American Culture

WordsDay: The Anarchist in the Library

by Douglas J. Belcher

In the absence of a grand technological theory that can explain the Universe, such as a Unified Field Theory (nerds can hope), or resolution of the questions raised by more dialectical interpretations of history, many scholars opt for media theory because the items such theory discusses are more accessible in our day-to-day lives. The science-fictional proliferation of portable gizmos and the ubiquity of the silicon chip can give the ordinary citizen pause, and books about media theory are frequently written to answer the somewhat vexing questions that arise.

Media professor and popular blogger Siva Vaidhyanathan investigates with 2004’s The Anarchist in the Library. Mr. Vaidhyanathan, hereafter referred to as V, notes in the inlet of the book that “battle lines are being drawn,” between Freedom and Control, and that the real world has begun to resemble the virtual world. (Or is it, the other way around?) On the one side, he writes, are corporations, judges, the military etc, and on the other are “liberators”, hackers, libertarians, artists and dissidents.

At first glance, it appears that V has not transcended a dialectical interpretation of history, but has merely changed the names of the cast of characters. When reading one notices he arrives firmly on the side of the “proletariat” of artists and freedom-lovers, even though he declares neutrality through much of the book.
V himself is a copyright expert in media theory, and the book is chock-full of examples of interesting copyright issues. His starting point, theoretically, is the Napster case of 2001 and the legal fallout resulting from that case. Many can recall from those days an icon floating around the web (sometimes it was called the web back then) of a guy with a baseball cap on backwards, listening to music through headphones. This image can be held in mind as the icon of the anarchist in the way that V describes an anarchist in this book, as primarily a music-lover looking for free music.

The claim V sets up in the early chapters is this: that the Internet is “like” Diogenes, the cynic philosopher of 370 B.C. Who was this character? Although records are scarce, since he left no writing, Diogenes of Sinope was supposedly a homeless man who wandered the streets of the city, engaging learned people in debate and flouting convention, kind of an Axial rock star. He would not give authority to money or the laws, but claimed to harm no one, and engaged in what would today be described as acts of radical individual freedom. The philosophical thread begun by Diogenes continued on with such groups as the Stoics, the Christian monastics, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

What makes the Internet “cynical” according to the book is that it allows people to act like Diogenes, and any attempts to regulate content or reign it in will fail. It simply can’t be done. A fair theory. But in reading through the rest of the book, one wonders if V provides this theory because he really believes it’s true, or because he’d rather take a negative aesthetic and be wrong than a positive, pro-active one and possibly shown to be foolish. For example, he often suggests that what is needed is “dialogue”, “discussion”, and “debate” about what all this technology means – well, debate about what? Eventually, someone has to throw a value out there.

Do it Yourself Media Theory construction: declare the Internet to be “like” a certain historical figure, build evidence to support the theory, i.e. people behaving “cynically,” frame the opposition as behind the times and also unattractive, then lazily re-narrate current events in light of your theory.

Can’t anyone do this? For example, let’s say the Internet is “like” King Tut of Egypt. Yes, the Internet is a man-child given vast and unprecedented power over a disorganized and mostly-unconscious domain. Seem plausible? To further enhance this theory now let’s suppose each of us is here to build the pyramids by stacking enormous rhetorical blocks on top of each other until it is no longer gravitationally possible to do so, leaving these constructions behind so as to entomb the latest “king.” As of this week, that would be George Carlin. May the king rest in peace.

V uses the example of George Costanza from Seinfeld to make a point… Costanzan cynicism differs from Diogenic cynicism, according to V, in that it is, like George, self-absorbed, pessimistic and fails to be civically-engaged. According to V, one would be a “Costanzan” cynic by criticizing the book’s point of view or suggesting that what we often think of as freedom in terms of uses for new media, is not really. However, V gives us the historical example of the civically-engaged Diogenes as a man mostly thumbing his nose at authority figures and rich people. If that is civic engagement, you might as well watch Jackass, the Movie. V creates a tautologous argument here, meaning there’s no possible evidence which could be introduced into the theory to demonstrate the lack of Costanzan values in any position more cynical than V’s own, as if by participating in the debate you have already cast yourself as the loser before it even begins.

