Ginger’s Narcissistic One-Body Book Club Presents: What Information Wants

Read on its own, Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (McSweeney’s, 2014) is naturally of a piece with arguments that its author has been making for years concerning copyright, creative work, and the realm of digital production, distribution, and exchange (the political economy of the internet, really). Read next to Luciano Floridi’s The 4th Revolution: How The Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (Oxford University Press, 2014), Doctorow’s very practical approach to making a living as a creator in a digital world takes on a deeper urgency — and also highlights the difference between the dreams of technological advancement and the immediate business of living with it.

Two short books -- one BIG set of problems

Two short books — one BIG set of problems

[Note: This is bit of a long read…I thought about doing it in two parts, but it felt better to leave it all in one piece, so enjoy the scrolling! Also worthy of note: While this post isn’t really going to address it in any detail, Searle recently wrote a rather unflattering review of the Floridi book, to which Floridi has responded. My own thoughts here aren’t really a review of the text of that kind — it’s more of a sloppy exploration of a few ideas about it.]

Doctorow’s engaging little book is a clear, refreshing account of the legal and technical nuts and bolts of the context in which one creates and sells one’s work on the Internet. Its intended audience is other content creators and would-be content creators — the people who most urgently need the right tools to navigate an artistic and economic landscape that is very different from what it was in the days before Napster and Amazon and BitTorrent and BandCamp. It reads as a manifesto, complete with forewords from Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer (both artists/creators who have had their own considerable success at navigating the digital political economy about which Doctorow writes), that also provides an elegant map of the legal and technical layout of the business from the creator’s point of view.

Doctorow sets the stage by pointing out the salient fact that as long as control over content in a digital environment is defined by who controls access to it, the power over that content that copyright ought to provide to its creators is effectively ceded to the digital/technological  gatekeepers (the holders of the various “digital locks” — DRM, format owners, etc.). In a digital economy in which this is the case, content creators/publishers lose the power to make their own choices about how their content is shared, distributed, stored, etc., via measures that are allegedly in place to protect their copyright. From Doctorow’s point of view, keeping in mind all of the above, both consumers and creators/publishers would benefit from becoming more savvy about their options for avoiding arrangements that empower the digital gatekeepers, especially in digital environments which readily support and facilitate more direct relationships between them (or would, without the locks and the owners of those locks constantly getting in the way).

The upshot of Doctorow’s analysis of this system is a “tool kit, boiled down to three points:”

1. If you’re a publisher, don’t let your retailers usurp your relationship with your customers by using DRM.

2. If you’re a creator, don’t let your publishers use your copyright as an excuse for rules that let it corner the market on delivering your art to your audience.

3. And no matter who you are, remember that this Internet thing is bigger than the arts, bigger than the entertainment business — it’s the nervous system of the twenty-first century, and, depending on how we use it, it can set us free, or it can enslave us. [1]

That last image — of the Internet as “the nervous system of the twenty-first century” — serves as an interesting transition from Doctorow to Floridi. Floridi’s little book (only about 100 pages longer than Doctorow’s, with fewer forewords and many more endnotes) is also engaging, but it is not a practical piece. It is a philosophical book (albeit one aimed also at non-philosophers) in which Floridi rather neatly lays out a set of concepts and questions relevant to figuring out exactly how one ought to deal with the ways in which information technology shapes and is shaped by us, as human beings who are living with and through and around and in it. What might sound just a little fantastic (or at least colorful) in Doctorow’s formulation turns out to be precisely the straight-faced point of Floridi’s account of the changes that have occurred (and are still occurring) in the ways in which human beings interact with — and are to some degree constituted by, insofar as we are understood as what he calls informational organisms or inforgs — ICTs (Information and Computing Technologies) in the realm of the infosphere.[2]

There are both marvelous advantages and serious dangers built-in to the human place in the infosphere as Floridi imagines it. For example: we are both capable of very fine control over our informational identities and subject to external controls by way of or over those identities in our hyperhistorical societies.[3] Read now as “de-individualized” types rather than unique individuals, “inforgs may be treated like commodities,”[4] an advertiser’s dream, to be bought and sold in service to further exchanges. The personae we create on Facebook or Twitter or [insert social media here] are objects for our use, to be sure, but also for the use of others, even as they are also extensions of the ways in which we understand ourselves. While participation in digital forms of identity definition and management gives us considerable power over how we are represented, it also has the consequence of embroiling that created self in a world of exchanges in which it is an object not entirely one’s own, now de-localized as a public character in someone else’s story (indeed, in many such stories).[5]

In the Floridian infosphere, Doctorow’s lock-holders and digital gatekeepers aren’t just usurping rights that would otherwise more correctly accrue to creators and/or publishers of content — they are potentially in the business of mediating access to and control over selves, as identity formation and management and maintenance and definition have been extended into the realm of ICTs. This isn’t just about creating art and sharing one’s creations with others — it’s also about the informational entities involved in the exchange, and the ways in which the medium of exchange may affect how they are related to each other and to themselves as both informational subjects and objects.

A facile way to speak of this might be to turn to “branding” as identity formation, and from there to jump into a reflection on the nature of Internet celebrity/notoriety and alienation (which is in part the conceit of Selfie , NBC’s sitcom riff on Pygmalion and/or My Fair Lady). I think, though, it might be better to think instead about how one might productively apply or adapt Doctorow’s three points to attempts to manage one’s technologically extended identity. The upshot may or may not be, for example, to remove oneself from some kinds of social media, or to create social media forms that work differently (like what some folks hoped might be the case with Ello). Yet participation in an Internet economy appears to require a certain amount of controlled self-commodification (or something like that), and it may therefore also require of participants a much greater control over their own access to systems (and knowledge of those systems) than is currently the case.

I must confess I’m not sure where this all goes, but it’s fascinating stuff.

1. Cory Doctorow, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2014), 162.

2. There’s very little in The Fourth Revolution that’s really new, relative to Floridi’s ongoing project as it occurs in The Philosophy of Information and The Ethics of Information and the various journal articles and other pieces he’s written on the subject. This book is basically a friendly representation of some of the central themes that get worked out in a more philosophically technical way in those other texts. This isn’t to say he’s dumbed anything down — The Fourth Revolution is still a serious book about complex ideas, it’s just that those ideas are presented outside of the discussion of their philosophical merits as such and outside of the formal ethical framework that his other writings aim to develop and defend.

3. Hyperhistorical, in this context, may be taken to refer to the phase of human historical development in which “human progress and welfare…[are] not just related to, but mostly dependent on, the successful management of the life cycle of information.” (Floridi, 3)

4. Floridi, 98.

5. Consider, for example, the case of Sondra Arquiett, whose name and image (publicly available information, otherwise) were used without her consent or prior knowledge to create a Facebook account to be used by an agent of the DEA for gathering intelligence in drug enforcement operations. Less criminally but no less disturbingly: consider how Facebook uses its users and and all of their “friends” in its own advertising.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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