Re: Napster: stealing another's vs. giving away one's own

From: ransdell, joseph m. <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Sat, 20 May 2000 14:35:25 -0700

Though what has been said about Napster is certainly relevant, I don't
think the import of it for self-archiving of one's professional work,
published or pre-print, has quite come into focus for us here. Let us
leave aside the use of it to pirate music, which is a red herring
relative to the concerns of this forum. What makes it relevant here is
its potentialities as a communications technology that can be used to
defeat reactionary intellectual property practices. Now, the likelihood
that programs of this type actually will be used extensively for that
purpose is another matter, but that cannot be guessed at intelligently
without getting clear on precisely what its potentiality is in that
respect. I don't think that has been brought out perspicuously enough
and I would like to take a try at it.

Described in its generalized form, what this comes to, on first
inspection, at least, is this: Merely running the program -- which is
remarkably small given its powers -- has the effect of:

(1) converting one's personal computer into a server which serves up
whatever files one wants to make available to corresponding client
programs as long as one is connected with the internet, either all of
the time or with some regularity,

(2) providing one with the corresponding client program, thereby
providing every such server with a clientele extending to everyone else
who downloads, installs, and runs the same program on their personal
computer, and

(3) providing a dynamical index, continually in process of being
updated, which gives push-button access to all files currently available
on all such personal servers: in short, an indexed distributed archive
of those materials.

That's quite a lot for a free program that can be installed and run in a
few minutes by any klutz who can use a computer at all!

I just want to make a couple of points about this. The first is that
one advantage it offers that is not accommodated by the public archives
in process of construction at present is that one can make publicly
available many different kinds of resource material in addition to
scholarly or scientific research reports proper, and this with extreme
ease, simply by clicking a switch for the directories on one's computer
which contains these materials. Now, the significance of this will
doubtless vary greatly among the various research disciplines. In some
fields this might be insignificant since such resource materials are
almost all publicly available in some form, anyway; but in others it
could be an enormous benefit because it could make easily available
scholarly and investigative tools of the sort which heretofore have
always perished with those individuals who devised them.

One reason for the relatively unprogressive character of many
nonscientific disciplines is that the instruments used by its most
accomplished practitioners are reconstructed again and again from
scratch by every investigator with the same aims, whereas in scientific
disciplines the physical character of the instruments has made it
possible for them to become a part of what is routinely accumulated for
common use in the research tradition, thus allowing for them to be
developed and made more powerful over time. Thus the simple magnifying
lens as an instrument of microscopic access transmutes across time into
the particle accelerator, and with it the theoretical-experimental
understanding of matter that informs its use transmutes as well. How
could that theoretical development have occurred if every generation of
physicists had had to master the art of primitive lens grinding again
and again and never been able to move past it? In the humanities,
though, we routinely reinvent the wheel and cannot move beyond it in its
most simple form.

This provides an incentive for use of the Napster-like technology in
addition to whatever incentive, if any, attaches to making one's
research reports openly available, and thus tends to encourage the
sharing of the latter as a matter of course. Would people actually be
willing to share their research instruments and materials in that way,
though? In time, yes. Initially, it would be done in a grudging
spirit, no doubt, given the mean-spirited fear of intellectual sharing
which is presently the norm in many fields; but this spirit is itself at
least in part a heritage of the limitations of the paper-embodied text
as research instrument, and in spite of this heritage there are liberal
spirits in the humanities who do what they can to move past these
limitations whenever possible.

Second, although this Napster-like technology could yield a distributed
archival database which could easily grow to be as large and
comprehensive in scope as that being developed or provided for by
current initiatives, and the techniques for organizing it could become
sophisticated enough to make it well worth to use in practice, it would
nevertheless have to remain distinct from the database of e-prints
currently envisaged because of its highly fluid character, owing to its
dependence on the willingness of individuals not only to keep on making
the materials available but also to follow routine practices in revision
of their work and in the development of their personal instruments of
research. This is so unlikely that the value of it relative to the aims
of the present forum could only lie in its side-effect of tending to
encourage self-archiving of the stable sort wanted here. I do not think
this should be dismissed as trivial or impertinent, though, merely
because it can only be a side-effect. (Think of the side-effects of the

To use one of Stevan's favorite metaphors, if the horses, being shown
the water, continue to be reluctant to drink, it could be because of
inhibitions that can only be addressed in other ways than those that
suggest themselves when one thinks of the problem of open publication
only in the simplistic and highly abstract way it is usually described
here. Napster is, potentially, a community-building device because it
is essentially a mechanism for sharing something that couldn't otherwise
be shared, and that is what a good many people have thought the internet
was going to promote: not a mere porting of existing practices on-line
in the interests of efficiency and economy but an occasion for building
intellectual communities where that was impossible before. This might
very well have bearing on the aims of the present forum.

Joseph Ransdell <> <>
Dept of Philosophy -- 806  742-3158 -- (FAX 806 742-0730)
Texas Tech University - Lubbock, Texas 79409   USA (Peirce Gateway website)
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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