|Title:||Peering Toward Hyperspace: P2P Networks and the Digital Commodity|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Peering Toward Hyperspace: P2P Networks and the Digital Commodity
vol. 4, no. 1, Spring 2004
Peering Toward Hyperspace: P2P Networks and the Digital Commodity
This article examines the impact that P2P networks have on the contemporary cultural landscape with a focus on the specific effects these networks are having on both the reception and creation of popular music. As a new medium for the delivery of music, the P2P networks decay the aura of the album as a physical commodity while simultaneously creating a new aura of digital immediacy. Users trapped in the desire to possess elements of both media enter a hyperspace of consumption that leaves them unable to effectively resist commercial encroachment into the emergent medium.
In March 2002 Apple released an advertisement for its iPod product line that consisted of a silhouette of the musician Beck's head constructed from the titles of the songs on his iPod. By reading this image against current dialogues concerning both hypertext and Internet technologies I hope to establish the emergence of a hypertextual space—a hyperspace—where subjects are hailed with what seem like signs of resistance. Louis Althusser outlines hailing in his essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" with his example of the individual becoming the subject of ideology by responding to the call of the policeman (118). The construction of hyperspace will focus on a multiplication of this process that positions the user between parallel and developing fetishes that obscure any means of resistance through subcultural signs. The acceptance of these signs then undermines and perverts what have already been characterized as daily acts of resistance and play.  Recently, Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks have had a dramatic effect on the production, distribution, and perception of not only music but also the music industry. This rupture (the P2P medium) in the cultural system of music coupled with the further development of the Internet has produced pockets of hyperspace—where subjects experience rapid reification in the now seemingly universal availability of music itself.
The subject enters a hyperspace at the moment his or her relationship to an element of the repressive apparatus is fundamentally altered. Again, following Althusser, any change in the subject's relationship with the repressive ideological apparatuses does not remove the subject from ideology; but rather, represents a shift in ideology. Unfortunately, this shift—if severe—also can undermine the subject's process of resistance in his or her new ideological environment. Since the consumption of popular culture is tied to a system of ideological repressions and resistances, any systemic change would affect both sides—though not necessarily equally. Dick Hebdige illustrated a cycle of subcultural resistance and dominant re-absorption through his analysis of the London punk scene, Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Theories of culture and subculture must always confront the efficiency with which the resistant is re-absorbed by the dominant and effective culture. As the dominant culture develops better systems for re-absorbing cultural resistance, it becomes more dependent on those resistive acts to fuel the system it has created to absorb them. The time between trends decreases. There is a call and response game between the culture industry, Adorno's decentralized yet all inclusive system of cultural dominance, and cultural resistance—the latter continually attempting to subvert the former. So when a system of cultural repression and resistance is quickly and fundamentally altered (in this case through a change in media), both entities have to re-evaluate not only their involvement with that system but also how they now relate to one another within the new structure of their cultural system.
Apple's iPod is an important part of this rupture for several reasons. The iPod is a portable mpeg-layer-three (MP3) player with enormous storage capacities—the smallest (10 gigabytes) holds approximately twenty-five hundred songs while the largest (40 gigabytes) holds approximately ten thousand songs. This device facilitates the spread of music through the P2P community by providing a means of transportation for downloaded songs. These songs can come from any of several different sources. Apple runs a pay-for-play site called iTunes, which sells individual tracks to subjects for a negligible cost. The consumer then has legal permission to store the track in any fashions/he desires, on a burned CD, on his or her hard drive, or on a MP3 player like the iPod. iTunes is not true P2P network such as FastTrack or Gnutella. However, it helps not only to define the boundaries of hyperspace but also marks the beginning of the dominant culture's foray into the new medium.
