Landing : Athabascau University

The copyfight, science fiction, and social media: Revision

[comments are welcome]

1. Introduction
2. Gibson’s cyberspace: the end of privacy and historical memory in "augmented reality"
3. "Science fiction is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet"
4. Peter Watts’ descent into the Maelstrom
5. “All citizens have an obligation to violate copyright law”
Works Cited

What kind of artist thrives on the Internet? Those who can establish a personal relationship with their readers—something science fiction has been doing for as long as pros have been hanging out in the con suite instead of the green room. (Doctorow, Content 80)

The “copyfight” over regulating intellectual property (IP) and digital culture pits states and corporations against citizens, who are criminalized en masse as ever-stricter IP laws exert increasing control over cultural production, distribution, and consumption. At the same time, these new laws and regulations increasingly infringe on citizens’ rights to freedom and privacy. As of this writing, the Harper regime is poised to introduce IP legislation pitched as “copyright modernization” but based on the punitive, police-state models of the USA's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the UK’s Digital Economy bill. New IP laws like these weaken and restrict provisions for public fair use, while extending protection not only to IP but also to the technological protection measures or “digital locks” that some companies put on devices and content. Looming over these sweeping regulatory changes is the secretive negotiation of a global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (as investigated by my AU colleague Peter Jay Smith).

Between these enclosures of the cultural commons, and resistances to them, cultural production and media output have become highly politicized. Canadian science fiction writers have politicized cultural production as a specifically progressive movement. They're not alone in this: indie musicians, DJs, legal scholars, and documentary film-makers have also linked cultural production to progressive politics under IP regulatory change. But the links Canadian science fiction writers make between fictional projections and actual mobilizations of social media (like blogs and social networks) represent a creative capacity building that articulates—sometimes with uncanny irony and acumen—the “new abnormal”1 regimes of digital culture.

Canadian science fiction authors mix creativity and tech savvy here, by linking their literary and social uses of new media, to raise awareness of the copyfight and to mobilize their audiences against the attempts of late global capital to confiscate the cultural commons. William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, and Peter Watts are the writers I'll discuss here.2 All three authors are bloggers; Gibson and Doctorow also "microblog" on Twitter. Unlike Gibson, Doctorow and Watts complement the print editions of their books with free online editions, distributed under Creative Commons (CC) licensing.

All authors speculate on the shape of digital culture in science fiction's distinctive temporal setting of the “future present” (Doctorow, Overclocked). As held by the tradition of science fiction studies, the genre’s future settings and speculations are most productively read as social commentary on the present. Reviews of Gibson’s recent work have extended this tradition. In 1982, Fredric Jameson wrote that science fiction’s “multiple mock futures […] transform our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come”; thus, the genre’s “deepest vocation is over and over again to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future.” In reviews of Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, Jameson and Veronica Hollinger reaffirm this tradition3: Hollinger reads Pattern as a “story […] about (the impossibility of) the future,” published at a time when “there is not much distance anymore between the facticity of realism and the subjunctivity of science fiction” (452); while Jameson's review reiterates his claim that “the representational apparatus of Science Fiction […] is sending back more reliable information about the contemporary world than an exhausted realism” (105). Of Gibson’s last novel, Spook Country (2007), Doctorow says it's “so futuristic that Gibson set it a year before it was published” (¶8), and both he and Gibson echo the critical view that “science fiction is a literature that uses the device of futurism to show up the present” (Doctorow ¶10, Gibson qtd. in Doctorow, "William Gibson" ¶4). The temporal setting of science fiction is worth noting here because the present “is difficult enough to get a handle on” (Doctorow, "Radical" ¶10)—for example, in the globalized maelstrom of technology, policy, and debate that is the copyfight.4 Moreover, the literary work and digital networking of these authors also show some peculiarly uncanny relations between their futuristic fictions and present realities.

