Felix Stalder on Sat, 5 Jan 2008 00:19:09 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> review: Steal this Film, II

Steal this Film, II

The other night, I watched "Steal this Film, II" [1]. The first thing
I noticed is how extremely efficient bittorent can be. I downloaded
the HD version, 1.71 GB, in less than three hours over my plain
vanilla cable line and leaving the connection open for the rest of the
night, I distributed the equivalent of 2.5 copies to others.

This experience reinforces the main point of the film: file-sharing --
a technologically super-charged, deep cultural practice -- is beyond
the point where it can be stopped. The old media industry has lost
control over the distribution of content, radically reducing the power
of the current gate keepers to determine who can access the archives,
who can produce new works, and who can reach an audience with those

The film's premise is that file-sharing is transforming the basic
mechanism of how culture and information is distributed with
consequences as profound as the transformation brought about by the
printing press. Now, for anyone who remembers the late 1990s, this
introduces a certain deja-vu, since this argument was pretty much what
fueled the dot.com boom back then. But here, it is delivered with a
twist. It's not the happy venture-capital infused entrepreneurs who
turn the wheels of change, but the pirates who expand the scope of the
possible for the masses, and the teenagers who have already claimed
this new space as their natural cultural environment. This is not a
top-down revolution.

So far the first layer of the argument. The second argues that this   
is pretty similar to how the print revolution unfolded in the 17th    
and 18th century. At the time, a battle raged between those who tried 
to control the spread of knowledge in the service of established      
power, and those who ignored print privileges and censorship laws by  
distributing unauthorized knowledge thus contributing the emergence   
of the reading publicj, which later established itself as a political 
actor in form of the public opinion. In one of the strongest          
interview scenes of the film, print historian Bob Darnton speaks      
of pirate printers situated just outside the reach of the French      
king in a "fertile crescent" (from Amsterdam to Geneva) publishing    
books specially for the French markets thus preparing the ground for  
the enlightenment and, ultimately, the French Revolution in 1789.     
This point is reinforced by another, even more eminent historian of   
print, Elisabeth Eisenstein, who tells of a case of a Dutch printer   
who used the (French) index of censored books as his publishing       
program because he knew these books would sell well. Drawing on       
these two historians, the film is suggests that there is a general    
connection between the loss of control over the distribution of       
knowledge and the overthrow of the old regimes. This loss of control  
was not brought about by the magic of technology itself, but by the   
determination of the people who used the technology to its full       
extent, even if it brought them in direct opposition to the dominant  

That this is happening again today is not a co-incidence, but, and    
this is the third layer of the argument, because the internet was     
created precisely for this purpose. To make this point, a clip is     
used from a 1972 documentary [2] where J.C.R. Licklider speaks about  
the need to invent a better system of information sharing than print  
because of the physical limitations of moving around paper which      
strike him as "embarrassing." This is a treasure of a find, since     
Licklider, who was instrumental in funding the early work on the      
Arpanet, really speaks about information "sharing", not distribution  
or any such thing.                                                    

The fourth and final layer of the argument is that the sharing of     
culture is constitutive of culture itself and corresponds with a      
deep human need to communciate. Indeed, communicating is sharing      
and in an information society producing culture is a way of taking    
part in society. P2p technology then is simply giving new power to    
this defining feature of human existence, which was only somewhat     
subdued in the analog media environment where, as Eben Moglen puts    
it, "control came naturally as part of the process of the existence   
of the medium itself."                                                

To deliverer this argument, the film sets up a long string of
talking heads, some of them quite well known others less (I'm one of
them), intersected by footage from a wide range of archival sources
edited for associative value and held together by an off commentary
connecting the pieces into a well paced narratived. The film is very
well made, stylistically a significant improvement over the first part
[3] even if it doesn't reach the brilliance of Adam Curtis [4] whose
style of documentaries is so clearly invoked here. There is, after
all, still a difference between working on a shoe string budget or on
the commanding heights of the BBC. Still, the production quality is
professional and the film is full of nice visual details.

The film's narrative, of course, is not without flaws. The fmost
significant is its breathless "it-cannot-be-stopped" rhetoric.
While that might be true in a technical sense (p2p certainly beats
video-on-demand), one should not expect that is impossible to
craft more centralized means of control even on such a radically
deecntralized communication protocol. As we all know, the old slogan
"the internet intrprets censorship and damage and routes round it"
is not a very good approximation to the layered realities of online
control. Thus while the old gatekeepers might lose control, it's
pretty save to say that new ones will appear. Google, for example,
is just about to establish itself as one on a gargantuan scale.
Piratebay, which handles currently an estimated 50% of all bittorent
traffic [5], is another one, even if they do not seem to be keen on
exploiting this position at the moment. The film is clearly a piece
of advocacy, more interested in making a point clearly and strongly,
rather than telling a complex and possibly contradictory story. Which
is all and well, not the least because it's very transparently so,
but still, towards the end of the film, it's pushed right over the
messianic edge.

There are more problems. Apart from Elisabeth Eisenstein, there is
not a single women in this film, and apart from Lawrence Liang (ALF,
Bangalore), all "experts" are European or American (whereas the "kids
on the street" are immigrants). Thus, the revolution might be made by
pirates, but if they all come from the geographic centers of power,
it's not so terribly hard to imagine how they, or their successors,
might transition into the institutional centers of power as well.

So, it's perhaps best to watch this film together with another
documentary on the subject: "Good Copy, Bad Copy" [6] released earlier
this year by Danish film makers. This film has a far more global
perspective, introducing two major non-Western cultural communities --
tecno-brega from Brazil and the Nigerian film industry -- as examples
of practices who are not encumbered by the copyright conundrum that
forces us into such unproductive questions as whether piracy is a good
thing or not. Looking at Brazil and Nigeria GCBC suggests that whereas
technological change might still originate from the West, but cultural
innovation is distributed much more broadly. The two films are really
companion pieces, and they even share some footage.

Despite problems, Steal this Film, II deserves the very large audience
it's likely to get, given that it's promoted on the front page of
ThePirateBay.org. A space far more valuable than a TV ad for a dvd
could ever be. I wonder how long it takes the suits to figure this

Steal this Film, Part II, 2007
Length: 0:44:43
by League of Noble Peers (Alan Toner, J.J. King, Jan Gerber, Sebastian 
Luetgert, Luca Lucarini, and others).

[1] http://www.stealthisfilm.com/Part2/
[2] http://www.mininova.org/tor/559767
[3] http://www.stealthisfilm.com/Part1/
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Curtis
[6] http://www.goodcopybadcopy.net

--- 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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