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Book Review: Strangelove’s Empire

By Christopher Moore | November 4, 2006

Michael Strangelove, The Empire of Mind: Digital Piracy and the Anti-Capitalist Movement Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

The Governor General’s Literary Prize in non-fiction thinks a study of intellectual property is worth your attention. Michael Strangelove’s book is not yet a winner, but it’s on the short-list (of five).

Strangelove’s first degree was in religious studies. In the early 1990s he was a “guru” (sez Wired) of Internet advertising. Now he is a professor of communications in Ottawa. Since he acknowledges parents whose surname is Slade, it seems possible there is some habit of dramatic self-invention to this Dr. Strangelove. (He’s at www.strangelove.com.)

That drama is not so evident in this book. It’s a pretty sober and serious argument about new technology and contemporary society. Strangelove believes the fundamental empire today is capitalism’s. It operates, he argues, not just through state systems and the marketplace, but by propagating an empire of the mind that takes capitalism for granted. Capitalism is a meaning-production system, he declares. (Not a phrase I would think productive of literary awards, but you get the picture.) The goal of capitalism’s empire is the commodification of everything. But it will not succeed. Strangelove announces a powerful engine of opposition has emerged, one that capitalism will not be able to control and commoditize.

Strangelove’s engine of opposition to capitalism is the Internet. Strangelove acknowledges all the dot.com fortunes, billion-dollar IPOs, and the other steroid-capitalism headlines that dominate digital technology news, but he draws our attention to all the spheres of the internet that stubbornly resist commodification and control. He emphasizes the repeated failures of corporate strategies to control digital communication and digital content. High-tech business consultants deliver a business-friendly model of the internet, Strangelove argues (he cites Don Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital as an example), but he wants to show us his examples of, well, meaning-counter-production.

Digital piracy is the first and central one. Strangelove thinks it’s here to stay, and that it is fundamentally destructive, not just of capitalist property rights, but of the idea that capitalism can control and commoditize everything. Digital culture will continue to work free of law and commerce, he argues. He examines how digital culture jammers successfully appropriate and redefine branded symbols (Barbie or Ronald MacDonald) that have become part of popular culture. He argues that online news and information media are a substantial alternative to the mainstream, capitalist-controlled media.

In short, Strangelove thinks “anti-capitalist cultural material” present a serious threat to the reproduction of capitalism.” Indeed, he says, “in cyberspace the individual experiences a greater degree of expressive freedom than is otherwise made available in the meatspaces of capitalism’s social orders.”

He claims he is not predicting the emergence of an anti-capitalist anarchic utopia through digital technology. There’s “no guarantee that such freedom will be used to pursue social justice,” he says, only that digital technology will enable new meaning-systems to survive and propagate.

In his introduction, Strangelove says he has been arguing this since 1994. Indeed this does sound like the work of someone who discovered Wired magazine when he was young and impressionable and has never been the same. But if his vision was formed in the early days of Internet utopianism, Strangelove has been paying attention to developments ever since, and he does make significant points. We might think that the commoditization of the web is being signaled now more strongly than ever by the reign of Google, its swallowing of YouTube, and the bloated valuation of sites like MySpace and FaceBook, where users provide the value (pirated or self-generated), and traditional media owners reap the revenues. But Strangelove has a dozen years of examples of the harbingers of imminent corporate control going awry.

Take his analysis of Lawrence Lessig. Professor Lessig, he observes, paints a nightmare picture of “how big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity” and advocates legal reforms to fight that trend. Huh? says Strangelove. Indeed, one need only open a web browser to understand that Lessig’s dystopian vision of all information locked up, locked down, made unavailable and subject to “permission” is hopelessly at odds with reality. Strangelove criticizes Lessig for assuming that “perfect control” or anything like it, is possible, whether through digital rights management or corporate investment in digital media. Just as much, he attacks Lessig’s belief that lawmakers must “carry the values of the American constitution into cyberspace.” Strangelove thinks cyberspace is alright. He argues that Lessig’s plan to impose American legal values on it is as totalizing as anything digital-rights-management may have threatened. Lessig’s whole copyright law reform project, he suggests, is not so much wrong as unnecessary and a waste of time.

Lessig and others see an internet perpetually threatened by control and “lockdown.” Strangelove sees an internet perpetually subversive and free. History hasn’t been decided about the internet yet, maybe, and the future is as likely to see a combination of the two visions than the triumph of either. There may be more place for the rule of law in cyberspace than Strangelove will admit and, in that context, more potential for freedom than Lawrence Lessig believes. Michael Strangelove’s image of cyberspace as Hoth, the embattled citadel of opposition to capitalism-as-tyranny is worth reading, but more for the arguments it will provoke than for the explanations it offers.

Gonna win the GG? Nah, I don’t think so.

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