Warwick, Henry Radical Tactics of the Offline Library, (2014), Amsterdam, INC
Offline file sharing was known in the 1990s as ‘Sneakernet’, where someone with data would put it on a floppy disk, and walk it to another computer. page8
People who have shared files outside of copyright regulations have been called ‘pirates’ for centuries. And it was the forces of capital and property that applied this name as an epithet. Information sharing was no more piracy then, than it is today. Letting the opposition control the terms of debate means the debate is lost. Letting other people define one’s behaviour as piracy means that all discussion will be framed in terms of classical property theory, and it is the framing of classical property theory that is an essential problem to the debate page 10
when you build a Personal Portable Library, you are entering into the rich and highly contested world of libraries. When you have a library, you have access to knowledge, and to paraphrase a line from Michel Foucault, Knowledge Is Power, so access to knowledge gives you access to power. Library power is different however – it is a power that inherently ennobles and amplifies the good in people – a power that thrives on being linked and shared, because simply, sharing is caring and the sharing of knowledge is the essential purpose of a library. When you collect e-books, it is practical to share them with friends and build a personal network, as copies build resilience against hardware failure. PAGE 13
Because of the symbiotic relationship between the online and offline, we have discussed some basic architectures of the online and how the online and offline work together to provide information. Other purposes for offline file sharing systems and Personal Portable Libraries exist, for the relationship of the online to the offline is of an existential variety. One does not exist without the other. The online exists inside the offline, and the online is not so much a thing of its own, as it is more a connectivity between offlines – all online content is held in hardware, somewhere. Like neoliberal manufacturing jobs, the hard work of online storage is done elsewhere, allowing consumers in the overdeveloped world to think they live in a clean state of virtuality and information, without armed guards, wires, or steel. On the other hand, hard drives are cheap, small, capacious, and plentiful, although, due to their physicality, they are slow to share. page 18
The fundamental process of creating a Personal Portable Library is copying files from one hard drive to another hard drive. Users inhabit the traditional role of copyist, so to speak. In ancient libraries, you had your common copyist. The job of copyist was straightforward, but difficult – he (it was usually a he) had to scrupulously and accurately copy every letter of every word of a text onto a fresh substrate. In Babylon, this would be on clay tablets. In ancient Egypt, the preferred surface was papyrus, parchment in the European late archaic and medieval period, which in the Renaissance gave way to paper, an invention from China. page 20
Benjamin’s library was something of great personal and intimate value. He wrote prior to the development of computer technology; these weren’t files on a drive – data on a substrate – these were books made of paper that had texture and smell and that existed as finite material objects, in a sense, beings, that one encountered. Unlike a computer, they permitted him immediate random access – he only had to go to the shelf, pull a book out, open to a page, and begin reading.
Previously, companies have proposed various Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems. Even though all of them have largely failed, this hasn’t stopped them trotting out new schemes. These draconian tactics are counterproductive. A much more strategic approach in hardware has been to obviate the need for hard drives by emphasizing the use of cloud storage and marketing devices that don’t readily connect to external drives. The emphasis on cloud storage is clear and obvious – for some time Microsoft was giving away 25 giga - bytes of online cloud storage – everyone could have a personal data locker in the sky. Even scaled back, the efforts of Microsoft, Apple, and Dropbox are not to be underestimated. Once cloud storage is so cheap that it is essentially free, and bandwidth is unlimited, the short-term value proposition of offline file storage seemingly diminishes against the convenience and low costs associated with streaming media and cloud storage. However, these systems, as discussed earlier, are precarious and dependent. If you have a library in the cloud, and the cloud company goes out of business, your files could disappear instantly. If you depend on streaming technology, and your stream source disappears, you are left with nothing. An offline storage system – a Personal Portable Library – is resilient against the vagaries of the marketplace and the whims of political censorship and control.
