Henry Warwick on “Piracy and Open Access”

Julia Rehfeldt —  September 16, 2014 — 2 Comments

Henry WarwickHenry Warwick, Ph.D., is an artist, composer, writer, and assistant professor in the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University in Toronto, and is a research fellow at the Infoscape Lab at Ryerson.  Originally from Edison, New Jersey, he has lived in Washington, DC and San Francisco, CA. An active artist in a variety of media, his visual art work is in a variety of collections both private and corporate.
His music can be downloaded for free at his website, kether.com. His most recent record, “Something Borrowed” is available at auricular.com. His book, “The Radical Tactics of the Offline Library” is available through the Institute of Network Cultures, http://networkcultures.org/. Since 2007, he has lived in Toronto with his wife, Beth, and their daughter, Elizabeth.

Hybrid Publishing Lab: What is the impact but also the potential of piracy in our society?

Henry Warwick: First off, I completely object to the term “piracy”. Pirates are violent sociopaths, regardless of their forms of self-organsation. Just in using the term “piracy” one has already lost the debate, as inherent to the concept of piracy is the ideology of property and the enslavement of humanity under its rubric. To use the term “piracy” one is admitting the legitimacy and primacy of another position – that of the proprietarian from whom one is pirating their “property”. Without a coherent notion of “property”, the idea of “Piracy” is a meaningless term. The potential of piracy is zero. It will be snuffed out like any other threat to capital. There are other terms available for what people are doing with data, terms that aren’t so laden with murder and brutality. Terms like Sharing. My position comes from one of sharing, not piracy. Sharing is an innate human characteristic. It is a virtue, not a crime. Also, the mental states and societies described by piracy versus sharing are worlds apart. A society of piracy is a society of theft and brutality, where one “gets” or “takes” things and is always at a disadvantage as a condemned character to society. A society of piracy is a society of property, and thus a society of money, a society of class conflict, a society of violence and extortion.

By contrast, a society of sharing is a society where notions of property and all the violence and conflict around property and its prerogatives and entitlements are absent. In short, a society based in sharing is a step towards a new and better society, one based in ideas and practices that are vastly more sustainable than what obtains today: the self-destructive lunatic society of property and its brutal defence. So, I am more than happy to entertain a discussion about sharing. I am not willing to discuss piracy.

So, let’s rewrite the question: “What is the impact but also the potential of sharing in our society?” That is a much better and vastly more fruitful discussion.

A world of sharing is, simply, a better world. However, it requires a complete revamping of our relations to the “natural” world and the results of our actions within it, especially the results created by cultural activity. It will require a dismantling of the Lockean and similarly traditional notions of property (including Marxist) where property is a resource acted upon by human agency. Those older notions are bound up with privilege and scarcity – structures that require and advance exploitation and division. What Sharing seeks is the implementation of a new relation of the commons and the “wild” on one end, and greater distinctions between what constitutes property, possessions, and for want of a better term, one’s “belongings”, on the other. As we can only work with terms that evolved in a proprietarian society, we are forced into damaged rhetoric, and must make due with what is available.

In our present society, something that is clearly an abstract property, say, a patent on a software business method is treated much the same as one’s socks or wallet or something of great personal value or use. This is clearly nonsensical, and has resulted in enormous distortions in society. For example, a few years ago the U.S. government actually entertained legislation (SOPA) where someone could serve more time in jail for sharing an mp3 by Michael Jackson than the doctor who actually killed him. Clearly, such a situation is not only unsustainable, it’s ridiculous in the most direct sense: it is worthy only of ridicule. It is the society of sharing and caring for each other that needs to be normalised, so that rather than wondering how one is going to sell something, the question will be how to distribute it with both speed and resilience. The internet, no longer a frontier, but now an enclosed space subject to verticalised extraction, has proven to be quite precarious.

