DIGITAL AMERICA

A “New Economy” in the Digital Age?

// Posted by on 10/15/2014 (10:40 AM)

As we took our seats, the subjects of a mysterious and seemingly innocent experiment, those of us who had not developed this experience were blissfully oblivious as to the unexpectedly stressful and nightmarish hour that lie ahead.

The class had been split into two groups, aptly named group A and group B. Members of both groups were given a deceptively simple assignment: to write a 250-word essay about digital copyrighting, and whether or not it perpetuates inequality. As is usually the case in life, the assignment had a catch: To simulate the digital divide experienced by those in a lower socioeconomic bracket, members of group A would have to do research solely on their phones. Members of group B could only research using books and could not use any device that connected to the Internet. A library computer could only be used to type up the essay. Suddenly, being a member of group B did not seem like such a lucky deal, as I had originally thought. Even so, I still assumed that the task was doable, if challenging.

I had no idea just how tense the subsequent hour would be. We first visited with librarian Marcia Whitehead, who was enormously helpful, but unfortunately left us with the harsh reality that to access the resources we needed—without the aid of the Internet—we would have to travel to the law library. Thus began a 6-minute trek and an even longer search for the books we needed. When we finally found them (of course they were tucked away in a secluded nook), we were confronted not only with excessively technical legal texts and other sources that were not entirely applicable to our central thesis. Whereas we wanted a more accessible listing of examples of copyright infringement and its perpetuation of inequality, what we often found was a five-page legal examination of copyright, defining it and laying out consequences of infringement. Debates over the implications, socioeconomic, ethical, or otherwise, were sorely lacking, or at least in many of the texts we encountered in our necessarily brief search.

We did what we could, jotting down notes frantically, but ultimately providing weak support for our contention. We did not have any other options, though, and realizing that time was running short, we could only place the books back on the shelf in resignation, running once again back to Boatwright. We attempted to scribble the notes that would constitute our unfortunate excuse for an essay as we walked briskly back to the library. In all the confusion, we had lost Brendan, but luckily, he thought ahead and claimed a computer so that we could quickly type out our argument. Nonetheless, we did not have enough time and turned our assignment in late. I highly doubt anyone in the group felt very good about it.

Below, for my documentation (all of which is courtesy of Dr. Rosatelli, since I did not have a phone with which to take pictures or video), I have included a link to a YouTube video with a clip of Aisling, Elizabeth, and myself in the elevator of the law library, explaining the scenario in which we found ourselves embroiled at that point in time, as well as the final class discussion, in which we expressed our findings and our emotions both as experienced during and in the aftermath of the experience. I also have included below a picture of us searching frantically for a book among the shelves of the law library. I chose these mediums of documentation so as to provide a more immersive and visual representation of the difficulties experienced and the stress with which we responded as a group. For as much as I can express in words, video is an even more effective tool that will ideally enhance the reader/viewer’s understanding of the experience and the extent to which my group found ourselves in a situation with which we were considerably uncomfortable.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbTkAkcjwj8

For group B, it was a horrendous experience. Insulated from the realities of the world faced by those less fortunate than us, we had taken for granted our laptops and smartphones and the instant gratification of the Internet. Deprived of those tools, however, we simply could not perform at a high enough level to keep up even with our counterparts in group A, let alone with other students fortunate enough to have complete access to Internet-connected devices.

Though it may seem simple enough to insist that ours was merely a simulation, and not necessarily an accurate depiction of the tribulations faced by high school students from lower-income households, who might not have access to a smartphone or laptop, the fact nonetheless remains that, whether or not we wish to confront the dismal reality of the experience, a considerable contingent of the high school student population relies on public libraries in such a way. As I write, countless students across the country are working frantically to research in a library, wishing they had access to their own computer and failing to find works that apply directly to a paper they are writing. Many are finding that allotted time for computer usage simply is not conducive to the writing of a thoroughly-researched, well-developed thesis. For too many high school students, our experience was not simply an exception; it was the rule.

When I was younger and my family was facing the inhospitable conditions that resulted from the so-called “Great Recession” in 2009, I found myself in the position of those students, and I encountered many of these challenges along the way, relying on public libraries but struggling to complete work in the allotted hour of computer usage. Even with this background experience, the class simulation offered a new perspective, as I was faced with a situation even worse than ones I had experienced heretofore. I am sure that almost everyone in the class was afforded a new perspective on the digital divide. The question that remains, however, is what conclusions we draw from this experience with regards not only to copyright law and the digital divide in general, but also to more overarching topics of discussion from throughout the unit.

