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Non Stop Future

New Practices in Art and Media

Non Stop Future Cover

Editors: Branka .ur.i., Zoran Panteli. / New Media

Published 2008

Publisher: Revolver - Archiv für aktuelle Kunst

ISBN: 978-3-86588-455-8

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Felix Stalder

Torrents of Desire and the Shape of the Informational Landscape

Despite very considerable resistance by the established cultural industries, whose business model is predicated on the scarcity of cultural goods, an environment is beginning to emerge where such goods, in their digital form, are abundant. One of the key social technologies of this abundance is peer-to-peer file sharing. Many of the goods on these networks have become abundant in clear disrespect of existing copyright restrictions, placing the providers outside the (commercial) mainstream. Thus, financial profit cannot be regarded as the main driver of this development, even if it is part of it. At the same time, a coherent political or social program cannot be detected either. Thus, file-sharing cannot be thought of as political movement or as part of civil society. What, then, pushing forward this development? The article argues for that file sharing reveals, in its rawest form, one of the fundamental forces generating the emergence of abundance: The desire as will-to-existence, which, in an informational environment, requires producing communication (rather than just receiving it).


We are in the midst of an uneven shift from a cultural environment characterized by scarcity of goods to one characterized by their abundance, at least in respects to those that are digital (or can be digitized). Until very recently, even privileged people had access to a relatively limited number of news sources, books, audio recordings, films and other forms of informational goods. Digging through large archives/collections was a minority occupation. This was partly due to the fact that the means of mass communication were expensive, cumbersome and thus few and highly centralized. In this configuration, most people were relegated to the role of consumers, paying either directly for access, or indirectly through exposure to advertisement. Amassing large collections was also expensive, and working with them something for specialists.

This is changing. The internet is giving ever greater numbers of people access to efficient means of mass communication and P2P protocols, such as Bittorrent, are making the distribution of material highly efficient. For some reason to be further examined, more and more material is becoming freely available within this new information environment.1 As an effect, the current structure of the culture industries, in Adorno's sense,2 is being undermined, and with it, deeply-entrenched notions of intellectual property. This is happening despite well-organized campaigns by major industries to prevent this shift. The campaigns include measures such as the expansion of intellectual property regulations across the globe, the development of new technologies aimed at maintaining informational scarcity (digital rights management (DRM) systems, ISP filtering), to mass persecution of average citizens who engage in standard practices on P2P networks, and public relation campaigns aimed at strengthening the social acceptance of copyright and the business models built on it.

As a consequence, we are witnessing a pitched battle. One side we have organized industries, with their well-honed machines of political lobbying and extensive staff of highly-paid lawyers and technologists. On the other side, strangely enough, we do not have any powerful interests or wellorganized commercial players. Rather we have a rag-tag group of people and small groups, including programmers who develop open source tools to efficiently distribute digital files; administrators running infrastructural nodes for P2P networks out of their small ISPs (Internet Service Providers) or using cheap hosted locations; shadowy, closed "release groups” who specialize in circumventing any kind of copy-protection and making works available within their own circles often before they are available to the public; and, finally, millions of ordinary computer users who prefer to get their goods from the p2p networks where they are freely available (not just free of charge, but also without DRM) and where they can, if they wish to, release their own material just as easily. These are identifiable social actors, pursuing their own agendas by developing and using technology, and, clearly, not some autonomous technological development.

Usually, as political thinkers from Niccolò Machiavelli to Lawrence Lessig will tell you, well organized entrenched interests are at an advantage over the forces of innovation which tend to be poorly organized at the beginning.3 And, looking at the legal arena, there is plenty of reason to support that view.4 Yet, on the level of social practices, things look very different. Despite new and tougher laws and legal persecution, P2P networks are prospering, to the degree that they account for 50-80% of global internet traffic, depending of region and time of the day.5


So, how come that such an unorganized group of people, who have neither an coherent ideology, a business-model, or even much of a self-consciousness as a group, manages to challenge, if not overrun, well-organized sectors of industry and, as an effect, dramatically change the informational landscape? Having excluded ideology or business, the short answer remaining is: Desire, raw and unchecked. When we think of desires, we usually think of needs. This was most consequentially formalized by the social psychologist Abraham Maslov (1908-1970) who developed a pyramid of needs as an explanation of human motivation, ranging from the physiological (breathing, food, sleep, sex etc) at the bottom, to "self-actualization" (morality, creativity etc) at the top.6 Following this, we could think of P2P networking as filling a need for people whose basic survival is out of question and who can now address a lack of informational goods. People are finally getting the information they've always wanted but could not access, either because the materials were not available, or priced out of their range. While such an explanation holds intuitive appeal, and is strongly advocated by the cultural industries, it is far too limited to account for the full force of the P2P phenomenon.7

Rather, it seems more fruitful in this case to view desire not as something resulting from a lack, but as Deleuze and Guattari suggested, as primary productive force, as an unarticulated will-to-existence.8 Thus, the more interesting story here is about the desire for creating reality and ones own place in it, for the pure sake of creating it and actualizing oneself, not for any ulterior motives, be they political or commercial, through they may crafted on top of this (or any) particular articulation of desire.

