May 5, 2004  ·  Siva Vaidhyanathan

The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books, 2004)

Q: This is a very provocative title. Who is the anarchist and where is the library?

The anarchist is a specter. It�s a symbol of an imagined threat. There are powerful forces trying to close up our information worlds so they can control its flows and charge admission. To accomplish their goals, they raise fears about �anarchists in libraries,� uncontrollable, dangerous forces threatening us from within. The library is a metaphor for our information ecosystems. I argue we should be as careful with our information ecosystems as we should be with our real ecosystems. Small changes can have huge effects.

Q: Could tell me today how the forces of anarchy and control play out today in the world of information?

Our information systems are being driven to extremes of anarchy and oligarchy. The forces of anarchy — hackers, and cyber-libertarians, and, increasingly, plain old liberals are — doing their best to pry open information systems. They want to let data and culture flow freely around the globe. They’re doing this in the shadow of some rather extreme actions by the information oligarchs. The information oligarchs include big media companies, powerful governments, and police forces. These forces have an interest in making information scarce so they can charge more for it, and labeling it as contraband so they can limit conversation and deliberation.

We�re seeing this first and most clearly in the entertainment world. We’re seeing extreme interventions in our information infrastructure, notably from Hollywood studios and music companies. For instance, increasingly the formats and delivery systems for cultural products are highly controlled.

The DVD is the best example. Now, the DVD is a wonderful product, it does a lot of things. But it is highly controlled. We are extremely limited in what we can do with the data on that disk. There are fairly strong locks on every DVD. This is one of the reasons that we can’t play a French DVD in the United States or any DVD on a LINUX-based computer. The movie companies have decided that to differentiate their markets among certain regions � they must build these controls into the disk itself. This sounds like a small price to pay, but the problem is these sorts of moves spark an arms race.

There are a lot of people who are offended by this level of control. And they are using whatever means necessary to free the data. So we’ve created a situation through this combination of excessive copyright laws and strong technology. Hackers move to pry such systems open and apart. Then oligarchs respond with harder technology and more radical laws. So the hackers pry the stuff open once again. It continues ad absurdum. Those of us who don�t support either anarchy or oligarchy are stuck, baffled and frustrated. We pay the price for the excesses of both sides.

We have generated a situation in which it’s harder than ever to make legitimate use of information technology and copyrighted products and easier than ever to make illegitimate use of cultural products.

Q: Are there historical precedents for this dynamic?

Yes. This dynamic is not necessarily new, but it is more powerful and more relevant than any time in the last two centuries. The last time that we saw this tumultuous interplay between anarchy and oligarchy was in the 18th century. The standard story is that enlightenment philosophers instilled a sense of potential and liberty into an emerging middle class in France. And the emerging middle class unified with an oppressed lower class and overthrew the royal regime.

Well, that’s not the whole story. There’s more to it. In fact, the power of gossip, the power of unmediated, irresponsible communication is central to the story because it helps to explain how the French Revolution went so horribly wrong. The fact is that ordinary citizens in France before the revolution were adept at evading the surveillance of the state. It was an almost necessary daily habit. They used to gather throughout public places in Paris and elsewhere and exchange gossip–unflattering, probably untrue stories about life in the royal court.

This practice helped undermine faith in the French monarchy and it certainly helped spread the fertile soil of revolution. By the time France was ready to erupt, everyday people had long since abandoned any pretension of respect for the crown. What we learn from this is that anarchistic gossip has huge consequences. Peer-to-peer communication in that unmediated, uncensorable sense has always been with us.

In the relatively small area of the world that is France, anarchistic communication was particularly important in the late 18th century; now it’s important everywhere. Today, the effects of information anarchy and information oligarchy are seen in the Philippines, where everyday people used text messaging to help overthrow a corrupt president. We are seeing it in Saudi Arabia where dissidents, both of the religious extreme and the democratic middle are using cassette tapes and the Internet to spread their messages.

We’re also seeing it in China where dissidents, both religious and democratic, are using the Internet, encryption, and proxy servers to spread dissatisfaction with the state. Now, this is something we should celebrate. But we should be concerned about the fact that some bad people use the same technologies for very bad purposes. Child pornographers and terrorists can use the power of distributed systems, strong encryption, and proxy servers to hurt people. We should also be concerned about the fact that oppressive states get to use the very same methods to restrict flows of information that some would like to see us use in this country to stop my students from sharing music.

Q: But today, gossip can now spread instantaneously–in a matter of minutes. Does that make anarchy more dangerous than previous centuries, or not?

Well, I think anarchy is far more relevant than ever before. It’s central to our daily lives. It’s central to our collective imagination in ways that we haven’t quite come to terms with. Even though most of us are not anarchists, we participate in anarchistic practice more and more every day. We do so by using the Internet, using text messaging, and communicating globally. These habits of mind are becoming more prevalent. You can see it in business and management culture. You can see it in popular culture. And you can see it in political culture. The usable, reasonable middle path is getting harder to find.

