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° Rubrique About The World

ABOUT The World ...  

Par Claude Chastagner, professeur d'anglais à l'Université Paul Valéry à Montpellier.

  Rebels on the Net

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Considering Napster as a form of resistance, the spearhead of a revolt against corporate America, betrays convictions reminiscent of the avant-gardes of the 20th century, and of the stance adopted by early members of the rock academia. They routinely contended that non-mainstream artistic forms are politically and socially empowering and have the potency to challenge dominant systems. This implies maintaining artistic differences with the market in terms of content. Paradoxically, the defense of Napster lies on a distinctively McLuhanite disregard for content. What is downloaded is seldom mentioned by its supporters as if the sheer fact of sharing files was in itself a subversive gesture, even if the most frequently requested songs are by mainstream stars such as Madonna, the Spice Girls, Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen. 

  Which may after all very well be the case. Napster-the-medium might be the ultimate challenge not because of the nature of the musics it enables to exchange but simply because it exists. One possible implication of Marshall McLuhan's emphasis on the medium is that modern technological society neutralizes the subversive content of all artistic forms, something Herbert Marcuse claimed was happening in the 1960s with the major representatives of European 19th and early 20th centuries culture, those who embodied "the Great Refusal". But another lesson is that this is anyway counterbalanced by the impact of technological revolutions, from the invention of the movable press to television.

So that Napster would at the same time formalize and ratify the imposibilty of any cultural artefact to be rebellious as such, but also shift the subversive potential from the content to the medium, to the extent, writes Daniel Eisenberg, that "it has forced purveyors of 'content', like Time-Warner [...] to wonder what content will even be in the near future."

Napster rebellious aura is also triggered by its nostalgic association to a mythical, glamorous, subversive past. The conditions for another student revolt similar to that of the 1960s (which was anyway more than anomalous in the usually quiet context of American universities) are certainly far from being met, but the echoes of Jerry Rubin's message still resonate on many campuses. "The money economy is immoral, based totally on power and manipulation, offending the natural exchange between human beings: an exchange based on common need. Looting is a natural expression of the money system. Capitalism is stealing... 

All money represents theft. To steal from the rich is a sacred and religious act."(Rubin, 43): here may lie the roots of piracy as an ethic. Napster disrupts the system, introduces disorder into the otherwise smooth functioning of the music business and could ultimately bring cultural capitalism to a halt. All the more so, reminds Bill Joy, as "theft in the digital world, whether of software or of songs, does not seem to carry the moral freighting of theft in the material world". Hence the strong position adopted by the industry and exemplified in Jim Griffin's (Geffen Records' entertainment technologist) statement that "we need to bring order to the Net" (quoted by Brown).

 Politically committed opposition to transnational record companies is certainly enhanced, perhaps initiated by the RIAA's anti-Napster bullying practises. Last year, it launched a slick info-site called Soundbyting that, according to Hilary Rosen, was intended to scare college students away from MP3 piracy. This was followed by sending notices to over 300 colleges, warning them that students were hosting illegal MP3 files on university servers and explaining the legal consequences. As a result, Carnegie Mellon University, for example, recently disciplined 71 college students, after a search revealed that they were swapping files on the campus intranet. At the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg, a student who was pirating MP3s was threatened with a lawsuit. The RIAA also pressured member companies such as Columbia House to pull advertising from MP3 sites, told artists and their agents that was engaging in theft, and generally spread propaganda that MP3 was illegal. However, as Adam Liptak argues convincingly, litigation is decidedly not the best way to tame new technology. Courts are inherently retrospective institutions that do not take the future into account while history has repeatedly showed that new technologies eventually always win if they bring substantial improvements to the consumers, whatever the initial opposition. This is, incidentally, an interesting case of industrial schizophrenia, since most new technologies, including those that threaten copyright laws (recordable CDs for instance) are manufactured by the very companies that release copyrighted material (Sony, Philips etc.).

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° Rubrique About The World