Rebellion by Numbers

Revolution_tshirt

Apparently there was a revolution, and I almost missed it.

This is what happened: Somebody cracked and published the encryption key that unlocks HD DVDs, allowing for the copying of the discs. The code started appearing on various websites. The Motion Picture Association of America and the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator (AACS LA) began issuing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violation notices. Some websites attempted to censor the publication of the code. There was a massive reaction from users towards this apparent act of censorship: the more the code was being “suppressed,” the more it appeared on web sites, blogs, t-shirts, songs, etc. [For a detailed account of the controversy, see the Wikipedia article.]

I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.

The first is the way in which Web 2.0 companies have had to negotiate a balance between their corporate interest and the interests of their users. As you probably know already, after its initial attempt to censor the posts containing the code (and the subsequent ‘revolt’ by users), Digg reversed its decision and said that it would rather “go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company.” As Andrew Lih writes:

This is quite unprecedented — you basically have a multi-million dollar enterprise intimidated by its mob community into taking a stance that is rather clearly against the law.

But what you have, actually, is a Web 2.0 company (reportedly worth around $200 million USD) doing a cost-benefit analysis and realizing that losing its user base would pose a higher and more immediate risk than facing the possibility of lawsuits from “a bigger company” (I cannot help but wonder what would happen if the cost-benefit analysis does not favor the users…).

The second aspect that I find fascinating about this whole thing is the way in which the dissemination of the encryption code has been constructed as a revolutionary, subversive act —as an example of what cyber revolt looks like (establishment, beware!). I was surprised to see many of the people I read online immediately jump on the bandwagon, and gleefully proclaim our revolutionary duty to publish the numbers (one actual quote: “Hahahaha! I am breaking federal law! Hahahaha!”).

Now, I’m no friend of the DMCA. Also, I believe that breaking the law can be a powerful statement if the right social cause is invoked… But a DVD encryption key? Why not refuse to pay taxes to protest the war, or something like that? Perhaps the nature of the revolt can be explained by the demographics of the “revolutionaries”: according to Businessweek, 94% of Digg’s army of free labor are male, over 50% are IT workers in their 20s and 30s, and they earn $75,000 a year or more. Ryan Shaw calls ’em as he sees ’em:

While most of the blogosphere was atwitter over the tantrums being thrown at Digg, real injustice in Los Angeles was being ignored. After watching this video [of Police oppression during the May 1st immigration reform march] I was ashamed to be part of a community (the designers and evangelists of “Web 2.0?) which sanctimoniously promotes “people power” among the spoiled and entitled while disregarding the tightening grip of authority on the poor and disenfranchised. [see his post for links to video and newspaper articles]

We keep hearing that social media tools will help to bring about social change. So are we being overly critical of the tools just because of the communities that presently wield them? This whole affair might have at its core something rather trivial (a code to hack DVDs), but can we extrapolate some of the lessons and techniques learned to a social justice context? Or as Ethan Zuckerman asks:

What would it take to harness this sort of viral spread to harness the net in spreading human rights information? Can activists learn from the story of The Number and find ways to spread information that otherwise is suppressed or ignored in mainstream media?

I wonder what activists would compromise in this transition to cyber revolt. To begin, I doubt that experienced activists believe that all it takes is for suppressed information to reach the public. Brecht suggested that “He who laughs has not yet heard the bad news.” Today, however, he who laughs has indeed heard the bad news, but from The Daily Show.

But the thing I believe anyone interested in social change should explore more carefully are the kinds of action that information can be transformed into as it is communicated. Perhaps, as Tiziana Terranova explains in Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (2004, Pluto Press), what we call “information” already embodies a certain containment of openness:

The first condition of a successful communication becomes that of reducing all meaning to information —that is to a signal that can be successfully replicated across a varied communication milieu with minimum alterations. (Terranova, 2004, p. 16)

When activism is defined solely in terms of the exchange of information, we are reducing the options available for acting. That is how an encryption key (information in its purest form) was easily converted into a “subversive message” whose replication and dissemination was seen as a revolutionary act. As long as we’ve had media —and I’m afraid emerging “social” media don’t pose a significant alternative— we’ve seen this dynamic: the replication of information has itself come to define what it means to act, has become the source of meaning. The individual goes from being a social actor to an intersection of information flows. She possesses more information than ever before (about global warming, about genocidal poverty, about the false pretenses under which wars are started), but all she can do is replicate and pass on this information. The purer the information (09 F9 …), the more efficient the activism.