We do have some obvious recent examples of applied anarchy, such as the 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. But what’s more interesting to me are the ways that everyday, rather a-political people are sort of dancing with anarchy in a way that isn’t necessarily dangerous, but could grow dangerous over time– if the forces of oligarchy continue to ratchet up the stakes. The arms race drives reasonable people to accept the unreasonable, moderate people to dabble with the extreme. -

Q: You began your research for this book before Sept. 11, 2001. Did the attacks alter your research or your perspective on this topic?

Yes. The book was supposed to be about the entertainment world. It was supposed to be about how Napster and other peer-to-peer systems were threatening or altering Hollywood and the recording industry. After the attacks of 2001, it became really hard to care whether Metallica was making any money.

I had to stop writing and trash a lot of what I’d already written. I needed to do some rethinking about what I was seeing in the world. Soon after 9/11, it became clear that �information warfare� was going to be a central part of the next few decades of our lives. So I figured I should keep an eye on the ways in which an increasingly intrusive state was managing information, and try to draw a connection with my other areas of research and concerns. And I started to worry about the rhetoric that was emerging immediately after 9/11. I worried about the new calls to restrict access to the Internet in public libraries and the availability of strong encryption.

I started to worry about the USA Patriot Act. I started to worry about Total Information Awareness and the Pentagon’s propaganda efforts. I was particularly concerned that many people in powerful positions were interpreting the enemies of the United States to be like digital networks such as Napster. I felt this was an harmful association. Such metaphors allow us to evade what’s really important about both of these important systems. Napster and peer-to-peer technologies are about cultural disorganization. Al Qaeda is actually a top-down movement dedicated to violent ends. These two phenomena are distinct both in nature and scale. I thought it was insulting to those who had lost loved ones in the attacks of 2001 to associate something so deadly with something so benign.

And I also thought it was fundamentally dangerous to play with metaphors simply because they’re available to us. I tried to emphasize the point that while globally distributed yet coordinated bad actors are a relatively new and misunderstood factor in the world, they don’t actually resemble computer networks. We aren’t fighting �Net Wars,� or we shouldn’t fight �Net Wars,� because these enemies are real, they’re not virtual.

Q: How you conclude we address this dilemma?

I think we really have to explicitly invest in a celebration of cultural democracy. What I mean by that is we have to recognize that people who are not powerful should have the right to play with the cultural signs around them. We shouldn’t lock up expressions, symbols and information and assign it to corporations and governments without a full and fair examination and justification. We have been fencing in our information for more than a decade now. If we would break down a few fences, we could relieve the pressure and release some profound creativity that can help us see new ways to deal with these frightening new problems in the world. We could begin to address problems of globalization, problems of maldistribution and problems of unpredictable violence. These problems require fresh thinking from those who have not yet had a chance to speak up. So cultural democracy is a necessary, but insufficient, step in solving these problems.

The other half of the solution is recognition of civic republicanism, a recognition that even though we will allow a high measure of freedom in our information worlds, we must have a rich discussion of values and virtues. Values and virtues are central to republican theory going back as far as the Roman stoics. Unfortunately American political culture, and increasingly global political culture, is infected with themes of either radical individualism or radical corporatism. And neither one of these perspectives are going to make us a better species.

Q: The controversy over file sharing of music appears to serve as a case study of this phenomenon. What does your book say about this?

We should learn from the mistakes of the music business that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about something so essential as the free flow of culture and information. We shouldn’t panic and we shouldn’t rush to judgment. A couple of years ago it was fashionable to whine about the inevitable extinction of the major commercial music. A sober examination of the state of the music business will tell us that while there’s been a slump between 2001 and 2003, it’s not a more significant slump than many major American industries have encountered.

It’s no worse than the slump the music industry experienced in 1983 through 1984, and it’s no worse than what the music industry experienced in 1992 and 1993. Those were actually worse years than what we’ve seen in the past two years.

So the real question is, why did the music industry do so well in the late 1990s and in 2000. There are a lot of reasons why the music industry did well in ’99 and 2000, not least of which was the emergence of N�Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears — major hit-makers that forced parents to drive their 12-year-olds to the mall. This spurred a whole lot of music-buying by the American consumer. But those were unique times.

Since then, we’ve been getting back to normal. Now, that’s not to minimize the pain that’s going on right now among, first and foremost, record store owners and, secondly, songwriters, musicians, music lawyers and accountants. Those folks are not doing as well as they had hoped. But it’s not as many as one might think. In fact, if every download of peer-to-peer equaled a lost sale, there would be no music industry in 2004; it would have been completely wiped out. That’s not the case. This isn’t a zero sum situation. Now, the music industry in the past couple of years has proposed some rather extreme measures to deal with what is a complex problem, a problem that involves the recent recession, the popularity of DVDs and video games and shifting musical tastes.

