Landing : Athabascau University

The copyfight, science fiction, and social media: Revision

[comments and criticism are welcome]

Mark A. McCutcheon, Athabasca U
Session on Capacity Building and Virtual (Online) Community
Society for Socialist Studies conference, 31 May 2010

The Copyfight, Science Fiction, and Social Media

1. Introduction
2. Gibson’s cyberspace: "augmented reality" and the end of privacy and public memory
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 corporations and states 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 harsh and excessive IP legislation in the guise of “copyright modernization”: legislation based on the punitive, police-state models of the USA's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the UK’s Digital Economy bill, which 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 already extreme regulatory changes is the ongoing and secretive negotiation of a global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (as discussed by Jay Smith in this session).

Between such draconian enclosures of the cultural and technological commons, and resistances to these enclosures, cultural production and media output--in a word, content creation--has become highly politicized activity. Canadian science fiction writers have politicized cultural production as a specifically progressive movement. Of course, Canadian science fiction is not a unique site of cultural production in this context: indie musicians, DJs, legal scholars, and documentary film-makers have similarly positioned cultural production in progressive terms. However, the links made by Canadian science fiction writers between fictional projections and actual mobilizations of social media (like blogs and social networks) represent a richly creative kind of capacity building that articulates--sometimes with uncanny irony and acumen--the “new abnormal” mediascape (Humphrey) of intensively surveilled and regulated digital networks and cultural economics.

Canadian science fiction authors mix creativity and tech savvy in this area by closely connecting their literary and social uses of new media networks to raise awareness of the copyfight and to mobilize their audiences against the persistent, ongoing attempts by the institutions of late capital to confiscate the cultural commons. William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, and Peter Watts are the writers I'll focus on here. (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.) All three of these authors are bloggers; Gibson and Doctorow also microblog on Twitter. Unlike Gibson, Doctorow and Watts complement the purchasable print editions of their work with freely downloadable, Creative Commons (CC)-licensed online editions.

All authors, in their major works, speculate on the shape of digital culture in the distinctively science-fictional temporal setting of the “future present,” in Doctorow’s phrase (see Overclocked)--a phrase that echoes the tradition, in science fiction studies, of reading the genre’s futurist speculation 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 very similar terms, Veronica Hollinger reads Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition 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). In his review of Pattern Recognition, Jameson reiterates that “the representational apparatus of Science Fiction […] is sending back more reliable information about the contemporary world than an exhausted realism” (105). Doctorow echoes these claims with reference to Gibson’s last novel, Spook Country (2007), calling it “so futuristic that Gibson set it a year before it was published” (¶8), and reaffirming more generally the traditional view of “science fiction [as] a literature that uses the device of futurism to show up the present” (¶10). I’ve taken this brief detour into the temporal setting of science fiction and its cultural function because, as Doctorow says, the present “is difficult enough to get a handle on” (¶10)--especially (though not exclusively) in the globalized maelstrom of technology, policy, exploitation, and debate that is the copyfight. 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: "augmented reality" and the end of privacy and public memory

For Gibson (as for some new media scholars, like George Siemens), the culture of digital networks signals the end of personal privacy. His first and still best-known novel, Neuromancer (1984), coined the portmanteau cyberspace that has since been applied, sometimes as a synonym, to the Internet (especially in the “techno-romantic” 1990s). Neuromancer famously describes cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination […] a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer” (51). Celebrated as a fictional inspiration for the World Wide Web, Gibson says he imagined it more as a “McLuhanesque post-Orwellian television universe” (qtd. in Rapatzikou 228). The “post-Orwellian” aspect is crucial: Gibson’s cyberspace is a virtual environment dominated by multinational corporations and haunted by hackers, so the main activities taking place there are securitization and surveillance, intrusion and infiltration. Significantly, these activities dominate the novel’s non-virtual world as well. In one early scene, the protagonists visit a back-alley shop that offers a “screen,” a physically and electronically sealed room where they can talk relatively freely; one protagonist quips “this is as private as I can afford” (49). The identification of fictional cyberspace with the actual Internet, a now inextricable conflation, might still be the most familiar example of a literary oeuvre peculiarly involved in “augmented reality,” a blurring of the distinction between digital and physical experience, described in Spook Country as the “eversion,” or turning inside-out, of cyberspace. Augmented reality has become increasingly familiar, in the course of Gibson’s work and in everyday life. Gibson’s work has moved from far-future scenes of plugged-in and razor-fingered cyborgs, to near-future scenes of virtual celebrities walking around in public as holograms, to present-day scenes of WiFi-projected art installations and a message-board cult following an anonymous digital film whose contextual clues have been entirely edited out.