Gibson’s cyberspace: the end of privacy and historical memory in "augmented reality"

For Gibson, digital culture signals the end of personal privacy.5 His first novel, Neuromancer (1984), coined the portmanteau cyberspace that has since become virtually synonymous with the Internet.6 Neuromancer describes cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination […] a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer” (51). Famous as a fiction-based christening for the Internet (Barlow qtd. in Streeter 288-89), cyberspace was envisioned by Gibson more as a “McLuhanesque post-Orwellian television universe” (qtd. in Rapatzikou 228). The “post-Orwellian” aspect is crucial: Gibson’s cyberspace is dominated by multinational corporations and haunted by hackers, and the main activities there are securitization and surveillance, infiltration and sabotage. Significantly, these activities also dominate the novel’s non-virtual world. In one scene, the protagonists visit a back-alley shop that offers a “screen,” an electronically sealed room where they can talk freely. Well, relatively freely: the character paying for the service quips: “this is as private as I can afford” (49). The reification of fictional cyberspace as actual Internet is maybe the most familiar example of how Gibson's work is weirdly involved in “augmented reality,” a blurring of the digital and the physical, described in Spook Country as the “eversion,” or turning inside-out, of cyberspace. Augmented reality has become increasingly familiar, in both Gibson’s work and everyday life. "One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us," he muses, "is that we distinguish the digital from the real" ("Rolling Stone"). Gibson’s work has moved from far-future scenes of plugged-in cyborgs, to near-future scenes of holographic virtual celebrities, to present-day scenes of digital art and the networks of fans and finance that follow it.

This last example supplies the premise of Pattern Recognition, the first in Gibson’s trilogy of present-day novels. The novel’s protagonist belongs to “FFF,” a fan community organized around a message board that follows an anonymous digital film series, publicizing new instalments of “the footage”, critiquing it, and speculating on its production (thereby effectively supplementing its anonymous creator’s “author function” [Foucault 101]). Remarkable, when published, as a Gibson novel set in the realistic present, Pattern Recognition still pursues two of his oeuvre’s major themes: the precarity of historical memory and the infinite capacity of global capital to commoditize anything—especially art and knowledge. From the vague, post-nuclear backstory of Neuromancer to the studiously deleted context of the “footage” in Pattern Recognition, Gibson’s science fiction dramatizes the fragility of historical memory and record.7 And, like the plots of Count Zero and Idoru, that of Pattern Recognition follows a commissioned protagonist’s global and virtual search to discover a reclusive artist's identity.

In this way, Pattern Recognition dramatizes, like several of Gibson's other novels, how capitalist interests compete for cultural commodities in the globalized “information economy”—and how monopolies on art and knowledge confiscate culture and destroy public memory.8 Since his first novel, then, Gibson’s concerns with the economics of the “information economy” have anticipated the present concerns over privacy, heritage, and IP regulation voiced by law scholars like Lawrence Lessig and James Boyle.

Meanwhile, through his blog (which he’s had since 2003) and Twitter, Gibson interacts with his fans and critics, reports on new technologies and cultural archives, reflects on his process, notes “augmented” relays between his work and everyday life, and raises awareness for IP issues like fair access for blind readers and the new Canadian IP bill. His reflections on process also reveal both its derivative bricolage and his attention to fan culture and remixing: in a recent exchange on Twitter, about Neuromancer’s protagonist Molly, Gibson attributes his “key iconic” for Molly to the first Pretenders album cover, and agrees with a fan “who hates it when Molly Millions is drawn [i.e. by other fans] as super-sexy”—but he doesn't sue them for it.

“Science fiction is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet” (Doctorow, Content 79)

In this way, Gibson uses Twitter a bit like Cory Doctorow, who balances his writing career between citizen journalism and science fiction. Co-editor and -owner9 of the popular culture blog, Doctorow has become a go-to expert on the copyfight, with columns in the UK press, a busy public lecture schedule, and an appearance in the NFB copyfight documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto. As if the torrent of blog posts, columns, talks, and tweets weren’t already a full-time writing career, Doctorow has also published several science fiction novels, and a collection of talks and essays on the copyfight, Content.10 And since his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), his deal with Tor has let him give away CC-licensed electronic editions of all his books, in just about every format available. “I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience” (71), he claims, pointing to the numbers: Down and Out has been downloaded over 700,000 times—and gone through six printings (Content 80).

