Irmak Ertuna-Howison – Pirates, authors, and the fear of collective intelligence
As the chain of neo-liberal ideology tightens around our necks, it becomes harder to pull on the leash and attempt to break away from its influence in our thinking. Even cultural historians, critics, and authors- those who have traditionally taken the role of vanguard of progressive thinking – submit to conservative ideas. One such author is Jaron Lanier, whose book You’re Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, published in 2010, received enthusiastic reception from conservative critics such as the famous The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani. Her review “A Rebel in Cyberspace, Fighting Collectivism“, as the title suggests, cuts right to the chase of the issue and pinpoints Lanier’s caution against the “wisdom of crowds” and threat to intellectual property posed by free Internet content as the real virtue of his book. Collectivism of cyber content, in distribution and production, is seen as an insidious threat to originality and imagination by conservative authors.
Indeed, Lanier argues that online sharing, the creation of mash-ups from a variety of contents, and the hive-mentality of online communities are a threat to individuality. Unlike Umberto Eco, who argues that new technologies increase literacy and enhance reading habits while fostering new creativity, Lanier argues that books will soon be devalued. Moreover, limitless sharing and distribution of content will “undermine the artificial scarcities that economy is based on” and hence threaten the market economy – the type of system that promotes and fosters “individuality, self-determination, and dignity” (102). Of course, Lanier does not neglect criticizing Marx in his manifesto. In Lanier’s frail criticism, Marx is described as the perpetrator of corrupt, dulling, and violent revolutions and those who are still inspired by Marxist ideas in the cyber world are dismissed as delusional idealists. Not once does he refer to or discuss Marx’s ideas other than repeating a few banalities (on private property and the fate of Soviet Russia) that Marxophobes love to use.
Let us, then, elaborate on the concepts of value, individuality, and property that Lanier (among many other contemporary ‘rebels’) uses in such an unconstrained manner and deploy Marxist ideas for the sake of a progressive understanding of today’s cyber culture. Surprisingly, a cultural critic from the 1930s proves to be more experimental and socially progressive than our contemporaries. Walter Benjamin’s cultural criticism of the changing nature of artwork in the face of new technologies is still, and perhaps even more significantly, crucial in the attempt to rethink the artistic content made freely available by communication technologies, (and yet which is bounded) even more firmly to the existing property- and specifically intellectual property – laws.
Benjamin dismantles the traditional concepts of author, aura, and production in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” For Benjamin the primary revolutionary effect of mechanical reproduction technologies (such as the camera) on the nature of art is the decay of “aura.” The illusion surrounding the artwork, based on a sense of distance and secrecy, is cleared as the public gets physically and psychologically closer to the work itself. Mechanical reproduction creates the possibility to “brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” (“Work of Art” 218). Artwork, hence, finds its function in material processes of the society and not in a ritualistic and transcendental field. The decay of aura goes hand in hand with the undermining of the distinction between author and public or producer and consumer. Ordinary people, those traditionally thought to lack artistic spirit, engage in creative production, whether as characters filmed in a documentary, or as writers sending letters to newspaper editors. For example printing technology, which increased literacy and gave rise to newspapers, undermines “expert knowledge” by creating the medium where “literary competence is no longer founded on specialized training but is now based on polytechnical education, and thus becomes public property” (“Newspaper” 742).
However, Walter Benjamin is also the first to remind us that established conceptions persist regardless of social changes. Aura does not easily surrender itself and give way to a revolutionary understanding of art. The waning of the artwork’s aura goes hand in hand with the rise of celebrity cults, with theoretical attempts to discuss film and photography within traditional conceptions, as well as with the resurgence of a “theology of art” that advocates l’art pour l’art (“Work of Art” 224). For Benjamin, the resurgence of these classical (and reactionary) ideas serves to contain the revolutionary potential of these new technologies in a bubble of entertainment and fetishism. In 1969, Michel Foucault engages a similar inquiry into the nature of “authorship” and its social function. His essay “What is an Author?” discusses the consequences of the legal and social creation of the author in the 18th and 19th centuries. While the system of ownership renders the author as a functionary in the capitalist system, the lost sacred status is compensated by “systematically practicing transgression and thereby restoring danger to a writing which was now guaranteed the benefits of ownership” (Foucault 108).
The author finds herself in a double bind in which status of authorship both serves to place her in concrete social processes while also establishing her as a voice over and above the written text. Foucault writes that “if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion” (119). It is the danger of writing, or of the proliferation of meaning, that the author-function contains. Yet the author-function is fully dependent on the historical processes that gave rise to it, and hence it can be altered significantly. Foucault argues optimistically:
Although, since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive; a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property, still, given the historical modifications that are taking place, it does not seem necessary that the author function remain constant in form, complexity, and even in existence. I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint – one that will no longer be the author but will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced. (119)
Times might have changed since Benjamin and Foucault, yet the system remains intact. The proliferation of meaning and the disappearance of aura that these authors hoped for remain as threats to monopolies, lobbies, and transnational corporations that control the global juridical structure. Benjamin observed that mechanical reproduction techniques not only socialized the distribution and circulation of what once used to be sacred, but they also revealed the sociality of production. Film and photography demystified the processes by which our material world is created. By the same token, as Foucault also argued, the supernatural attributes attached to artists and authors have also been lifted.
Insofar as computer and new media technologies enable infinite reproduction, they pose a larger threat to the way the system has operated so far. Hence, we witness the resurgence of ideas of individualism, creativity, and genius in the language of Intellectual Property discourse, kept in place not only by organizations like WTO, RIAA, or MPAA, but also by authors who adhere to neo-liberal ideology, of which Jaron Lanier is but one example. The challenge posed to our notions of production and property by new technologies is averted by limiting the reproduction of artworks through labeling them as intellectual property and those who transgress it as “pirates.” As such pirates, whose practices exceed the limit of individual production and succeed in so far as there is a collective accumulation of knowledge to be shared, offer an alternative way to relate to the cultural artifacts. Their practices create an urgent need for control of the proliferation of texts, artifacts, and hence ideas. The endless lawsuits concerning intellectual property rights and piracy stand witness to such attempts at control.