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 message-board fan community that publicizes new “footage” when it’s out, critiques it at length, and ponders the mysteries of its production. By publicizing and commenting on the footage, the message board becomes its main distributor and supplements its anonymous creator’s “author function” (Foucault 101). Remarkable, when published, for being a Gibson novel set in the post-9/11 present, Pattern Recognition nevertheless continues to elaborate two of his oeuvre’s over-arching themes: the precarity of public historical memory and the infinite capacity of global capital to commoditize and exploit anything--especially art and knowledge. From the vague, post-nuclear backstory of Neuromancer to the studiously deleted context of the “footage” in Pattern Recognition (and the very title of his next book, Zero History), Gibson’s science fiction dramatizes the fragility of public memory and the historical record. And, like the plots of Count Zero and Idoru, that of Pattern Recognition follows a commissioned protagonist’s global and virtual search to discover the identity of a mysterious artist.

Pattern Recognition, like several of Gibson’s other novels, thus dramatizes 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. 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). From his first novel forward, Gibson’s concerns with the economics of the “information economy” anticipate the current concerns of IP law critics like Lawrence Lessig and James Boyle.

Meanwhile, through his blog (which he’s had since 2003) and Twitter, Gibson answers readers’ questions, reports on new technologies and cultural archives, reflects on his process, tracks “augmented” relays between his work and everyday life, comments on fans and their appropriations, and raises awareness for issues like the copyfight. His reflections on process also reveal both its derivative bricolage and its disjunctive relation to fan culture: 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.” He has also exhorted his readers and followers to act against IP issues like unfair copyright limits on blind readers’ access, and the new Canadian IP bill.

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

On this front, Gibson uses Twitter a bit like his fellow author Cory Doctorow, who has established a more diversified writing career between citizen journalism and science fiction. Co-founder of the popular culture and technology blog, Doctorow has become a go-to expert on the copyfight, with columns in the UK press, critical discussion in Henry Jenkins’ study Convergence Culture (2006), and appearances in the NFB copyfight documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto, where he and Lessig take turns as talking-head experts on IP regulatory change. As if the steady stream of blog posts, editorials, and tweets weren’t already a full-time writing career, Doctorow has also published numerous science fiction novels, including two for young adults, and a collection of his essays and lectures on the copyfight, Content. (He says his process is to write for twenty minutes every day.) 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. He says “I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience” (71), and the numbers back him up: Down and Out has been downloaded over 700,000 times--and gone through six printings with SF publishing powerhouse Tor (Content 80).

By releasing all his work under CC licensing, Doctorow puts pay to his claims for the peculiarly intimate relationship that science fiction has with the Internet, a relationship based on its long-standing cultivation of a robust and creative fan base (as he affirms in this paper’s epigraph, above). “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.” Doctorow encourages his readers to remix and share their appropriations of his work, whatever their mode or medium.

As a result, Doctorow’s work has begun to “augment reality” too: Jenkins takes up Doctorow’s coinage “adhocracy” from Down and Out, and theorizes it at length in Convergence Culture (251); entrepreneur Tara Hunt has built a business writing career by taking another Down and Out coinage--“whuffie,” or social capital--and promoting its business value. And 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 high school where the students are constantly searched and surveilled, and, against a background of post-9/11 terrorism on US soil, the novel quickly turns into a cat-and-mouse game between tech-savvy high school students and the Department of Homeland Security. Along the way, the novel takes so many asides to discuss software, surveillance, and security systems that it becomes impossible to distinguish technological fact from fiction, explanation from extrapolation. I had no sooner learned that the novel’s “Paranoid Linux” operating system was fictional than I read about actual programmers attempting it, though that project now appears to be defunct.

Doctorow, then, advocates tirelessly for freely available and flexibly licensed cultural production--not only in his book distribution deals, but also in his blogging, and even in the content of his fiction: Down and Out tells a story of fans running Disney’s Florida theme park. In the process, he shows the economic viability of less regulated or even unregulated digital culture, and might just represent the shape of popular culture to come under tighter global IP regulations. As the transnational corporations of “Big Content” impose ever harsher limits not just on how their productions circulate but how consumers use them, they may well find those productions being edited out of popular culture, replaced by free and/or flexibly licensed work that migrates more easily, can be adapted more creatively, and so contributes more to the mediascape of the cultural commons.

