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<nettime> Torrents of Desire
Felix Stalder on Thu, 8 Mar 2007 11:19:52 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Torrents of Desire


[This is a revised version of a talk I gave late last year:
http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/newsletter/2006-November/000170.html]


Torrents of Desire and the Shape of the Information Landscape

We are in the midst an uneven shift from an information environment
characterized by scarcity of cultural goods to one characterized
by their abundance. Until very recently, even privileged people
had access to a relatively limited number of news sources, books,
audio recordings, films and other forms of informational goods. This
was partly due to the fact that the means of mass communication
were expensive, cumbersome and thus relatively centralized. In
this configuration, most people were relegated to the role of
consumers, or, if they lacked purchasing power, not even that. This
is changing. The Internet is giving ever greater numbers of people
access to efficient means of mass communication and p2p protocols
such as Bittorrent are making the distribution of material highly
efficient. For some reason to be further examined, more and more
material is becoming freely available within this new information
environment. As an effect, the current structure of the culture
industries, in Adorno's sense,[1] is being undermined, and with it,
deeply-entrenched notions of intellectual property. This is happening
despite well-orchestrated campaigns by major industries to prevent
this shift. The campaigns include measures raging from the seemingly
endless expansion of intellectual property regulations across the
globe, to new technologies aimed at maintaining informational scarcity
(digital rights management (DRM) systems), to mass persecution of
average citizens who engage in standard practices on p2p networks.

As a consequence, we are in the midst of a pitched battle. One side we
have organized industries, with their well-honed machines of political
lobbying and armies of highly-paid lawyers and technologists, on the
other side. Strangely enough, on the other side, we do not have any
powerful interests or well-organized commercial players. Rather we
have a rag-tag group of people and small groups, including programmers
who develop open source tools to efficiently distribute digital
files; administrators running infrastructural nodes for p2p networks
out of their small ISPs (Internet Service Providers) or using cheap
hosted locations; shadowy, closed "release groups" who specialize in
circumventing any kind of copy-protection and making works available
within their own circles often before it they are available to the
public; and, finally, millions of ordinary computer users who prefer
to get their goods from the p2p networks where they are freely
available (not just free of charge, but also without DRM) and where
they can, if they wish to, release their own material just as easily.

Usually, as political thinkers from Niccolò Machiavelli to Lawrence
Lessig will tell you, well organized entrenched interested are at
an advantage over the forces of innovation which tend to be poorly
organized at the beginning.[2] And, looking at the legal arena, there
is plenty of reason to be pessimistic. Yet, looking at the social
arena, where what people actually do counts, things look different.
Despite a new and tougher laws and legal persecution, p2p networks
are prospering, to the degree that they account for 50-80% of global
internet traffic, depending of region and time of the day.

So, how come that such an unorganized group of people, who agree on
very little, who have neither an coherent ideology, a business-model,
or even much of a self-consciousness as a group, manages to challenge,
if not overrun, well-organized sectors of industry and, as an effect,
dramatically change the informational landscape? Having excluded
ideology or business, the short answer remaining is: desire, raw and
unchecked. When we think of desires, we usually think of needs. This
was most consequentially formalized by the social psychologist Abraham
Maslov (1908-1970) who developed a pyramid of needs as an explanation
of human motivation, ranging from the physiological (breathing, food,
sleep, sex etc) at the bottom, to "self-actualization" (morality,
creativity etc) at the top.[3] Following this, we could think of p2p
networking as filling a need for people whose basic survival is out of
question and who can now address a lack of informational goods. People
are finally getting the information they've always wanted but could
not access, either because the materials were not available, or priced
out of their range. While it's easy to see how such an explanation can
hold certain validity, for example in the context of circumventing
censorship, I think it it's far too limited to account for the full
force of the p2p phenomenon.

_Desire rather than need_

Rather, it's more fruitful in this case to view desire not as
something resulting from a lack, but as Deleuze and Guattari
suggested, as primary productive force, as an unarticulated
will-to-existence.[4] Thus, the more interesting story here is about
desire creating reality, for the pure sake of creating it, not for
any ulterior motives, be they social or commercial, through they may
crafted on top of this (or any) particular articulation of desire.

As such, this is both a very general story and one that is specific to
the digital informational environment. Let's start with the general
one. In 1922, George Leigh Mallory, the British mountaineer, said this
about his desire to climb Mount Everest:

The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer
is this, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest ?' and my answer
must at once be, 'It is no use'. There is not the slightest prospect
of any gain whatsoever. So, if you cannot understand that there is
something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and
goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself
upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get
from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end
of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money
to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is
for.

Two years later, probably already sick from having to answer the
same questions again and again, he is reputed to have offered as
an explanation merely a terse "Because it's there." A few months
later, his body lay frozen at the North Side of the peak. Until it was
discovered precisely three quarters of a century later, by then, Mount
Everest had become a quite popular destination, efficiently served by
a dedicated business infrastructure.