To the author’s credit, he offers the intriguing tale of the RAND Corporation post-2001, and a brief biography of Tim Berners-Lee, who could probably be credited with “inventing” the internet more than anyone else. MP3s and the Recording Industry Association of America are given mentions, the first as the vehicle for anarchy and the latter as an oligarchy that means to “control” the fun of freedom-loving people.

International file piracy is described as a “genuine threat to the industry.” V offers detailed examples of the distinctions between theft in Mexico, Nigeria, and India, the plethora of reasons why this theft occurs, and how petty the chasing down of a guy with a backwards baseball cap seems in comparison. One could easily agree that yes, it does seem petty to wonder whether Lawrence Lessig or Lars Ulrich is correct when millions upon millions of dollars is lost each year to illegal Chinese duplicates. But then, V is now telling us that the anarchist is no longer a guy with a baseball cap on backwards, but now the entire rest of the planet which is not America. Hence, oligarchical controls must walk the entire planet as well, to police these people, a task that V finds so unsavory, as well as impractical in terms of regulating remote places such as Nigeria, that it’s better to just make everything as free as possible rather than risk “making winners into bigger winners and thus rigging the cultural market.”

In short, he means to discourage both anarchist and oligarchic behavior, while somehow romantically siding with anarchists through most of the book. Seems a bit contradictory, which is incidentally, occasionally the criticism leveled against Nietzsche and other cynical philosophers.

A distinction: the definition of anarchist throughout this book is incomplete, because some people have understood that an anarchist is not a guy sitting in front of a monitor with his baseball cap on backwards. That’s a hobbyist. An anarchist is also someone like this:

And there are not too many of those hanging out in the library looking for MP3s. The oligarchical entity of most concern to anarchists of this stripe is the local police department. There are anarchist groups and activists in this country who are not as “direct action” as the perpetually-mobile gentleman just mentioned. These anarchists do read Proudhon and Kropotkin, Bookchin and others, and occasionally do something interesting and beneficial like form a food co-op or put up a mayoral candidate. But, the concern of anarchists such as these, even those who managed to protest WTO meetings, has very little to do with the file-sharing and media-piracy issues mostly covered in this book. This book might then be better titled The Hobbyist in the Library. What V blows up to be some kind of equivalent force to such entities as the Rand Corporation or the RIAA does indeed often amount to mere isolated incidents of youthful people merely seeking to do special favors for friends, the kind of low-level piracy that, while still illegal, has always gone on.

Here are some claims in the book which are vague, or simply false:

The Internet was built according to cynical principles: borderlessness, unregulatability, etc
No, the internet was built to protect scientific information from a possible nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. The principle in action was self-defense.

Hollywood is holding its prime content hostage until we give it what it wants – control over which machines we record on in the privacy of our own homes.
Nothing is being held hostage. The language is too war-like. Like the Muslims of the world, “Hollywood” is not a monolith of interest and studios spend as much time sparring with each other as they do the legal system.

The fundamental purpose of intellectual property law is to create artificial scarcity.
No, laws are written not just to hammer the guys with backwards baseball caps, but also to counter the directives of aggressive business interests.

We should not let the market guide our minds, lest we come up with a genetic treatment for baldness before breast cancer.
Too late…Viagra. And biomedical ethics in relation to capitalism opens up a whole new Pandora’s Box.

Also, p.186: The role of the nation-state is in flux, and its future is up for grabs contradicts what’s on p. 152: Now we see that the nation-state is not going anywhere.

What succeeds in this book is V’s identification of the persistent ethical problem of copyright theft, and his heartfelt concern that something should be done about it. In the conclusion V tells us that he has “avoided making predictions”, “declared no wars” and “refrained from declaring a new historical epoch.” Yet he tells us in the inlet that battle lines have been drawn (except that through the act of declaring a battle, he’s not involved in it, we must presume) and in chapter 1 he declares that activity on the Internet is wholly cynical and Diogenic, thus heralding a “Diogenic” Age?

V uses a rather contrived media theory to discuss intellectual property rights and the Internet. The author’s premise is that the Internet is inherently anarchistic and that ultimately any attempt to regulate it will fail. This argument, while possibly still correct, is poorly constructed, based upon flawed reasoning and erroneous interpretation of Cynical and Anarchist philosophy. Many of the summarizing statements are vague. V claims to be impartial but is, in fact, firmly on the “side” of who he perceives to be anarchists. We can credit the book for achieving one of its original goals, that is, of fomenting discussion about media theory, but in the final analysis, his particular theory holds little water and has poor philosophical foundations. One should strive to either be an anarchist, or go to the library. But to do both creates a problem where none before existed.

