The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Humanism at the fringe

Highly recommended: Janneke Adema’s outstanding extended look at internet text-sharing networks, from relatively high-profile sites like Scribd and UbuWeb to grad-student blogs with a dozen or so lit theory PDFs. (NB: Some of Adema’s early quotations are in untranslated German, but don’t get thrown.)

These sites are tiny and unbelievably idiosyncratic and specialized compared to their DVD-ripping BitTorrent cousins. But if you fit the right niche – especially, improbably, nerds into philosophy and media – you can discover dozens of smart books and articles every day, each lovingly meticulously scanned, OCRed, or hand-typed by a digital scribe.

Small and idiosyncratic is, in this case, part a necessity and partly a strategy:

That there has not been one major platform or aggregation site linking them together and uploading all the texts is logical if we take into account the text sharing history described before and this can thus be seen as a clear tactic: it is fear, fear for what happened to and fear for the issue of scale and fear of no longer operating at the borders, on the outside or at the fringes. Because a larger scale means they might really get noticed. The idea of secrecy and exclusivity which makes for the idea of the underground is very practically combined with the idea that in this way the texts are available in a multitude of places and can thus not be withdrawn or disappear so easily.

This is the paradox of the underground: staying small means not being noticed (widely), but will mean being able to exist for probably an extended period of time. Becoming (too) big will mean reaching more people and spreading the texts further into society, however it will also probably mean being noticed as a treat, as a ‘network of text-piracy’. The true strategy is to retain this balance of openly dispersed subversivity.

Also instructive: a number of these sites, like AAAARG, are set up as discussion and educational groups. It’s party an issue of – I won’t say legality, let’s say, legitimation. But it’s also about expressing an ethos and giving its users additional tools to make use of the content.

As is stated on their website, AAAARG is a conversation platform, or alternatively, a school, reading group or journal, maintained by Los Angeles artist Sean Dockray. In the true spirit of Critical Theory, its aim is to ‘develop critical discourse outside of an institutional framework’. Or even more beautiful said, it operates in the spaces in between: ‘But rather than thinking of it like a new building, imagine scaffolding that attaches onto existing buildings and creates new architectures between them.’…

The most interesting part though is the ‘extra’ functions the platform offers: after you have made an account, you can make your own collections, aggregations or issues out of the texts in the library or the texts you add. This offers an alternative (thematically ordered) way into the texts archived on the site. You also have the possibility to make comments or start a discussion on the texts. See for instance their elaborate discussion lists. The AAAARG community thus serves both as a sharing and feedback community and in this way operates in a true p2p fashion, in a way like p2p seemed originally intended.

All of the value – ethical, technological, social – is in the scale and interconnectedness of the network. But at a certain point, size actually works against you on all three counts. If I was surer in my astrophysics, I’d call this the solar model of networks.

These communities at their best work to add value to the texts they distribute – through discussion, through juxtaposition, and through the creation of more text. Consider Matthew Battles’s take on Infinite Summer:

Thousands of people have participated in a forum that seems to transcend the idea of the “book club” entirely—the result looks more like a crowdsourced, massively parallel postgraduate seminar. But no, that’s not it either; trappings of institutional learning like “postgraduate” and “seminar” don’t really have a place here. Infinite Jest’s complexity, its author’s pixillated, autodidactic, logorrhoeic condition, make it very hard to teach. But these same qualities, with its flowing, braided links to film, tennis, fractals, logic, and recovery, as well as a score of other topics, make it an enormously productive imaginal space in which to cultivate the kind of wide-ranging, splintering discussion that is native to the web.

And, as Battles points out, these communities of affinity can offer a vitality that can endure whatever might happen to the institutions that gave us those trappings of higher learning in the first place: “I wouldn’t have given you two cents for the institutions at any point in the history of civilization. But the life of the mind isn’t really about institutions, is it?”

Not official institutions, anyways. Just those conglomerations – sometimes accidental – with the right size and composition to become stars.

September 19, 2009 / Uncategorized


I love this. Both because I didn’t know this network existed, and because, as you point out, it’s truly a network. Not a hub, not a library. Maybe even a network in the sense that al Qaeda is (was) a network: many of the cells are ignorant of each other.

It’s a really powerful structure—really resilient, as you point out. Kinda makes you want to register a weird Blogger site and start posting rogue PDFs, doesn’t it?

The thing is, nowadays if anyone put their mind to it, couldn’t they pretty easily index a network like this, thus simultaneously expanding the reach and exploding the resilience?

It seems to be happening more frequently: information suddenly becomes, in a sense, too well indexed. E.g. when the publicly available campaign donation database was mashed up with neighborhood maps; very cool, but seemed to push the information to a point where many were uncomfortable. Also, the Federal Court Filings that were being indexed and made freely available; cool, but deprives the Court system of an important revenue source…

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