Way overdue as a pointer, but a couple weeks back Adrian Johns paid a visit to UBC, giving a very rich talk entitled “The Intellectual Property Defense Industry and the Crisis of Information”. Dr. Johns’ abstract sums it up quite well:
With the rise of the information economy has come the development of an industry devoted to policing that economy. This industry is composed of both public institutions like the United States’ FBI and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and private companies marketing protective and detective services. Its primary focus is the major structuring element of the information world: intellectual property. It seeks to uphold copyrights, patents, and trademarks where they exist, and to extend their scope to new domains where they do not. It may therefore be called the Intellectual Property Defense Industry. Although it is still largely unknown to the public, its history and conduct – I shall argue – have substantially shaped many of the everyday practices that constitute our culture of information. Indeed, if, as many believe, that culture is facing a crisis, then it is a crisis sparked by the very institutions intended to preserve it.
With Dr. Johns’ gracious permission, I recorded audio of his talk, and I highly recommend you give it a listen.
I’ve especially enjoyed the chapters detailing the early days of radio in Great Britain. It was an era where a medium developed via wild and decentralised experimentation gradually came under the control of state and corporate interests. And it was a period where the act of merely receiving or listening to a signal came to be characterised as piracy. It was the largely individual “experimenters” who invented and refined the technology that came to be known as radio, but the status of the unregulated experimenter came to be seen as one of the greatest threats to the nascent British Broadcasting Corporation and the industry in general.
The parallels with the evolution of the internet are hard to miss, of course, and I increasingly fear that the future of the web may prove to be as controlled, top-down and generally sterile as most radio is today. There are some counter-currents at work, and during the formal discussion of #ds106radio at the Open Education Conference last week (video of that session here), I could not resist but conclude (in defiance of our session moderator/timekeeper’s throat-slitting gestures) with a lightly twisted reading of a passage from Johns’ book, because I think it applies quite well to #ds106radio and (I hope) to the web in general:
There was no way to tell who was or was not an experimenter, nor to count how many there were. Or, to put it another way, everyone was an experimenter, at least potentially. In that case, radio took on a different role. It might be the trigger that could turn potential into actuality, taking dormant talents and enticing them into use. “The listener may perhaps become an experimenter… the experimenter may possibly become an inventor.” … It was beyond the capabilities of bureaucratic assessment systems.