So, obstacles have their own way of attracting people to over come
them. Not for gain, or anything in particular, but for he mere joy of
overcoming them, for proving to oneself, or the world, that what might
be an obstacle to others is none of oneself. For most of people, cross
words, puzzles and Sudokus are enough, but some people are attracted
to more unusual obstacles.

Bob Flanagan, a performance artist who self-styled himself "super
masochist", was once asked by an interviewer why he was doing all
these things to his body. Probably also annoyed by being asked the
same question again and again, he simply replied "Because I can".

If people are able to do something, then, sooner or later, somebody
will do it. If only just to see what happens. Something that can be
done, but has not been done before, exerts a strong pull. So strong
that it's essentially impossible to regulate it directly. Regulations
make certain actions illegal, or not profitable, but for this small
subset of people who do not care about legality and profitability,
this will not be a deterrent to do what they can do. The challenge
created by obstacles, and curiosity about our own personal abilities
are deep desires driving our actions. What is regarded as a worthy
obstacle, and how personal abilities are configured, are, of course,
at the same time highly individual and culturally specific. It is no
co-incidence that mountaineering was pioneered by the British at the
turn of the 20th century, and the exploration of deviant sexuality has
turned public one hundred years later in the US.

Information technology creates environments in which we live, as
McLuhan said a long time ago.[5] In it, there are infinite numbers of
obstacles to be overcome. Everyday there is a new Mount Everest to
climb and new gear is being created to make the ascent possible. Thus
technology triggers its own desires. Translated into a communication
and information environment, "because it's there" means access.
Knowledge that a perfect copy could be available triggers a desire
to get it. Having it, triggers the desire to do something with it,
transforming it in any way imaginable, be it re-editing star wars,[6]
remixing the musical history of the 20th century,[7] or converting
books into executable code format which is then transformed into
images.[8] Why? Because I can, because, it is there. Access and
transformation, intake and output, in the information environment,
these desires are as basic as breathing-in and exhaling. Indeed, it
is precisely these desires which are producing existence, because in
the information network, communications - in-put and out-put -will
establish a node as a node.

_Desire to exist_

More than anything else the torrents of raw desire - unleashed by the
pull of obstacles and the blind push into the unknown - are reshaping
the landscape of the information environment, creating new peaks of
scarcity and deep lakes of abundance. Only after flood recedes, and
the new formations become visible, the more orderly forces, those of
commerce and those of the law, are beginning to stake their claims
and make their own modifications of the landscape. But by then, the
canyons are carved out, and the landscape is ready to be mapped.

Currently, these desires are at their most raw in peer-to-peer file
sharing, a major contributory to the deep lakes of informational
abundance. The term file sharing is a great semiotic trick, just as
the term piracy is. Both terms are totally inadequate to understand
what is actually happening, but serve strategic purposes in framing
the debate. We all know that copying music and films without
permission does not amount the entering ships, robbing, stealing and
killing. The industry knows this too, but it serves their purpose
of conveying to law makers and law enforcement agencies a sense of
grave, even bodily danger. Similarly, the term file sharing has great
propagandistic value, because it suggests community and harmony, after
all, sharing is caring, right? Well, no.

If one wanders through the forums attached to great file sharing
nodes, the ones which really provide the deepest access, one finds
oneself in a desert of exclamation marks. Most people are utterly
disrespectful, totally impatient about pretty much anything that
stands between them and instant gratification. Occasionally, one comes
across someone who reminds others to be grateful for all the work that
goes into making all this material available, but their morals seem
out of place. There is no community to respect, people are anonymous
and their contact is sporadic, so why bother. The situation is similar
with people who run the nodes. There is very little sense of why they
do it, beyond the challenge of doing it. It's certainly not a very
good business. Even the most articulate pirates from Sweden say it's
primarily an experiment in the unknown.[9] Why? Because they can!

Within the secluded world of the release groups, who work hard to
bring out movies, music, games and software, before they are publicly
available, there is little sense of communal sharing. Rather, the
real drivers seem to be the sheer existence of still secret material
- because it's there - and high-pressure competition within small
peer-groups - because I can, faster than you. In order to satisfy
these urges, complex operations have been set up. Capable of getting
access to the material across fortified line of security, cracking
any copy protection code that might be on it, compressing it down to
a size where it can be distributed across clandestine networks of
password protected, and strongly encrypted servers. Often dozens of
people, unevenly distributed around the globe, are working together,
mobilizing significant resources in the process. Not just the highly
specialized skills that each of these steps requires, and the many
layers of security need to avoid prosecution, but also high quality
equipment, from recording devices to created "screeners" from movies
to high-capacity servers capable to handle very high traffic loads.
These are clearly organized operations, and what they are doing is
illegal pretty much everywhere in the world. The content industry is
quick to call these release groups "organized crime". Yet, this is not
your average criminal operation; rather, these are organized crimes of
passion. Rarely, there is money involved, and most of the resources
are donated. There are strict rules about what acceptable behavior is
and what is not. Taking money is usually not regarded as appropriate,
even if there are enough people who make their side-deals with the
players in commercial black market.[10]

