22 January 2012

SOPA/PIPA, Megaupload, & the Rhetorical Forum

If you've been following the news lately, checking Facebook, or even just trying to use Wikipedia to finish that first assignment of the semester, it would be hard to miss the recent SOPA Strike, the controversy over PIPA, or the take down of the major file sharing/hosting service Megaupload.  On the 18th, over 9000 (115,000 to be exact) sites "blacked out" in protest of SOPA/PIPA. Participants found among their ranks the likes of Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, Wordpress, and Wired, as well as many personal blogs and webpages - including mine.  The strike seemed to be as successful as could be hoped, with many senators - even those who had co-sponsored the bills to start with - withdrew their support.  Yet just the next day, Megaupload was taken down, their servers and their owners taken in by the Feds, for "conspiracy." Anonymous, of course, retaliated via DDoS attacks (#opMegaupload) that temporarily shut down sites for the FBI, RIAA, MPAA, and others.  

So just what the hell is going on here?  

Well, the short answer is that content-creation industries are trying to end piracy.  To that end, they have a bunch of lobbyists, & a bunch of money to spend, to convince a bunch of old guys who don't even know how the internet works to write bills that would allow them to punish said pirates, & any website they could claim aided in copyright infringement.   Then, ya know, a bunch of people who do understand how the internet works got pissed off & did what they knew how to do: used the internet to make a point.  They did this irrespective of their individual beliefs about the sanctity of copyright.  Then the Feds stuck out their proverbial tongue & flaunted their ability to kill a website at one go.  To which, again, they got a response.

But that's just the short answer.  In order to really understand what happened, really what is happening, we need to understanding what the internet was intended for, what it is, and how it works - not necessarily as a technical achievement (though it is certainly that), but as a discursive achievement. & it's equally important to understand how the enactment of bills is likewise a discursive achievement - that is, incidents like the UK student being extradited over his website or the shutdown of Megaupload do more actual work than the laws in the law books.

First of all, the internet is literally discursive, made up of language.  Or, to be more accurate, several languages, like HTML, PHP, or CSS.  How we interface with the lingual construction that manifests as the internet can be said to be a rhetorical forum.  Thomas Farrell defines the rhetorical forum as "an encounter setting sufficiently durable to serve as a recurring 'gathering place' for discourse . . . the forum provides a space for multiple expressed positions to encounter one another" (88).  Importantly, the rhetorical forum must, by definition, emerge when "there is the potential for resistance" (89).  Furthermore, the forum can only exist as "a web of interrelationships established through the presencing of others" (89).  Farrel writes: "more important, I think, than the actual physical presence of persons in each other's public space is the conscious awareness of each other's presence in the symbolic landscape" (89).

According to Farrell, a forum must have three things:
  • durability and continuity over time
  • accessibility to those who wish to participate, recurrently
  • capacity for the projection and retrieval of messages
The internet seems to fit the bill pretty squarely.  It's a virtual gathering place, or many gathering places, in which social behavior is (re)created, and in which all the things that make up our culture, including our media, is made, remade, exchanged, shared, debated, celebrated, or reprimanded. Specifically, "stable or not, the critical function of the forum is to warrant, frame, and constrain the appearance, shape, and direction of rhetorical practice" especially in regards to "challenging disputes about what constitutes proper authority, integrity, and responsibility" (Farrell 90-91). So then the internet is not just discursive, but also a place where discourse is (re)formed.

And the discursive rules of "proper authority, integrity, and responsibility" in terms of internet behavior are no accident; they did not develop in a vacuum.  

A mock-up of Vannevar Bush's Memex
The idea of linking ideas together starts, perhaps most notably, with Vannevar Bush in the 1940s.  Inspired by the collaboration of scientists and other academics during WWII, Bush found himself disheartened when the collaboration seemed to fade away once the war was declared over.  His invention, the Memex, was one way he believed we could continue to inspire the innovation that came of academic collaboration.  Utilizing what he called "associative indexing," or what we might call "linking," the Memex was designed to aid scholars in sharing information and content, both original, and found (Bush, "As We May Think").  The idea was, essentially, that if scholars had easy access to all of the information out there, & could organize it in meaningful ways, new discoveries would be born from the networking.

