The Psychogeography of Zeros and Ones

Stewart Home

Author of many books, including Come Before Christ and Murder Love (Serpent's Tail, 1997), and Confusion Incorporated: a Collection of Lies, Hoaxes and Hidden Truths (Codex, 1999). Forthcoming works include the novel 69 Things to do With a Dead Princess, which will be published by Canongate.

In the recent past excitement about new digital media has produced some ridiculously wild claims about the "electronic frontier", as well as some blatantly (if often unconsciously) reactionary statements by various over-privileged individuals who didn't quite realise that who is and is not webbed up is bound to issues of race, class and gender. Hopefully debates about the digital have now matured sufficiently for self-styled cyber-anarchists to react with something approaching equanimity when their demands for "rights in cyberspace" are met with anything other than unequivocal endorsement from those occupying political positions to their left. Unfortunately, when providing analysis of the digital economy it still seems necessary to stress its inseparability from "the rest" of the economy, and to emphasise that economic activity is premised on the existence of money and rooted in notions of ownership. Once these simple facts have been absorbed, it is easy enough to see why many of those who make a living within the culture industry are often keen to extend intellectual property rights. We live in a capitalist society where alienation and commodification are inescapable. There are, of course, those who attempt to live differently in this world, but "alternative life-styles" aren't an option for most people, and particularly not for those from less privileged backgrounds than the average "anarchist" or "bohemian". It should also be borne in mind that the culture industry operates on the principle of competition and that not all those involved in it share the same immediate interests. For academics publication can be a route to career advancement, and since academic livelihoods are rarely directly dependent on payment for writing, the immediate self-interests of lecturers and professors with regard to copyright are rather different from those of self-employed writers (whose financial interests in this matter are different again to those of salaried journalists). To state the obvious, today when a freelance writer takes a stand against copyright laws, this undercuts their immediate financial self-interests in ways that a painter who generates much of their income from the sale of "unique" one-off works will not experience when articulating similar critiques of intellectual property.

Since a historical perspective provides debates around these issues with a solid and necessary grounding, it is unfortunate that there appears to be widespread amnesia about even relatively recent attempts to bypass the institutionalised/commodified aspects of "our wonderful culture" - for example, from the sixties onwards in the mail art network (which retrospectively might be referred to as "the paper net"), or in the plagiarist and anti-copyright movements of the eighties and nineties. The fact that I have cited these tendencies is not necessarily an endorsement of their practice, since I feel rather more can be learnt from their failures than the modest successes they achieved. So, to begin again from where Peter Burger left off in his Theory Of The Avant-Garde, if modernism and post-modernism in the arts were generated from principles of bricolage - that is to say all existing styles, techniques and works were treated as a treasure trove that might be plundered in the elaboration of a funky new culture - then there is a particularly blatant contradiction in modernist and post-modernist writers (amongst others) making an unqualified defence of property (and more specifically intellectual property) rights. However, as Andrew Hewitt has illustrated rather more subtly than I will here, this did not stop right-wing renegades such as T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis embracing everything from the Church Of England to Hitler's NSDAP. Indeed, it hardly needs stating that the forms of counter-revolution advocated by fascist modernists like Ezra Pound were rooted in capitalist social relations - whereas a living, growing, ever changing culture requires the kinds of free interaction that cannot be achieved under the restraints of social stratification. Under capitalism, cultural workers (like everybody else) require money to buy food, clothes and shelter - and very often they also need specialised equipment such as computers (which, while common enough in the overdeveloped world, retain their place at the cutting edge of commodity culture). Although the abolition of money (and with it an end to division of labour and human alienation) must be high on the strategic agenda of anyone interested in creating a truly open culture (and let's not forget that cultures are created by whole societies, not just by specialists), those who within the dominant society find themselves forced into the specialist role of cultural worker, must also live now - and for most people living under capitalism this entails generating an income on which to survive. Despite the peculiar position culture workers occupy within the dominant society (their petit-bourgeois status is curiously warped by remnants of feudal patterns of patronage), it is a banality to state (as I just have) that they (like all workers) are confronted with the contradiction of producing and reproducing the conditions of their own alienation, and that this is something that those who recognise the inequities of class society struggle against. For Hegel, dealing with these issues in a mystified manner under the rubric of plagiarism in thesis 69 of The Philosophy Of Right, such things were matters of honour and were to be held in check by honour. For those of us struggling against the constraints of current artistic practice (including the notions of intellectual property and moral rights), it is not a question of honour but rather one of constantly reforging the passage between theory and practice - of working through the contradictions with which we are confronted, and fighting against the unwanted specialist roles that are constantly foisted upon us. While debate about the precise tactics required to overthrow commodity culture has generated much controversy, the issue of moral rights can be dismissed in a few sentences. It has long been a platitude that the ideology of rights emerged in its modern form from the (bourgeois) French Revolution. The ideology of rights is part and parcel of the ideology of the "free market" (something that never has and never will exist in the "real" world). On the capitalist market, commodities are valued as being equal to a specific sum of money, regardless of whether the commodity is an hour of wage labour or a pair of Baby Gap socks. Mirroring this, in the political realm people are said to be equal by the granting of rights to everyone. Thus the notion of rights is used to disguise real inequalities. Everyone has the right to buy a five bedroom detached house at a location of their choice, not everyone is able to do so. Today, those who write novels have a legally enshrined moral right to be identified as the author of any book they have composed, although whether or not they get published and paid for the work they've done is actually a more pressing concern for many people who pen fiction. Indeed, despite the critiques I have made of both morals and rights, when my fiction appears in book form, commercial publishers generally insist on running a line about me asserting my moral rights with regard to the work, even when I have informed them that I have no desire to do so. My moral rights are not so much something I assert, as something foisted upon me.

