Participation as Piracy

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.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I’ve been fitfully reading Johns’ book Piracy. It’s a meticulous, provocative read, and it’s hard not to marvel at the extent of Johns’ research and erudition.

#ds106 Radio does Kootenay Co-Op Radio

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.

Pirate box on the air

7 thoughts on “Participation as Piracy

  1. Just to add that I bought “Piracy” pretty much on your recommendation, and I’m loving it. Only mildly bitter that bang goes my phd idea! The bit that really got to me was the stuff about sheet music piracy …

  2. “The listener may perhaps become an experimenter… the experimenter may possibly become an inventor.” ~ brilliant ~ this is truly what we have been seeing in #ds106radio – curious, casual listeners becoming the experimenters.

  3. I’m still not in the know on Dr. John’s lecture or book, though I intend to listen to the mp3 you linked to – thanks.

    The connection you make between radio history in England, via Dr. Johns, and what’s happening through ds106radio makes sense even with my limited understanding.

    It was through watching the video of the panel discussion at Open Ed 11, that I am finally starting to realize what you guys suggest is on offer in terms of education and this audio sandbox where we’ve all been having such fun kicking up dust. The four of you did an outstanding job. Finally, I’m coming to see that this stuff is serious.

    Thank you.

  4. @David – the sections on sheet music are also quite provocative! And I can’t help but link to your recent post on guitar tablature communities, which has gotten the wheels turning for me… especially the data on motivations. I can’t wait for part 2.

    @Grant – you’re contribution to #ds106radio has been much-discussed, but can never be fully appreciated. You are that rare inventor, whose ever-evolving spawn has allowed a community of experimenters to develop.

    @Scottlo – I just listened to your audio response to this post (and recommend that others do as well). First off, I’m humbled you would take the time to create and share such a thoughtful reply. I get the sense you are sincere with the humility in your stance, but I hope you know you are one of the absolutely critical figures in the evolution of #ds106radio. So for you to say “now I get it” does throw me a bit. Because it’s clear to me you got it from the very beginning. Perhaps you did not have an intellectual argument at the front of your mind, but the way you take care of business behind the mic and the mixer… well, you simply live it.

  5. Thanks for the kind and generous words Brian. I was particularly struck to hear you refer to my efforts during your portion of the panel discussion.

    As for what I got and when I got it, I’d say that from the beginning I did appreciate the simple and elegant beauty of technology behind ds106 radio. I might have instantly realized it’s potential for radio guys and gals to do a new radio in both new and old ways. And this might be a point of connection with the experimenter / explorer / inventor framework.

    But in all sincerity, it wasn’t until I heard Mikhail muse on the possibility of having students in a Public Speaking class use a ds106 radio type platform for rehearsing and giving presentations that the sparks began to fly. This was in his talk with Jim and Michael Branson Smith at Baruch a few weeks back.

    And though I’ve heard Jim’s suggest that ds106 type radio ought to become the new “campus radio” before, it didn’t take on an imperative sense of urgency until just now.

    Speaking of imperative senses of urgency, I can’t help but feel that Action’s line from West Side Story obtains: In, out, let’s get crackin’

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