It is fascinating—and necessary for our purposes—to juxtapose the idealistic visions of the “New Economy” with the current conditions in which many are now mired. Nicholas Negroponte, who in the mid-1980s had created the MIT Media Lab, envisioned the “New Economy” as one in which existing hierarchies were subverted and superseded by a progressive network of nodes, in effect enabling every individual therein to start anywhere and work on a more equal footing with their colleagues and those who might formerly have been labeled “superiors.”

Negroponte’s notion of a “New Economy” was far from some fringe ideal. Men like Stewart Brand, who worked alongside Negroponte at the Media Lab, shared his libertarian vision. Brand would go on to serve as a co-founder of the Global Business Network, a consulting firm that advocated the aforementioned flattening of hierarchies and would boast such impressive clients as Royal Dutch/Shell and AT&T.

In a profoundly significant way, the GBN represented the propagation of counterculturist ideas within the framework of an evolving economy looking to move into a new age. This intertwinement of counterculture and the libertarianism of Brand and Negroponte (along with that of countless others, including Kevin Kelly and Louis Rossetto, the executive editor and founder of Wired Magazine, respectively) would later reveal itself even more substantively in a manifesto entitled the “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” written by four authors, including Esther Dyson, a writer for Wired at the time. The “Magna Carta” likened Cyberspace to a new frontier, which the American populace had to be empowered to explore, to pursue “civilization’s truest, highest calling.” The manifesto not only called for, but also coincided with, the deregulation of the telecommunications industry as part of Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Indeed, in the 1990s, the counterculturist ideals of Brand and others were fused with the libertarian laissez-faire fiscal policy so essential to the Republican Party, and this fusion would be represented in Wired Magazine, one of many conduits for the dissemination of idealistic visions of the digital age and the “New Economy.”

On the surface, for those incognizant of the digital divide and conditions represented by the in-class simulation, it may seem that the “New Economy” has delivered what it promised. To look quickly at “accelerators,” like Y Combinator, which finance the start-up businesses of promising young entrepreneurs, accelerating the growth of a product or a business into a more lucrative entity, it seems that we are living in a world in which anyone can simply come up with an idea for a digital technology and subsequently earn tens of thousands of dollars, and maybe more in the long run. When venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, advocates students NOT attend college and, under his Thiel Fellowships, will pay them $100,000 in a two-year grant to launch a startup instead, it is easy to be led to believe that the economy is changing and that the hierarchies of old truly have been leveled, that the status symbol of college is no longer necessary to have a chance, and that anyone can live the “American Dream,” whatever that really is. Unfortunately, such is a woefully inadequate and incomplete picture, and it provides a largely untruthful representation of the economy in the digital age.

Truthfully speaking, the “New Economy” does not really seem to be all that new. In fact, it seems like more of the same, in deceptive new packaging. Y Combinator may be subsidizing young entrepreneur’s startups, but its intent is not to promote the growth of new businesses so much as to have its investment pay dividends when that venture is ultimately sold to a corporation. Thiel may believe that students should skip college, but that erroneously presupposes that every student is a computer prodigy. People like Thiel, an outspoken libertarian, are the same ones who led the movement towards the “New Economy,” but they are also the same ones who, when pressed to discuss the digital divide, give answers like “That’s not one I focus on as much.”

In the end, it would appear that the “New Economy” was designed not truly for the betterment of every citizen, but rather clearly for the betterment of large corporations, which have benefitted greatly and become, more so than ever before, centralized forces in the private sector, holding sizable concentrations of wealth and power. The hierarchical structure of the “old economy” has not been eradicated; nor has it been superseded by a new network of nodes, so to speak. What we have found instead is that the “New Economy” is instead a complex network of supposed nodes that is structured in such a way as to constitute a complicated system of nested hierarchies, thereby maintaining the decades-old status quo, in a different, superficially appealing form.

Corporations and other powerful parties in the “new” economic order are not simply gaining power, but they are often manipulating the means of wealth attribution in a way that makes economic opportunity—supposedly a cornerstone of libertarian values—less accessible than ever before. A prime example is the high-frequency trading that has come to dominate the stock exchange, not only domestically, but also internationally. In essence, trading firms like Tradeworx utilize machinery that operates using autonomous algorithms that, via transmissions communicated through globe-spanning networks of fiber-optic cable, execute trades faster than humans can intervene. One of the fundamental consequences of HFT for the “average citizen,” not privy to the luxuries afforded a Wall Street trader or oligarch, is that the stock prices published on websites like Yahoo Finance are obsolete by the time potential buyers view them. Stock prices are fluctuating constantly throughout the course of the day, as algorithms perpetually buy and sell stocks to make minuscule gains that, multiplied by millions of trades, add up to substantial dividends. In all of this, David Golumbia is correct in his assertion that the majority of individuals are excluded from participating meaningfully. Such is far from the supposedly democratizing impact that was supposed to be effected by computerization and the rise of the Internet. Indeed, the Internet has equally empowered all citizens, but it serves especially to keep those at the top at the top, as evidenced in the stock exchange and the dizzying rapidity with which trades are being executed, precluding more consequential involvement from a more socioeconomically diverse array of citizens.