A society of sharing is really the only way forward for digital culture, and I would argue, culture as a whole. The past several centuries have shown the results of the theory of the negative commons, a commons absent common ownership: a ruined biosphere. As long as the world is seen as a collection of resources without agency, humanity will continue down an unsustainable path of self-destruction. The “thinking” of a future sharing society must begin within the context of our present day proprietarian society – when we start imagining what a sharing society is like, we will be able to build the practices and institutions for its creation. The ideas that form the substructure, be it economic, technological, and so on, must precede the development of said substructure. At the same time, the material conditions for such ideas to develop must also be present and that is the essential contradiction we find ourselves in today. Hence, my dismissal of “pirate” rhetoric – there is far too much at stake.

HPL: What is the secret role of pirate shared libraries?

Warwick: Note – once one scored out “pirate” and put in the word “shared” the question becomes nearly (but not quite) redundant. All libraries are shared – it’s just that some are more shared than others – there’s no secret role of a library. There is the public dissemination of knowledge. The copying of this knowledge from one substrate to another was a *traditional* role of every library up to the development of the printing press. For thousands and thousands of years, it was a necessary function of the library to constantly copy the codices and scrolls within.

It is only since the development of the printing press and moveable type that copying knowledge became so heavily regulated. These technologies, which originated in China, were amplified in Renaissance and Enlightenment Period Europe into property. While a scroll by Sophocles in ancient Greece may have been the property of, say, the Athens Library, other libraries might requisition copies. These were expensive – someone had to hand letter hundreds of pages – but once they were copied and sent, these copies could then be copied by the secondary library. Such an arrangement is not legal today. Libraries cannot make wholesale copies of books in their collection, and, unlike in ancient times, they have zero mandate to make such copies – these actions are proscribed by the proprietarian legal regimes that presently constrain society.

So, while contemporary libraries do lend out books, they cannot share the knowledge, as the knowledge is tied to a given object. Exposing knowledge to the digital has changed this dramatically, not only from the ancients through present day, but around the present day and transforming the ancients. Today, a large library of 500,000 books – roughly the size of the ancient Library of Alexandria – can be contained in a single three terabyte hard drive with room left over for it to be indexed, assuming each book is a PDF of about five megabytes on average. Such a drive can be easily obtained for about $150. The work that would go into assembling such a library would be significant, however, the work that would go into copying such a device would be trivial. In this way, an Offline Digital Library operates around the present restrictions of proprietarian discourse, and transforms the ancient imperative of copying. For while the copying of an ancient scroll or codex is expensive and slow, the copying of a hard drive is cheap and fast.

There are also online digital libraries. They operate in conjunction and symbiotically with offline libraries. The easiest way to form an offline library is to download books from an online library. However, as demonstrated by the library.nu catastrophe, online libraries are, like anything online, precarious. If a given online collection is disrupted or removed from the internet, any future replacement would have to come from a hard drive somewhere else where the data is stored. In this way, offline libraries provide resilience for online libraries just as online libraries provide content for offline libraries. That is one very important and strategic use of sharing offline libraries.

Another valuable use of sharing offline libraries is the development of NAS – Network Attached Storage, especially when such a storage device is set up as an open network to a local wifi. This is a hybrid between online and offline libraries and is the cutting edge of this practice. Years ago, David Darts cooked up the idea of the “PirateBox” which was a USB thumb drive attached to a battery powered wifi router and server, all housed in a lunch box. The setting of the PirateBox server were set to Wide Open, allowing anyone to access such a system and share files. Recently a variety of hard drive companies have released vastly more powerful devices that mimic the PirateBox, under the rubric of NAS. The PirateBox measured its storage in gigabytes. These new devices are orders of magnitude larger and are measured in terabytes. These NAS devices can be obtained for as little as $180. Seeding such devices with pre-installed libraries and indices is the next step in sharing data. There is an important structural difference at work here – the NAS is not attached to the internet. It operates its own local network via wifi. It is technically “offiline”.