I call FastTrack and Gnutella true P2P networks because they are protocols that facilitate the dissemination of information by directly connecting individual subjects' computers. Since the members of these communities are moving files directly from one computer to another without the presence of a central server, they have been able to stay alive in the struggle against copyright law. While the companies that provide access to these networks (KaZaA, Earthstation 5, Morpheus) have made several token efforts to make unambiguous files available for download, the majority of files are popularly perceived as stolen. Music downloaded from P2P networks like FastTrack and Gnutella can be loaded into any portable MP3 player or burned to CD. While iTunes does not provide access to unlicensed songs, it will still organize them and transfer them to an iPod or CD.
These P2P networks have emerged from the convergence of several wired systems. One of the earliest manifestations of this system was the local dial-up server. These servers were small, mostly text-based systems usually located in urban areas where the users' modems dialed directly into the server without any connection to the Internet at large. These spaces allowed the transfer of small files and images (mainly pornographic). As the protocols that allow file transfer (FTP, TCP/IP) continued to develop and the technology necessary to interact with the Internet became less expensive, the Internet was opened to commercial ventures, which brought users from small local servers into a broader space. The file transfers moved along with the users. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and FTP Servers increased the amount of information available as well as the number of concurrent users accessing that information; but these systems were based to a large degree on trade. Most of the files being transferred at this point were programs and images; it was not until 1998 when a free application called Winamp allowed users easy access to the MP3 format that the trade in music exploded. Suddenly file trading was inundated with users seeking free music. Users transferring files with IRC had to be in communication with one another directly, while users on FTP Servers generally had to provide some information which the owner of the server did not possess in order to gain access to the other files.
This latter practice is particularly rampant on systems like Hotline, which is basically a standardized FTP system.  The Hotline client allows a user to see which individual computers are running Hotline servers; however, in order to gain access to these servers the user must fulfill the requirements of the administrator (admin) either by uploading a program, album, game, film, etc. which s/he desires or by subscribing to some service which pays a referral fee to the admin of the server. As new users began to troll these systems for music files, they ran headlong into the established system of trade with nothing to contribute. The composition of the user base was shifting from individual hackers who displayed their prowess by trading cracked files with one another to a swarm of consumers looking for free music. The presence of these "leechers" in the Hotline community ossified the already rigid system of protocols necessary to gain membership to individual servers. Since each server is run by a different person, each requires a separate set of conditions for membership. While this system builds a community among the users of individual servers and among the admins of the most popular servers, the clear divisions among servers restricts its classification as a P2P network (this is a server/client rather than peer/peer relationship). The pressure these new users placed on the system was alleviated by the emergence of Napster in 1999.
Napster combined the chat capabilities of IRC and the file transfer options of FTP servers without requiring the users to do anything other than register—they were not even required to share files. Immediately, Napster became a thriving space of music transfer. Files available for download on individuals' computers were collated but not stored on a central server which then facilitated a connection directly between the user with the file on his or her hard drive and the user wishing to download it. The reason that Napster was legally vulnerable was not because it facilitated P2P connections, but, rather, because it accomplished these connections through a central server. In the wake of Napster's legal trouble, P2P has taken a new form. The two most widely accessed P2P networks are Gnutella and FastTrack, which are created by users running programs that simultaneously make their computers both a server and a client. The Gnutella network is open-source; the code that governs the file transfer and search protocols is available to anyone, so there are many programs that take advantage of this network—most notably Limewire and Acquisition. FastTrack is a proprietary network protocol; only programmers licensed by its developer can write software to access the network—KaZaA and Morpheus are the most used programs on this network.
Both the Gnutella and FastTrack networks are P2P in that they enable users to inhabit both positions of server and client without the administration of a centralized server. Since the FastTrack protocol is privately owned and regulated, the programs that access/create this network tend to deliver a wider variety of files more quickly with a smoother interface; however, this increase in speed and interface over the Gnutella network is accompanied by an increase in spyware, software planted on the user's computer to monitor his or her Internet usage, personal interests, and browsing habits. It is not surprising that within such a technologically determined system that outer discourses about free exchange of information would mask a tension between concepts popularly perceived as freedom and privacy—a point to which I will return later.
