Facing The Google Vanguard

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


January 18, 2012

Facing The Google Vanguard

Over at the Jacobin blog, Peter Frase sets up an argument for why the Left should support the anti-SOPA/PROTECT-IP movement that’s backed by large internet companies like Google and Facebook against the media content industry’s attempt to ratchet up legal mechanisms for fighting piracy.

Peter is also a bit critical of me, claiming among other things that my critique of peer production is undialectical. This is somewhat a relief for me, since my paranoia in writing that piece was that the only reason my point was not made before was that everyone knows some simple and obvious information that I don’t, and this will be revealed in an utterly humiliating and devastating way. This is apparently still to come, so now have the chance to dig myself in even deeper.

I greatly appreciate the fact that Frase’s argument avoids the easy, knee-jerk anti-corporate logic of liberals, putting it in the following way:

it’s tempting to read the backlash as an example of grassroots mass movements fighting back the corporate power of the copyright cartels, it’s at least equally important that these bills have exposed a deep division between two factions of big Capital—and forced Leftists and liberals to decide which faction they side with.

If there is an argument for why we should oppose SOPA, it should be framed like this – one rhetorical problem is how to avoid getting this confused with the liberal “good capitalism vs. bad capitalism.” Frase goes on to argue that we should support the progressive Google camp against the reactionary MPAA camp:

But their great virtue, in contrast to the pro-intellectual property side, is that they at least accept the existence of a cultural milieu based on sharing and access to knowledge, rather than trying to restrict it by tightly controlling access to information.

One interesting fact is that copyrights and patents originally had quite progressive aims (I defend this assertion here.) They were tools to ensure that inventors, authors and artists would not immediately get wiped out by much larger and better financed corporate entities who controlled the mass reproduction infrastructure and distribution networks.

The obvious response is to claim that the tables have now turned, the media industry is now a behemoth that threatens us little guys and girls. But in reality, the economics of the media industry have always been and to this day remain heavily tilted in favor of content distribution and aggregation. This is the subject of an article in The Atlantic from last year called Why Content Isn’t King:

The dirty little secret of the media industry is that content aggregators, not content creators, have long been the overwhelming source of value creation.

Time was when the content giants in the movie, music, and book industries could earn superior returns. But their ability to do so had nothing to do with content’s being king. It was a function of the scale and captivity inherent in their aggregation business: the massive marketing and distribution networks that they rented out to smaller, independent content producers, often at usurious rates. The decline of these enterprises does not reflect any change in the nature of content generation—it was as unattractive a business then as it is now. Instead, their decline reflects the loss of their advantages in aggregation—a loss resulting from a combination of external forces and self-inflicted wounds.

With this in mind, let’s revisit the question of why the content industry is so enamored with copyright legislation. Is it because the media industry want to impose artificial scarcity on us, commodify the people’s own culture and sell it back to us? Partly, but I think the more accurate explanation is that they primarily use intellectual property rights in the way that they were originally intended, to protect the content creation business from the predations of the content distribution business. There is a systemic imbalance in the industry and the weaker partner uses legal means to improve their position.

Copyright laws aren’t really about ensuring that the people continue to pay for commodified cultural products, they’re used to impose licensing costs on distributors. User-generated content is attractive to distributors for one exactly reason: unlimited worldwide royalty-free licenses.

AOL acquired Time Warner, Comcast acquired NBC, not the other way around. As the Atlantic article points out, one reason for this is that the content creation industry is a high variable cost business compared to distribution. Or to put it in simpler terms: labor. Content creation is a relatively labor-intensive industry, and requires artistic types who (stereotypically, at least) do not easily retrain as programmers and technicians. And even if they could, it wouldn’t matter, since the advantage of the distribution business is that they can scale without hiring new workers. You could argue that they are now empowered with the tools to create, market and distribute their own creative work, but the truth is that a hits-driven business follows a power-law curve that creates dramatic concentrations of inequality, turning the market into a lottery. Or rather, even more of a lottery than what Hollywood workers currently find themselves in.

So it’s not clear to me that the AFL-CIO is on the wrong side of this question. Umair Haque celebrates the death of the content creation industry, but this would be quite negative for workers doing those jobs while lowering the costs of the truly profitable behemoth in the industry. Supposedly this would spur innovation, but as even Tom Friedman admits, Silicon Valley is not a significant job creator. The future that Haque is so eager for is one of unemployment for many. Is this the progressive wing of the bourgeoisie?

Frase thinks so, because internet companies supposedly support a culture of sharing and access to knowledge where the content industry does not, but here I think we are knee-deep in Silicon Valley ideology. Google encourages the free, open, decentralized, distributed creation of web content, but so far it hasn’t published the proprietary algorithms that it relies on to profit from that activity. Why this hypocrisy? Internet services can afford to bash copyright laws because their intellectual property is safely secured behind technological walls rather than legal ones – they are no less rentiers for it.

And why would the content industry be opposed to non-copyright-infringing forms of production on the internet when it increasingly functions as a kind of talent incubator for Hollywood – from Justin Bieber to Fred Figglehorn to “Shit My Dad Says”? As a meme generating machine, the internet is a far broader and more effective generator of fresh content with a proven audience than the comparatively small group of professional writers who live in Hollywood. Amazon Studios is attempting to put this to work in a very direct way.

We’re told that donating millions to politicians and writing legislation is an example of how powerful media companies are. They’ll even use the legal system to prosecute their own fans. But what if this is a sign of their desperation and vulnerability rather than strength. Rather than an alliance with Google to fight the MPAA, maybe we need to join the MPAA to demand our own royalties from Google.

Going back to the charge of being undialectical in my Peer Production Illusion posts, Frase misses that I deny that peer production is new at all, I claim it is a manifestation of something in capitalism which has always been there – Hayek celebrates the creation of voluntary associations, for example. This has been ignored, I think because Marxists want to maintain very stereotypical moralizing critiques of capitalist subjectivity, but I take it seriously.

I’m a bit mystified by the claim that I’m performing an abstract negation of capitalism, because the logic of shooting at yourself is precisely the means to avoid that trap. It seems like Frase is reading me as if I’m saying that the heroine Sethe should kill her children out of hate, because they were found to be secretly working with the slavemaster all along. Since I say that peer production is not outside capitalism, I must be saying it’s inside and therefore it’s the enemy. But actually, the Lacanian logic of extimacy is an attempt to avoid this double-bind.

I suspect this is a reaction to the strength of my claim that we should not only reject peer production as an alternative, but actively destroy it. This should be understood in a psychoanalytic rather than strategic way, renouncing the fantasmatic supplement that allows us to retain an inner distance from the way things are. This can be something which is concretely quite modest, even insignificant, but is still crucial to maintaining the consistency of our universe. I agree that some kind of obvious outrageous, almost violent action would not be the right thing, and immediately suspect something like that of being a false passage a l’acte.