This use of NAS devices are a logical response to the ever more draconian and psychotic proprietarian restrictions on sharing. Furthermore, these NAS based Portable Digital Libraries are extremely resilient. Copying them, like any drive, is trivial, and they open up access to knowledge to a locality, thus forming a digital commons, a place of sharing where ideas can grow and flourish. As neoliberal policies come home to roost in an orgy of endocolonial extraction in the form of local austerity, these kinds of localised digital libraries via NAS can provide research and learning opportunities as well as more general knowledge distribution. Thus the Offline Digital Library is a point of resilience for not only online libraries in their precarity in the face of economic and political forces, but also for traditional local libraries as they disappear in the face of “Budget Cuts”.

The library has always been a site of contestation and a dialectic of power. There are the needs and requirements of dominance and then there is the potential and dynamism that only comes from the free distribution of knowledge. These exist in conflict as dominance seeks restriction of information and the inquiring mind seeks flexibility and knowledge. The digital library of sharing is a new and valuable tool for the people to keep themselves informed and educated. I am quite convinced that sharing will win out in the end, as the world of control and restriction is unsustainable and will have to be relegated to the trash heap of history along with slavery, burning witches, fossil fuels, and similar stupidities.

HPL: Do you see a connection between open access and piracy sharing, are the concepts different but the forms related?

Warwick: They are related, but they do have significant differences. Open Access comes in two varieties, libre and gratis. Gratis is basically a free form and libre has restrictions. Gratis Open Access is much closer to simple sharing. Libre is not. The difference between Open Access and Sharing generally is one of subjectivity – who is the subject of Open Access and who is the subject of sharing? This is illustrated in the sense of a flow – where information has directionality. The flow of information that describes the subject of Open Access is
individual / institution -> reader / user / audient.

Sharing operates by a completely different method, where there are only readers / users / audience acquiring information and sharing. For example, a scholar might write an article and it gets reviewed and published by an Open Source journal, in a libre system, or simply posted to his blog as a gratis system. In both cases the direction is from one source to many users, a kind of broadcast model based on scarcity. If the journal charges money for access for the first year, or requires a membership, even if free, then one can see this as a scarcity model. If it’s a blog and is a gratis model, it is still using the “from one to many” model.

Sharing, which operates outside of institutions, doesn’t have this model of distribution. It is much more chaotic and polyvectoral. Information gets shared, it gets re-shared, it gets recontextualised, it gets shared again… There is no fixed direction, and can be seen as a type of multiflow process. When this is brought into the context of offline libraries, it acquires features of the “one to many” model, as one person might make a NAS full of media and share it in a coffee shop for an afternoon. In this way, he becomes the “one” and the coffeeshop “the many”. However, as an open NAS, the coffeeshop audience can put material into the NAS library. They might not be the author of the contributed material – they are more the vector of the material as data flow – thus it becomes a polyvectoral data flow. So, a common “multi-flow” analysis points at this as a structure, the common multi-flow theory assumes origination. Sharing doesn’t assume origination, in fact, it operates outside that in a network of abstracted flows. Sharing finds these digital objects, copies them, and then gives them away.

This is a radically different structure from Open Access. Open Access takes existing institutions and modifies their property claim to one that is more open and available. Sharing operates off of a vastly more ancient structure in humanity based in friendship, trust, and caring – these don’t operate within formal institutions of property regimes and policy. The vector of flow in Open Access is linear – point A to point B. Sharing is polyvectoral and networked.

HPL: Which book will you always have as an analogue copy in your bookshelf?

Warwick: Fun question! This reminds me of my daughter when she was much younger and she would ask “Daddy what’s your favourite song/movie/story/etc.?” And I would always answer her in the same way – “I don’t have a favourite, but I have several that I really like a lot…” I think the books that I would always want on my bookshelf are those books that have special meaning to me as physical paper books. They may not be profound or important books, but they have personal meaning for me. So, in that spirit, I can think of a few that have some meaning that way that I can discuss.

“37” by John Brockman.
It was the first book of philosophy I ever sat down and read cover to cover. That wasn’t hard – there was only one paragraph and sometimes only one sentence on each page. I found the ideas and his method of writing (almost everything in the book is a quotation from another author) really intriguing. Some of the ideas I still hold true. I came across the book because I worked in a small local library when I was in high school in the mid 1970s. The librarians thought the book was too weird for their constituency who preferred romance novels and mysteries and gave it to me. Because each page had a lot of open space, a friend of mine and I filled it with our own commentary. I look back at it now, and some of it is cringe-worthy, but it was honest. Eventually I collected all of Brockman’s work and actually met him many years later in the 1990s. So, “37” has a special place for me.

