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[ox-en] Richard Barbrook article

Thought this might be interesting - bit breathless, but good.


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 07 Oct 2002 02:18:37 [PHONE NUMBER REMOVED]
From: richard barbrook <richard>

Below is a short piece which I wrote for 'Passages' - a Swiss art mag.


One of the most striking features of the Net is the ubiquity of its hi-tech
version of the gift economy. When you go on-line, most information is
available for free. Other users are happy to share music, movies and
software with you. People spend hours building websites which they don't
charge you for visiting. You are invited to join listservers which will
fill your in-box with e-mails every day. Compared to the media developed
during the past 200 years, what makes the new media into something new is
the vitality of these non-commercial activities. Information is for sharing
not for selling. Knowledge is a gift not a commodity. The Net is a strange
and novel form of mass communications.

Yet, during the late-1990s dotcom boom, politicians, CEOs and experts tried
to convince us that the Net was simply technological upgrade of the old
media system - or even just an electronic mail-order catalogue. The
convergence of computing, telecommunications and the media was supposedly
creating the "information superhighway": a distribution system for
commercial producers to sell their goods and services to passive consumers.
Any misuse of the network could easily be prevented by an irresistible
combination of strong encryption, intrusive surveillance and draconian
copyright laws. Corporate brochures, government pronouncements and media
reports repeatedly told us that the Net was the technological apotheosis of
neo-liberalism: a global electronic marketplace where individuals and
companies could trade with each other unfettered by state regulations,
trade unions or national boundaries. Books, films, music and software were
in the process of losing their material form and would inevitably be
transformed into virtual products. Paying for things would be replaced by
paying for downloads. In the dotcom future, every piece of information
would be a commodity and everyone would be a media entrepreneur.

At the time, there seemed little reason to doubt this conventional wisdom.
There was no alternative to free market capitalism. America had triumphed
in the Cold War. The Left had learnt to love big business. The stock
markets were booming. Above all, bitter experience had taught us that the
radical potential of new technologies is always short-lived. For instance,
instead of overthrowing the 'society of the spectacle', the opening up of
the FM spectrum by community radio stations in the USA in the 1960s and in
Europe in the 1970s rapidly led to the monopolisation of the airwaves by
commercial operators on both continents. Why should anyone expect things
would be any different on the Net? Academics, nerds and enthusiasts may
have invented this new form of communications. But who could doubt that
their time was now over? Rich and powerful media corporations were already
moving in to remould the Net in their own interests. Although there would
be plenty of opportunities for new businesses to prosper within the
electronic marketplace, any different way of doing things would be
marginalised. The hi-tech gift economy was finished. The triumph of the
dotcoms was assured.

How wrong can you be? Only a few years later, everything seems very
different. Leading Net companies have gone bust. Their CEOs are disgraced -
and some are even on trial for fraud. The speculation in dotcom shares has
tipped the global economy into recession. In contrast, the hi-tech gift
economy has not only survived, but is also flourishing. Far from
disappearing, this sector is still at the forefront of innovation on the
Net. Peer-to-peer computing. File-sharing. Wi-fi. Network communities. The
dotcom boosters have been proven to be mistaken. The monopolisation of the
Net by commercial interests wasn't inevitable. What happened in the old
media didn't have to be repeated in the new media. Of course, money is
being made on the Net. People buy products from e-commerce sites. Books.
Videos. Fridges. Computers. Motor cars. Plane tickets. Companies purchase
goods and services from on-line suppliers. Corporate intranets. E-business
extranets. Component auctions. B2B networks. However, the electronic
marketplace is missing what was once expected to be its principle function:
the buying and selling of information in virtual forms.

Although old media is bought over the Net, it has proved almost impossible
to persuade people to pay for downloading their digital equivalents. With
the exception of the real-time services provided by pornography and
financial websites, it is now almost universally assumed that information
should be available for free on the Net. Pirate MP3s. Morpheus. "E-mail
this text to a friend." Why should I pay for a tune, a movie or a text when
someone somewhere will give it to me for free? It can be technically
difficult for people to learn how to swap files. But the rewards for
knowing how to use these programs are almost immediate. Welcome to the free
world - a world where everything is for free! The media corporations are
incapable of reversing this decommodification of information. Encryption
systems are broken. Surveillance of every Net user is impossible. Copyright
laws are unenforceable. Even on-line advertising has been a disappointment.
This time around, community has trumped commerce.

Crucially, the hi-tech gift economy isn't just a method of pirating
commercially-available media. It has also proved to be an excellent method
of working together without the immediate mediation of markets and
bureaucracies. We can collaborate in creative projects with people from
across the world. We are able to publish our own media without needing
prior approval from corporate bosses or state regulators. Websites. Open
source software. "Join our listserver." The Net is the do-it-yourself
technology for the DIY culture. As well as its altruistic appeal,
contributing time and effort to the hi-tech gift economy is in our
egotistical self-interest. However much of our own work we give away, we
will always get more information back in return from all the other people
who are on the network. Who wants to engage in equal exchange within an
electronic marketplace when we receive more than we donate within the
hi-tech gift economy? As the Enlightenment founders of liberal economics
pointed out, private vice is the firmest foundation for public virtue.

