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Pathfinders: Birthday Wishes

The UK and other governments have been stepping up efforts to block access to file-sharing torrent sites – those sites which allegedly are responsible for all the evil in the world - but like the game Whac-a-Mole, the legal mallet can’t keep up with the elusive pop-up heads, and many of these sites have now been around so long they are starting to look like permanent fixtures. Two of them, Isohunt and Pirate Bay, have been celebrating 10th birthdays recently, and have things to say which socialists will find particularly interesting. First, Isohunt:  ‘Ideals of the Free Software movement and Creative Commons will face new challenges with 3D printed copies of physical objects, replicated from copyrightable digital designs. We are moving into the world of science fiction. Will copyright or even money be relics like in Star Trek, where all material scarcity and wants are gone, replicators can make anything needed, and holodecks can create any world imaginable?’ (Isohunt.com).

Utopian? The writer thinks so, but adds ‘if someone from 100 years ago is to look at technologies we have now, a lot of it may be construed as magic too.’

Tobias Andersson, co-founder of Pirate Bay, is clearly reading the same book, if not on the same page: ‘The 3D-printing revolution hits us any minute - and the sharing of things.  Suddenly, not only music and movie industries will feel threatened, but clothing, weapon and car industries as well - along with nations that depend on them. Everything will change and it'll be fast.’

Overrating the capacity of 3D printers, perhaps, but the principle of the thing is what counts: ‘Future copy-fights will no longer be about sharing a tune or a movie, but ultimately about defining who will have the right to produce and if ideas are to be owned and sold or commonly shared. Everyone will be affected by these fights and too much will be at stake’ (‘The Pirate Bay: BitTorrent site sails to its 10th birthday’, BBC News Online, 9 August).

Of course the industry defenders retort that, call it what you like, theft is theft, but the fact that they keep asserting this shows that it is really the point in question. Is theft always theft? To understand the question, consider how people regard ‘fair’ ownership in capitalism. I own something, I sell it to you, so now you own it and I don’t. That’s fair exchange, people think. But in the world of computers, I own something, I sell it to you, I still own it and you don’t. There has been no exchange. Is this fair? Yes, say software manufacturers, we are selling you a licence to use our product. No, say software users, you are granting yourself a licence to print money. Ownership creates bottlenecks, and piracy is the result. If it’s wrong to own, it can’t be wrong to steal.

Socialists are not keen on moral arguments, because morality is a game anyone can play. Our best bet as a species is to treat the ownership question as a scientific problem. We are on stronger ground trying to show that ownership is socially unnecessary, rather than that it is wrong.

But the digerati’s challenge to ownership is more than just moral, they’ve democratised the information systems in a physical sense. Traditional computer networks, known as client-server systems, can be thought of as planets orbiting a sun. All the information, the energy, derives from a single central source. Control the source and you control the network. Napster, the first file-sharing site, used a central server which in time the authorities were able to locate and shut down. But it wasn’t long before a new system was devised in which the planets could all exchange packets of ‘energy’ directly between each other, simultaneously and at great speed, without the need for a sun. In this system, peer-to-peer or P2P, there is no central server for the authorities to control or shut down. Packets of information stream in torrents from anywhere, to anywhere. It’s efficient, fast, and non-hierarchical, in fact a revolutionary socialist model of data transfer. Surely the thought can’t be far away, if you can run a network like this, why not a society?

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Not all nodes are equal

Computer networks are often represented by symmetrical physical objects such as chicken wire, with each junction or node of equal size and equidistant from its neighbours. While this may be true of molecular lattice structures, it’s not generally the case in ‘organic’ networks, whether digital, social or neurological. There are minor nodes with few connections, like reclusive people with few friends, while there are grand central stations, equivalent to busy socialites. This organic composition of networks implies that the human ‘sociability’ gradient is not merely some transient product of unequal social relations in a property-bound society, like distortions in a power grid. This leads to a further speculation about socialism.

It may be that some people are just more sociable than others. This may be worth noting, because a new study has shown that Facebook may actually be bad for you (‘Facebook use ‘makes people feel worse about themselves’’, BBC News Online, 15 August). The problem, it seems, is the FOMO factor – the Fear of Missing Out, a feeling that you ought to try harder to be sociable even if you don’t really want to, because of all the fun everyone else seems to be having.

If human sociability lies along a natural genetic gradient, then in socialism we would see a similar asymmetric gradient in social grouping, some people being highly gregarious and connected, some people introverted and troglodytic. Would this affect the functioning of socialism? Yes, because the connected individuals would tend to exert more influence. Their words would carry more weight with more people. Would this necessarily matter? Yes, to people who don’t understand socialism, and who would call this a form of ‘power’. To see influential people in socialism as somehow problematical, as if they embody a contradiction to the principle of egalitarianism, is to look at socialism through capitalist eyes. They may influence more people but so what? They also listen to and are influenced by more people, making them more reliable sources of the prevailing consensus.

These questions matter because they affect how we represent egalitarian social relations. Just as our opposition to leadership can be misunderstood as an absurd objection to anyone ever taking the initiative, so our conception of equality can be mistaken for a grey mediocrity in which nobody really shines at anything.

This misunderstanding gives rise to the caricature of socialism as perpetual meetings and votings, where everything is discussed and nothing is done. The likely reality can be guessed, once again, by looking at how science operates. Science doesn’t and couldn’t work like this. There is simply too much information. Scientists have areas of expertise, and for the rest, rely on the word of others. The system is not invulnerable, but it is robust and self-correcting. Occasionally a fraud is perpetrated, but the scientific method always uncovers it sooner or later. If anything, without capitalist inducements to ‘game’ the system, socialism will be even more robust than present-day science.