As such, this is both a very general story and one that is specific to the digital informational environment. Let's start with the general one. In 1922, George Leigh Mallory, the British mountaineer, said this about his desire to climb Mount Everest:

"The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest ?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is no use'. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for."9

Two years later, probably already sick from having to answer the same questions again and again, he is reputed to have offered as an explanation merely a terse "Because it's there."10 A few months later, his body lay frozen at the North Side of the peak, until it was discovered precisely three quarters of a century later. By then, Mount Everest had become a quite popular destination, efficiently served by a dedicated business infrastructure.

So, obstacles have their own way of attracting people to over come them. Not for gain, or anything in particular, but for he mere joy of overcoming them, for proving to oneself, or the world, that what might be an obstacle to others is none of oneself. For most of people, cross words, puzzles and Sudokus are enough, but some people are attracted to more unusual obstacles.

Bob Flanagan, a performance artist who self-styled himself "super masochist", was once asked by an interviewer why he was doing all these things to his body. Probably also annoyed by being asked the same question again and again, he simply replied "Because I can".11

If people are able to do something, then, sooner or later, somebody will do it. If only just to see what happens. Something that can be done, but has not been done before, exerts a strong pull. So strong that it's essentially impossible to regulate it directly. Regulations make certain actions illegal, or not profitable, but for this small subset of people who do not care about legality and profitability, this will not be a deterrent to do what they can do. The challenge created by obstacles, and curiosity about our own personal abilities are deep desires driving our actions, basic strategies of self-realization. What is regarded as a worthy obstacle, and how personal abilities are configured, are, of course, at the same time highly individual and culturally specific. It is no co-incidence that mountaineering was pioneered by the British at the turn of the 20th century, and the exploration of deviant sexuality has turned public at the turn of the 21st century in the US.

Information technology creates environments in which we live, as McLuhan said a long time ago.12 In it, there are infinite numbers of obstacles to be overcome. Everyday there is a new Mount Everest to climb and new gear is being created to make the ascent possible. Thus technology triggers its own desires. Translated into a communication and information environment, "because it's there” means access. Knowledge that a perfect copy could be available triggers a desire to get it. Having it, triggers the desire to do something with it, transforming it in any way imaginable, be it re-editing star wars,13 remixing the musical history of the 20th century,14 or converting books into executable code format which is then transformed into images. In the case of file sharing, the transformation is simply to make is accessible to others, turning oneself from a receiver into a sender, from a passive consumer into an active producer.15 Why? Because I can, because, it is there. Access and transformation, intake and output, in the information environment, these desires are as basic as breathing-in and exhaling. Indeed, it is precisely these desires which are producing existence, because in the information network, communications – in-put and output – will establish a node as a node. Without communication, people do not exist within an information environment, at least not as actors, communication is what transforms them from objects (e.g. of surveillance) into subjects.

More than anything else the torrents of raw desire – the pull of obstacles and the push into the unknown creating opportunities to "reinvent" oneself – are reshaping the landscape of the information environment, creating new peaks of scarcity and deep lakes of abundance. Of course, this desire is energizing not just file sharing, but also other forms of personalized mass communication, such as blogs, wikis, or, at an earlier stage, email lists and Usenet groups. Only after flood recedes, and the new formations become visible, the more orderly forces, those of commerce and those of the law, are beginning to stake their claims and make their own modifications of the landscape. But by then, the canyons are carved out, and the landscape is ready to be mapped.

Currently, these desires are at their most raw in peer-to-peer file sharing, a major contributory to the deep lakes of informational abundance. The term file sharing is a great semiotic trick, just as the term piracy is. Both terms are totally inadequate to understand what is actually happening, but serve strategic purposes in framing the debate. Copying music and films without permission does not amount to robbery. Nothing is taken away. The industry knows this, but it serves their purpose of conveying to law makers and law enforcement agencies a sense of grave, even bodily danger. Similarly, the term file sharing has great propagandistic value, because it suggests community and harmony. After all, sharing is caring, right? Well, no.

If one wanders through the forums attached to great file sharing nodes, the ones which really provide the deepest access, one finds oneself in a desert of exclamation marks. Most people are utterly disrespectful, totally impatient about pretty much anything that stands between them and instant gratification. Occasionally, one comes across someone who reminds others to be grateful for all the work that goes into making all this material available, but their morals seem out of place. There is no community to respect, people are anonymous and their contact is sporadic, so why bother. The situation is similar with people who run the nodes. There is very communication among them, little communal sense of why they do it, beyond the challenge of doing it. It is certainly not a very good business. Even the most articulate pirates from Sweden see it primarily an experiment in the unknown.16 Why? Because they can!