4 thoughts on “Rebellion by Numbers

  1. paz

    Ulises,
    Este artículo me ha hecho mucho sentido con un montón de preguntas que me estoy planteando ahora y que tienen que ver con la comunicación y la información que hay en ella. Esto, porque en este acto de publicar el código del HD DVD puede existir un acto público (por ejemplo, hacer un “logro sobresaliente” por sobre la normalización aceptada de los individuos convencidos que el código oculto está bien), pero una vez que se pierde el contexto que rodea este acto, ¿podemos seguir considerándolo público?
    En ese sentido, y si consideramos las características que identifica Dannah Boyd de los ambientes digitalizados y públicos (persistence, searchibility, replicability and invisible audiences), los cuales con su asincronía hacen perder el contexto de la comunicación, ¿podemos seguir considerando a la Web 2.0 como una plataforma de la esfera pública? ¿O será que sólo en las herramientas sincrónicas de la Web 2.0 encontramos lo público?

    Mis saludos,

  2. Ulises

    Que tal, Paz? Te molesta si te contesto en Ingles?

    I haven’t read the particular article by danah that you are referencing, so you will have to excuse me if I don’t address her argument directly. I think synchronicity is a unique element of sociality, as Alfred Schutz and others have argued (I wrote something about that here). However, our use of media–going back to the written word, if you want–shows that it is not the only or perhaps even the most important element in constituting the public. Of course, a lot depends on how you define a public. But I think you will agree with me that a public does not exist in a temporal vacuum: it is very much shaped and in conversation with a past, and even a future! So in my opinion, synchronicity is not a requirement for engendering publics. A question I would be more interested in addressing is if a public can be sustained on the particular kind of communication that is reducible to information. What do you think? Freire said that activism is action without reflection, and verbalism is reflection without action — it seems to me that Web 2.0 technologies (and perhaps media in general?) exhibit characteristics of both extremes, without being able to transcend them.

    Saludos,

  3. paz

    Hola Ulises, sigo abusando de tu entendimiento en español (me atreveré a escribir en inglés cuando reciba mis resultados del Toefl).

    Creo que no estamos lejanos en lo que pensamos. Leyéndote me he dado cuenta que los calificativos sincrónicos / no sincrónicos no los he empleado bien porque efectivamente creo que la no simultaneidad no afecta el entendimiento. Por ende, también concuerdo que lo público es un hecho que se alimenta del pasado e incluso del futuro. Pero ¿qué ocurre cuando ese hecho público (hablemos de la “intención pública” de un hecho -una conversación, un acto, etc-) pierde contexto? ¿Aquel acto sigue siendo público aún cuando una persona ajena lo pueda tomar y transformar en un hecho no público? Ok. Pueden parecer preguntas básicas pero aún no encuentro una respuesta contundente en Arendt, o Habermas…

    Lo pongo en el ejemplo de tu artículo: Digg resuelve en mantener la información del código HP DVD. Puede haber allí un tema público (sólo como ejemplo, el “logro sobresaliente” que te escribía en el comentario anterior). Pero luego, cualquier persona toma esa información y la publica para mejorar su producción de dvd’s grabados. El que era un hecho de carácter público pierde su contexto original y ya pasa a ser privado (o social, si tomamos las esferas que distingue Arendt en el mundo moderno).

    En este sentido, y en respuesta a tu pregunta, al igual que tú, creo que lo público no puede ser considerado un mero acto de información (de traspaso de datos). Tiene que ver con un contexto que cruza el acto público (disculpa que sea tan vaga en mi definición de contexto pero aún no la tengo clara) y que debe ser transmitido. Pero ¿somos capaces de transmitirlo la mayoría de las veces? ¿O será que los actos públicos tienen el destino de transformarse en información una vez que pierden el contexto? Los medios tradicionales se especializan en ser informativos al descontextualizar las noticias y así podemos ver que un periódico de derechas poco coincide con uno de izquierda aún así se trate de la misma noticia. Ahora bien, ¿cuáles son las posibilidades de la web 2.0 en este juego? Uf… lo sigo pensando.

    Disculpa si me enredo. Volveré a la lectura a ver si salgo del embrollo.

    Saludos y muchas gracias,

  4. Ulises

    Paz,

    It’s true that social acts emerge in a particular context that inscribes them in a particular “public” way, but I am not sure that we can say that acts can ever be devoid of a (public) context. Maybe what happens is that social acts are re-contextualized anew–over and over. Even to privately ‘read’ or interpret an act is to socially re-contextualize it. So your question (or at least the question I think you are asking) is a very important one: What kind of social contexts are produced when new media transforms communication acts into information? Como tu, sigo pensandolo.

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