By CC-licensing all his work, Doctorow substantiates his claims for the peculiarly intimate relationship that science fiction has with the Internet, a technical relationship conjoined to science fiction's longer-standing social relationship with its fans. “Science fiction,” he says, is “perhaps the most social of all literary genres […it] is driven by organized fandom. […] What’s more, science fiction’s early adopters defined the social character of the Internet itself,” he reflects, adding that science fiction was and remains “the most widely pirated literature online” (72-73). But if Doctorow’s being ironic here, it’s only in evoking the overdetermined rhetoric of “piracy” (see Lessig, Free Culture 17-20). Doctorow encourages his readers to remix his work and share their results, whatever the medium.

As a result, Doctorow’s work has begun to “augment reality” too: Henry Jenkins, in his 2006 book Convergence Culture, takes up Doctorow’s Down and Out coinage “adhocracy” and theorizes it at length (251); Tara Hunt has taken another Down and Out coinage—“whuffie,” or social capital—and promotes its business applications.11 Last month, a fan tweeted a Wired story about a US high school spying on students with school-issued laptops; the fan wrote Doctorow had “totally called this in Little Brother,” his 2008 young-adult novel, “long before this story broke." Little Brother opens at a panoptic high school, and, after a 9/11 kind of terrorist attack, becomes a cat-and-mouse game between tech-savvy youths who use social media to organize against the Department of Homeland Security.12

Doctorow advocates freely available and flexibly licensed cultural production not only in his distribution deals, but also in his blogging, and even in his work's content: in Down and Out, fans have taken over the management of Disney theme parks. In several ways, then, his work shows the economic viability of net-neutral and loosely regulated digital culture, while suggesting the shape of popular culture to come under tighter global IP regulations. As the culture industry (or what Lessig calls “Big Media”) imposes ever harsher limits on how their products circulate and how consumers use them, these products may well get edited out of popular culture, displaced by free and/or flexibly licensed work that migrates more easily, can be adapted more freely, and so takes a more prominent place in the mediascape of popular culture.

Peter Watts’ descent into the Maelstrom

Like Doctorow, Toronto SF novelist Peter Watts runs a blog where he reflects on writing and culture, interacts with fans, and offers CC-licensed editions of all his fiction.13 He credits online publicity for his first novel Starfish (1999) with validating his decision to try writing fiction (E-mail). But in December 2009, Watts started blogging (with a lawyer looking over his shoulder) about a fracas he'd got into with US Customs. Watts had been stopped for an “exit search” in Port Huron, Michigan, and when he simply asked why he was being searched, he was beaten, jailed, had his possessions (including his electronics) confiscated, and was charged with “failure to comply with a lawful order.” When he bailed himself out, he was taken to the Canadian border, and left coatless in a blizzard. Doctorow leveraged BoingBoing's popular reach to publicize the case, and to drive an online fundraising campaign for Watts' legal war chest. In March, Watts was convicted of “non-compliance with a border guard”—a felony offence (under statute 750.81d). In April he was fined $2000 for it: a relief, since he was expecting jail time. All for failing to “comply fast enough with a customs officer,” as Doctorow put it (and dozens re-tweeted it).

During and after the court case, Watts often expressed his surprised appreciation for the dedication and generosity of the social media campaign supporting him. He writes that any surplus money from his legal defence fund will go to the ACLU or the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), US non-profits that have championed citizens’ rights against unjust and invasive laws—like much recent IP legislation (“Detox” ¶17). While the major theme of Watts’ encounter with “new normal” border law may have been police brutality, his case starkly dramatizes the links among social media, science fiction, and IP law. Since 2008, US customs officials have enjoyed extraordinary powers to search and seize travelers’ personal electronics (Singel ¶5). The pretext for granting these powers was fighting IP piracy and child pornography (an issue that one music industry spokesman advises Big Media to exploit). Combined with newer “exit search” protocols, these powers expand the border patrol’s role to enforce IP law.14 After having his electronics confiscated, Watts joked: “I hope they have fun with my financial records, draft manuscripts, and bawdy jpegs (none of which portray naked children in compromising positions, to their probable chagrin)” (“Happiness” ¶1). His comment prompted many cautionary replies: “whatever goes on that computer will find a way to DHS”, warned one, while another advised him to “take your computer and flash drive to your lawyer and have a forensic copy made.” And the Globe and Mail focused on this issue in its reportage: “Mr. Watts said […] that what happened to him was more akin to police brutality than Big Brother information gathering. ‘But I have to admit there is this crawly feeling—they now have access to all my financial data, and more importantly, all my e-mails’” (¶9).