This idea continued through the development of computing more broadly, researchers often "stealing" and improving on each other's ideas.  And when the internet was conceived, for the military and universities, it had two core goals: 1) to allow communications even when one node on a network has been destroyed, and 2) content sharing.  We can see these end goals manifesting in all sorts of ways, including a pretty recent TEDtalk by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the browser.  Thus, the spirit of our rhetorical forum has been, from the start, the continuation of communication at all costs, and the sharing of information.  Or, in other words, the founders of the internet were pirates (yes, this includes the government).  

But remember, the rhetorical forum is one that is built around tension and resistance.  Even as users enact this historically "proper authority, integrity, and responsibility" in regards to the purpose of the internet, the content-creation industry has been fighting to regulate, control, and flat-out strip our ability to do so.  Remember the "don't copy that floppy" campaign? 

The problem with their attempts is that more & more, consumers are owning tools capable of production.  We must no longer be mere consumers, but instead, we can make new, remake, remix, cut, distribute, comment on, link to, and otherwise interact with the media that make up our culture and cultural artifacts.  And all of their attempts to make us stop haven't really worked - why, just take a look at this remix of "don't copy that floppy!"  

And what about the laws that have been passed in regards to copyright infringement?  Well, frankly, because of the very design of the internet, they're pretty damn hard to enact efficiently.  Hence the spectacle of one or two high profile cases against housewives & 14 yr olds for illegally downloading bad 90s anime & that one Metallica album.  These spectacles, although sometimes they are abiding by the legal letter of the law, do more than simply punish "criminals."  

Instead, things like the take down of Megaupload, or the earlier transformation of Napster into a pay service,  create an ideological reality - they attempt to change what is considered proper rhetorical behavior in the forum.  Actions like these are a rhetorically savvy demonstration to users that perhaps they should reconsider downloading that song for free (it's not like they weren't going to buy the album on iTunes later anyways).  Essentially, users are being trained, through fear tactics, not to share.  & I'm pretty certain that we all learned in kindergarten just how important sharing is.

What this whole mess boils down to is a struggle over who gets to shape "the boundaries of the rhetorical community itself" (Farrell 91).  Who gets to make the rules about what is appropriate behavior in the rhetorical forum?  Who gets to decide what kind of communication is allowed to happen?

Obviously, we all have a vested interest at stake.  Whether you are a content creator, sometimes (understandably) frustrated by people "stealing" your work, or a user who  helps content creators spread & market their work, we are participating in the rhetorical construction of our virtual space.  And so is our government right now, and the lobbyists who put the money in their pockets, and the people who actually make the money off of content (usually not the artists), and, of course, the services that host the content. 

But, really, it's not about the content.  It's about the creation of our culture.  And really? None of this is new.  It's just in a different place, a rhetorical forum that has taken a new shape, found a new home.  A new home that I'm not ready to give up without a fight.  The internet was made for sharing; it is built on the premise that sharing information & content should be a core value, one that will advance our culture and lead to creative, scientific, & social advancement.  Despite the actions right now of those who doth protest too much (I'm looking at you, RIAA & MPAA), I think the Anonymous responses & the SOPA Strike are "evidence that [the internet's] own constructive possibilities are far from over" (Farrell 95).  Don't let them scare you; this is our space, & we will keep it that way.  We are the creators of our culture.

█████████████ ███████████ ███ ████ ███ ████████. ███████████ ████ ████ . █████████████ ██████████ ██ █████████ ██████████ ██. ███████████ ██████ everything ███ █████ is ██ ████ fine ████ ███ █ ██████ trust █████ ███████ ███ your █████ ████ government.

Works cited:
Bush, Vannevar.  "As We May Think."  The New Media Reader. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort.  Cambridge: the MIT Press, 2003.  Print.

Farrell, Thomas.  "Practice the Arts of Rhetoric: Tradition and Invention."  Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader.  New York: The Guilford Press, 1999.  Print.

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