My third book arrived earlier this fall. It is my first book entirely in my own name (the two previous ones have been collaborations), and it’s loosely based on my Ph.D. thesis from 2010. However, most of this book contains new material; a lot of it stemming from new empirical research that I conducted in 2012. This newer research wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Swedish research foundation Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.
It is apparent that file sharing on the Internet has become an emerging norm of media consumption—especially among young people. This book provides a critical perspective on this phenomenon, exploring issues related to file sharing, downloading, peer-to-peer networks, “piracy,” and (not least) policy issues regarding these practices. Andersson Schwartz critically engages with the justificatory discourses of the actual file-sharers, taking Sweden as a geographic focus. By focusing on the example of Sweden—home to both The Pirate Bay and Spotify—he provides a unique insight into a mentality that drives both innovation and deviance and accommodates sharing in both its unadulterated and its compliant, business-friendly forms.
The three main strands of my argument are as follows:
Online File Sharing: Innovations in Media Consumption outlines a comprehensive history of online file sharing and the subsequent phenomenon of streaming services–it even outlines a lineage between the two, connecting Spotify with The Pirate Bay in more ways than merely their shared Swedish origins. It is not a commonly known fact, but the engineers behind Spotify in fact honed their skills by crafting pure-play file-sharing applications (uTorrent). Similarly, the Swedish founder of the voice-over-Internet service Skype, Niklas Zennström, began his career in 2001 by founding Kazaa, a file-sharing program based on p2p technology, which in May 2003 was the world’s most downloaded software application. The book connects this history with the mounting emphasis on “consumer choice,” convenience, and individualism we have seen in recent years, and the various modes of audience activity (or audience engagement) that can be enumerated. I also connect this with the historical legacy of social democracy in Sweden, and the ways this legacy becomes compromised in an increasingly globalized, marketized, and individualized world.
The book is also an attempt at better integrating critical theory with structural complexity. The motives and justifications of file sharers are continually contrasted with the particular infrastructural conditions that afflicts internet usage. Further, I expand on the nature of quantitative accumulation in an online, networked, interconnected world and on the dynamics of long-tail accumulation.
A key premise of the book is that in a world characterized by networked accumulation, inequalities tend to be aggravated rather than ameliorated. If, as Manuel Castells and others have argued, the world is increasingly premised on networks, then a clear understanding of network ontology is urgent. Many networks are of an unrestricted, rather expansive type: Free-market networks, for example, exhibit so-called scale-free properties. And scale-free networks, at the level of accumulation, are inherently unequal, exhibiting so-called power-law properties. It is critical for “network society” that we understand such dynamics, as these tendencies–multiplied and aggravated exponentially–constitute a source of systematic crisis at the heart of contemporary capitalism.
Online file sharing can be read as a telling example of such dynamics; if left entirely bare, as merely a mode of redistribution without any editorial, curatorial interventions, it can be seen as aggravating these tendencies. Put bluntly: Only that which is already known will be circulated. If, on the other hand, editorial, curatorial interventions are added, it has the potential to stimulate a much wider diversity of content than the commercial outlets (as file sharing, due to its extreme price elasticity, allows for free sampling and cherry-picking). I thus propose that the degree to which a particular file-sharing site is to be seen as “progressive” is a function of the degree to which it allows for editorial, curatorial functions.
The book points to numerous inherent paradoxes of unrestricted file sharing. My account of the phenomenon admits that unrestricted sharing is a logical outcome given the material setup of the Internet, yet I remain wary of arguments that use this insight to advocate laissez-faire approaches. Rather than simply acclaiming file sharer argumentation, I perform a constructive critique of it–not negating their arguments but picking them apart, in order to better understand the phenomenon. I observe how file sharers strive to justify their behavior through invoking numerous things:
- the nature of technology, as unregulated sharing is seen as an unavoidable result of the way the Internet works;
- a never-fully-overseeable superabundance of other users, lending file sharing a populist weight;
- positive economic side effects that arise from unregulated sharing;
- a strong sense of personal autonomy, regarding the freedom to steer one’s own consumption habits and to freely tinker with technology.