Watts’ case resonates uncannily—or at least ironically—with his work. Reporter Stephen Humphrey noted that, in Watts’s 2001 novel Maelstrom, “thuggish guards brutaliz[ing] civilians at will" (¶1). Humphrey quotes from Maelstrom to introduce his report on Watts' case: […] "‘Technically, of course, it was not an assault,’ [Watts] writes. ‘Both aggressors wore uniforms and badges conferring the legal right to beat whomever they chose.’ […] Ironically,” writes Humphrey, “a piece of that sad future came true for Watts last December” (¶2-3).

And that's from one of the milder scenes in Maelstrom. The extreme violence of Watts’ fictional future is matched by the ferocity of its speculative successor to the Internet. The “maelstrom” of the title is what people call the Internet in the mid-twenty-first century: a cybernetic jungle swarming with artificial life, “pestilence [and] predation, creatures with split-second lifespans tearing endlessly at each others’ throats.” Watts explicitly contrasts this digital “meatgrinder” against Gibson’s “cyberspace,” recalled as a quaint shibboleth, evoking a “wistful fantasy-word” (“Cascade”). Watts’ hyper-Darwinian image of the future Internet thus comments satirically on the competition, adaptation, and survivalism of our present-day digital ecology.

“All citizens have an obligation to violate copyright law” (Poster ¶26)

Karl Schroeder says Watts’ case “should concern every citizen […] since the verdict appears to criminalize ‘a reasonable expectation of communication’ between citizens and police officers” (qtd. in Godfrey ¶6)—officers who now have powers to search citizens’ communication devices. At the core of Watts’ case is a crisis of communication and privacy that's structurally integral to the emerging political economy of IP regulation.

Like the other writers and texts treated here, Watts’ “Kafkaesque” case (Watts, “Smoke” 17) demonstrates the conjoined powers of social networks and their science fictional representations to mobilize opposition to the increasingly repressive regulations of IP, which bid to enclose the cultural commons—and, in the process, reshape the whole Internet. In a recent Guardian column, Doctorow slams the UK's new Digital Economy Act, in dystopian terms, as “the absolute road to dictatorial hell” (“Digital Economy” 11).15 The close relays among science fiction, social media, and digital culture in general can help us to understand the copyfight as a globalized class war between the empires of transnational capital (and the states financing them with what Boyle calls “perpetual corporate welfare” [8-9]) and a multitude being criminalized simply for using the very technologies developed and distributed by those empires. Leveraging its social capital to report back from the possible futures of present realities, science fiction mobilizes opposition to the corporate confiscation of the cultural commons and, sometimes, can even transform the ground on which these conflicts play out.


1. See Humphrey, from whose headline I take this handy phrase.

2. Others include Minister Faust, Nalo Hopkinson, Robert J. Sawyer, and Margaret Atwood (whom I’d consider a science fiction writer despite her disavowals of the genre).

Atwood tweets in support of several causes; one recent tweet promoted the Open Book Alliance, which opposes the concerted efforts of Google, the American Association of Publishers, and the Authors' Guild "to monopolize the access, distribution and pricing of the largest digital database of books in the world" ("Mission" 2).

I've discovered Sawyer's 2009 novel WWW: Wake too late to discuss it in this essay, which I should: its protagonist is a blind blogger whose prosthesis-assisted ability to "see the Web" prompts a debate over its IP value (see chapter 29); in voicing an open-source ethos through a sympathetically rendered protagonist, Sawyer subtly invites his readers to identify with that ethos. (Then again, Disney made three movies with Johnny Depp playing a sympathetically rendered pirate...)