“The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
Not just any version or copy, but a specific edition from the 1970s and a specific copy of that edition, now old, brown, and brittle, that a girlfriend gave me back in 1985. She wrote her name in it, and took a big marker and blotted it out when she gave me the book. She said that her father (an English professor) had given her that book when she went to university, and that he told her a “Secret” about the book, which she told me and I now tell you: that the book is actually a manual on how to live. If one looks at the first section, the grammar section, many of the “good” or “virtuous” writing examples are oddly symbolic in their selection; case in point, the selection of an “exemplary paragraph” which is from “Two Cheers for Democracy” by E.M. Forster. The paragraph outlines the personality of a member of a secret elite – a philosophical aristocracy:

Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.

And then she told me that the second section, “An Approach to Style”, written by E.B. White, is even more blatant as a life-guide, where each of the sixteen points it makes can be applied as metaphors and thus prescriptions to personal development. All one needed to do was replace a few words “The Writer” with “oneself” and “writing” with “living” for example, and suddenly the Approach to Style makes a lot of weird sense. Now, the kind of personality it describes is a dryly cheerful, humble, and quiet one, and I noticed how she sometimes emulated this manner of being. I didn’t know if it was on purpose, or if she was just that way and the book simply resonated with her character, or if I was simply misinterpreting it all (which wouldn’t be the first time). Still, it made an impact on me, and her kindness in gifting me the book was genuine. Once in a blue moon, I’ll open up the cover of the book and hold it at an angle to the light and I can see her signature’s imprint in the paper under the ink blot, and I’ll wonder where she is, and I thank her for her kindness. I try to put myself in the background and live with verbs and nouns. I’m not always successful, but I try.

The Gateless Gate (Mumonkan) with commentary by Roshi Koun Yamada.
In the mid 1980s, I lived in a Zen Buddhist Centre for thirteen months. It was a transformative experience for me. The zendo was of the Rinzai sect (Zen Buddhism, is broadly in two sects, Soto and Rinzai) which focused on koans and moments of enlightenment / satori. The Soto school is more focused on achieving satori over time. Koans are used, but they’re not as much of focus. Rinzai was the “ask and tell” school, while Soto was the “sit and wait for it” school. Both work, one is no better than the other. You can drive to the liquor store in a Ford or a Toyota, it doesn’t matter, really. The koans are from medieval Japan, and were compiled and commented on by a zen master, Mumon Ekai. The Mumonkan starts with the famous koan, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” I liked the Mumonkan very much and I found Yamada’s commentary clear and interesting – much less opaque than Mumon’s. I don’t remember where I bought the book – somewhere in Washington DC. Since then, I have hand lettered the koans of the Mumonkan into a notebook and have begun preparing my own commentary. I’m about half done. It’s hard work. I will always have this copy of this book with me.

Those are three books I will always have around. There are other books whose content I consider of equal or even greater import to me, but their physicality is of secondary importance. These three books, these exact objects, are of value to me and will always be near me. There are several others like this – these three were just the first three I thought of when I read this question.

Our upcoming Conference on Publishing between Open Access, Piracy and Public Spheres is up for registration now. You can read all Interviews here.

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  1. Institute of Network Cultures | Henry Warwick on ‘Piracy and Open Access’ - September 19, 2014

    […] a long interview with Henry Warwick on the Hybrid Publishing Lab blog, talking about his views on libraries, why the term piracy should be abandoned, and open […]

  2. Links vom 12.10.2014 | Offene Wissenschaft - October 12, 2014

    […] Henry Warwick on “Piracy and Open Access” › Hybrid Publishing Lab Notepad – Das Hybrid Publishing Lab hat Henry Warwick interviewt und mit ihm über Piraterie und Open Access gesprochen. Sehr lesenswert! […]

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