Following is the proposal I wrote for my final project in Ethics class. We were asked to limit our source list to five – otherwise, mine would be much longer. I had originally hoped that this paper might do something useful, but it looks to me like it’s turned into a purely academic exercise. Constructive commentary and advice are welcome.
Anarchy and Utility: Toward an Ethics of the Information Commons
Contemporary proponents of the information commons have always inhabited a border space in the intellectual property landscape, a space that is home to both scholars and street preachers. While all “free culture” rhetoric is oppositional to the current intellectual property policy structure to some degree, the last five years have seen significant parts of this opposition adopt the more extreme stance of techno-anarchism. Recent works by John Logie and Siva Vaidyhanathan have critiqued, respectively, the anarchist rhetoric of Napster’s defense and the real-world role of techno-anarchism. While both offer critiques of these anarchistic stances and suggest that this alignment creates an oppositional and ultimately damaging rhetoric, neither have suggested an alternative ethical system that might frame our discussions of the future of the copyfight movement.
My paper will compare the ethical systems of anarchism (as the basis of techno-anarchism) and utilitarianism. Anarchism has proved useful to the copyfight movement in a number of ways, including as a motivation for acts of protest by a broad constituency and for mobilization of a young constituency enthralled with the rebel image it presents. However, the oppositional rhetoric of techno-anarchism has already proved unfruitful in the case of the Napster decision and may ultimately damn the entire copyfight movement. It makes sense, then, to search for an alternative. What other system would be as motivationally effective? What other system would enable acts of subversion to destabilize the existing power structure while coexisting alongside the calmer legal movement? One must begin somewhere. Since anarchism is a deontological ethics, one might begin by examining an opposing consequentialist system. Utilitarianism’s impetus of the greater good suggests an ethics that fits the problem. However, one must wonder about the ultimate practical worth of reintroducing a nineteenth-century ethical system that logically culminates in imperialism. Further, one must wonder about the implications of rehabilitating such an ethical system. Still, it provides us with an academically useful place to begin considering these issues.
The parts of my paper will include: a brief historical background of the copyfight movement, a critical examination of anarchism as an ethical system and its applications to my larger topic, and a corresponding critical examination of utilitarianism and its applications.
Bollier, David. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Bollier’s book is the only text I’m aware of that provides a comprehensive view of all aspects of the commons. His chapters on gift economy, the internet commons, the privatization of public knowledge, and the enclosure of the academic commons all inform my current research.
Goldman, Emma. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader (3rd Edition). Amherst: Humanity Books, 1996.
As one of the foundational thinkers of anarcho-syndicalism, Goldman’s work is central to my project. In addition to nine essays from her Anarchism and Other Essays, this collection contains several essays on education that will prove helpful in understanding the anarchist view of knowledge distribution.
Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.
In the short time since its publication, Lessig’s text is has become canonical in scholarship on alternative intellectual property models. Using digital environments as a site of the information commons, the author examines the corporate and legislative enclosures that occurred over in the late 90s and the implications these enclosures pose for future innovation. Particular attention is paid to the historical development of the digital commons and mechanisms of control.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1987.
Mill’s text provides the groundwork of Utilitarianist thought and, as such, informs my general understanding of this ethical system.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
Vaidhyanathan examines techno-anarchism and the oppositional rhetoric between advocates of “free culture” and advocates of more traditional intellectual property and information distribution models. Of special interest in relation to this project is his discussion of the peer-to-peer backlash and the utility of unregulated networks of electronic communication.
Note: I also plan to include essays by Mikhail Bakunin, Jeremy Bentham, John Logie, and Rudolf Rocker.