_Raw Desire_

Driving the desire to get access is a race against time. Who is first?
The earlier the better, once a copy is out, the race is over. This
race can be so intense, that release groups try to reach deeper and
deeper into the production process itself. When a version of the Ang
Lee's film HULK appeared online weeks before the official release
date, people started to trash it because of poor production quality.
Sound was uneven, on a few cases missing entirely. This became so
intense that the production company was forced to release a statement
that the version which was circulating was not the final one. The
seemingly poor production quality was due to its unfinished state.
Apparently, somebody within the sound studio has leaked a working copy
of the film.

Yet, while community within the scene is important, the whole process
is not about sharing. It's more like a potlatch, where one group
shames the other by releasing a film first, putting pressure on
the others to do the same, or to loose status. The gift is a means
competition, and the whole game is about winners and losers. Access
for all to the material is not intended, and the fact that sooner
or later everything ends up on the public file sharing networks
annoys the elite groups to no end. And they resort to strange, but
internally consistent measures. On July 27, 2003, for example, the
German Release Group TGSC released a B-movie, Agent Cody Banks, with
strong encryption in order to make sure that only worthy people could
access it, and to prevent that the file would eventually find its
way to file sharing networks were outsiders like you and me could
get access it to.[11] Of course, this only challenged the next group
to remove the encryption they had put on, and soon, the film was
available unencrypted. The contradiction between following one's own
desires to get access to the material on ones own terms - because it's
there and because I can - but denying this to others was too strong.
It put a lot of strain on the group, both externally and internally,
and by the time were raided a few years later, they had lost much of
their former glory.

The different layers in the landscape of informational abundance
function according to very different rules and morals. The elite
crackers have nothing but disdain for the people on public file
sharing networks, the free software movement does not condone piracy
and puts great emphasis on the difference between crackers (bad) and
hackers (good). Despite the many different rationalizations of their
actions, they follow the same structure of desire. They want access to
the material - because it's there - and they want to be able to with
the material whatever they want - because they can.

Thus raw desire for getting one's hands on the material and doing
with it whatever makes sense to whatever logic one is following -
even if this means encrypting a film that one has just released -
produce the torrents that are carving out environment informational
abundance. I don't think it's a co-incidence that it's exactly these
desires that produce the new landscape. Culture essentially about
circulation of information and the transformation of that information
by whomever cares enough to hold it at a particular moment. All
culture is socially produced. Information always leaks because it
is communication - accessing, transforming and outputting - which
creates reality in an information environment. However, as Deleuze and
Guattari pointed out as well, desires never run unchecked for long.
They need to be channeled, in some way or another, to become socially
stable. P2P networks and the informational abundance have not been
channeled yet, though the early settlers in the new landscape can be
seen. Rather than trying to sue the new players out of existence,
which turned out to be a loosing strategy so far, the established
content industries are trying to reform their business adapting to
the new environment. CreativeCommons, and others, are busy trying to
set up new normative guidelines about what is acceptable in this new
environment. But these are early days, and it remains to be seen,
which forms of commerce and governance will be able to exploit and
tame these desires. For now, they are raw, bleeding and exciting,
though not save, and not pretty.



-----end notes ------------------

[1] Adorno, Theodor W. (1991 [1963]). Culture Industry Reconsidered.
The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London,
Routledge pp. 98-106

[2] Lessig repeatedly quotes Machiavelli as saying "innovation makes
enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime, and only
lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the
new." See, for example, Lessig, Lawrence (2001). The Internet Under
Siege. Foreign Policy (November-December).

[3] Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological
Review, 50, 370-396.

[4] Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Felix (1983 [1972]). Anti-Oedipus.
Capitalism and Schizophrenia Vol.I. Minnesota, University of Minnesota
Press

[5] McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of
Man. New York, McGraw-Hill

[6] e.g. Star Wars. Phantom Edit, by Mike J. Nicholas 2001

[7] e.g. Raiding the 20th Century, DJ Food, 2005

[8] e.g. textz.com, Sebastian Lütgert

[9] Fleischer, Rasmus; Torsson, Palle (2005). The Grey Commons.
Strategic Considerations in the Copyfight. Speech at the 22C3, Berlin.
Republished in http://publication.nodel.org/The-Grey-Commons

[10] Krömer, Jan; Sen, Evrim (2006). No Copy. Die Welt
der digitalen Raubkopie. Berlin, Tropen; Howe, Jeff
(2005). The Shadow Internet. Wired 13.01 (January).
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.01/topsite.html

[11] http://www.wow-board.net/wbb2/thread.php?postid=195818 [21.11.2006]
 








--- http://felix.openflows.com ----------------------------- out now:
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

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