Alex Dent discusses Digital Pirates

Cover of Digital Pirates by Alexander Sebastian Dent

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Digital Pirates: Policing Intellectual Property in Brazil

Ilana Gershon: At the heart of this book is the intellectually productive argument that intellectual property and piracy are so intertwined that not only do they mutually co-constitute each other under digital textuality, but the same people can support IP wholeheartedly in one moment and talk like pirates ten minutes later.   On the ground, IP and piracy present as sides in a debate, but you argue that understanding this debate in terms of sides is misleading. Could you explain a bit what is misleading about viewing piracy and IP as opposing perspectives and the role digital textuality plays in creating this discursive field?

Alex Dent: When I was researching and writing my last book, on Brazilian country music, I noticed that musical genres were often only taken seriously by social scientists when they were judged to be the fundamental ground of some sort of identity claim.  Were you a hard-core commercial country fan, or were you a member of the folkloric team? What I found, instead, was that the genres offered possible role-inhabitances; people crossed back and forth all the time, but that didn’t mean they didn’t fight about generic boundaries a lot.  I feel similarly here, though in a somewhat different context.  It is indeed true that there are IP maximalists out there who spend a lot of their time fighting for IP.  Along those lines, I didn’t include, in Digital Pirates, the research I did about my study of the United States Trade Representative, where I discovered that the USTR plagiarizes huge amounts of text from industry groups while entirely ignoring the pleas of public interest groups to afford foreign nations the same legal protections citizens expect here in the US; the big pharma and film industry lawyers who showed up for those hearings did, indeed, seem like pro-IP warriors (and for the record, their suits appeared to be made of some non-stick, bulletproof material).  Similarly, on the other side of things, copy-left advocates and hackers often seemed like they were categorically opposed to IP, arguing that “information wants to be free” (an anthropomorphizing if ever there was one).  But the truth is that even these warriors for one or the other position step out of line from time to time.

Even more to your question, the vast majority of us live in that space between all the time.  So it struck me that requiring there to be “positions” actually becomes a way to deliberately avoid the conversation that we need to have – which is about how arguments for and against IP get mobilized for political projects, with quite local approaches shaping that mobilization.

The insistence on positions seems particularly misleading in the digital realm, where inscriptive (which is to say, durable) forms of textuality become such a common part of our quotidian existence.  One of your questions, below, asks me to talk more about cellularity and its relationship to contemporary capitalism – so I’ll hold off on that for a bit.  But the point is simply that decisions about how you are going to govern your own productions now imbricate your every move.  I write in chapter four that the novelty of contemporary digital textuality surrounds the reduction of response-time, the transcendence of space, the unification of communicative modalities in a single device, and the portability of that device. This means that durable and promulgating potentials are with you at every moment.  And the decisions you make about how you are going to circulate yourself are shaped by both IP maximalism and piracy – shaped in real-time contexts, on the fly. So we are not “taking positions” on IP. We are, in a split second, deciding what kinds of circulatory legitimacy accompanies a photograph we just received, or a blog post – or how we might anticipate this video we are currently making about our dog playing in the snow finding itself in far-flung lands.

Ilana Gershon: What does policing look like from the perspective of Brazilian piracy? 

Alex Dent: There has been lots of great stuff written on policing and its importance to contemporary capitalism.  In that ambit, Jim Holston and Teresa Caldeira have done a great job writing about how, in what might seem a paradoxical move on the surface, the turn to democratization has actually led to drastically elevated levels of policing in Brazil; what we can derive from this is the necessity of policing to neoliberal theologies.  With respect to IP, specifically, what I was anxious to do away with was the myth that policing of IP around the world is about bribes or salaries; there’s this idea among critics of IP that the only reason people would police IP in parts of the world where “licit” products are too expensive is because they are being paid.  On the pro-IP side there is this equally misleading notion that local police “just want to be right with the law.”  But the truth is a lot more complicated than either of these options.  The truth is that there are local discourses that explain policing.  In Brazil, discourses of cultural mixture are famous – in tourist brochures, of course, but even in Brazilian self-explanations of prowess in soccer, music, religion, and food (Lorand Matory and John Collins have written about this).  But what you don’t hear about very much are Brazilian anxieties about cultural inter-mixture going too far.  What you find, if you dig into the classic Brazilian book called “Rebellion in the Backcountry” (which is about a millennial movement that gets absolutely destroyed by the emerging Brazilian state in the late 1800s) is that there are localized appetites for “order” and keeping mixture under wraps.  That is what is getting ignited by IP maximalism – not some bribe. So in some ways I’m revisiting that old chestnut about the relationship between the production of locality and the production of globality – with the notion that the dialogic relation between the two must be understood according to durable structures.  It’s no coincidence that violations of IP get treated like “trash” in Brazil.  I explain why in chapter two.

Ilana Gershon:  What role does Paraguay play in Brazilians’ relationship to piracy?