Here it is important to note that the leap from Napster's centralized server to the more open P2P structure enabled any type of file to be exchanged. While Napster focused on music for the majority of its tenure, these new P2P networks allow the exchange of literally any file type (software, games, music, movies, documents, etc.). This transition bleeds off more users from other (non-P2P) file sharing systems because neither FastTrack nor Gnutella are built on the isolation of servers from clients. Individual users may choose not to share files, but that does not affect their ability to interact with the system. Users that are seen as leechers within other systems can contribute to the P2P network simply by downloading a file and keeping it available for others, thereby increasing its overall availability within the system. Access to music and cracked software is no longer dependent on the user's ability to ante-up, which means access becomes more widely available to the wired public. This is not to insinuate that these networks are as democratic as they purport to be. The FastTrack network is faster than the Gnutella network because it uses the information it collects from its users to route traffic through the fastest machines with the most reliable connections. With the emergence of the P2P system the hierarchy of users passes from a proof of technical expertise (cracking the copy protection locking a game) as judged by an individual server admin to proof of technological presence (a fast computer with a dedicated high-speed connection) as sanctioned by the approval of a program. The Gnutella network has similar schemes but they are not as successful due to the open nature of the network and the number of different programs that connect to it.
This shift from server/client to peer/peer is key to the production of hyperspace. Hyperspace does not operate under a rhetoric of skill but rather with a sense of entitlement. As we will see, in hyperspace this entitlement will always emerge from the now seemingly available aura of the heretofore unavailable or costly cultural commodity.
With this understanding of P2P networks, I now want to examine the implications of this system on both the position and reception of music in popular culture. In order to do this the position of the user demands more development. By user I am referring to any individual who engages with any P2P network. This status always already assumes a certain ideological positioning. As the recent Recording Industry lawsuits against P2P users have revealed, these users range from college students and preteens to grandparents.  The one thing they all share is access to the technology necessary to share files (technological presence). The purpose of this paper is not to catalogue the different ideological and cultural conditions that lead subjects to become users of the P2P system; but, rather, to examine the result of that encounter on the user's perception and consumption of music.
A user comes to the P2P network with an idea of the music s/he is interested in downloading, but this initial curiosity can only last so long. Once the bands of initial interest have been exhausted—downloaded and absorbed—the rupture within the system of resistance and consumption that creates a hyperspace begins to open. Users, as subjects, are thrust into a space in which the rules that define their ideological position are changing along with the media. As Hebdige notes, bands and the commodities (records, autographs, ticket stubs, posters, etc.) associated with bands often serve as signs of ideological positions, either dominant or resistant, and knowledge of the chosen bands is flown as standard within each of these ideological positions.  The P2P network's initial effect is a leveling of the cultural hierarchy surrounding music within the user's ideological position. Which is to say that lack of access is no longer an excuse for a user transgressing his or her ideological norms—for not displaying the correct signs for acceptance within his or her ideological position. Each user is focused into an ideological stasis through the expected knowledge of specific songs.
Benjamin posits aura as the element of originality in the work of art that is reactivated in the user's particular encounter with the mass cultural object. This posited leveling of ideological knowledge can only exist if an aura similar to the one enveloping the physical commodities of music is conferred to the digital along with the music. The focus of the P2P user shifts from physically owning the albums to achieving the state of having heard the songs themselves. The fact that in the advertisement Beck's head is represented as the sum of the songs he has transferred to his iPod rather than by the albums in his collection points directly to this shift.