The system is now confronted with the social nature of production- as exemplified by piracy- that has been hidden behind the myths of the self-sufficient individual. Not only is the individual a social-being, but the production of our material (and now immaterial) world is also social. The online collaborations that are deemed piracy bring the fact of this sociality to the forefront. Marx, writing in the age of modernity, argued that capital is the collective force – or another name for civilization – accumulating its wealth through the collective power of labor (Capital 585). As capital expands to all social spheres beyond spatial and temporal barriers, it cannot but produce the progression of knowledge. And indeed, in our so-called “post-modern” era, “the assembly line has been replaced by the network as the organizational model of production, transforming the forms of cooperation and communication within each productive site and among productive sites” (Hardt 295).
The term that Marx and his contemporary followers use for the social accumulation of knowledge is general intellect. While capital expands into aesthetic, symbolic, and virtual spheres by assigning an exchange value to such immaterial products, it also gives rise to “mass intellectuality.” Now, anyone curious enough can invent, discover, and distribute a variety of digital technologies. Anyone can become an author (and a famous one at that), or collaborate in creative projects. Or students can simply prefer to download a film, contribute to the translation of subtitles, and then watch it at home instead of paying $ 10 for movie tickets. As Umberto Eco argues, intermediation between those who want to communicate fades (301). The agents who have traditionally been profiting from such intermediation are obviously discontent at the rise of mass intellectuality for free. The universal library that was once hoped for is now described as a threat to originality, creativity, and individuality, whereas, in fact, it is only a threat to the command of capital.
Moreover, the threat of the general intellect, or the rise of mass intellectuality, is twofold: On the one hand, it disturbs the accumulation of profit by the capitalists, and on the other, and perhaps more importantly, it renders people as examiners, if not pirates, without even realizing. In response to the people’s enthusiastic reception of film art, Walter Benjamin suggested that unlike other forms of artwork (such as an avant-garde painting), the audience of film becomes “an absent-minded examiner” (“Work of Art” 241). In their distraction the masses absorb the artworks, engaging in a progressive collective criticism. Yet, ideologues of Intellectual Property Rights define collectivism only in its negative sense, the one that Benjamin cautioned against in the wake of fascism in that same article. Today, there is all the more evidence that the general intellect makes us absent-minded examiners, amateur critics, lay inventors, non-expert journalists, apprentices of information-production, and thus criminals according to the contemporary juridical system.
Umberto Eco reminds us that in the history of culture there has never been a case that something new has killed something else: it only changed that something profoundly (304). In his discussion of radio broadcasting technology, Benjamin claims that “the perpetual failing of this institution has been to perpetuate the fundamental separation between practitioners and the public, a separation that is at odds with its technological basis” (“On Radio” 543). Instead of operating in accordance with its inherently revolutionary potential, radio recuperated the “consumer mentality” which is represented by the “switching off” (“On Radio” 543). But today, the revolutionary potential of radio is reviving thanks to digital technologies that enable everyone to have his or her own broadcast. In other words, the nature of the Internet is changing the nature of radio for the better. There is still danger, however, that unless we confront the established concepts of the individual, authorship, and property, the Internet will not function in accordance with its technological basis, and instead will reinforce mystified and reactionary notions that limit the boundless social and individual creativity alike.
 In the Afterword to the volume The Future of the Book, Eco writes: “We may conceive of hypertexts which are unlimited and infinite. Every user can add something, and you can implement a sort of jazzlike unending story. At this point the classical notion of authorship certainly disappears, and we have a new way to implement free creativity.” (303)
 In “A Small History of Photography,” Benjamin defines aura as “a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object might be.” (Walter Benjamin, “A Small History of Photography,” One Way Street, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: NLB, 1979, 250.
 This is why Benjamin uses Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde films as examples in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, for example, narrates a day in the life of a metropolis while simultaneously narrating the filmmaking process, and its reception by the audience afterwards.
 One of Marx’s theoretical premises is stated in the 1844 Manuscripts: “It is above all necessary to avoid once more establishing ‘society’ as an abstraction over and against the individual. The individual is the social being.” (Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Early Writings, ed. Lucio Colletti. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975, 350.)
 Marx defines general intellect as the direct force of production:
The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect. (Karl Marx. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Penguin Books, 1993, 706)
In his ground-breaking study on Marx’s Grundrisse, Antonio Negri follows this Marxist premise:
Totality of social labor [...] the labor which preserves the value of capital as well as that which comes to be enriched in the cooperation of large masses, the labor which follows the scientific potential of society as well as that which results from the simple increase of the population. (Antonio Negri. Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on Grundrisse. New York: Autonomedia, 1991, 87)
 See for example: Paolo Virno’s essay “General Intellect” and Maurizio Lazzarato’s “Immaterial Labor.”
 The first Hacker Manifesto written by The Mentor in 1986 declares “We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals…You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals. Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity.”
 Italics mine.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Newspaper.” Selected Writings Volume 2: 1927-1934. ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999.
—. “Reflections on Radio.” Selected Writings Volume 2: 1927-1934. ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999.
—. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1985.
Eco, Umberto. “Afterword.” The Future of the Book. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” The Foucault Reader. ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Vintage, 1984.
Kakutani, Michiko. “A Rebel in Cyberspace, Fighting Collectivism,” The New York Times. January 14, 2010.
Lanier, Jaron. You’re Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
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