Alex Dent: As a linguistic anthropologist, this was one of those spectacular fieldwork moments when you become aware of how language is a kind of flexible dialogue between historical conflicts and contemporary practices. It’s not a repository, mind you, because it’s constantly in flux. What happened was that my family started characterizing things that broke as “Paraguayan.”  I remember the first time it happened – it was a cheap alarm clock I’d bought which inexplicably failed; and I’d just underscore that the cheapness and the inexplicability are intimately related to one another! In any case, this invocation of “Paraguayan” as a descriptor seemed, in that first moment, to carry all kinds of anxieties about bordering that I hadn’t though of.  That’s when I started learning about Paraguay’s role as the place cheap goods come into Brazil, and also, about its stature in Brazilian popular culture as a place where grand promises are made that then are not delivered upon.  There is some overlap with how the US-Mexico border translates in our context – though there are important differences. But with respect to Paraguay, the history is that Paraguay invaded Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in 1864, and after some stunning initial victories, they were absolutely routed. The war was just devastating for Paraguay, and in conventional histories, the war’s legacy was a long-lasting economic depression and cultural inferiority complex. (I’d like to note something obvious – that my Paraguayan friends inflect this story with considerably more complexity.) In any case, this phrase circulated periodically in Brazil when discussing a soccer team that started off in a promising way, but then crashed: the team was referred to as a “Paraguayan horse.” 

I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the border towns between Brazil and Paraguay, studying the ways goods traveled from Paraguay into Brazil (although I should add that the real expert, here, is Rosana Pinheiro-Machado).  And it struck me that the bordering work there – with incumbent anxieties about porosity, omnipresence, illegality, and necessity – also populated the way my interlocutors were characterizing the Internet in Brazil.  All of which is to say that, when you are trying to understand just what this thing called the Internet might be, it makes sense to consider localized approaches to time, space, and boundary.

Ilana Gershon: You talk about how Brazilians have a different relationship to cellphones than Americans or Canadians do because they had a different historical engagement with landlines.   Could you explain how these different historical trajectories made a difference in your fieldsites?

Alex Dent: When I first arrived in Brazil in 1998, I lived with a family — who subsequently became my caretakers, consultants, and very close friends – in the town of Campinas.  My Brazilian “dad” was a telecommunications engineer who taught at the local university – UNICAMP.  And in early discussions with him, I noticed that telephones were politicized in a different way fromm Canada, the US, or the UK – the three places I had lived.  I detected a kind of media ideology about telephones where — in part based on consumption of North American public culture – there was this belief that Brazil had developed incorrectly.  Phone landlines were incredibly expensive to get, and were not well disseminated among working class neighborhoods.  Phones were not a forgone conclusion in Brazilian life – they were often thought of as a necessity that was paradoxically also a luxury.  So when cell phones began to arrive, in concert with the neoliberal selling-off of the state phone companies, I heard a lot of people explain to me that Brazil had “skipped” a step; that, in some normative sense, it ought to have had cheap and widely available landlines first, and then people could have transitioned more smoothly to cell phones. I should point out that this popular argument also has a well developed academic Brazilian form in the shape of associated-dependency theory. But the point is that when Brazilians started to absorb cellular technology, their early use was often tinged with a dialogue between ravenous hunger, and a kind of shaming scold.  I heard statements such as, “Brazilians have multiple cell phones, but they are too ill-educated to have anything to say on them,” which struck me as harsh until I decoded where they were coming from, historically.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that cellularity at the heart of contemporary capitalism – could you explain what you mean by this?

Alex Dent: I’m working this up into a broader theory of neoliberal theology now; as I type, I’m writing-up five years of data collected with Joshua Bell (of the Smithsonian) and Joel Kuipers (also at GW) on the productivity of ambivalence among teenage cell phone users in Washington DC.  Part of the argument is that, contrary to the projections many adults place onto teenagers, teenagers are acutely aware of not only the joys, but also the potential harms of cellular phone use.  The productivity of this ambivalence, as I note above, in chapter four, lies in “cellular publics”; I argue that contemporary digital textuality is characterized by reduction of response time, transcendence of space, condensation of communicative modalities, and portability.  But what is significant is the trip to heaven and hell that this entails.  (I should mention someone who has written brilliantly about this in Brazil is Leticia Cesarino.) Because just as cell phones can be celebrated for their rendering work more flexible, they can also be indicted for enslaving us. We are, in the same moment, in joyful anticipation of connection, and in horror at possible over-extension. I’m using “horror” carefully, here – intending to address myself to the brilliant theorist who was Mary Shelley. This is the sublime. And the argument I’m making is that contemporary (probably not “late”!) capitalism’s balance between tremendous wealth and utter ruin finds itself mediated – in ways I think David Harvey anticipated – by way of cellularity. To put it somewhat differently, it is no coincidence that “paying it forward” and “going viral” partake of the same vectors of accrual.