Internet, Samiszdat and Hypocrisy

Imagine this fictional scenario: I subscribe to a listserv, called Cyberculture. I also subscribe to a News Group or Bulletin Board, called CyberEthics. Someone, whom I've never met, and know only as CyberSamurai, posted a suggestive note about the Internet as an underground communications medium. I took this suggestive comment, elaborated on it by noting the similarity between the Internet and the Russian underground literary network they called samiszdat. And while I didn't pass on to others the words or her original message, I referred to CyberSamurai, and posted my answer back to the e-mail listserv. I also posted a copy of my longer samiszdat message to the bulletin board. In both communities, it provoked some discussion, for a day or two. On the listserv, it disappeared, unless some retentive fellow kept copies of all the posts to the e-mail discussion group. On the news net (usenet) bulletin board, it was automatically archived.

An important scholar at a famous Ivy League university who had recently gotten wind of the Internet was trolling for new sources at the time. "Prof. ©" had been "lurking" on the CyberCulture listserv, occasionally coming out with some pompous pronouncement, but for the most part watching the exchanges from a discreet silence. Two years later, my post shows up almost word for word in a book he wrote and publishes with an important university press. But the words are never "sourced and cited." His book, and especially his original insight about the Internet as samiszdat, receives reviews, praise, and becomes a standard in courses that study the communications paradigm of the Internet. He is interviewed in literary magazines, and even on a late night tv show. He is called to testify in front of Congressional hearings as an expert witness on freedom and the Internet. In my own graduate classes my students cite him and hail him as a visionary. Once, I weakly tell one of my graduate students that "Prof. ©" stole my idea, and I tell him the story. I immediately regret it, not only because I would have liked to stand on my honorable silence, but because I see a reflection of my own small-mindedness -- and worse, his doubt about my truthfulness -- in his eyes.

I'm left gnashing my teeth. The scoundrel, the plagiarist, has turned my freeware into shrink-wrapped capital. The capital was real, too. In my profession, the words you produce, your ideas, and even their number, get measured and turned into salary, recognition, promotion, tenure, and enhance your ability to create new courses around your ideas, helping you to further your research, write the next book. My ideas were stolen and converted into real material wealth.

But before I convince you that I am a victim, let us ask in all honesty who the hypocrite is here? Is it Prof. © who published someone else's ideas -- my own -- under his name? Or is it me? Think of my hypocrisy in wanting to own my idea that the Internet is like the 'samiszdat'. How ironic! I broadcast my insight partly to display my cleverness, partly to share, partly to feel a member of the circuit, the cybernetic loop of my little neighborhood culture on the Internet. I've put it out there, on the electronic streets. But if I was right, and it seems thanks to Prof. ©'s publication of my idea, that plenty of people agree, the Internet is a form of samiszdat. So for comparison, let's imagine the real samiszdat.

It's 1973. Evgeny Isurin the Muscovite spends his late nights typing the text of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's forbidden novel, Cancer Ward, onto mimeograph sheets. His wife Fiona spends her nights mimeographing the text in the closet of the basement of her hospital, where she works as a surgeon, fearful that at any moment she will be discovered by a member of the Party or the KGB. The Isurins distribute the sheets in small packets to other members of their samiszdat, at the risk of exile to Siberia or loss of their jobs. These sheets and packets get circulated throughout Moscow. Other samisdatniks smuggle them to Leningrad and even to Siberia. Somehow, despite the totalitarian control exercised by the Soviet authorities, Solzhenitsyn is being published in Russia! So now who owns Solzhenitsyn's words?

Had the Isurins been running this pirating operation in America, would Solzhenitsyn - or his publishing company -  have the right to sue them? The answer is surely yes. But at what cost? If we encourage samiszdat as healthy resistance to a totalitarian communist regime, why are we so insistent that it is a form of theft in an open market economy here at home? What price are we paying? What are we missing? What avenues of resistance and innovation are we closing down in our own society, especially if things take a turn for the worse in terms of personal freedoms and our freedom of speech? Are we so sure that we should trade this avenue for freedom in exchange for a narrow toll road just so we can ensure that everyone gets their fair share of the take?

The Internet is our samizsdat. Furthermore, as a public space, created by public tax dollars, funneled, ironically, through the Defense Department, whose operations, if not goals, rarely match those of subterranean resistance to authority at home. Can we really think of anything placed there as subject to ownership, commodification, copyright, ... worthy of a lawsuit? Responsibility, yes. Ownership, no. In my mind, the closest analogy is to a tree planted by the side of a public road. Perhaps a Deleuzian rhizome, if not a tree.

Yes, I admit to an intrinsic, egotistical attachment to the fruits of my intellect as property, as if I could truly own my own words like I own my shoes or my car or even the trees in my backyard. When I talk to my children and to my colleagues at work, when I talk to my students, I feel both pride and responsibility as the source here and now of my words. I know words are weapons, words hurt, words can create and destroy feelings, psyche, character, words can incite to action, change the world. But are words and the ideas they supposedly represent, something you can own? As teacher, too, I call into question my ownership. Where did my ideas come from? My teachers, and the books I read. Where are they going? Out to the public.

Teaching is a form of publishing. Commodification of words and ideas - the legal concept of intellectual property - is, I would emphasize a recent and perhaps aberrant concept, driven by a capitalist notion that everything has a price tag. But the price we collectively pay, the moral toll of this position, might be too high. It is this moral toll of the idea of intellectual property and which in fact the Internet -- as a vast collaborative writing exercise threatens to disrupt -- which I would ask us to question. To be plainer, I would suggest it is not the moral toll of the Information Highway that I put under question, but the moral toll of our normal practices of treating publication and even the expression of ideas as private that the WWW challenges and from which it frees us.

©ontra Invention of/and Copyrights Internet, Samiszdat and Hypocrisy The Talmud as a model for hypertext discourse Information, Violence, and Shelter from the Storm  Notes 

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