All of these factor play a part in the success or decline of the music industry. But all that industry leaders have done is suggest radical technological moves or simplistic legal moves. They have tried to gain permission to hack into our private computers and networks to shut down the distribution of what they suspect is illicit. This of course would be done without any due process. Media companies have managed to convinced Congress that they should be able to subpoena the identity of network users without ever filing a lawsuit. You know, this is a radical departure in civil law. They have asked for exceptions to anti-terrorism and anti-hacking laws that would allow them to do what we hope independent hackers and terrorists wouldn’t do.

These sorts of extreme measures have made it clear to the music-loving public that those who run the music industry don’t respect them. They don’t respect creativity, they don’t respect democracy, and they don’t respect their customers. So it�s understandable that consumer and citizens deny respect right back.

So the moral of this story is that we should be patient with the effects of technological change. We should be aware of the cultural habits that are relatively unchanged over time�such as the propensity to share music. We’ve always shared music. And we should– wait until all the facts are in before we suggest radical policy moves.

I actually applaud the music industry for filing civil lawsuits against copyright infringers. And I do this because I think copyright should be worked out in the civil courts. I think that when you sue somebody, you’re at least giving that defendant a chance to due process, a chance to defend herself. And that’s healthier than trying to make all of the regulatory decisions within the technology itself. So I hope that the last few years have taught the music industry ease up on techno-fundamentalism , the idea that every problem can be solved by technological advances, and invest, once again, in real humane regulation like traditional copyright.

Q: How do you get from an analysis of the music industry to an account of globalization?

Well, the music industry is global. Music flows globally, whether through legitimate channels or not. Communication is getting more anarchistic every day, thanks to the proliferation of these radical technologies. So it�s not hard to show that some of the same battles that have played out in the entertainment world will soon apply to global politics. That�s why I say this book is about global information politics.

Q: What is at the root of these misunderstandings?

In the book I explore a phenomenon I call “technofundamentalism,” the persistent ideology that tells us that a new machine will solve all the problems that the last machine created. Technofundamentalism overpowers discussions externalities and unintended consequences. One sees technolfundamentalism most significantly in business and management discourse, where one must be “at the vanguard” of technological change or risk extinction. George Gilder, Virginia Postrel, and Kevin Kelly are the most notorious technofundamentalists writing today. Their ranks include Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. Technofundamentalism is a forward-looking ideology, and is thus distinct from technological determinism, a historical frame of reference.

  • Casey McG.

    Great post. I look forward to reading your book.

    I am curious to get your thoughts on one issue that has puzzled me. I agree with your conceptual thoughts regarding the growth of “cultural democracy” but I don’t always see the connection to those who are “unlocking” information. For instance, take your statement:

    I think we really have to explicitly invest in a celebration of cultural democracy. What I mean by that is we have to recognize that people who are not powerful should have the right to play with the cultural signs around them. We shouldn’t lock up expressions, symbols and information and assign it to corporations and governments without a full and fair examination and justification. We have been fencing in our information for more than a decade now. If we would break down a few fences, we could relieve the pressure and release some profound creativity that can help us see new ways to deal with these frightening new problems in the world.

    Retorically this sounds fine, but I am not yet ready to buy the idea that hacking DVDs or the unrestricted sharing of music via p2p or otherwise “playing around cultural signs” is not largely about getting something without paying for it rather than looking for ways to solve problems like terrorism or environmental pollution. I can understand that positing this contrast seems a bit unfair, but my observation is that a lot of the most vocal “copyfight” thinkers use similar arguments about democracy to justify limiting commercial protection of IP. I guess I am grappling with finding where the “rubber meets the road.” Why is the fair use doctrine as it currently stands insufficient to allow critical, commentary or other expressive uses that enhance the debate re social and political issues. Also, what do you see as constituting a “full and fair examination and justification” to allow information to be given IP protection?

  • Rob

    …I think copyright should be worked out in the civil courts. I think that when you sue somebody, you’re at least giving that defendant a chance to due process, a chance to defend herself.

    …assuming she has enough money to defend her suit. I think you’re on shaky ground expecting a corrupted legal system to produce genuinely equitable decisions. Instead, in the majority of these cases you are seeing defendants caving in and accepting settlements that only further entrench the media companies’ monopoly on distribution; meanwhile the definition of what constitutes distribution gets extended to merely having a copy of a music file on a shared storage device, regardless of whether any actual distribution takes place. We are guilty until proven innocent and even then we pay court costs. No, I think far from “eas[ing] up on techno-fundamentalism” the media companies are going farther and farther down the road to total control. Now I hear about HDTV sets that will turn off their auxiliary outputs when “broadcast flag” media are played through them, ostensibly to prevent you recording through analog outputs. Next I’m sure will be stereo equipment being forced to comply in the same way. It’s not going to stop.

