FUTURE TENSE #13: The anarchists who couldn’t shoot straight
© 2001 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved
The trick in life is usually to find the balance point--the happy medium between incompossible extremes. Exactly where, for instance, lies the line between keeping an open mind...and being a sucker? Now that any quack with a modem can call himself an “alternative therapy healer,” and no fact can ever be conclusively checked anymore, what should I do when cancer comes and mainstream medicine admits helplessness? Nod and die? Or try snake oil?
Exactly where is the border between editorial judgment...and censorship? I used to think I knew, but now that any fool with a browser can call himself a “journalist,” and all accusations are true, I’m no longer sure.
Is there a stable balance point between discriminating against people and being indiscriminate? Between being racist and being reverse-racist? Between equal rights for women and no respect for men? Between the dread One World Government and World War Three? Or--to get even more basic--between order and anarchy? Now, there’s a tricky one.
I’ve never been an anarchist myself. I read. But back in college, my circle of acquaintances included SDS leaders, Black Panthers, Weathermen, draft resisters, deserters, and assorted other radicals. I got along with most, counted some as my friends. My knee-jerk sympathies often incline toward anarchy--most people’s do, these days. Fight the power...rage against the machine...tune in and drop out...turn your poptop beer upside down and open it with a churchkey...I am not a number, I am a man!...information wants to be free...
Deep down, nobody really likes authority, except perhaps the few in authority. I don’t think many of us were rooting for Nurse Ratched to break Randall McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. We whose lives depend utterly on order and system all at least sympathize with the anarchist. Why? Because he’s generally been the underdog, and his target a bloated oppressor of one sort or another.
Science Fiction Writers of America, the professional organization to which most sf writers in the world (including myself) belong, is presently battling cyberpiracy--the posting online of members’ copyright material without permission. But a recent issue of SFWA’s journal, Forum, reprints an e-mail from someone I’ll call CrazyEddie, proudly proclaiming a new cybernetwork I’ve renamed “ThiefNet.” Think of Napster on steroids. It threatens the eventual end of all art, and all professional-quality entertainment...
ThiefNet’s creators describe it as, “a distributed decentralised information storage and retrieval system...It provides anonymity [and is] totally decentralized: nobody is in control...not even its creators. This makes is virtually impossible to force the removal of information from the system.” CrazyEddie makes clear what “virtually impossible” means: “It has been proven formally, by mathematical proof, that the system is immune to all attacks save for physical destruction of all host machines (spread across multiple jurisdictions).”
What’s this bulletproof system for? “To allow the free distribution of information on the Internet without fear of censorship.” Who could possibly quarrel with such a noble goal as ending censorship?
Me. And many others. Because what CrazyEddie means by “censorship” is “attempts to stop theft.” The information that he feels “wants to be free” is my latest novel--and all its predecessors and potential successors. All novels, by anybody. Also my new CD--all recorded music--all films--pretty much anything CrazyEddie wants to enjoy without paying for it, really. He’s quite clear: once a book...or CD, movie, documentary or dance video...is uploaded to ThiefNet, it’s free, forever: Bill Gates and the CIA combined couldn’t take it down again, “except by installing monitoring software on an Orwellian scale, utterly unacceptable to any democracy.”
CrazyEddie’s already personally stolen 25 novels, posted them on ThiefNet: works by Orwell, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Andre Norton, and less famous authors. He plans to keep doing so. Why? “The explicit aim of ThiefNet from the outset was to destroy the system of copyright as we know it. A noble aim....”
Got that? CrazyEddie’s done his noble best to make sure nobody will ever write a book for you again, except the writers currently served by vanity presses. Nobody will ever compose or perform music for you again except the folks presently playing for free in the park. All software will be freeware. In order to wound Commerce, CrazyEddie is murdering Art and Entertainment. He and ThiefNet’s supporters intend to starve an entire generation of creative artists and entertainers out of business, in the vague hope that something will replace them, someday.
And the vandals are proud of themselves. They think they’re liberators. Like their fellow anarchists Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, they are stunningly inept at target selection: they think writers, dancers, musicians and actors who eat regularly are oppressors.
Every one of the 25 writers CrazyEddie mugged happens to be strongly and loudly opposed to oppression, racism and economic exploitation. They are, without exception, eloquent champions of individual liberty. Six are personally known to me to be in difficult financial straits. CrazyEddie has no idea which ones, and doesn’t care. They all earn (at least some) money from their work, so they’re all pigs. He’s never read Dr. Johnson, who said, “Noone but a fool ever wrote, save for money.”
The irony is bone-crushing. Cyberspace anarchists have declared war--not on governments, banks, or multinationals--but on artists, their traditional allies! And left artists only one thing they can possibly do to defend themselves: turn their talents of persuasion to selling the public on “monitoring software on an Orwellian scale.” CrazyEddie may believe that’s “utterly unacceptable to any democracy”--but he’s never lived in a democracy whose artists are all literally starving. We stopped a war together, once. I imagine we could start one.
Some of my colleagues already react somewhat emotionally to ThiefNet, and call for measures I personally find extreme. I think it would be quite sufficient merely to torture the vandals to death, despoil their corpses and destroy their computers. Execution of their parents seems excessive--unless they’re still of breeding age, of course.
Not all information wants to be free. My stories and songs aspire only to be reasonably inexpensive.