While I can sneer at my moral rights, since ultimately they are a joke (and many writers simply by-pass the entire issue by adopting pen names), intellectual property rights confront me with a great many more contradictions. As a young man I spent approximately ten years claiming welfare. While signing on the dole I engaged in various activities that ranged from exhibiting in galleries to hill walking. Eventually I found that there was an activity that I'd initially engaged in for pleasure, but which eventually led to me ceasing to claim unemployment benefits, and this activity was writing. That said, even today when most of my income is generated from this practice, I produce a fair amount of "writing" that earns me nothing whatsoever. I am, for example, rather fond of textual manipulations and while I am often paid to write journalism, I find that in terms of publication I can't even give away texts that consist of selected quotes from avant-garde manifestos that I have reworked into alchemical tracts. In the past I would self-publish works of this type in newsletters with a circulation of around 2000 copies. Today, I am more inclined to place amusements of this kind on the web, where they are often less carefully read, but where the effort and expense of distribution is also considerably reduced. The growth of digital media has enabled me to extend and experiment with the way in which I produce and disseminate such textual manipulations. Some time ago I was passed a software programme called MacTravesty. This software was designed to decompose text into various degrees of illegibility with the level of degeneration being selected by the software operator. While functioning in a somewhat different manner, MacTravesty had parallels with the cut-up method of "writing" "discovered" by Brion Gysin and made famous by William Burroughs. The results I obtained from MacTravesty were at first quite amusing, although only one example of what I was doing ever made it into the public domain. I'd been asked to speak at a symposium on Neoism being held in Vienna. Since I didn't want to travel to this event, the organiser agreed that I could send a taped lecture. I took an essay I'd written and set MacTravesty loose on the text. I then selected a computer voice to read the result and used a low-quality cassette recorder to output "my" talk. The result was played in Vienna and I'm told people sat through this taped lecture. After a certain amount of experimentation, I found the results produced by MacTravesty a little too predicable, and eventually turned to less automated forms of cut-up (over which I had more - or sometimes less - control, and which I would actively rework to obtain results to my satisfaction). I also became interested in bouncing different computer generated voices off each other and adding sound effects. I produced a half-hour radio play called Divvy in this fashion as part of the "Torkradio" project organised at The Junction, Cambridge, by Chris Dorley-Brown and Zbigniew Jaroc.

While I've had a CD of me reading an abridgement of my novel Pure Mania released by the King Mob label, getting some of my digital audio pieces out commercially has proved problematic. One piece called The Bethnal Green Variations: Turning Silence Into Noise (Cage Caged) was created specifically with commercial release in mind, so as to stimulate debate around the issues of plagiarism and copyright, but to date it has not proved possible to find a label that will issue it. The piece was realised on 31 July 1999 by placing a beat box programmed to repeat play Wayne Marshall's version of John Cage's 4´ 33´´ on a windowsill of my flat on the Avebury Estate in Bethnal Green. I had the window open so that the noises of the inner city drifted in (youths arguing and later a thunder storm), and I recorded the results with a Sony MZ-R50. 4´ 33´´ is, of course, the famous silent piece for which the pianist sits at his instrument without playing a note. Rather than taking the little sound that was on the Wayne Marshall CD (silence being notoriously difficult to record) directly from it in digital form, I wanted to drown this out with the noises of the city. In a way I was invoking Cheap Imitation, the piece of deconstruction Cage did to bypass the extortionate fee demanded for use of Satie's Socrate. I recorded 32 versions of 4´ 33´´ being drowned out by urban noise with the intention of superimposing them over each other. I made 32 realisations both because I was after a cheap imitation and this number of variations meant the recordings could be conveniently fitted onto two 74-minute mini-disks (with 1 minute 12 seconds left over on each disk). I wanted to release the result as a seven inch vinyl single with a noised-up overlay of all 32 tracks on the A-side, and each of the 32 separate realisations pressed in editions of 100 on the B-side, making a total pressing for the record in its variant forms of 3200. Listeners would then have been able to make their own versions of The Bethnal Green Variations by mixing the different B-sides together. Robin Rimbaud of Sulphur Records expressed an interest in the project, but nothing came of this in the end, largely - I think - because what I wanted to do with the B-side was going to prove a bit costly, making the whole thing commercially unviable. I was particularly keen on a commercial release for the project because I wanted to see if anyone connected to Cage would try to sue me for breach of copyright. A court case about the copyrighting of silence would have proved intriguing.

