Steal This Data

“The rul­ing class in the United States,” as McKen­zie Wark puts it in the recent spe­cial issue of The­ory and Event on the Occupy move­ment, “is less and less one that makes things, and more and more one that owns infor­ma­tion and col­lects a rent from it.” Every time you buy a CD or DVD, even every time you stream from YouTube or Net­flix, you’re not fund­ing artists. You’re fund­ing the 1% and their per­sonal army of met­ro­pol­i­tan police, whose major inter­est right now seems to con­sist of gassing stu­dents and tear­ing down barns. What’s a polit­i­cally informed media junkie to do? Prob­a­bly what you’re already doing – pirate.

You already know how piracy gets you stuff for free while keep­ing your dwin­dling finan­cial resources away from evil multi­na­tion­als such as Time Warner, Sony, and Apple. But as we’re find­ing out, piracy pro­vides a lot of other pos­i­tives, resources that we’ll need in the com­ing strug­gle. Here are a few:

1. Piracy edu­cates. Adrian Johns, who lit­er­ally wrote the book on piracy, cred­its scofflaws with spread­ing the Enlight­en­ment through­out 17th cen­tury Europe, in con­tra­ven­tion of estab­lished pub­lish­ing rights. Right now, a clus­ter of stu­dents near you are set­ting up their own crash course in rad­i­cal thought using a trove of PDFs they’ve snagged from a pirate e-library. I’m not going to name names pub­licly, lest I bite the hand that just yes­ter­day fed me a .zip file of every­thing Stu­art Hall has ever pub­lished. But you can find what you’re look­ing for with­out too much trou­ble using Google. Or why not read some­thing free, legal, and sub­ver­sive at

2. Piracy builds local infra­struc­ture. Brian Larkin’s work on Nige­rian video piracy shows how domes­tic infra­struc­ture “preys on the offi­cial dis­tri­b­u­tion of glob­al­ized media… but at the same time cre­ates pos­si­bil­i­ties for new actions.” Nige­rian dis­trib­u­tors got their start by dub­bing Hol­ly­wood flicks. (Before we shed a tear for Jerry Bruck­heimer, note that the MPAA stopped releas­ing films in Nige­ria in 1981.) After their dis­tri­b­u­tion net­works sta­bi­lized, they moved on to releas­ing cheap domes­tic films, which now dom­i­nate the Nige­rian mar­ket. A sim­i­lar thing hap­pened with boot­leg­gers of hip hop – now, instead of going through major label has­sles only to have their core audi­ence rip them off, the biggest rap­pers work with boot­leg­ger net­works, releas­ing mix­tapes on what­ever beat they like, and usu­ally craft­ing a bet­ter lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence than the focus-group feel of offi­cial albums. In DC, you can’t even find “offi­cial” releases of local urban music – prac­ti­cally all go-go sales go through infor­mal chan­nels. Buy local, buy pirate.

3. Piracy is keep­ing you free. Pirates are supremely inter­ested in pri­vacy – just check out the plat­form of Germany’s Pirate Party. They are break­ing the law in an act of civil dis­obe­di­ence and they don’t want to be caught by track­ers, bots, or hack­ers work­ing for the state or busi­ness. Their inter­ests are per­fectly aligned with rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. Whether you want to order LSD online or trade strate­gies for tak­ing down the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary regime, you’ll prob­a­bly want to use Tor or another form of anonymizer. The elec­tronic nooses are tight­en­ing, and pirates and hack­ers – not gov­ern­ments of, by, and for the 1% – are the ones who will keep us breath­ing.

4. Piracy is cheap. As Ravi Sun­daram points out, “pirate moder­nity” is the only one the masses of poor coun­tries get to expe­ri­ence. But this doesn’t just apply to the Global South. As the work­ing classes in rich coun­tries get squeezed, we’ll find piracy an increas­ingly use­ful pad to our incomes while we save up for that den­tist visit. I used to buy a lot of records. And though my income has dipped and my expenses have gone up, I still want to lis­ten to music. So I do. Should I feel guilty? Maybe, but it’s not like I have the money to throw at lim­ited run twelve-inches. And I find myself lis­ten­ing to more and more freely dis­trib­uted mixes and remixes on sites like Sound­Cloud and 4shared. I’m sure that some sump­tu­ous pro­duc­tions are com­ing out of nice stu­dios, but really, I’m on more of a 16-year-old-Domini­can-kid-with-Fruity-Loops bud­get. Larkin describes pirate video as degraded and dis­torted: that piracy has a form and an aes­thetic in addi­tion to an econ­omy. But every form is its own acquired taste – for instance, I still hate HD. So learn to love the sloppy energy of rough reg­gae­ton remixes, and develop a fond­ness for the Rus­sian cam­corder guy munch­ing pop­corn through the lat­est X-Men sequel – after all, we’re all on the same side.

Gavin Mueller is a grad­u­ate stu­dent in cul­tural stud­ies at George Mason Uni­ver­sity. He lives in Wash­ing­ton DC.

Author of the article

is a graduate student in Washington, DC.

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