value and its other in electronic culture:
slave ships and pirate galleons
by Raqs Media Collective
The slave ships have come ashore, and are offloading their precious cargo on the docks, and are waiting to take other goods in exchange. Out in the high seas the pirates are waiting in agile vessels anchored in the bays of islands not visible on the map. They wait for the tall ships to cross the channel on their return journeys and then strike under cover of darkness, recovering abundance from scarcity, restoring the nothing that is mined for gold, into the void depths of the sea.

The bank hath benefit of the interest on all moneys which it creates out of nothing…

William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England,
in a prospectus written to the Bank’s potential investors, 1694
For capitalism to be what it is, large amounts of wealth need to be generated out of nothing.

This is as true today as it was in 1694. If then, the ‘nothing’ essentially consisted of ‘new worlds’, ‘new lands’ and ‘other people’ that capital could mould in its own image, today the void is the relatively uncharted terrain of information, the high seas of data and culture, which - precisely because for millennia they have grown through a process of the exchange of ideas and expressions undertaken essentially in the spirit of gift-giving - are now up for grabs in the new rule of the commodity. They are like the rainforests of ideas, containing many centuries of a biological diversity of cross-fertilised cultures and information systems, making them prime targets for the pharmaceutical corporations of knowledge.

The spirit of the age demands the making of scarce goods out of things, such as stories, ideas, images, music and numerical expressions, which were until recently considered inexhaustible, even when shared, and abundantly so, by all humanity. The zero, after all, did not cease to be an expression with some use in the context in which it emerged when it passed from one culture of mathematics to another. Were the zero to be discovered today, it would promptly raise the question as to whose property it could become. There is money to be made out of nothing.

And so, even if stockpiled inventories far outnumber sales, even if theatres run empty, electronic warehouses choke with unsold products, and media channels pile losses upon losses, the promotion of the latest desirable cultural good premises itself on the fact that if you don’t buy it, you won’t have something that everyone else (or at least everyone worth considering) has, and if you don’t buy it now (‘while stocks last’), everyone else will buy it before you, and then it will no longer be yours to buy. Hence, buy it, even if it costs you a fortune.

If you ‘accessed’ the worth of that good by other means (as you would have traditionally, given that it is a cultural or intellectual good), or by payment of a lesser sum of money in exchange for a replica which gave you the same results and gave access to the same ‘worth’, you would be doing something wrong. Typically, you would either have worked out how to crack the code that imprisons the value of the good, and made its equivalent for yourself, or you would have paid someone a far smaller sum of money for a good enough copy. It could be a CD, a DVD, a text, a game, perhaps a string of code.

After all, information - and all things that carry information inscribed into them, including all cultural and informational goods - are the gold, silver, tin, rubber, and cotton of our times. They are the primary commodities which add ‘value’ to the world of material goods. They are the signs that rule over all things, they are the engines of desire; they apportion the values that accrue to goods from their real or notional scarcity.

In sharp contrast, the counterfeit item, the pirated good, the unauthorised copy that stalks each manufactured sign and cultural good openly, in the back streets and grey markets of every global city or small town, defies the laws that today govern the making of money out of nothing. It does so by challenging the real or presumed scarcity of any good with its ubiquity - the lush, fecund abundance of the copy, which can pass from hand to hand, from user to user to user in such a way as to reveal the spectre of ‘high values’ to be the nothing other than the processed illusion that it is.

The idea that a cultural good can be marked as an ‘original’, that it is therefore of higher value, is in turn premised on the idea that goods once sold (or purchased, or in any other way transacted) perish, at least in an economic sense. Here, it is held that the transaction, and the transference of ownership onto the person of the consumer that it entails, ‘consumes’ the value of the good. It is as if the life of a thing is short-circuited when it is sold. It can no longer enter the chain of circulation (except at a diminished value) as a thing that could be used for different purposes by different people. Hence, once bought, an object becomes ‘second-hand’, ‘used’, ‘depreciated’ or in some general sense ‘degraded’.

While this may be true of some material goods (and is strictly true only for rapidly perishable goods), it is difficult to imagine how it can be true for non-material goods today – a recording of sounds or images, an arrangement of text or numbers, or a piece of software loses nothing when it is reproduced, or is passed on from one user to another in a digital environment. We are well aware of the fact that with the arrival of digital encoding of information, it no longer makes sense to distinguish between an original (which attains only the status of an event, or the instance of its first emergence) and a copy, because the act of making copies in and of itself need not involve any perceptible loss of information.

In fact, with each instance of a data object moving from person to person, the information content within it may actually increase. It does not make sense to speak of ‘end users’ of digital information; rather it would be more accurate to speak of custodians who nurture pieces of information when they receive them, as part of a networked community of receivers who are also always givers – of users who are also potentially, if not actually, producers. Thus, each person who becomes a custodian of the ‘material’ has the possibility of adding to it something that was not present before, before passing on a copy. It is in this way, for instance, that ever-lengthening playlists of music make their way from hand to hand, or rather from disc to disc, in a community of aficionados.

