Mitochondrial Vertigo

April 25, 2010

A Bit More on the Macmillan Attempted Takedown of AAAARG.org

Ownership and control of Text

Update [written after the posted below]: Adrian posts the link to the AAAAR.org group discussion going underground. I’ve reposted the content in the next post.

Austin over at Sub Specie Aesterni clarifies the issue some (though I’m still confused over if the AAAARG.org had been ever taken down altogether for a spell). AAAARG. org has apparently found a workaround to Macmillan’s threat which seems similar to the internet position of Surfthechannel – incredible media source that saved me during very long dull suburb nights in Bangkapi Thailand, who ever knew we would develop a fondness for old Survivor seasons, a show I never had an attraction to. They now are, instead of hosting all (or most) of the books and essays,  serving as a direction hub, gathering all the external links in one place. Their warehouse hoard of valuable intellectual booty they have spread out into the aether, and they have the treasure map.

I’m still mystified and concerned why there seems to be no internet presence of this story, no social media discussion. I mean if anything this is what blogs and FB and twitter is supposed to be really good at doing, connecting interested, like-minded parties of a very thin stratum. If anyone has links to where the actually narrative of events is laid out I would love to see it [see update above].

Austin’s describes the present condition of AAAAR.org this way (in comments):

Hey guys, the site is “up,” although not functioning in the same way as before. In the past, their entire library was available for direct download. All one had to do was click on a title that interested him/her and then click on a yellow link that downloaded the text directly to one’s computer. Now, however, since this issue has come to the fore they have had to switch to alternative measures. Basically, the community has come together and decided to find alternative source-sites where they can upload, store, and share the majority of the material. It’s not quite the same, but at least the material is (mostly) available.

That said, the previous format of aaaarg was the best model I’ve seen for open access academic literature. There were no download limits. The titles were in great condition (for the most part). It was simply convenient. Well, I guess I won’t complain too much… even though I long for the days of complete open access material.

Market Adjustments and Questions of Access

harlo has a blog responds nicely to our discussion, which he discovered through Wayne Marshall’s Twitter – good to know that the social media conflagration is working to some degree! Maybe pomo intellectuals just are not techno-social-action types despite reading endless tracts on Marx, the revolution and “the” event all day – with an interesting argument for the kind of academic piracy that AAAARG.org represents. He seems to see it as a market correction for a particular class of customer. 

Kind of a travesty, really. Everyone knows why “pirating” stuff is “wrong”, and everyone knows that intellectual property needs to be paid for, blah blah, these are very old arguments and as arguments go, they are stale. However, I side with a.aaarg to the end for the following reason: as a student, I’ve already paid for access to all the intellectual property. No matter how I get it, I deserve unfettered access to it. Stringent IP laws place horrible barriers to access in my path. a.aaarg lifts those barriers.

I’ll explain: The type of intellectual property provided by a.aaarg is of a certain type, and is consumed (for the most part) by a certain type of user. a.aaarg posts dry, sometimes boring, sometimes sexy, but always extremely cerebral books and essays. Although I don’t have the data on it, it’s not hard to surmise that this stuff is being consumed almost exclusively by students. A student’s tuition is stacked with extra costs that pay licensing fees to have access to all intellectual property: access to your school’s library (and the other libraries in the consortium) costs you money. These extra fees also buy you access to JSTOR, SAGE publishers, and all those other clearing houses of intellectual property on the web.

So, a.aaarg fixes an inefficiency in the market regarding my access to materials that I should already have access to. If I’m writing a paper, and can’t find a source in my library because someone else checked it out, I look at a.aaarg. Or if it’s 3 a.m. before a paper’s due, and I want to sprinkle some Zizek on it, and I can get it easily from the comfort of my writing desk by pulling it down from a.aaarg, I’m going to do it. And forget JSTOR when you’re in a hurry: you have to go through a million authorization hoops just so your university can verify your access to the JSTOR catalog. Schooling is expensive. And the higher in it you go, the more it costs. When I get out of academia, my debt is bound to be five times that of the average student, and that’s only for an MA. So, there’s a certain amount of arrogance and entitlement that I feel is my RIGHT to display, regarding the efficiency and overall usefulness of my academic experience.

a.aaarg is tactical media, meaning it’s a phenomenon that springs up using ad-hoc networks to fix a problem. The tactics employed are sometimes illegal, but that’s incidental: tactical media is apolitical, a legal means and an illegal means are simply just means. Ultimately, tactical media is supposed to become obsolete, either due to some crisis of consciousness where it thinks it has the right to legitimacy in the eyes of the law or of Capital, or due to the original problem being solved. Unfortunately, I think a.aaargh’s untimely demise will be due to the former rather than the latter. Recent moves by the “organization” to branch out (like giving press interviews, getting into twitter, etc.) can be seen as attempts to legitimize itself, and that’s kind of a death knell for the project because it’s not, and never was supposed to be legit.