Searching for a particular band within a P2P network pulls up what is available in the shared directories of all other users currently on the network. While some programs attempt to organize songs by album, usually there is a wide range of naming schemes.  The best a user can do is download the songs as they come up: the more popular a song, the more users will be sharing it, the more quickly it will be found and downloaded. In order for a user to reconstruct an album, s/he must use a web site like Amazon to check the songs s/he has found against the track listing of the album. New songs are identified with new albums only if the user has been tracking a band; but each new band encountered is experienced all at once—most heavily traded songs first. In this system bands are not allowed a narrative of time or development. The time of musical creation collapses. Each band is represented as the accumulated total of the songs that happen to be available on the network at the time a user becomes interested in that band, rather than through individual exposure to each album as a narrative of the band's personal growth and place in the overall development of popular music.
We recognize this latter position as the Recording Industry's system for containment of popular music. Anything that presents itself as revolutionary or resistant is placed within a larger narrative of already neutralized music, negating the potential of the former and reestablishing the control of the latter. Initially, it would seem then that systems like the P2P networks which destabilize the concept of the album and, indeed, the narrative of containment that has been created around popular music would allow for the liberation of that music. Unfortunately, this is not the case; in order to see why this is so, we must take a closer look at the media of music.
The concept of the album is directly tied to restrictions of space inherent in the media that have traditionally delivered the music. LPs, cassette tapes and CDs are all bound in ways which do not restrict P2P networks. As previously explored, these new systems force users to engage a constantly fluctuating image of each band.  This process is only possible because of the increased ubiquity of the medium and the ready availability of storage space. MP3 files are among the most readily recognized files in the world and their relatively small size makes them easily transferable. When taken together, this file type and the already elaborated P2P networks constitute a new medium for the distribution of music. This medium practically lacks spatial constraints as it is constructed by an ever expanding network of machines, each capable of holding volumes of music. Recently several musicians led by Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel have formed an organization dedicated to keeping the Recording industry out of popular music altogether. These artists specifically refer to the CD as confining to the development of music in light of the emergence of the P2P medium.  Both user and musician are no longer limited by lack of space—only lack of time—complete mastery of hyperspace is beyond the reach of a lifetime.  The seemingly encyclopedic nature of the P2P network always drives the user to continue his or her exploration of the medium, but in order to do this s/he must move outside of the P2P network.
Once the user has exhausted his or her initial musical interests, s/he does not abandon the network because s/he has been hailed by what at first glance appears as the residual aura attached to the songs available for download. As the album loses its coherence in the face of P2P networks, its aura seems divided between the physical commodity (the CD) and what is perceived of as the artistic content (the songs)—but since these songs are now encoded within a new medium they carry an aura specific to the P2P medium.  The aura of the P2P medium is not simply a fragment of the earlier aura of the album. In fact, the P2P medium possesses an aura of technological immediacy and encyclopedism that masks itself behind what seem to be fragments of the older medium's aura. The hail of the P2P medium echoes in its expansiveness—its seeming encyclopedism; but the medium by its very nature contains few "see also"s. For the most part users must go outside of the medium for advice and critique.  The most natural place for these users to go is the Internet—large parts of which are devoted to the virtual representation of the auratic nature of physical commodities. Since the critical and the commercial are often linked on the Internet (e.g., Amazon, which allows each individual user to comment on anything it sells), it is impossible for the P2P user seeking guidance not to be hailed by the Record Industry. It is at this point that the individual user's ideological position comes into play. With his or her initial musical interests exhausted, the user turns to other users with similar taste—who have collected familiar songs—to guide him or her to the next band. Most P2P services provide their users with the option of exploring the collection of another user rather than simply downloading the song searched for. This service allows users to recognize the ideologically familiar and to explore the differences extant in their collections (in this position we can see Adorno's connoisseur, ideologically frozen within minute differences of opinion).
The link between the Internet and the P2P network passes through the ideological position of the user. Every link (from band to referral to band) is an affirmation of the user's ideological position. No band is either universally loved or hated; so no link, even if the new band is disliked, disrupts the ideological process. Each link represents a refinement of the user's paralysis within his or her ideological position effected through a complex series of hails. Bouncing between the P2P network and the Internet refines the user's position in culture as well as focuses the advertising that the user experiences in both environments. Both KaZaA and Amazon use information about a user's past searches to focus advertising around that user's particular interests. This means that each user is being commercially positioned within a network of commodities as s/he is seemingly undermining and resisting the old relationships of this cultural consumption.