The structure of this class and the sequence with which we have discussed different topics is intriguing and appropriate, as I have come to recognize over time that the digital utopianism that at first seems so appealing becomes less and less so over time. Whereas in an earlier unit, especially after the first experience in the LA Live Chatroom, it was easy to stand behind the idealistic vision of a democratic Internet and all of the possibilities presented thereby, the realities with which we are confronted in the units on cybersecurity and the digital economy serve as a reminder that, to a large extent, digital utopianism—and the idealism that has come to so strongly characterize it—is fundamentally flawed and looks only at a portion of the picture. Technological determinism, the notion that technology is inherently democratic, is enticing, but ultimately wrong. Saskia Sassen’s thesis is ultimately a more accurate depiction of technology, as she insists that nothing about the Internet is inherently democratic. Indeed, she is correct. Mark Poster is partially correct when he writes in “Information Please” that the Internet may bring about the “overturning of certain systems of social control,” but it does not have to (193). It can be used, most simplistically, for good or for evil (though such a simplistic, monochromatic dichotomy eschews the convoluted nature of reality).

How, then, can the Internet be rendered a democratizing agent, if at the present time it is far from such a force? The answer is, as always, more complicated and requires more extensive elaboration than I can herein provide, but one such solution is presented in the current debate over copyright, which served as one of the principal foci of the class simulation.

Copyright law, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 more specifically, is most commonly construed by the government and media companies as a defense of the rights of a creator of a work, be it literary, artistic, or otherwise. These authors and artists, we have been told, have a right to recognition and compensation when their work is borrowed by another. As a matter of principle, such seems to be a reasonable argument. What is left out of the equation, however, is the complex web of interests surrounding copyright law. Who really profits?

“RiP!: A Remix Manifesto” does an excellent job of depicting with discomfiting accuracy the state of copyright in this country, and who the real winners and losers are. Anyone who believes that copyright laws are designed to benefit only the creators of a work should consider the fact made clear in the documentary that over 90% of media companies are owned by larger corporations like Disney, NewsCorp, GE, Viacom, and TimeWarner. These are powerful entities that constitute equally powerful lobbies in this country. They have tremendous influence in politics, and they have continued to push for more stringent copyright legislation. Some of the most recent alterations to the law include the provision that corporations can retain a copyright for 95 years after the life of an author. This number, it should be pointed out, will only be increased over time, yet another representation of the ways in which the “New Economy” and the digital age have failed to democratize, instead merely consolidating power in the hands of multinational corporations.

Indeed, answering the question posed during the simulation, digital copyright does perpetuate inequality. On a basic level, I will speak simplistically and give a personal example. If I need to analyze a movie for class, but do not personally own it, I have to go to the library to find it. Without free public availability online (assuming—unrealistically and only for the sake of argument—complete compliance with the law and the extinction of illegal downloading sites), I could not access the movie without paying. If I were a student who could not afford to pay the fee for an online rental, I would find myself reliant upon a likely insufficient online synopsis, and would not be adequately prepared to analyze the film for class, be it in an essay or on a test. Every other student who could afford to rent would be given the upper hand. Again, it is a simplistic example, but it nonetheless serves as a necessary reminder that digital copyright can feasibly serve to perpetuate inequality. On a more complex level, however, who is to say that Girl Talk, the musician who serves as the focal point of “RiP!: A Remix Manifesto,” does not have a right to make mash-ups of classic songs, creatively rendering old art something decidedly new and different and innovative? For a mash-up artist aspiring to move up, to become a star, how does digital copyright do anything but bar them from reaching the heights of other musicians? Is it fair that the law can prevent Girl Talk from doing what he does best to rise up the socioeconomic ladder? To answer such a question requires that we consider, as Poster does in “Information Please,” the relationship between cultural objects existing in the physical realm and those existing in cyberspace.

Poster sees a fundamental flaw in the notion that illegally downloading a music file is equivalent to stealing a CD from a store, writing, “When the CD is taken from the store, the store no longer has it; when the file is downloaded, the person sharing the file still has it” (189). I do not profess to have all the answers with regards to the complex nature of the intangible cultural objects of the digital space, but Poster’s argument seems to incorrectly define theft—or at least he does so in a manner that contradicts my subjective understanding of the term— though of course that definition may be altered by the differing nature of intangible digital objects. Illegal downloading of music may simply entail copying, but it presupposes that theft occurs without a loss of profit for one party involved. In other words, the means by which the music is “stolen” may be different, but the end result is not, so it may theoretically still constitute theft. A stolen CD is problematic because it deprives the store owner of a profit that could have been made off of the product. Though online only a copy is made, someone is still deprived of profit. My intention is not to insist that we grieve the loss of profit for multibillion dollar corporations that probably are not hurt terribly when a 12-year-old girl illegally downloads a $7.99 album, but it is to suggest that the increasingly complex nature of intangible cultural objects must push us to consider definitions of concepts as seemingly simple as “theft” if we are to come to a greater understanding with regards to proper action to be taken on copyright. I am certainly not in the business of defending abusive copyright legislation so much as calling for a more fervent debate over the relation between the physical and non-physical realms we currently occupy.