There is nothing new in this process. The epics, stories, songs and sagas that represent in some ways the collective heritage of humanity have survived only because their custodians took care not to lock them into a system of ‘end usage’, and embellished them, adding to their health and vitality, before passing them on to others. When codes or languages close in on themselves, allowing no ‘interpolations’ or trespasses after a point, they rapidly ossify. However, the contemporary digital environment does tend to give to the process of embellishment an unprecedented velocity. Unlike commodities, gifts can accrue value to themselves as they pass from one person to another in a network of gift exchange. The ethnography of the gift exchange in the Trobriand Islands, famously known as the Kula Ring, is an instance of this phenomenon; as is, in a less exotic sense, the ways in which heirlooms add value to themselves as they pass down through generations. In a digital environment it is not necessarily the patina of age or prestige that will lend value to a digital object as it passes between persons; rather, it is the possibility that it will be improved, refined, and have things added to it through usage (without doing any damage to an always available earlier iteration of the object itself, which can be recovered through the layers that accrue to a work, forming a palimpsest).

It is this fact that gives to electronic piracy, and to any act that frees information from the prison of artificial or illusory ‘originality’, its true cutting edge. It does so not out of any radical intent to subvert the laws of property and the commodity, but because it makes for eminent common sense for people to share information in any community through networks of informal sociality, especially if the act of sharing brings with it no depreciation in the value of that which is shared. Rather, the person who shares more gathers prestige to herself, and by now we are all accustomed to extraordinary feats of electronic generosity (which sometimes carry with them an aura of ‘bravado’) as means of earning reputations within tightly knit online communities. The new pirates are just as desirous of chronicles of their adventurous heroism as were their ancestors!

The shadow of the pirate galleon sneaks in on the slave ship, and the slaves stir restless in the hold.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Capitalism was but a rash young beast, still taking catastrophic baby beast steps out into the world, there were two prime engines that propelled its progress. The first of these were the institutions of slavery (capitalism’s stillborn precursor, off which it fed) and later, indentured labour, both of which could produce high volumes of primary commodities like cotton, tobacco, sugar, rubber and minerals (which were then processed to produce other goods) in ‘new worlds’ at low costs. There was of course also the allied institution of plunder, which worked just as well, and was often engineered through the mechanisms of war and conquest (early slaves were essentially prisoners of undeclared wars) so as later to found plantations, mines, banks and, of course, a few parliaments.

The second engine of capitalism was the expropriation of the commons, which ‘freed’ large territories for capitalist agriculture, logging, mining, and speculation in land, and created at the same time a vast army of the dispossessed, who were then ‘freed’ to become wage earners in new industrialising areas at home or abroad, or criminalised through harsh laws that imposed penal servitude in the ‘colonies’. Tall ships carrying slaves, indentured labourers, or the new ‘workers’ (freemen or convicts), and with large holds full of primary commodities such as gold, silver, cotton, sugar and opium, crossed the seas, and sometimes fell prey to pirate ships. The crews of these ships often consisted of runaway slaves, mutinous convicts, and the adventurous dispossessed of the then known world. They would ransack the tall ships, and set their commodities into other conduits of usage and exchange, setting off eddies and convulsions in the global economic system.

Piracy was troublesome in the way it led to sudden redistributions of wealth, which, even if they were minor, were considered enough of a menace to make the mastery of the high seas a top military and political priority in the external policies of the leading mercantile powers. In a way, piracy was as troublesome then as what is considered to be ‘piracy’ is today. It not only plundered plunder, it also advocated a ‘pirate ethic’ of the high seas, where the laws of emerging nation states were held in abeyance, where slaves became captains, and mutineers founded precarious and transitory island pseudo-republics that abolished private property and the formal institutions of the state - not because they were ideologically committed to an anarchist programme, but because it was convenient and expeditious to dispense with laws and the other paraphernalia of the state in the wilderness of the high seas, the better to undertake the serious ‘business’ of redistributing the wealth of the world.

Today, intellectual property, the new cluster of primary commodities made up of culture and information, is also brought into the world through trans-continental networks of new ‘indentured’ labour, made in virtual vessels that pass each other in the global working night, on the high seas of data. These tall ships of our times that fly many flags of convenience are the software sweatshops, the media networks, the vast armadas of the culture industries and the lifestyle factories. They produce high-value primary commodities, stars, stories, sagas, software, idols, lifestyles, and other ways of ordering meaning in an increasingly chaotic world. Typically, even though they sell the fantasies of place and identity in an increasingly enmeshed world, they are produced in a global everywhere, and delivered through electronic pipelines everywhere, and when necessary more or less instantaneously, through telecommunication networks.

Their ubiquity and their global reach is also the hallmark of their greatest vulnerability; for like their precursors, the tall ships of the new economy and their cargo are just as vulnerable to attacks of piracy. The new electronic pirates are located in the precise interstices of the global culture economy, which are the nodes that make the network viable in the first place. If we cannot imagine a global media industry without the technology that made possible the phenomenon known as ‘peer to peer networking’ on intranets, then it is precisely the same technology on the Internet that renders any attempt to police the distribution channels of media content in the interests of proprietary agencies almost impossible.

Just as the piracy of the past disturbed the equilibrium composed of slavery, indentured labour, the expropriation of the commons, the factory system and penal servitude, the electronic piracy of the present is destined to wreck the culture industry either by making the economic and social costs of policing content prohibitive, or by ushering in a diversity of new protocols of usage, distribution and reproduction of cultural and intellectual content that will make the whole enterprise of making vast sums of money out of the ‘nothing’ of data and culture a difficult business.

The culture industry, by insisting on stricter anti-piracy laws and instituting harsher protocols of encryption, is at best buying itself some time. Their ships have been struck, and are sinking. For the foreseeable future, the pirates will be hoisting their standards, stowing away the ‘nothings’ of culture to their grey market archipelagos of the global information commons that mark the map of the high seas of data with their volcanic peaks of electronic abundance.