Monthly Archives: October 2011

“Piracy” will save the Culture

Until 50 years ago, the only manner to store information was through physical means. These tangible objects reproduced the thoughts and the history of writing, painting, music or architecture. However, the technological revolution that happened in the end of twentieth century, involved the creation of new formats to confine information. Since then, any kind of information comparatively requires an infinitesimal amount of space to be stored.The study of the Humanities is focused, in one side, on the analysis of existing documentation about the culture –understood under any fo its definitions [1, 2]–  and knowledge of an age, thus about the history. But even being as purist as we can, it is not possible to deny the evidence of that nowadays the cultural production has experimented a very profound renovation. In this way, and motivated by the tele-communications development, this change allows to complement all and every single parts that compose the culture of our time. Social networks, blogs, microblogging, comments, gadgets reviews, video games, etc. play a fundamental role as human creation that deserve to be study like influential artifacts in the life. Not in vane there is who consider blogging or programming codes –also known as Critical Code Studies— as genres [3]. These new expression forms constitute not only a new entertainment way, but they are an intrinsic part in respect to the manner in which the culture is consumed. These new ways will also mold the culture to face the future generations. Nevertheless, so often the current entertainment industry enforce its rules over the multimedia production through privative information formats, too restrictive licenses, and rigid policies about intelectual property and content distribution.

The most common feature of all technological development is the quick expiration. This transforms the amazing and innovative formats from yesterday into obsolete and old-fashioned ones for today. The eternal race against Moore’s Law produces casualties on the way: physical means fall into disuse, formats that cannot be translated, lost conversations in huge datacenters, etc. Therefore, in the near future it will be virtually impossible to perform studies based on them. And that is because, even assuming there won’t be legal pitfalls, the problems about obsolescence of used formats will always be there.

Fortunately, whether the absence of continuity of the technology is one of its essential characteristics, it could be proposed that the badly called “piracy” is the positive counterpart. In reference to the act itself of the copyright infringement, it’s becoming more usual the usage of the expression “piracy” to refer to the non authorized copy. This exaggeration pretends to put the act of free sharing (hackers) on the same level with the violence of pirates of the sea (buccaneers), so that is a way to criminalize the users. In some countries, as the case of Spain or Italy for example, the situation is even worse: users that buy new storage devices, virgin DVD-ROM’s or MP3 players, have to pay a special royalty, called “canon”, just in case because they potentially use them for storing illegal content. Perhaps it is a good idea to avoid the debate argued by the industry about the profitable side of this activity. However, the latest goal of the “piracy” and the communities that provide support, has always been to facilitate access to the privative information from big contemporary “cultural” companies. To achieve it, the “piracy” promotes a total openness with no objections.

Just through to this kind of transparency and universality of the technology, sooner rather than later, when the historic perspective allows us, we will be able to carry humanistic studies out about our time. Because the supports and formats in which the information is maintained will be also freely exposed and made available to the general public. Of course, this will only be possible thanks to developments implemented in pursuit of “piracy”. Maybe we are not totally conscious of what is happening. Something apparently so simple as saving personal documents as .doc or .docx formats could eventually be an obstacle in order to access the contents in the future. Besides, the standarization process for Office Open XML by Microsoft was not very clear; in contrast to Open Data Format promoted by the OASIS Consortium. This is one of the dangers of trusting the specification of files to private companies: they can change the rules whenever they want. Our data belong us, regardless of the format or service in which they are stored. Notwithstanding there are a plenty of old files that used privative formats to be stored and that could be problematic in order to analyze what happenend in the past. We should be aware of this today. If the traditional historians used to face with stacks of papers and books, maybe they are going to do research using hard-drives and files in very old and non-free formats.

The problem may be not applicable to the traditional contents and documents, because they actually are physical objects rather than virtual and intangible entities like bits. But we are already producing more digital content today that all the books ever written in the past. So, what is going to happen with the contents born digital? We can also take a really good example: museums and video-games. The museums used to be statal or private properties, and in this point other players –nation-states and companies– come into the debate about the control and management of the culture and history. But what will happen when these companies, the current lobbies, disappear or, simply, stop to be interested in maintaining the formats or providing support for them?  So the only way to survive will be the “piracy”, the same piracy that now allows us playing PlayStation video games in PC’s, the same that created emulators for Neo-Geo. Undoubtedly an exhibit about video games will hace only two paths: the first one will be reach an agreement with the company; the second one, and in case of extincted companies, will be the “piracy”.

UPDATE @ Nov 3rd: I have just read When Data Disappear and, just like Juan Luis said, maybe it would be better to use the name “curatorial activism”. I was astonished about how similar are my thoughts to The New York Times’ article. In conclusion: A new movement should be started.

Note: In fact, to what extent a company can be considered as the owner of a cultural icon of a generation as Super Mario Bros or PacMac are? How long will we let them have the power to decide about this? This is material for another post.

[1] Geertz, C. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays, vol. 5043. Basic Books New York, 1973.
[2] Tylor, S.E.B. Primitive culture, vol. 1. Harper, 1958.
[3] Herring, S.C. and Scheidt, L.A. and Bonus, S. and Wright, E. Bridging the gap: A genre analysis of weblogs. In System Sciences, 2004. Proceedings of the 37th Annual Hawaii International Conference on}, pp 11, 2004.


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