Peter Watts’ descent into the maelstrom

Like Doctorow, Toronto SF novelist Peter Watts runs a blog where he interacts with fans, and where he offers freely downloadable, CC-licensed editions of all his stories and novels. For Watts, this also means he 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). And in late December 2009, Watts found himself in a fracas with US border guards, in a case that strikingly dramatizes the tight feedback loop between science fiction and social media. Doctorow blogged the news and tweeted updates to a global audience: Watts had been stopped for an “exit search” at US Customs in Port Huron, Michigan, and when he simply asked why he was being searched on leaving the US, he was beaten, jailed, had his possessions (including his computer) confiscated, and was charged with “failure to comply with a lawful order.” When he bailed himself out, he was taken to the Canadian side of the border, and left coatless in a blizzard. Doctorow and other writers mounted an online fundraising campaign to finance his legal expenses. 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 the offence: a relief, as he was expecting up to two years in jail. 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 frequently expressed his appreciative surprise at the dedication and material generosity of the social media campaign to support him through it. He writes that any surplus money from his legal defence fund will be donated 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). The major theme of Watts’ encounter with “new normal” border patrol may have been police brutality, but IP law resounds as its accompaniment. In April 2008, the case of Arnold v. USA gave US customs officials extraordinary powers to search and seize travelers’ personal electronics (Singel ¶5). The pretexts for these powers were fighting child pornography (an issue that at least one music industry spokesman advises entertainment lobbyists to exploit) and IP piracy. Combined with the more recent introduction of “exit searches,” these powers greatly extend the border patrol’s powers to enforce IP law. (Just ask June, who took pains to document legitimate ownership of films on her laptop before travelling to the USA last year. 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. A U of Victoria memo recently warned academics traveling to the US to keep devices to a minimum, and back up all data transported--one scholar apparently lost original, un-backed-up research to border confiscation.) 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). That posting prompted numerous comments, from the cautionary (“whatever goes on that computer will find a way to DHS”) to the legal and logistical (“take your computer and flash drive to your lawyer and have a forensic copy made”). And the Globe and Mail framed its report on Watts’ case around this detail: “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).

For my argument, Watts’ case wouldn’t be complete without its own uncanny dimension--or at least an ironic one. As reporter Stephen Humphrey noted, Watts’s 2001 novel Maelstrom describes scenes of “thuggish guards brutaliz[ing] civilians at will" (¶1). Humphrey's report quotes from Maelstrom to introduce Watts' own story: […] "‘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,” Humphrey writes, “a piece of that sad future came true for Watts last December” (¶2-3).

And that scene is one of the milder ones in Malestrom. The extreme violence of Watts’ fictional near-future is matched by the ferocity of its speculative successor to the Internet. The “maelstrom” of Watts’ title refers to a slang name for the Internet of the mid-twenty-first century: a cybernetic jungle, swarming with artificial lifeforms, “pestilence [and] predation, creatures with split-second lifespans tearing endlessly at each others’ throats.” Watts wryly contrasts this digital “meatgrinder” with Gibson’s “cyberspace,” recalled here as a quaint shibboleth, evoking a “wistful fantasy-word” (“Cascade”). Mindful of science fiction’s focus on the present, Watts’ image of the Internet as a hyper-Darwinian maelstrom becomes legible as a richly satirical comment on the competition, regulation, subversion, and survivalism that increasingly characterize Internet traffic and communications.

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

Author 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 and confiscate citizens’ communication devices. At the core of Watts’ case, then, is a crisis of communication and privacy that’s a structural tension of the “new abnormal” (Humphrey) regimes of IP regulation.

Like the other texts and processes discussed here, Watts’ “Kafkaesque” case (Watts, “Smoke” 17) demonstrates the conjoined powers of social networks and their literary representations to critique and mobilize opposition to the proliferating and increasingly repressive regulations of IP, a relatively rapid bid to enclose the new media commons--and in the process, restrictively reshape the whole Internet--that Doctorow, in a recent Guardian column, decries, in dire dystopian terms, as “the absolute road to dictatorial hell” (“Digital Economy” 11). The close relays among science fiction, social media, and broader digital culture help us to understand the copyfight as a globally distributed 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 rapidly criminalized simply for using the very technologies developed and distributed by those empires. Leveraging its social capital to send reports back from the possible futures of present realities, science fiction mobilizes opposition to the corporate confiscation of the cultural commons and, sometimes, augments and transforms the very ground on which these conflicts play out.

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