I really like the argument he presents as it works on several levels that simply are often missed or undervalued. The first of these is that he acknowledges in a quiet way something I have been trying to get across in one way or another: academia exists in order to produce a particular class or kind of thing: a text producer (and/or text consumer). And these text/iles are quite rarified in aesthetic appeal, you can’t just go down to the street shop and buy them. Your own sensibilities and skills must be arduously honed so the market for them can exist in the first place. If you read Badiou or even Darwin with interest, pleasure and scheme, you are already an elite of a highly particularized market. Persons on the intellectual Left seldom want to hear this because they see themselves as against “the system” (in whatever complex palace talk of terms that define it), but it frankly is so. Harbo rightly takes this social fact as a starting space.

What he/she claims is that as a consumer who has already paid for access to this rarified world of commerce – and the right to be so shaped by its processes into a delectician and text producer him/herself – AAAAR.org exists as a tactical adjustment to the availability of texts for folks that just want to get on with being better workers in the Palace. As a tactical moral infringement it will just fade away, its demand absorbed by either technological development or Conscious legitimacy.  It is, if I read his/her description correctly, something like the rhizome of Institutional Capital powers growing out into the ambiguous ethical purlieu, seeding its future development.

There are a few problems with this, but not deep ones (and I may have misread his/her take). First is that there is the assumption that becoming a connoisseur/producer of intellectual texts is a kind of one-price buffet. This certainly is how universities and colleges sell their incredibly priced educations ($$$$ in the US at least). mortgage your entire financial future and have unlimited access to all the intellectual treasures of humanity, not to mention, the cutting edge developments in thought-itself. Just get yourself in the door, and you’re fixed. Harlo speaks right out of this expectation, and is very perspicuous to say that this expectation involves not only the “right” to access, but also the time feasibility to access. We can not only read and use ANY text, but we need to be able to use it in the tight windows that are involved in our attempts to be GOOD text producers for the company. We don’t want to have to get on a plane to see a book, and the promise of the new media is that we wont have to. That Institutional education further roots this expectation of both right and access in the moral bedrock of human rights, the notion that ALL persons should have access to great books and great ideas complicates the levels at which ethical argument takes place. Harlo’s thoughts about a one-price buffet devolve into some rather profound questions of just whom is all this intellectual work serving, and who should have the right to full access to it. In many ways Humanities academia attempts to trade on the notion that its work is for the essential betterment of humanity, but depriving “humanity” access to its inventions would be like theologians who are trying to save the souls of all only letting certain souls read their arguments about the nature of God – which is pretty much how it works out, curiously enough.

Enough straying. My own arguments run somewhat parallel to Harlo’s in that most of this intellectual property has been produced through State funding, and so represents a State interest in the well-being of their citizenry. As such it simply is not like a corporate product. It is kind of a hybid para-commodity, one of which social interest is involved in the investment of its very creation. The salaries and resources that allow the kinds of rarified material that is so consumed and so produced under the notion that “education”, in particular humanities education, is just plain good for you, makes a different threshold for the gatekeeping of this material. So, differently than Harlo, its not so much that “I” already paid for it, but “we” have already paid for it. It is just for this reason that I find JSTOR an ethical anathema.

A second difficulty with Harlo’s point I think would be that I imagine that Macmillan’s own threat to AAAARG.org itself represents the very techno-market correction that Harlo thinks will eventually come to dissolve the tactical existence of AAAARG.org. Macmillan surely feels that it must gain full control of its properties in order to strike just the right deal – probably involving Apple and iPad – to provide all kinds of the right access for said students and professors. Having control of just these properties is what can give a company the leverage to, let’s say, strike a deal with Harvard so that every student would have their very own iPad wherein they can read about essays on ontology and semiospheres and whatnot, with ziplike convenience.

There are other arguments to be made concerning deeper ethical issues of right and access, questions of what constitutes a “property” but that is enough for today. I’m hoping to hear more about Macmillan and AAAAR.org, perhaps start talking about it.

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