The user is hailed by the encyclopedic nature of P2P networks. The presence of information on the networks is always an absence of mastery for the user. This construction in itself is not novel. As we have seen, P2P networks are a medium for the delivery of music, which constructs an aura around the music through the technological ideology of speed and presence. The fact that the P2P medium uses ideological cues to hail subjects does not distinguish it among media. It is the point of intersection between the emergent P2P medium's digital aura (on the P2P network) and the retreating aura of the album (on the Internet)—always within the ideology of the user—which pushes him or her into a hyperspace. This intersection is not a static point or a crossing of paths but, rather, the fusion of an as-of-yet unchecked system of speed and mastery with a fully developed system for the creation and promotion of physical commodities. These two systems keep the user in perpetual motion. Since the connections between bands are built under the auspices of a system that uses the aura of the physical commodity as a hail, each link back to the P2P medium is ideologically perceived as a victory over the former system because the content of the fetishized commodity has been mastered without immediate expenditure. There is always a present absence in each system—the P2P network offers an older aura it does not possess, while the Internet offers a physical commodity isolated from the immediacy of the P2P network's aura—which keeps the user linking between the two. This continual search in one system for the promise of the other creates hyperspace.
Within this hyperspace the user's individual ideology is always affirmed. From the user's ideological perspective each link appears as a considered judgment (the merit of a band, the reputation of a critic, etc.) when in fact the choices have no bearing on either the virtual representation of the commodity or the P2P network as a medium. In this sense the user is Adorno's connoisseur—specializing in nearly non-existent differences. But in this hyperspace—this constant linking between systems—the process of the culture industry shifts. Rather than creating a place for each consumer group to inhabit, the hyperspace allows the user to construct a personal narrative of his or her ideological containment. Returning to the iPod advertisement we note that Beck has eyes but no mouth. While creating this seemingly resistant ideological narrative, the user loses the ability to speak; s/he is always trapped between the expectations of the systems s/he links together. There is no time to speak because there is always another link that the hyperspace—or the systems constituting hyperspace—demands the user make. While writing on an "Aesthetic of Delay," Rob Shields develops a sense of Internet time built on delay: "Time is made palpable in the form of delay and lived in the experience of suspense—this temporality is as much an effect as is the illusion of spatiality on the Net" (158). This hyperspace is subject to the same illusion of time. Each link the user makes is perceived as progress forward in time. Since the user can make these links as quickly or slowly as s/he desires, the hyperspace never outpaces the ideological narrative the user is constructing. The process does however tend toward speed due to the dual desires of possession and mastery. There is always the promise of the next link in the chain; and as these links are ideologically affirming, they become more desirable and seem more significant the further the user progresses into hyperspace.
This hyperspace exists primarily because of a rupture in the media of music distribution. The emergence of P2P networks alongside the boom in Internet retail has led to the development of subjects who are constantly bounced between the material fetishes of an older medium and the digital/encyclopedic fetishes of a younger medium. Subjects of this hyperspace are cut off from the traditional narratives of resistance and containment that characterize the production of music. Again we return to Hebdige's work on the punk scene or Simon Reynolds's writing on the Rave scene. Both writers see cultural movements with the promise of resistance to the dominant and effective culture reabsorbed by a commodity culture that assimilates difference. Each link moves the user further from the physical experience of music. The more the user's ideological position is composed around the collection and investigation of music, the more neutralized and sterile the live performance becomes. Herein lies the real danger of hyperspace—it is capable not only of paralyzing the user in his or her ideological position but also inoculating him or her to possible sites of cultural play and resistance. In this space each experience of music has always already anticipated another link. Since these links are always made through the user's ideological position (that is, on the advice of others hailed in the same fashion), it eliminates the potential for play as hyperspace forces every user to feel behind the seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the other users. The immediacy of the P2P network combined with the commodity fetish of the Internet have left the user no time for play in a space that constantly demands his or her full attention. It would be difficult for the most provocative of live performances to break that conditioning, particularly in that the conditioning itself is completely musical in nature. Since live and rare recordings play such an important role in this process of hyperspatial production, the actual live show can never possess the combination of physical ownership and ideological immediacy hyperspace provides. Even the best live performance simply falls into place among the other songs in a user's collection—if the show is particularly good s/he may even download parts of it later, once back in easily built, ideologically secure links of hyperspace.
