'm currently still reading Anarchist in the Library, but I stumbled upon an interesting critical review by Adena Levin. It has a particularly interesting take that goes well beyond the labeling of P2P services as anarchy. In my opinion the most interesting thing Adena talks about is "the rise of mainstream folk culture" through new "networks of influence that are shaped by taste, by opinion, by identity, by personal connection, [and] by mentorship."
The bigger problem with defining file-sharing as anarchy is that it focuses on what's absent -- central control; rather than what is present -- strong and shifting networks of cultural influence.

After a brief historical period dominated by mass media, we're seeing a revival of folk culture, with new forms of peer cultural sharing and creation -- file sharing, blogging, mashups. The trend has been growing since the advent of cheap photocopiers and cheap videocameras, and accelerating with cheap distribution and improved tools for sharing taste and collaborating.

The portrayal of culture as anarchy is a Romantic notion, shaped by the ideal of the artists as lone rebels or dissident cliques. That concept itself is the result of the mass media dominance. Artists see themselves as an embattled minority, then their work gets co-opted into mass media (Lennon's Revolution selling sneakers).

With the rise of mainstream folk culture, though, the interesting structural observation isn't the lack of central control. It's the emergence of networks of influence that are shaped by taste, by opinion, by identity, by personal connection, by mentorship.

Vaidhyanathan laments the lack of community formed around Napster. But that was just immaturity. We're just inventing tools for groupforming around shared preferences and collaborative creation. Flickr has cool tools for building groups around sharing pictures. If Napster was allowed to live, if music-sharing were legal, we'd see faster growth of social software around music.
In my opinion it is important to note that while new peer-to-peer systems are seemingly anarchical, they are not and we need to move beyond this shallow understanding and study how they embrace the "semingly anarchical interests of masses" and turn them into a viable and even traditional product.

Peer systems are merely systems that try to embrace the "anarchy of the masses" and solidify it toward a common good in exactly the way our forefathers intended the modern corporation to do. Most are infact quite scientific in nature based on principals 100's of years old inmeshed with razzle dazzel technology. The primary difference between traditional free market systems and these new systems is a quantum leap in efficiency do technological advance, which lowers all costs, barriers, and boundries thus allowing for a whole new frontier of non-monetary incentive structures which some incumbent parties cannot seem to come to terms with.

That a very few of the most popular of these marketplaces do not offer an agreeable monetary incentive to producers does not mean the nature or ideology posed by P2P systems is anarchy. They are in fact far from it and if we can unshackle ourselves from the current debate which is dominated by a very few P2P players and a very few peddlers of cultural artifact then there is a huge new frontier of opportunity open to us in which we me may obsolete both these camps. The long term exploration of how these systems derive value from the "anarchy of the masses" not only offers us great opportunity, but will certainly give us a new understanding of what anarchy is and is not.

In closing I'd like to reiterat Adena's following statement in my own words. "If Napster was allowed to live, if music-sharing were legal, we'd see faster growth of social software around music."

If we can establish a peer system for the legitimized, legal and open sharing of intellectual works suitable to the masses we could slowly create the critical mass necissary to draw popular culture back out of the recess of the dark net to the open web where collaboration and debate around music and cultural artifacts can fulfill the promise of a renasaince of innovation and culture expected of this great new medium.

We don't need the permission of incumbent media corporations to build these new systems. The content is already out there it just needs a marketplace.

Read the original postBookBlog: Anarchist in the Library

On a side note and probably more interesting than my comments or the review is the fact that the author Siva Vaidhyanatha chose to join in to defend his work and thank the reviewer.

Finally, there is an one other excellent post by Adena analyzing Siva's previous book and that of Jessica Litman's book "Digital Copyright: Protecting IP on the Internet".

Thank you Siva and Adena for lending the public your words for debate. I hope my small contribution does you justice in progressing this debate.

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