Thursday, January 19, 2012

SOPA, Protest, and Acting "As If..."

If you turned on your Internet yesterday you may have seen subtle (or gross) evidence of a boycott of some pending legislation. Namely the House of Representative's SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and its Senatorial counterpart PIPA (the Protect IP Act). Both bills inscribe new powers granted to the Federal government to police the web for copyright infringement. While the case for the need for such powers is far from settled, opposition to the bill has centered around its callous disregard for due process in this newly declared war on piracy.

Instead of me attempting to describe the biggest problems about SOPA and PIPA, please watch this video primer from noted Internet pedagogic guru Khan Academy:

The key point the narrator makes here is "...on just a whim [the government] could take down any site with user generated content..." Of course, it would be foolish to think that, if enacted, the newly minted Internet Police would take down Facebook or YouTube (those sites are too wealthy, have too many lawyers, and too well connected to face a serious threat of shutting down), but they won't. However, the number of these suspected sites that would be in violation of copyright infringement would be so large it could represent a majority of the webpages on the Internet (there are over 340 million pages on the web, by the way). But obviously they can't do that, so what would follow would be a witch hunt of sorts, highly politicized, that would mire the courts and the very infrastructure of the Internet for years.

So, cue Internet activism! Yesterday, January 18th, sites like Google and Wired censored their pages in part, or like Wikipedia, blacked them out entirely. And it worked, for now. Congressmen and Senators, likely seeing the potential backlash from future voters, did an about face. The number of legislators who stated as explicitly for/against flipped from 80/30 to 64/108. The combined voice of many large cultural entities on the Web *did* shift the political trade winds in this instance, and we should take note.

However, we should always be cautious. The sponsor of SOPA, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, will continue to mark up the bill in February, effectively putting the legislation back on the table. And, even more likely, if it cannot be passed into law in its current form it will added into other future legislation; legislation against which it will be even more difficult to rally congressional opposition.

There is much too much say about the intricate web of influence bearing down on this legislation (the poster child for this is the newly minted CEO of the MPAA and astoudingly hypocritical Former Senator Chris Dodd) from movie and music industry lobbies to video game developers and publishers. Not surprisingly, this is a bipartisan effort fueled by the coffers of entertainment industry lobbyists to secure complete regulatory capture over the public's interest in creative works. Not only solidifying their control over the law, but the enforcement of those laws as well.

Infuriating as the legislative situation may be, I was more intrigued by the notions of another commentator, a man who is invisible to lawmakers, the mass media and, well, just about everyone else too out of touch with the Internet to comprehend it without some kind of grossly oversimplified and utterly misunderstood analogy. That man is Maddox, pre-blog era blogger and creator of The Best Page in the Universe™. Known primarily for his take-downs of pop culture icons (i.e. Joan Rivers, Jar-Jar Binks, etc...) or his indignant and incendiary backlash against duplicitous and fraudulent internet businesses. He's the foul-mouthed, spitfire contrarian most people would prefer to ignore forever. But buried within the satirical sass lies the seeds of bitter truths.

Maddox's current page has a rant with a large title splashed across which states "I Hope SOPA Passes." Why, you ask? It's not because Maddox owns a multimedia empire vulnerable to those pesky digital pirates. Quite the opposite. He's a small blogger who is able to keep "above water" from the revenues from his online store. Maddox's satirical appropriation of images or clips from other copyrighted works are key elements his commentary. Such is the case with most content creators on the Internet. It's the protest itself he finds unpalatable. He wants SOPA to pass...

Because that's exactly what we need to wake up from this slumbering, do-nothing, "occupy everything," stagnant, non-action slump we Americans are in.

He goes onto pointing out the other types of things this protest culture believes:

  • Boycotting gas for a day makes a difference. It doesn't. Delaying when you buy gas by a day only broadcasts your intentions to oil speculators so they can profit. And the oil still gets purchased a day before or after anyway.
  • Neurotically recycling every single shred of garbage in your home makes a difference. It doesn't. Even if you, your neighbors, and everyone you've ever met recycled everything and reduced your waste output to zero, it wouldn't even make an observable impact on overall waste production in the world. Household waste and garden residue account for less than 3% of all waste produced in the US. That's less than the average statistical margin of error, and most people don't even come close to producing zero waste.
  • Changing your profile picture on Facebook will get people to: A) stop abusing kids B) stop molesting kids C) stop killing kids and D) do anything.
  • Signing an online petition, or changing the front page of your website to protest SOPA will fix anything.

The kind of irrationality Maddox rails against has been described by Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek as "fetishistic disavowal." He clarifies this as the the way in which we know our behavior is not actually having the desired effect, but we continue to do it and act as though it does anyways. This is the same tendency that like to call "theater." For example, the increased presence and authority of the TSA in domestic airports. They are agents of the security state designated to catch potential terrorists on domestic flights, but have failed to catch even one terrorist. This is a kind of "security theater" wherein we employ thousands of agents, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, to give us the impression of security, in the absence of evidence that they really accomplish the goal of increased security. In fact, the TSA's own "Top 10 Good Catches of 2011" were forgetful or clueless, yet innocent, people. I am also fond of describing "dog poop theater," wherein a dog owner must pretend to pick up poop off of a strangers lawn if the canine didn't defecate, for fear that someone will see them if they don't pick up "the poop." But, I digress.

This "disavowal" is, at its core, rooted in our ideologies. It is a kind of faith we place in overarching narratives about causality, about the outcomes of our actions. But more importantly, the narratives about our own agency in the world. Us humans are perpetually caught between the contradictory notions that we are ultimately helpless to larger forces at play in the universe and simultaneously the boundless masters of our own destiny. Our ideologies create the lens through which we view this contradiction, and either empower us to action or comfort us in our misfortune.

My answer to this, and my rebuttal to Maddox, is that while we should be critical of over-praising ourselves as saviors but we should celebrate every little victory we achieve, even if the victory is merely symbolic. The SOPA win is praiseworthy and significant, just the same as the Occupy movement, because it brings new issues to light, new discussions to the fore. But, we should not go to sleep afterward and become complacent. And we should never be afraid to dream, for in dreams possibility is without limit and only from dreams that humanity's true marvels have been realized.

EDIT: A must-read follow up to the on-going SOPA fiasco.

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