The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control is Leaving Cyberspace and Entering the Real World

The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control is Leaving Cyberspace and Entering the Real World

by Siva Vaidhyanathan
From Napster to Total Information Awareness to flash mobs, the debates over who gets to control information and technology has revolved around a single question: How closely do we want the virtual world to resemble the real world? But while we weren't looking, the opposite has happened: The real world has started imitating the virtual world--in some alarming ways.


From Napster to Total Information Awareness to flash mobs, the debates over who gets to control information and technology has revolved around a single question: How closely do we want the virtual world to resemble the real world? But while we weren't looking, the opposite has happened: The real world has started imitating the virtual world--in some alarming ways. More and more of our social, political, and religious activities are modeling themselves after the World Wide Web, along the lines of either anarchy or oligarchy, total freedom vs. complete control. And battle lines are being drawn.

On one side, trying to maintain control of information, are corporations, judges, the military, and global institutions. On the other side, trying to liberate information, are educators, hackers, civil libertarians, artists, consumers, and political dissidents. The Anarchist in the Library, by the rising young academic star Siva Vaidhyanathan, is a radically original look at how this battle will define one of the major fault lines of twenty-first century civilization.

The recording industry has sued the music downloaders into submission, but as a model of communication, their effects still echo around the world. The proliferation of such peer-to-peer networks may appear to threaten many established institutions, and the backlash against them could be even worse than the problems they create. Their effects--good and bad--resonate far beyond markets for music. They are altering our sense of the possible, extending our cultural and political imaginations.

Unregulated networks of communication have existed as long as gossip has. But with the rise of electronic communication, they are exponentially more important. And they are drawing the outlines of a battle for information that will determine much of the culture and politics of our century, from unauthorized fan edits of Star Wars to terrorist organizations' reliance on "leaderless resistance." The Anarchist in the Library is the first guide to one of the most important cultural and economic battlegrounds of the twenty-first century.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This relatively brief book tackles an expansive topic: Internet technology and its effect on our social, political and cultural future. For cultural historian and media scholar Vaidhyanathan (Copyrights and Copywrongs), the digital revolution is about far more than downloading music. Weaving an array of historical examples with prescient analysis, Vaidhyanathan takes the Internet battles common to most readers today e.g., the well-publicized efforts of the recording industry to stop file-sharing; the practices of those who share music online to craft a treatise on how technology highlights the eternal cultural struggle between "oligarchy and anarchy." He discusses the evolution of copyright law in the digital realm, and looks provocatively at the political contributions of such technology and the evolution of nation-states in the digital world, at times painting a truly Orwellian vision of how our future might turn out. For example, digital networks now erase borders for commercial gain as well as for piracy, and at the same time such networks, as illustrated by the war on terror, are elusive and ungovernable. Where, how and on what principles do we draw the lines? Vaidhyanathan refrains from offering any quick-fix solutions, instead arguing that the friction between anarchy and the desire for control now highlighted by technology is an essential element in the creation of culture. Vaidhyanathan is a brilliant thinker and an energetic writer. But the sweeping scope of this book, and its vague, theoretical and at times academic slant may leave readers more confused then enlightened. Then again, welcome to the digital world. Agent, Sam Stoloff. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Soundview Executive Book Summaries
The Clash Between Freedom and Control
There are dangers posed by the increasing speed and amount of information that are now available, but according to technology writer and educator Siva Vaidhyanathan, we have often used technological quick fixes to avoid complex, serious discussions of the issue. In The Anarchist in the Library, Vaidhyanathan discusses the issues of how much and which freedoms are excessive or dangerous, and helps to "identify and criticize ‘moral panics' engendered by the common perception that freedoms are getting out of hand, that the anarchists are taking over the libraries."

Vaidhyanathan writes that he is also worried about the repercussions of the fear of information anarchy, and the ways improper reactions to the proliferation of information constitute threats to our freedoms to browse, use, reuse, alter, play with, distribute, share and discuss information. He explains that these are important interactions that help both computer experts and the rest of us shape our worlds.

The Anarchist in the Library provides a deep and unblinking look at the "information arms race." This is a conflict that takes place when one side of the battle invents a device, method, algorithm or law that moves the system of digital information toward increased freedom of distribution and the other side of the aisle deploys a method to push the information back into its place. Vaidhyanathan writes, "This pattern imposes the basic paradox of the digital world onto the real world: Stronger efforts toward control often backfire to create less controllable - and less desirable - conditions."

Peer-to-Peer Communication
Vaidhyanathan explains that there is a special risk involved when regulating information and the technology that delivers and processes it because information is the raw material of deliberation, and deliberation forms the foundation of a healthy democracy. In an effort to dig up the long-term effects that technological regulations might create, Vaidhyanathan examines the battle for control of peer-to-peer (P2P) communication systems, such as Napster, Gnutella, and the Internet itself.

The Anarchist in the Library examines how corporations and governments have reacted to the rise of P2P systems and the free flow of information through unhierarchical channels. Vaidhyanathan writes that the terms and tactics of freedom and control are now becoming a part of the battles that will shape the future of culture, liberty, democracy, and human progress through the new century. One of the main challenges during this century, Vaidhyanathan writes, will be to create "ethics, guidelines, habits or rules to shape an information environment that provides the freedom liberal democracy needs as well as the stability that commerce and community demand."

The Flow of Information
The Anarchist in the Library examines numerous examples of conflict that arise out of the efforts that have been used to control the flow of information. The case studies it reveals raise many important issues, including:

  • The battle to control public libraries, which are suddenly considered dens of terrorism and pornography, through technological mandates and legal restrictions.
  • Attempts to restrict the use and distribution of powerful encryption technology out of fear that criminals and terrorists will evade surveillance.
  • Commercial and governmental efforts to regulate science and mathematics, including control over the human genome.
  • Efforts by governments to radically reengineer personal computers and networks to eliminate the very power and adaptability that makes these machines valuable so that they can better control flows of material deemed illicit.

Vaidhyanathan explains that the great challenge of the new century is to mediate between two divergent trends - anarchy and oligarchy. By looking closely at the long-term effects of revolutionary technologies and the behaviors they enable and inspire, he writes that we can energize an open, distributed, diverse network of thinkers and writers to "generate social, cultural, legal and technical protocols that will strengthen democracy and inspire trust and confidence."

Why We Like This Book
The Anarchist in the Library provides a fascinating look at the broader issues and effects that the Internet and technology have brought to the surface of our society, politics and commerce. By presenting the facts and events that have direct effects on our culture and our daily lives, Vaidhyanathan generates a better-informed conversation about information and the forces that shape and control it. Copyright © 2004 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 9.66(h) x 0.96(d)

What People are saying about this

Randy Cohen
Praise for The Anarchist in the Library

"Siva Vaidhyanathan has done that rare thing--induced me to rethink my position, revise my conclusions, and enjoy doing it. (And he quotes me accurately.)"
—(Randy Cohen, author of the New York Times Magazine column "The Ethicist.)

Eric Alterman
What a thrilling discovery this book is: erudite, eloquent imaginative and personable all at once, The Anarchist in the Library will become not only the ur-text in an increasingly important field, but also the one that is certainly the most fun to read.
—(Eric Alterman, author of What Liberal Media?)

Meet the Author

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar, is Director of Communication Studies and an Associate Professor in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University. His research has been profiled on National Public Radio, CNN, International Herald-Tribune Television, and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. He lives in New York City.

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