3. I suspect these reaffirmations of science fiction tradition in Gibson's new work also aim, in part, to counter popular reviews that see it belonging more to the "thriller" genre (see Rucker ¶2; see also "Pattern Recognition: Reception"). Of course, Gibson's own attitude towards science fiction is ambivalent: he "tries to avoid […] the whole edifice of science fiction" (qtd. in Rapatzikou 37) and has called his work a "disgust[ed]" reaction to "hard SF" and "the expectations of the SF industry" (qtd. in McCaffery 275).

4. The other authors under discussion have related perspectives on the complexities of the globalized present. In 1995, Gibson said "the present is more frightening than any imaginable future I might dream up" (qtd. in Lewis ¶8); in a 2007 interview, he was more emphatic—and specific:

If one had gone to talk to a publisher in 1977 with a scenario for a science-fiction novel that was in effect the scenario for the year 2007, nobody would buy anything like it. It's too complex, with too many huge sci-fi tropes: global warming; the lethal, sexually transmitted immune-system disease; the United States, attacked by crazy terrorists, invading the wrong country. Any one of these would have been more than adequate for a science-fiction novel. But if you suggested doing them all and presenting that as an imaginary future, they'd not only show you the door, they'd probably call security. ("Rolling Stone")

Watts weaves a sense of the globalized, complex present into the premise and setting of his Rifters trilogy: Maelstrom introduces the "Complex Systems Instability-Response Authority" or CSIRA, an agency informally called "the Entropy Patrol" ("Corpse"). CSIRA is tasked with rapid-response solutions for the social, technological, and ecological breakdowns that proliferate in his post-national, post-Gulf Stream, Malthusian world of the mid-21st century.

5. On this issue, Gibson's work expresses in fictional form concerns shared by many new media developers, critics, and scholars; in a talk on social media and research presented earlier this year, George Siemens stated bluntly that "the difficulty with privacy is that it doesn't exist." Yet Gibson is not wholly critical of the end of privacy: it "comes with a new kind of unavoidable transparency. [...] It will be very hard for politicians and governments to keep secrets" ("Rolling Stone").

6. The conflation of cyberspace and the Internet arguably peaked in the “techno-romantic” mid-1990s, marked by the rapid popularization of the World Wide Web, e-commerce, prototypical "virtual reality" gear, and "cyberdelic" rave scenes (see Streeter 288; see also Coyne).

7. Gibson's next novel, out this fall, is titled Zero History.

8. Sarah Brouillette argues that Neuromancer “focus[es] on the structural relations that define corporate culture” (203) in a way that has made it “the science-fiction […] community’s canonical text, a text that explains and codifies what they see themselves as having lost at the hands of their corporate others” (205).

9. The author thanks Mr. Doctorow for clarifying his status with BoingBoing.

10. Doctorow describes his process as writing for (at least) twenty minutes every day ("Writing").

11. Exploiting whuffie for real-world business management seems a little ironic, since in Doctorow's fiction, the "reputation economy," for which whuffie is the currency, has wholly replaced the monetary economy.

12. As an aside, the novel takes so many asides to discuss software and security systems that I found it impossible to distinguish technological fact from fiction: I no sooner learned that the novel’s “Paranoid Linux” operating system was fictional, than I read that actual programmers had attempted to develop it, although that project now seems abandoned.

13. This also means Watts can redistribute his work in editions that fit his artistic vision more than the page-count priorities of print publishers (see his Author’s Note to the electronic edition of ßehemoth).

14. I had take stock of the music on my laptop when I went to Philadelphia last year—ironically, to give a talk on DJ practice, a constitutively IP-infringing cultural form. One BC university recently circulated a memo warning academics traveling to the US to keep devices to a minimum, and to back up all data transported—one scholar apparently lost original, un-backed-up research to border confiscation (Stefanick).

15. In the wake of the British election, reports are emerging that UK politicians are already considering a repeal of the Digital Economy Act (Masnick).

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Tags: science fiction, canada, creative commons, cultural commons, copyfight, intellectual property, copyright, blog, social media, sns

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