How things are phrased matters a great deal. This is something that Evgeny Morozov has done good work examining over the past few years. Specifically, Morozov calls out thinkers and popular articles about technology as often pushing technology as a ‘solution’ to particular social issues (his most recent example is in The Babbler). Solutions, by strongly correlating technology with a ‘problem’, effectively become cast through very particular (often corporate) lenses that tend to hide or obscure the real problems, questions, or alternate solutions that might address – or (re)define – the issue(s) at hand.
To give you an idea of the kind of stuff that enrages Morozov (and, to a lesser extent, me), look no further than Cory Doctorow’s recent piece, titled “Copyright wars are damaging the health of the internet.” In this case, the life of ‘the Internet’ is the key driver of the future of social issues related to speech and freedom. The first few paragraphs read as follow:
I’ve sat through more presentations about the way to solve the copyright wars than I’ve had hot dinners, and all of them has fallen short of the mark. That’s because virtually everyone with a solution to the copyright wars is worried about the income of artists, while I’m worried about the health of the internet.
Oh, sure, I worry about the income of artists, too, but that’s a secondary concern. After all, practically everyone who ever set out to earn a living from the arts has failed – indeed, a substantial portion of those who try end up losing money in the bargain. That’s nothing to do with the internet: the arts are a terrible business, one where the majority of the income accrues to a statistically insignificant fraction of practitioners – a lopsided long tail with a very fat head. I happen to be one of the extremely lucky lotto winners in this strange and improbable field – I support my family with creative work – but I’m not parochial enough to think that my destiny and the destiny of my fellow 0.0000000000000000001 percenters are the real issue here.
What is the real issue here? Put simply, it’s the health of the internet.
The regularized reference to the ‘health’ of the Internet is significant because it creates the lens through which the reader should, apparently, understand the dispute between rights holders and Internet users. From this way of thinking about a piece of technology it’s possible to think of the ‘net as an organism that can be either ‘sick’ or ‘healthy’. Given that we (presumably) tend not to see the Internet as a bacteria or virus deserving destruction it makes sense that we (almost automatically) want to search for ‘antibiotics’ to get the Internet healthy again. Doctorow frames that as resisting new copyright reforms and repealing past ones.
In effect, Doctorow’s framing of the issue personalizes and humanizes a socio-technical invention that is embedded in differential policy and cultural domains across the world. Moreover, he has cast ‘the Internet’ in a manner that predisposes your reaction to any solution: clearly, ‘the Internet’ should be kept healthy. (Unless you hate technology, of course.)
The article goes on to insist that copyright policies are being designed in a manner that is detrimental to free speech, privacy, and general good governance. That’s fine. But it’s not the point that most readers are going to walk away with, and that’s unfortunate. As it stands, the ‘copyright wars’ seem to be never-ending, and we keep seeing these very popular pieces that are crafted to draft new recruits into the ‘armies’. Personally, I’d prefer that the ‘generals’ of the various sides actually engage in conversation about the relationship between copyright, freedom of speech, freedom of publication, and the power relationships between corporate, governmental, and citizens’ interests. I’d rather we get a real public debate instead of (seeming) non-stop sloganeering.
I should note that Cory isn’t just a ‘solutionist’. He really does ‘get’ the significance of talking about the ‘net as an organism: by doing so people can more directly – and quickly – connect with ‘saving’ it. It’s surprisingly hard to talk about ‘saving’ something when doing so entails learning an awful lot about complex policy and social rights issues. So, in the case of this article, I think you’re witnessing a particular epistemic elite crafting language to achieve very specific political goals.
And that’s what’s important. By phrasing language, as he has, Doctorow is committing to a specific political maneuver by way of embedding in people’s minds that copyright is the equivalent of a Japanese whaler going after a rare soon-to-be-extinct whale. It’s a helpful kind of thought-worm to implant. But it also obscures the power politics and policy wonkery and just plain silliness involved in the whole copyright ‘issue.’ It also makes you choose if you’re ‘for’ a ‘living’ or a ‘dead’ Internet: why can’t I be for a middle position? What is that middle position? Does a ‘live’ Internet mean a ‘dead’ copyright? Can I get a ‘semi-living’ Internet along with only a ‘half-dead’ copyright?
Strong statements – and rhetoric – like Doctorow’s and other elites in the copyright wars are as meant to obscure potential avenues of thinking as they are to make clear how to ‘fix’ problems. Doctorow does a good job in getting people riled up, which is part of his ‘job’ as an activist, but I’m not confident that after two decades we shouldn’t be moving towards a more nuanced debate. I’m also just sick and tired of ‘war’ language.
I think that it’s increasingly important to focus on positive solutions. Copyright reformists (like me!) have about as much chance successfully framing policy solutions to copyright using war language as we do spearing Moby Dick. And I’d rather stop chasing white whales.