Within the secluded world of the release groups, who work hard to bring out movies, music, games and software, before they are publicly available, there is even less sense of communal sharing. Rather, the real drivers seem to be the sheer existence of still secret material – because it's there – and high-pressure competition within small peer-groups – because I can, faster than you. In order to satisfy these urges, complex operations have been set up. Capable of getting access to the material across fortified line of security, cracking any copy protection code that might be on it, compressing it down to a size where it can be distributed across clandestine networks of password protected, and strongly encrypted servers. Often dozens of people, unevenly distributed around the globe, are working together, mobilizing significant resources in the process. Not just the highly specialized skills that each of these steps requires, and the many layers of security need to avoid prosecution, but also high quality equipment, from recording devices to create "screeners" from movies, to high-capacity servers capable to handle immense traffic loads. These are clearly organized operations, and what they are doing is illegal pretty much everywhere in the world. The content industry is quick to call these release groups "organized crime". Yet, this is not your average criminal operation; Rather, these are organized crimes of passion. In a different context, Clay Shirky noted that previously only little things could be made out of love, now large things can be made out of love.17 It is precisely this power of voluntary informational, globally distributed networks that they provide an organizational framework for passion, channeling torrent of desire.

In the case of release groups, passion clearly trumps money. Most of the resources (access, working time, file servers) are donated. There are strict rules about what acceptable behavior is and what is not. Taking money is usually not regarded as appropriate, even if there are enough people who make their side-deals with the players in commercial black market.18 However, the commercial black market operates also on the principle of scarcity, just at lower price points.

Driving the desire to get access is a race against time. Who is first? The earlier the better, once a copy is out, the race is over. This race can be so intense, that release groups try to reach deeper and deeper into the production process itself. When a version of the Ang Lee's film Hulk appeared online weeks before the official release date, people started to trash it because of poor production quality. Sound was uneven, in a few cases missing entirely. This became so intense that the production company was forced to release a statement that the version which was circulating was not the final one. The seemingly poor production quality was due to its unfinished state. Apparently, somebody within the sound studio has leaked a working copy of the film.

Yet, while community within the scene is important, the whole process is not about sharing. It is more like the original potlatch as analyzed by Marcel Mauss, where one group shames the other by bringing gifts, putting pressure on the others to do the same, or to loose status.19 The gift is a mean competition, and the whole game is about winners and losers. Access for all to the material is not intended, and the fact that sooner or later everything ends up on the public file sharing networks annoys the elite groups to no end. And they resort to seemingly contradictory, but internally consistent measures. On July 27, 2003, for example, the German Release Group TGSC released a B-movie, Agent Cody Banks, with its own, custom-made copy protection in order to make sure that only people within their own group could access it, and to prevent that the file would eventually find its way to file sharing networks were outsiders could get access it to.20 Of course, this only challenged the next group to remove the encryption they had put on, and soon, the film was available unencrypted. The contradiction between following one's own desires to get access to the material on ones own terms – because it's there and because I can – but denying this to others was too strong. It put a lot of strain on the group, both externally and internally, and by the time were raided a few years later, they had lost much of their former glory.21

The different layers in the landscape of informational abundance function according to very different rules and morals. The elite crackers have nothing but disdain for the people on public file sharing networks, the free software movement does not condone piracy and puts great emphasis on the difference between crackers (bad) and hackers (good). Despite the many different rationalizations of their actions, they follow the same structure of desire. They want access to the material – because it's there – and they want to be able to with the material whatever they want - because they can.

Thus raw desire for getting one's hands on the material and doing with it whatever makes sense to whatever logic one is following – even if this means encrypting a film that one has just released – produce the torrents that are carving out environment informational abundance. I don't think it's a co-incidence that it's exactly these desires that produce the new landscape. Culture essentially is about circulation of information and the transformation of that information by whomever cares enough to hold it at a particular moment. All culture is socially produced. Information always leaks because it is communication – accessing, transforming and outputting – which creates reality in an information environment. However, as Deleuze and Guattari pointed out as well, desires never run unchecked for long.22 They need to be channeled, in some way or another, to become socially stable. P2P networks and the informational abundance have not been channeled yet, though the early settlers in the new landscape can be seen. Rather than trying to sue the new players out of existence, which has turned out to be a loosing strategy so far, the established content industries are trying to reform their business adapting to the new environment. Creative Commons, and others, are busy trying to set up new normative guidelines about what is acceptable in this new environment. But these are early days, and it remains to be seen, which forms of commerce and governance will be able to exploit and tame these desires. For now, they are raw, bleeding and exciting, though not save, and not pretty.