Computers, by their nature, copy. Typing this line, the computer has copied the text multiple times in a variety of memory registers. I touch a button to type a letter, this releases a voltage that is then translated into digital value, which is then copied into a memory buffer and sent to another part of the computer, copied again into RAM and sent to the graphics card where it is copied again, and so on. The entire operation of a computer is built around copying data: copying is one of the most essential characteristics of computer science. One of the ontological facts of digital storage is that there is no difference between a computer program, a video, mp3-song, or an e-book. They are all composed of voltage represented by ones and zeros. Therefore they are all subject to the same electronic fact: they exist to be copied and can only ever exist as copies. Page 9
The systems that contain the data belong to individuals and files are directly exchanged from one drive to the other through the internet. There is an intermediary (labeled ‘P2P ORG’), and the amount of control, interference or value the intermediary provides or inserts is variable. For example at Napster, the Napster database was controlling. Other more decentralised systems, such as the gnutella network, are less so, due to the structure of gnutella style file sharing. The fundamental point is that individuals in the public realm have drives with files on them, and through the internet their computers directly communicate and send files (or in the case of torrents, parts of files) to each other. This puts them in a position of equality to one another – all are free to trade with all, and their collective libraries of files create a positive commons of contribution. Through chat systems, blogs, and other social media, they are able to form communities of preference and trust that increase the value of the data aggregate as a distributed commons. Page 14
Data lockers are simply giant closets in the cloud filled with files, and people need to know how to find the files they want. Some have search engines built in, but they don’t act like filters. Over the years blogs have taken on this role of being a guide to files. Users find a download link to a file in the data locker through these blogs. Contrastingly, P2P system Napster didn’t store copyrighted data, and was not in control of the direct transmission of the data itself; it merely set up the conditions by which data could be transmitted from peer to peer. Through a chat client Napster created social value and facilitated the filtering of data between users as they formed communities of interest. The database of users and their files used to make the file sharing connections was their undoing. Datalocker architecture such as iTMS, Amazon, Spotify, Netflix, MedNet, Rdio, JSTOR, and others, allows file transfers or the streaming of media,. Other data lockers are more engaged with letting people store their files in the ‘cloud’ (i.e., on internet servers) and make them available to others, such as Mediafire, Rapidshare, DepositFiles, and others. These data lockers came with front-end assemblies that enabled non-members to download files. Some of them directly operate with a locker (like library.nu with ifile.it), while others are more ‘locker agnostic’ (AVAX) and others sit somewhere in between. One hybrid is aaaaarg.org, which has its own file storage system but also can link files in other data lockers. Page 17
The defects and strengths of the Alexandrian Library can be used as a guide for the Personal Portable Library. Alexandria had many strengths: its size, its range, its function as a copying device, its ‘shareability’ (albeit slow and hideously expensive), its library science innovations, and the quality of its inventory. Some of the defects are also instructive: its growth through appropriation, theft and chicanery, its centralization, its error prone copying system, its expense, and its existence as an institution which conferred power, honour, and influence to its directorship and the local government. The Personal Portable Library can and should appropriate and optimize ideas inherent in the Alexandria Library. It can quite easily adopt and wildly improve some of the strengths: size, range, the function as a copying device, ‘shareability’, and the quality of inventory. To begin with the size, the Library of Alexandria was about the same size as my university’s library, and subject to the same analysis: the total data size of the collection would be less than 3 TB and would fit on a drive the size of a book and cost less than $200. If each book were an EPUB file of 1 MB in size, the storage need would be approximately 530 GB, which would fit on a drive the size of a deck of cards and cost less than $80. While the cost of such a drive is completely out of reach for billions of people on the planet (according to the World Bank Development Indicators of 2008, about half the world, 3.5 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day for many people in industrialized nations it’s not an insurmountable cost, and for a good many people in the overdeveloped world, it’s a fairly trivial price. Cost is a comparatively low hurdle. Moreover, the range of the collection of a Personal Portable Library would easily exceed the Library of Alexandria, as there are many fields of enquiry, study, and art that have come into being since then. In terms of resembling a copying machine, the Personal Portable Library only exists as a copy.
Digital data lacks origination, since it always alreadyexists in a state of reproduc tion. The Personal Portable Library isn’t just a copy of the Library of Alexandria, but a kind of amplified socio-political inversion of it, in that the Alexandrian Library was a product of forced tribute to a central repository, while a Personal Portable Library is a library that exists precisely to be curated, copied and shared. Page 26
A bulky predecessor of the Personal Portable Library was the portable set of bookcases developed by Walter Benjamin. In his 1931 essay ‘Unpacking my Library’, he investigates a number of perceptions and experiences in the development of his own personal library. Loaded into a series of trunks or cases, Benjamin always carried a core collection of literature with him to have at his disposal. Benjamin reveals how he acquired precious books at auctions and the tactics he used to win out over other more well-heeled customers. He also talked about the kind of mania required in book collectors, one that is based in an aticipation and intense desire: ‘Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, which suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books.’ And, he noted: ‘For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminals. Page 30
Another angle on that is provided by Andy Bichlbaum of The Yes Men when he said in a recent interview in answer to the question why ‘we bother with the real world if we all sit in front of our computers for the majority of our lives anyway’:
Because the real world is real, and the virtual world doesn’t really exist. Computers are only good for communicating simple information from one point to another, which is an improvement over the telephone, or town criers, or smoke signals. But the smoke signal has to reference something visceral. In Egypt, Facebook was supposedly so important, but it was really useful only to tell everyone to go to Tahrir Square, and that only worked because everyone knew there was a reason to. Facebook didn’t give the reason; everyone knew why because of life.45 Page 33