Who is threatened by this outbreak of selfish altruism on the Net? Anyone
who has profited from information scarcity in the past. Copyright emerged
in a world with only limited media. Granting a monopoly over each piece of
information created markets for cultural commodities. The writer, the
artist and the musician - and their employers - had something to trade with
the farmer, the clerk and the factory worker - and their employers. Over
the past few centuries, the dynamic development of capitalism has - slowly
but surely - ended the scarcity of information. Printing and broadcasting
technologies enabled the mass production of knowledge and culture.
Information has become ever cheaper. The Net is now completing this
process. It costs almost nothing to make perfect copies of digital data.
Information really is free. The owners of copyrights are desperately trying
to slowdown this process of decommodification. They have lobbied and
browbeaten politicians to introduce repressive laws to protect the source
of their wealth and power. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The EU
Copyright Directive. Anyone who distributes unauthorised copies of
copyright material over the Net must be punished. Anyone who invents
software potentially useful for on-line piracy should be criminalised. But
state power is a limited tool against the logic of social evolution.
Individuals may suffer, but progress can't be stopped altogether. Sooner or
later, even the most technologically illiterate politician will realise
that it is impossible to enforce information scarcity in an age of
information plenty.

The triumph of the hi-tech gift economy is the return of the repressed.
Sharing information is exactly what the Net was invented for. Scientists
needed unhindered access to each other's research. Hackers enjoyed writing
code together. Activists wanted to promote their causes. These pioneers
hardwired their own social mores into the technical protocols of the Net.
Unlike media corporations, they did not make their living from buying and
selling information. On the contrary, they were already living within
real-life gift economies. Scientists achieve fame by contributing to
journals and giving papers at conferences. Hackers gain respect from their
peers by improving open source programs and cracking encrypted software.
Activists win support for their political positions by publicising their
ideas to the widest possible audience. If in no other way, the pioneers of
the Net were all in agreement about one thing: copyright laws and
proprietary formats are obstacles to their preferred ways of working. No
wonder that they believed "information wants to be free" in the most
literal economic sense of the word...

During the past few years, over-exuberant investors in dotcom start-ups
have tried to ignore the non-commercial origins of the Net. Yet the
widespread popularity of swapping information is a reminder of what the
system was designed to do. Almost every academic discipline, political
cause, cultural movement, popular hobby and private obsession has a
presence on the Net. Whether for work or for pleasure, people are creating
websites, bulletin boards, listservers and chat rooms. Although only a
minority are now engaged in scientific research, hacking or political
activism, the overwhelming majority of Net users participate within the
hi-tech gift economy. Quite spontaneously, most people have opted to share
knowledge rather than to trade media commodities when on-line. This is why
- instead of the concept of the electronic marketplace - the community
vision of its originators still drives forward the technological
development of the Net. Every computer is a server. The browser is an
editor. Information is a process. Knowledge is for sharing. The hi-tech
gift economy is a future which is still under construction.

For you ain't seen nothing yet. The Net is in the early stages of its
development. The hardware is too expensive and the software is too clunky.
Most users still lack the skills and technologies to take full advantage of
its potential. This is why the sharing of MP3s is only a taster of what is
to come. The music corporations can close down Napster and try to flood its
successors with spam files. But what they can't do is make people forget
that they are able to share and modify information with each other. All the
copyright owners can do is slow down history. As bandwidth increases and
interfaces improve, the prevention of media piracy will become ever more
difficult. No copyright law or encryption system is going to stop the
swapping of information between consenting adults in the long-run. The
media corporations will even find themselves increasingly isolated from
their fellow capitalists. For anyone selling material goods and services,
the spread of peer-to-peer computing is an opportunity not a menace.
Flexible working. Knowledge dissemination. Flattened hierarchies. Consumer
participation in production. Why should most capitalists care about
copyright infringement if  they are making money on the Net in other ways?
Copyright laws become an anachronism when the 'cutting-edge' of hardware
capitalism is software communism.

Despite its many benefits in the wider economy, the greatest impact of the
hi-tech gift economy will still be cultural. The information society is
built upon information. The Net already provides the structure for
realising an unfulfilled revolutionary demand: media freedom for all.
Authors can publish their writings on their own websites. Musicians can
release their tunes on MP3 first. Film-makers can distribute digital files
of their movies. Not just the right to consume media, but also the right to
produce media too. Even better, the Net is inspiring novel forms of
expression. Things beyond the delights of making and distributing old media
in improved ways, Net.Art. Blogging. Webcams. These are the first
experiments in a new aesthetics - an aesthetics which reflect the social
mores and technical protocols of the Net. Interactive. Modifiable.
Accessible. Communal. Democratic. Upgradable. We can only imagine what our
imaginations will be able to create once the Net begins to reach its full
potential. We can only dream what happens when the hi-tech gift economy
makes possible the flourishing of a socially advanced gift culture:

"We must rediscover the pleasure of giving: giving because you have so
much. What beautiful and priceless potlatches the affluent society will see
- whether it likes it or not! - when the exuberance of the younger
generation discovers the pure gift." - Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of
Everyday Life, Practical Paradise, London 1972, page 70.


Richard Barbrook works for the Hypermedia Research Centre, University of
Westminster, London, England: <>.


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