D.J.B. is a free-lance writer based in San Diego.

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4 replies »

  1. Thanks for that comprehensive critique, Doug. Yeah, the author doesn’t do true anarchism justice.

  2. Thank you for paying so much and such close attention to my book. I apologize if four years of work come out sounding “lazy.”

    I guess I have a lot to learn about writing books.

    Just to clarify one point: The hobbyists are not anarchists in an informed or enlightened sense. I argue that the nature of the Internet (which was built to be anarchistic — you only cited the justifications for the origin of ARPANET, which is not the Internet) pushes us to act and think in an anarchistic manner. Our great error is living in this environment without such an appreciation. The theory at work is not “media theory” at all. It is technological theory.

    Anyway, you did a great job on this review and cited most of the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

    Thanks for giving it the time and attention. I will be sure to be less lazy with my next book.


  3. Mr, Vaidhyanathan,

    thank you for your time and response. Is ‘lazy’ too strong word? I apologize. I do believe the book succeeds as a work of _journalism_, sorry if that wasn’t clear. Arpanet is the foundation of the internet, and we could likely have not had the latter without the development of packet switching and asynchonous transfer mode. To suggest so implies a libertarian position with regard to the technological legacy that one lives in, and while one is certainly at liberty to do so, I would object to this on moral grounds. Do we still live in a world where ‘reality is what you can get away with?’ It would appear less so than 10 years ago, but I suppose it depends on who you’re asking.

    It is many of the foundational premises of the book which I’ve attempted to call into question. While the internet may give us the opportunity to act anarchistically, there is no need for such an appreciation when one has a genuine anarchist outlook. In fact, as mentioned in the article, there is a portion of the population with a type of anarchist outlook that will go ahead and act without any consideration for theory whatsoever, and these are people that should not be looked over, especially by college professors, when discussing anarchy.

    I suppose when it comes to computers the distinction between media theory and technological theory is blurred. I meant to respond to your general emphasis on the media issues, and I was glad for your efforts to discuss ethics because that to me is where much of the problem lies.

  4. mmm, interesting article and review

    A few quick comments. As someone very comfortable describing myself as an anarchist, i’m always intrigued by the variety of interpretations the term itself seem to cover. With respect to the thrust that the internet is anarchistic, this is a an observable fact. For example about as of “September 2009[update] Apache served over 54.48% of all websites and over 66% of the million busiest.[5]

    This technology was developed through open collabatortive works, sharing knowledge,skills and experience. Not a million miles away from the ethos and priciples of social/political anarchism. In principle its perhaps over streching it to say that this mode of productive activity (or labour) is anti-capitalist, it is certainly counter capitalist. This is an inherent feature of development of new online based technologies.

    The proliferation of independent media platform, particularly those that give voice to the world “from below”, or at a grassroots level again suggest that regardless of the factual reality that the intial development of the internet was within the military industrail complex of the US, the opening out of this information and knowledge has change that original intent into something much different.

    From an anarchist perspective intellectual propery rights are simple a futher enclose of the commons. The argument that companies need to close off aspects of knowledge, as if its something you can physically grip, only make sense within the circular self confirming believe system that is capitalism. The idea that investment in R and D needs to be recovered and protected if you believe that private corporate entities are philosophically the natural place for generating knowledge used to improve humanity as a whole. That knowledge and progress can be subjegated to privatisation and private gain surely is counter to any notion of humans as social being and intrinsically collective.

    The meta-knowledge paradigm underlines much of recent developments with regard tackling climate change ( and apols if this is a bit off topic but the same closed minded and self serving thinking of capitalist thiniking) For example the current paradigm of carbon trading is in essence the privatisation of the common atmosphere, where intellectual loop the loops conjure commodities where previously none existed, sole for the benefit of creating a market for a product that we really need to stop creating.

    Not only is capitalism based upon exploitation, with power flowing down and wealth upwards, but it also doesnt have the ability to see its own lack of imaginationn and creativity in tackling problems it has created.