This hyperspace will collapse as the Recording Industry adapts to the digital transfer of music. Already EMI has announced a scheme similar to iTunes which will allow access to a large amount of their catalogue; and just recently Coke has announced plans to do the same with a collection of over 250,000 songs from all five major labels. As the major labels begin to offer high-quality audio files for nominal download costs, the P2P networks' public visibility in the music community will begin to diminish. As the system begins to stabilize again the rupture will close and resistance will take its place in the tension between P2P file networks and Corporate file networks. Hyperspace then represents a moment of blindness where the strength of an older commodity fetish can compel the development of a new medium in the absence of a resistance that is still fighting now irrelevant battles.
Michael Griffith is a Ph.D. candidate at Tulane University. His work focuses on the implications of new media on cultural theory and the growing global environment. As coordinator of the English Department's Media Lab, he works to incorporate these ideas directly into pedagogical practices for both writing and critical thought. Currently he is studying the technology's influence on the development of the South African Constitution. He can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. In particular I am concerned about de Certeau's concept, la perruque, the work of the worker disguised as the work of the boss, as it has begun to reside primarily in the technical realm (Internet shopping, stock trading, file downloading, etc.).
2. For an excellent description of this network see David Tetzlaff's "Yo-Ho-Ho and a Server of Warez."
3. The press surrounding the RIAA lawsuits has provided a particularly illuminating look at the most active and therefore attacked file sharers. See, especially, Jefferson Graham's "RIAA Lawsuits Bring Consternation, Chaos."
4. See particularly his discussion of action and reaction in relation to objects of culture early in Subculture (2-4).
5. Users searching for songs must confront several obstacles in this regard. Often songs on P2P networks are mislabeled either accidentally or intentionally. Some users mislabel popular songs with coded names in an attempt to avoid the attention of the Recording Industry; others mislabel unknown or less popular songs with popular names in order to distribute music that might not be transferred otherwise; while others actively mislabel songs to attack those users situated in a different ideological position (labeling an Eminem song as one from Barbara Streisand).
6. This image incorporates not only the files available and popularly transferred but also the inconsistencies of name and content.
7. See the AP article "Just Say 'No' to Record Labels."
8. At any given time a user has access to more music thans/he can listen to in his lifetime; just as any musician has access to more storage space thans/he can fill. This latter situation can ultimately produce musicians like the media students in William Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties who record their every motion in the name of art—this is less likely to happen as long as the concept of the song remains relatively intact.
9. As we will see, it is this misperception of the divided aura that drives the exploration of the P2P networks and allows for the creation of a hyperspace through the reification of an individual user.
10. There are, of course, exceptions. Some P2P programs allow the users to browse each others' collections. If one user finds another user with similar taste, then the first user can explore the other's files in the hope of finding bands or songs with whichs/he is unfamiliar. This practice is unreliable, however, as we have seen that users of the P2P network are answering its hail from various ideological positions, and therefore may have arrived on the same song for different reasons.
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de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: Univ of CA Press, 2002.
"Just Say 'No' to Record Labels." Wired On Line Edition 26 Jan 2004. 27 Jan 2004. Provided by the Associated Press <http://www.wired.com/news/digiwood/0,1412,62050,00.html>.
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