The Architecture of Cybernetic Control

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Steven Shaviro
University of Washington

New electronic networking technologies offer unprecedented opportunities both for social control and for liberation from, or resistance to, that control. The development of technology defines the field of possibilities--but it does not tell us which directions in this field we should take, or which options should be pursued. What can philosophical and theoretical reflection contribute to this question, so that control is not exercised by default, or simply made a function of where the money is?


This pattern is intended as a theoretical contribution to the creation and exploration of cyberspace. The point is to develop philosophical contexts and "deep backgrounds," so that we can all be enabled, collectively, to think about how technology is deployed, and which forces it will augment and diminsh, enable and prohibit.


The question of intellectual property is not just a technological one. It is political, philosophical, and economic, above all. John Perry Barlow argues that information must be treated differently from real estate, simply because the latter is tangible and physical, while the former, ostensibly, is not. The science fiction writer and copyright militant K. W. Jeter, to the contrary, compares “intellectual property digitized on the wire” with “cattle [dispersed] across grazing land” on the American frontier: both forms of property are “widely dispersed… and therefore easier to steal” than fixed goods, and consequently both need to be protected by especially strong sanctions. For Barlow, technology determines how we define private property. But for Jeter, it is struggles over property rights that determine which technologies we develop in the first place. The same technological innovations that make widespread copying of digital patterns possible, also make it possible to tag and encrypt every instance of those very digital patterns, thus making copying harder rather than easier. In the last analysis, Jeter says, “the laws of economics are as immutable as those of physics.” He seems to mean by this that, despite our supposed information glut, the creation of intellectual property is still subject to the constraints of scarcity and Malthusian competition. For “if stuff is worth buying and selling—not just hard physical stuff, but intellectual property as well—then it is worth stealing, too.” Economic rationality is the bottom line for Jeter, just as it is for Marxists and free-marketeers alike. Appropriately, then, the biggest problem in Jeter’s argument is a matter of economics as well. Intellectual property rights ought to work in the same way at all levels of the economy: “the same rule of survival applies to big international corporations, to midlevel localized players and entrepreneurs, to scrabbling, scribbling little content creators.” But in the real world, can such an equivalence really be made? I will suggest that it cannot, because, in our heavily networked society, private individuals do not have the same rights as multinational corporations.
SITE OF STUDY: These issues will be teased out both philosophically and pragmatically, by looking both at the theoretical texts I have mentioned (Jeter, Barlow, etc) and a variety of practices on the Net (file sharing software like Napster and Gnutella, and stealth programs designed to track and identify copyright violators).


The only way to find a solution is to avoid simplistic panaceas, and bring critical thought to bear upon these dilemmas. It is as mistaken to believe that technology can be judged from outside, as it is to believe that technology can resolve all difficulties on its own. Rather, technology must entangle itself with critical thought. With regard to both the dissemination and the control of information, engineering possibilities and philosophical goals are entangled with, and co-determine, one another.

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