Date: Mon, 05 Mar 2001 20:20:49 -0600 Subject: The rearview mirror stage The news about Napster strikes a melancholy chord. It appears likely that the court will rule Napster must begin blocking access to about 1 million copyrighted songs. Such a judgment will probably sound the death knell for Napster. Lyotard writes, "As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict, between two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a judgment applicable to both arguments." So, the question arises, what is the Napster case? Is it a litigation or a differend? I would argue that this case is a differend because the judgment between the two parties is clearly incommensurable. For the recording industry, it is clearly a case of intellectual property rights. Since these are owned, the means of distribution must be protected. Music is a commodity, like wheat, oil, steel, automobiles or Nike shoes. For the defenders of Napster, another principle is at work - "information should be free". They argue that technology has now changed the relationship between the artist and consumer. The recording industry has merely become an anachronistic middleman. There are other possible relationships that might reward artists without restricting artificially the flow of information. Marshall Mcluhan has written that major technological change creates a social numbness whereby the new technology is first embraced in terms of the old technology is replaces. The classic example of this is the "horseless carriage" as the name first given to the automobile. Mcluhan calls this approach "the rear view mirror effect". Similarly, Alvin Toffler in his book "The Third Wave" described the radical discrepancy between material commodities and information by the fact that the more the commodity is used, the less it is available. The relationship with information is exactly asymmetrical to this. The more information is utilized, the more of it is available. To restrict the flow of information in economic terms is simply to restrict the flow of trade. The fact that Toffler sold himself as a consultant to Newt Gingrich in the nineties is evidence that he did not understand his own principle. Perhaps, it was because his analysis was constrained by "rear view mirror effect". Or perhaps, he just went where the money was. In any case, the content of hegemony today seems to be composed of exactly such "reactionary futurology". On the one hand intellectual front-men rhapsodize poetically about all the riches that technology has given us (i.e. the white American middle & upper class) both financially and in terms of the quality of life. On the other hand, they argue that the only means of consistently delivering such wealth is through an economic system mired in nineteenth century industrialism that creates disproportionate distribution, artificial cycles and ecological instability. Thus, Napster is a differend because the conflict it represents cannot possibly be resolved by litigation. It could even be said it figures as proxy in a clash between modernism and postmodernism, commodity economics and information economics and the question Lyotard raised at the end of "The Postmodern Condition," Who will control the data banks?" There is also the question concerning what is to be done about this differend? Certainly, it is possible to bear witness to this differend, to feel it sublimely as a clash of incommeasurables and articulate this feeling in language. This is partly what is being attempted here. It remains insufficient, however. Although there will always be differends because of the heterogeneous ways in which phrases are linked, individual differends have a history and each one changes dynamically over time. Thus, to bear witness to this particular differend may mean taking actions as diverse as pirating, proliferating shareware that duplicates Napster's functionality, artists refusing to work through record companies and finding other venues for reward. In short, various groups experimenting with changing the differend even as they bear witness to it, using the differend politically in ways that are not limited to being merely democratic.
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