McKenzie Wark on Sun, 9 Mar 97 21:29 MET

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nettime: the property problem

Whenever Fortue magazine comes out with its 'Fortune 500' issue,
i always grab it and look up all of the media companies i know.
The first thing you notice is that not many make the first
50. And the next thing you realise is that there is no relation
between how 'big' a company is in terms of media coverage and
its actual capitalisation. The measures Fortune offer for the
latter are of course pretty crude, but its interesting all the
same. Microsoft, from memory, scapes in at about No. 300. The
big players in the list with a stake in the media and communications
are the phone companies and the big media conglomerates. So
you look down the list and there's AT&T, a bunch of 'baby bells',
Disney, Time Warner, etc. Only News Corp is missing, being
registered still in a little town called Adelaide, Australia. 

All these companies have changed a lot over the last 10 years. 
They mostly came from a background in one of what i call the
stock, flow and vector components of the media business. Phone
companies were mostly about vectors -- they had the pipes. The
movie companies were mostly about flows -- they had the content
coming out day by day. So were the news companies. Both realised
there was money in information stocks about 10 years ago, and
started buying up archives of data that have permananet value.
Ted Turner pioneered that one. Now most media companies of
any significance have a mix, and use each component as leverage
in relation to the others. Whoever controls the vectors can,
with the limits of the regulatory framework, decide who gets
to make money off their flows. An News Corp discovered when its
news channel was locked out of the New York news market. Or, be
like Disney -- based mainly in stocks and flows. Around which
you wrap the best known brand name *on the planet*. 

Three things characterise this business. 1. It is highly unstable
still. 2. quasi-monopolistic (monopsonistic) behaviour is the rule.
3. the regulatory framework matters. So you get a bunch of giant
companies who spend a great deal of their time 1. reassuing
investors about how great they are 2. suing each other and 3. 
arguing before the FCC and every other regulatory forum, representing
their interests (see 1 and 2) as concordant with the general 

This explains why media business is so high profile in the media
itself. Media about media become one of the states in the battles
between quasi-monopoly interests. At the level of reassuring ones
customers and investors of the wisdow of one's latest play, and of
the folly of those of other companies. Its a way of repositioning
the brand at a time when the products behind the brand change all
the time. And of course, for the media industry ruling class, being
seen to be leading the industry is one way to lead an industry
that no one actually knows how to lead. 

I mention all this for a couple of reasons. The first is to put Wired
in context. Credit where credit is due: Wired figured out how to
make itself useful to the marketing needs of media companies across
the board. Not just as a place to sell product, but also as a place
in which to position the company, and its leading lights, and as
a platform from which to speak about the general interest in terms
of one's particular interest -- as a way of having a somewhat obtuse
public conversation about the regulatory changes which, in Wired's
heyday, where on the agenda. Like everybody else in business, media
companies believe in the free market everywhere *except* where it
touches on their own interests. There they would rather hang on to
any advantages currently wrung from the regulatory environment, thank
you very much. How many voices do you here raised in favour of lifting
restrictions on foreign ownership of broadcasting assets in America?
If you want a free market, that's one of the absolutely necessary 
steps towwards it. Meanwhile NBC took up a suit against News Corp on
the grounds that it wasn't an American company -- and quickly lost 
interest in this when it worked as a bargaining tool to get NBC 
programming onto News owned satellite TV in Asia.... The 'Wired
ideology', in short, is a flag of convenience under which quasi-
monopoly firms sometimes traffic, but usually not. It has the 
advantage of adhering the self interest of small fry like the rest
of us to some of the larger goals of quasi-monopoly media business,
but it has the disadvantage of actually raising the classic radical
demands of the property owning middle classes: freedom, justice and

Finally, what i want to suggest is that neither the machinations
of quasi-monopoly media nor the 'Wired ideology' are as interesting
or as important as the kind of bottom-up negotiation of conventions
of fair trading that have been going on now on the net for 20
years. The Well's 'you own your own your own words' policy is a 
nice example. Inside the larger and more unwieldy frameworks of
law and regulation, little micro-conventions flourish. People buy
and sell, swap and trade information, and decide what's fair and
what isn't. A language for talking about such things emerges, as do
demands about what ought to be made law. All of which is pretty
much a late 20th century analogue to the fights that happened in
England in the 17th century about intellectual property, at a time
when intellectual property first emerged as an issue, on the back
of the publishing trade. Its a topic for another netletter. Look
at the Statute of Anne, at the institutionalisation of patent, and
the quite different recognition of the natural right that inheres
in authorship -- all of which pop out of the expansion of the
printing trade. Its no accident either that people like Samuel
Johnson led the fight for recognition of a property right, as he
was one of the first examples of the independent media worker with
a financial interest in his own product and its value in the market.

The irony about the 'Wired ideology' is that it cut two ways. It
was, as I said, a convenient ideology of the minute for media
business at a particular moment. But it also raised from the ghosts
of the archive ideas about right and property that no one except
media lawyers have talked about much for many many years. As Marx
would say, the form of property creates and expresses kinds of 
class and class conflict. Only what Marx missed was that in the
creation of *intellectual* property, a new class emerged that was
neither an owner of capital, nor land, yet which owned something
more than its own labour -- the intellectual class, owners and
disposers of intellectual property. A class whose interests, in
relation to big business as more like those of small land owners
or the 'petit bourgeois' of property owners than the workers. 
Big business tends to accumulate interests in land, capital *and*
intellectual property, so all of the subordinate property owning
classes end up in an ambivalent relation to it. That ambivalence
i think you find, less in what Wired explicitly says, but in how
its readership responds to it. As perveyor of an ideology caught 
in the contradictions of a form of property we all love to hate.

But Wired was quite right in raising the question of how the small-
owner of intellectual property ought to construct her/his interests
politically. It did so by reaching into the stock of traditional
American images and ideas. As Marx once said, new political movements
tend to borrow the wardrobe of old ones. So the French revolution 
was fought out in drag, as Roman politics. Likewise, Wired encouraged
another kind of revolutionary drag, that of the declaration of
independence. This of course simply doesn't work with the international
readership of Wired, but in which one suspects Wired as litle interest.
Its a parochial product, not a global one. 

What didn't quite get wholly on the agenda via Wired was all the
dimensions of the problem, from the point of view of intellectual 
property small-holders (like me). Our class interest, our relations to
monopoly business, our relations among ourselves, our relations to
the regulatory environment, our relations to the 'information poor'.
All of which needs to be considered together, as the interests of
the information small-holder are not the same as those of the media
businesses, but they are not the same as those of the information
poor on all points either. We are an ambivalent class. To further
complicate things, conflicts and alliances with the petty bureaucracy
and with small capital are really what take up most of our time.

Like every ambivalent class, and like every class with ambitions, the
information class talks a lot about the general interest, and claims
to represent the general interest. Of course no one else is foolish
enough to believe us. What is not talked about at all clearly is
class interest. What does information want? It does not want to be
free. Other than in the sense of free from monopoly strangleholds
and bottlenecks. What do we want? Who might this 'we' be? 

McKenzie Wark
netletter #11
New York, 9th March 1997

McKenzie Wark
Visiting Professor, American Studies Program, New York University
"We no longer have origins we have terminals"

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