So digital copyright is perpetuating inequality, along with high-frequency trading, and corporations in the “New Economy” have served to make themselves more central figures in the private sector than ever before. Working against the democratizing potential of the Internet, wealthy tycoons exclude the less powerful from engaging meaningfully in the economy, monopolizing power and minimizing opportunity along the way. The picture thus far has frankly been incredibly depressing; but to paint such a picture without examining the rays of light that we now see would be a gross oversimplification.

It is exceedingly appropriate that the class experience asked us to consider digital copyright in relation to inequality. The issue is so crucial in this discussion, in fact, that the solution thereto provides one of many such solutions to broader inequality that has resulted from the implementation of “New Economy” policies which have too often effected a change diametrically opposed to that which was promised.

Poster makes clear in his examination of copyright that to find solutions to the problems we currently face, “[w]e must invent an entirely new copyright law that rewards cultural creation but also fosters new forms of use or consumption and does not inhibit the development of new forms of digital cultural exchange that explore the new fluidity of texts, images, and sounds” (209). Though seemingly overwhelming a solution at first, “RiP!: A Remix Manifesto” introduces us to a man who provides one very simple but very effective step towards a broader, more democratic solution to problems we face and inequality which must be rooted out: Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is a professor at Harvard Law School and an anti-copyright activist who travels the world speaking out against copyright legislation.

In 2001, Lessig founded Creative Commons, a non-profit group that offers free licenses which can be used by creators of a work to signify that, instead of “all rights reserved,” it is only “some rights reserved,” and that certain rights have been waived so that others may borrow more freely. It seems to be an incredibly simple concept, but in actuality it is incredibly powerful. If Creative Commons licenses were more greatly expanded so as to ensure freer dissemination of cultural objects online, providing a wider range of access to those objects, that alone would serve as a step towards eliminating the inequality with which the current economic order is plagued. It would at least begin to establish a foundation for a more democratic Internet in which access to cultural objects is made more equal and opportunity, in turn, is expanded.

I am not under the illusion that Creative Commons can single-handedly solve the problems that we face with regards to corporate influence over the digital world and the economy thereof. I do recognize, however, the democratizing potential inherent in Lessig’s organization. His example should serve as inspiration to us all, a helpful reminder that we are more than capable of organizing within the framework of the Internet. We—the heretofore repressed masses—can provide the push for democratization, and in so doing, subvert the autocratic rule of authoritarian governments and monolithic corporations. The Internet may not be inherently democratic, but if used to work towards the proper ends, we, as agents of change, can make it so.

For as much of the complexity of the issue I may understand, I will openly admit as per usual that I am not omniscient with regards to solutions to these complicated issues. I do recognize, however, that change can be effected. Millions took to Twitter and Facebook to protest the Stop Online Privacy Act, another piece of copyright legislation, and the bill has yet to become law. It is doubtful at this point in time that it ever will. Of course civic engagement can have an impact on policy decisions in this country. Unfortunately, we must also consider that large corporations like Google also opposed SOPA, and that their influence must be felt in stopping the law as well. Nonetheless, social media and the Internet, if used for the right reasons, can bring about change if we choose to step up and act, as was the case, for example, in the “Arab Spring” uprisings. We know what the problems are, and we see glimmers of hope in new solutions, like Creative Commons, but no change will come if no action is taken first, so it is contingent on the American citizenry to become engaged and to use the Internet as a means of democratic protestation and organization.

As I said before, the organization of this class is both intriguing and appropriate. We see now that if change is to be brought about, it will require organization with the aid of the tools we are afforded within the digital landscape. To render the Internet a more democratizing force, we must make it such, and use it to work towards a democratic end. Though we may not now understand how to do so, or the precedent which exists for digital movements, the next unit should provide ample framework for the implementation of such a movement. We now move forward, beginning to explore civic engagement in the digital age, looking to subversive movements like Occupy and Anonymous and the impact created thereby.

Group “Business” clearly did an excellent job of raising the questions that needed to be raised, and though more exist than can be answered, it is my hope that I have at least skimmed the surface thoroughly enough to highlight, as always, a path forward, and one, I now realize, that likely lies in the next unit. What a pivotal one it shall be.


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