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Magnus Eriksson

Internet and beyond. Pre-modern, post-human, para-academic.

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The New Oil of the 21st Century

On October 26 2007, a conference was about to begin in an old abandoned industrial building in berlin mitte. The atmosphere was relaxed. The attendants, many whom knew each other since before, were chatting along while an impromptu stage was set up for the coming panel, made up of some tables with the quite well designed conference poster hanging from them. The location was bootlab berlin, a quite undefined “space” that had been around berlin for some years. In those times, with empty formerly eastern berlin buildings easy to come by, you could just get and run your “space” without having to define it much more than that. Bootlab had been housing pirate cinema berlin and their evenings of pirated movie watching and informal bar drinking. It now housed a more ambitious project, the 0xdb pirate cinema database and software. It had also been from here that Sebastian Lütgert had gotten in trouble with his database of .txt versions of critical theory and philosophy, being sued by the inheritance of Adorno and responding by creating a new version of that only shared image files of generic book covers, but which though a special software could be turned into a text version of the book on the covers title. It was also here that Jamie King and Alan Toner had conspired to make their first “Steal this Film”, an online distributed documentation of the piracy movement.

The theme for this conference was “The Oil of the 21st century”, a quite refering back to a statement of businessman Mark Getty, owned of getty images where he postulated that “Intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century”, refering to the increasing value of his stockpiled stockimages owned by his company getty images.

For the participants of this small conference though, the quote was interpreted as a threat. “The oil of the 21st century can only mean one thing – war”, the welcome text put it. The war on piracy, another endless unwinnable war with unclear borders between combatants and civil casualties to add next to the was on drugs and the war on XXX.

I was attending as part of a delegation from the Swedish group Piratbyrån, founded a few years earlier with the spontaneous lauch of a website translating news about piracy and making guides for how to file-share by a group of friends from the internet and beyond coming from autonomist activist groups, the hacker underground, the art world and rave culture. Student loans and the dotcom crash had left us with enough resources and free time on our hands to pursue these kinds of projects with a surprising dedication and success. At the time of the conference, one of our side projects – The Pirate Bay – had grown to be the largest bittorrent tracker in the world after the american trackers had been raided by US officials. A few years after the conference, 4 people would face a notorious trial in Stockholm for their involvement in the site. One of them, Peter Sunde, was at the conference (i think).

It’s now been ten years since “Oil of the 21st Century” was held and that is a long time in internet time. Already, the documentation and traces from the conference are beginning to fade from the internet and to freshen up my memory for this article, I had to resort to uncovering old material from the wayback machine at the internet archive. Mark Getty and Getty Images themselves has had turbulent times. After seeing their share value dwindle for some time, the company was sold in 2008 and again in 2012. News organisations, one of their formerly most valuable customers, stopped valuing high quality stock images and instead because interested in footage that capured the moment, often by amateur who had been with their mobile phone at the site of the news event. The production of presence won.

There isn’t much talk about intellectual property as the oil of the 21st century anymore, in fact, not much talk and debate over copyright and ip at all any longer. In Sweden, where the debate over file-sharing was national news interest for several years and even became an election issue one year, pushed in part by the founding of the pirate party, the debate over filesharing died out with the launch of Spotify. Originally a pirate archive, this venture managed to convince the ip holders of the record companies to join them instead of fighting them and since then the official consensus is that there is no point for anyone to fileshere anymore since the user friendly serviece of spotify has all you need and is much more convenient and safe anyway. And it is media streaming platforms like spotify and netflix, together with the social media platforms of facebook, twitter and other that has taken front stage today. Sharing on these platforms means something completely different, simply telling a piece of content to show up in your friends timelines. And the files, they have all but dissapeared, not even accessible through a file system on iOS devices.

Copyright has not ceased to be important, but the platforms have hidden the files to far away from the users and instead present them with “content” that copyright has yet again become almost entirely an internal copyright industry concern, as it was before the avarage person was equipped with advanced weapons for analog and later digital mass distribution.

A Google search today for “oil of the 21st century” reveals another top candidate for the title – data (together with “water”, revealing the dual character of unbound technoutopian progress and world destroying climate change that permeates contemporary visions of the future).

Data is the oil of the 21st centry now, but it is a different oil than the one attached to intellectual property by Mark Getty. That was the kind of oil you stockpile in barrels and sell by the petro dollar. The new oil is the one you pour into the machine and set on fire to propell it into the world. Intellectual property is calmy floating about, data is high pressured flows.

Data is used to power platforms, mold services and target users the right information at the right time to the right person. That is the often forgotten second part of Steward Brands quote “information wants to be free”.

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other

So what about Getty Images, what happened to them? I had to check before writing this. Turns out the old infamous watermarks are gone. You are no longer discouraged from sharing their images. In fact, they want you to. Just click the “embed button” next to an image and copy the short snippet of javascript that you can paste anywhere to display a high quality version of the image on your site. Yes, sharing is doing well today. It just comes bundled. Bundled with javascript and code snippets. Bundled with trackers, ads and kickbacks. The more the images are being shared, the more data they generate. Data that needs no legal protection from “theft” because it is never meant for the public. It is private, tightly guarded by firewalls and licence agreements, only shared in a controlled fashion with the trusted third party entities. Advertizers, credit card companies, a couple of intelligence agencies perhaps. We never know where it ends up.

So what happned with the war? Seems like it was over before it even started. Was there no resistance to speak of when push came to shove? Did we get peaceful but suffocating technocolonialism instead? A few of us are still soulseeking and torrenting our mp3s and mp4s, but it seems to be more out of habit than anything else these days. By the way, the last patent of the mp3 format just expired as I’m writing this so now, when everyone already is or soon will be on spotify, free software versions of mp3-players can finally be built without paying a licence fee! The speed of technological change in this domain has increased to much that when a patent has finally expired, the world has moved on and the protected technology is already useless.