The Politics and Technology of Control
Benjamin Mako Hill


To different crowds, I've explained my Division III in a handful of very different ways:

  1. I'm applying a philosophy of creativity fostered around Free/Open Source Software toward a critique of systemic control (I'll define this in a few minutes);
  2. I'm analyzing the larger nature of the relationship of systemic control and collaborative writing and arguing for systems of control supportive of collaborative writing processes. Connecting copyright to technology to socially cultivated conceptions of Authorship.
  3. I'm dethroning the concept of the Romantic author. (this one makes some enemies)

Summary Review of Reading

I want make sure people understand what the readings I've given people and understand what I feel are the important concepts in the terms of my work. In particular, cover everything except the girl scouts article which I'll come to in a moment.

People should understand:

  1. the political nature of technological design;
  2. the role of technology as a form of systemic control;
  3. something about the nature of the relationship of systemic control to collaborative writing—namely that limitations, restrictions based around individuals make it difficult for groups to work together;

Lessig and Sclove both describe the relationship of code/control, but stop there. Sclove, says very little at all and Lessig, implies that the answer is openness and flexibility. This is why he's popular with the free/open source software folks and applies to both the free market libertarians, the anarchists and many people in between.

For me, this strikes me as the right start but it's not particularly satisfying. Openness and flexibility allows us to redefine the terms of, say, communication and writing we can define it for better or worse.

Information wants to be anthropomorphized.

Why I'm Scared

There is a rift between the role that I believe that control of ideas and expression should be conceived and the way that control is conceived and implemented in technology.

  1. this is where the girl scouts come in;
  2. trusted computing and digital rights management;
  3. this is where DVD protection comes in w/ Jon Johansen
  4. another DMCA horror story involves and Dmitri Skylarov (protests pictured here and here);

There has become a gap between the control (esp. law & technology) and reality. Either the way we articulate control or reality needs to change.

  1. this is where MC Disk Protector comes in (video);
  2. this is where the ęs on homework comes in;

This has everything to do with literature. Look at the content list of a 1GB file of EBooks I found in an Internet forum (the contents were offered for download elsewhere). The majority of these files are copyrighted.

Control: Where I Come In

I'm using the larger project to advance an idea of control as something akin to it but more nuanced and expansive than Lessig's idea of code. First, I want to expand it to include socio-historic forces as well as law and technology.

The analysis looks at the relationship of collaborative work as:

  1. control as articulated as social forces (i.e. a Romantic conception of authorship);
  2. control as articulated as technology (you have all read plenty about this by now);
  3. control as articulated as law (which of course Lessig discusses);

In my case, it's a much more muddled (emphasis added for Herb) concept that includes all of these things and focuses on the type of code/control that I feel is dangerous. I use control in part because people can imagine being control in a way that they don't imagine being coded. I want to use this to push us in the right direction.

My argument is that as control has been tightened as systems become highly individualized or centralized, there has been an extreme individualization of writing and creative work. This individualization blocks creative works and creates an dominant authoritarian environment for the production, distribution, and reception of ideas.

My argument:

I use the discussion of control to argue for a system supportive of group work and collaborative processes.

I focus on literature (although I imagine that many other type of groups expression falls into this category, i.e software).

Collaborative Writing

I chose collaborative writing because:

Why collaborative writing is important:

  1. 87% of industry uses collaborative writing
  2. studies have shown that people working together collaboratively produce better
  3. it's historically precedented (leads into the next bit)

How collaborative writing is persistent (I won't talk about this in any depth but it's in my Div III):

  1. medieval glosses and annotations (example 1, example 2); Chinese literature (no intellectual property up until the 20th century);
  2. early on, copyright served as a powerful, but flexible entity. early American pirating; hypocrisy of Mark Twain; Wordsworth and Coleridge;
  3. editors in the twentieth century: Eliot and Pound; Carver and Lish;

So why does nobody write collaboratively? Why don't we even talk about it?

  1. social changes (authorship);
  2. technological changes toward more centralized production (the invention of the printing press, the invention of mass printing);
  3. legal changes toward more individual control (copyright);

But they are all connected.

Copyright Today

If there's time, I can paint a picture of what copyright looks like today and if it hasn't already come up.

  1. from 14 years in duration to life of the author plus 70;
  2. DMCA;
  3. idea/expression dichotomy collapsed ("look and feel", "translations");

Mako Hill
Last modified: Wed Apr 16 10:52:20 EDT 2003