  • Chuck Munson

    Hi Siva,

    Thanks for writing this book. I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve been advocating against copyright for most of the last twenty years. For most of this time people looked at me like I was from Mars. But with recent developments like file-sharing and the DCMA the wool has been pulled away from the public’s eyes. The copyright supporters, or “maximalists” as you call them, must be quaking in their boots as they contemplate the prospect of an entire generation that is hostile to the idea of intellectual property.

    The maximalists are going to find that there are many strong arguments against IP. I hope that your book outlines many of these for the general reader.

    Anti-copyright since 1985,

    Chuck Munson
    Co-founder, anarchist librarians

  • Fuzzy

    Casey writes: “I am not yet ready to buy the idea that… ‘playing around cultural signs’ is not largely about getting something without paying for it”.

    I would disagree. Culture is built up out of individual contributions. Rarely does culture pay or even acknowledge the invididuals who provide the source material. We build upon other people’s ‘creations’ all the time, every day. Look at creations like mashup music and bobble headed dolls.

    I would love to be able to prevent Aristotle from selling my personal information for commercial gain based on copyrights. After all, I am not a public figure, so I should have greater protections than a governor. But it doesn’t work that way. Copyrights cut against the individual and society.

    Casey writes:”Why is the fair use doctrine as it currently stands insufficient….”

    Because the copyright maximalists are trying to restrict or remove fair use. This is one of the many problems with most DRM systems. This is one of the many problems with the DMCA, which blocks attempts to retain fair use.

    Because the copyright maximalists claim that fair use doctrine is not a positive right but is instead only an affirmative defense.

  • matt perkins

    I’ll try to hit Casey’s question, on the connection between cultural evolution and “locking” information, with a rather blunt example (I’m sure there are more elegant ones):

    Probably, many people have written essays and doctoral theses on Gone with the Wind focusing on the novel’s depiction of Reconstruction-era race relations, and how the author’s own era shaped that depiction. That’s great. Such analyses certainly should be written. That’s how our culture evolves with respect to important and significant matters.

    The audience for most of those papers and journal articles, if there were any, has probably been pretty limited. I can say honestly that, although I have pretty diverse interests, I would never go looking for such an article, and if I found it I’m not sure that I would have the interest or patience to read it.

    Alice Randall expressed that analysis in a different manner: she made the same points, but she made them in the framework of “retelling” GWTW. Same characters, same incidents, wildly different perspectives. Randall’s genius wasn’t in merely observing that Mitchell’s work embodied a questionable and controversial view of history: it was in presenting that observation in an immediate, accessible manner, from which a reader could make those observations on her own. Now, the discussion has braodened to include those who aren’t full-time academics with subscriptions to The Journal of Historical and Cultural Socio-Economic Perceptivity (or something). The Wind Done Gone is the “picture” that’s worth a thousand essays.

    To your second question, on why fair use isn’t sufficient: I would point to the second part of the story, in which Randall’s publisher was bestowed with a generous lawsuit from Mitchell’s estate’s trustee. Lessig really nailed it in Free Culture: fair use only is the right to hire a lawyer. I would add that fair use is also the requirement that you only hire lawyers who will advise you not to criticize, if you don’t have permission — or can’t afford litigation — for your criticism.

    But you know, I’m kind of jaded about these things. If fair use case law a bit more consistent, then many of my problems with it might evaporate.

  • Jiri Baum

    Casey, consider the idea of an on-line karaoke. Is it legal? Should it be?

    As usual with karaoke, most of the results won’t be worth listening to outside the small circle of friends; but other uses of the same sort will definitely be culturally valuable, and even with the karaoke the top one or two will be good.

    For that matter, putting a clip of your children singing “Happy Birthday” on the net is technically illegal – p2p counts as public performance, and the song is owned by AOL-Time-Warner (yes, I did check snopes). Now, AOL-Time-Warner probably won’t sue you – but they have every right, and they might well sue you if they decide they don’t like you for some reason.

    It’s not so much the obvious cases where someone is just trying to get something for nothing that worry people; those can be as illegal as you want. It’s the wider consequences and collateral damage that are a problem. Artists need to be compensated, but perhaps we can think of some way of doing that that doesn’t interfere with healthy �playing around cultural signs�.


    I’ve no idea why you brought up terrorism or environmental pollution into the discussion, they seem totally unrelated. Unless you are suggesting people should get songs from p2p rather CDs so as to reduce pollution?