The role of the subsidised art sector and collaborative processes in my development of those digital audio pieces I have been able to distribute satisfactorily is fairly complex. I know very little about the people who developed the software I was using, although obviously their work enabled me to realise the pieces I wished to make. That said, it would be a mistake to overstate the distinction between "digital tools" and "content"; they shape and mediate each other and are ultimately inseparable. The Vienna symposium on Neoism was funded with public money, but I was not paid for my contribution to it. The MacTravesty software was passed to me in a private capacity by the style-journalist and post-media operator Steve Beard, who thought I'd find it diverting. Beard later used it in the production of his anti-novel Perfumed Head which was published by the funded outfit Book Works. I made The Vienna Lecture when I had access to some rather tasty computer equipment thanks to my participation in the "Blipvert" project organised - like "Torkradio" - through The Junction by Chris Dorley-Brown and Zbigniew Jaroc. Prior to this I'd been unable to experiment with computer audio, since I was running a rather antiquated Mac Plus at home. While Dorley-Brown and Jaroc were very professional in ensuring that whatever projects they had pulled me onboard were fully realised, they also actively helped me to explore the technology we had access to, so that I could produce other unrelated pieces. Rather than being directly funded, a good deal of my digital audio work has been made possible by my collaboration in projects which weren't set up with all the pieces I wished to make in mind. Access to considerably more advanced hardware and software than I had hitherto encountered has provided me with insights into what I might be able to do. Then the collaborative process - which among other things can include being taught how to use software by project organisers - is also very beneficial and instructive in developing ideas. Likewise, all the publicly funded digital projects in which I've participated have also provided an outlet for the completed work, meaning that I haven't had to greatly concern myself with the matter of its distribution. Given that I have put a great deal of thought, time and energy into distributing my own and other people's material over the years, I do not see it as particularly problematic when I am relieved of the burden of this often onerous task. For others who have not struggled with the practicalities of distribution, this may be a less healthy situation. Placing material on the web is easy; getting people to engage with it is rather more difficult. Digital media change the way people read. There is an increased amount of scanning text and less in-depth reading. Over recent years there has been an accelerating decrease in the number of printed and photocopied non-commercial publications (often called "fanzines") issued, as the individuals who did or might have produced publications of this type switched over to putting up web sites. Alongside my commercial writing, I have been contributing to and featured in publications of this type for more than twenty years. With the switch to digital media I have noticed that this sort of material is on the whole read less attentively and generates less response. Someone browsing web pages has the option of going back later, but they are less likely to return to something they have scanned than someone with a magazine lying about their room. Another factor is that it isn't pleasant to read large quantities of text on the equipment most people are operating. There are also problems with the editing on a good number of sites and these weaknesses are particularly noticeable on those dedicated to providing e-books for which printed editions also exist. Many "classic" novels are available on-line but in my experience (largely based on looking at Victorian genre fiction), the works in question are often riddled with scanning errors. Likewise, image resolution is often less than optimal on web sites. These downsides must, of course, be weighed against the upsides of multimedia. There is a huge advantage when writing about music in being able to provide samples of it, or when writing about film in being able to run clips. Further, and more excitingly, new relationships can be established between images, text and sound. Undoubtedly part of the problem with the web as it currently exists is that in the switch over from print to digital delivery, too many of the conventions of the old medium are being carried over to the new one by both "authors" and their "readers". That said, one of the "pluses" of the old medium was that undistributed copies of printed publications create storage problems, with the result that the producer has a positive inducement to find ways of reaching an audience (in the case of commercial publishers this usually consists of remaindering "excess" stocks - with pulping being a last resort). Once something is up on the web many non-commercial producers cease to worry about finding an audience (and some of them never will find browsers). However, the up side of the web is that the potential audience is probably greater than that for a printed publication, nevertheless, it is wrong to place too much importance on the number of hits a site or page receives. A small but dedicated audience may be more rewarding to an author or web site builder than a large and less committed one. Likewise, an increase in texts being scanned rather than read may only be a bad thing from the point of view of authors (who are in any case also readers); it should go without saying that readers can and must critically appropriate material for their own purposes.

For a good few years now I have found there has been a split between my commercial and non-commercial work. Increasingly this split is also manifesting itself in the difference between digital and print media, since I find that most of the public funding I receive for work in the UK comes from visual arts sources (and this despite the many - unsuccessful ? applications I have made to the Literature Department of the Arts Council of England), whereas revenues from commercial sources are generated almost exclusively from my activity as a writer. When making non-commercial pieces (which are increasingly ending up in digital formats although I do still show in funded galleries), there is little need to concern myself with issues of copyright or libel law, since where there are breaches it seems there is little point in anyone pursuing them. The lack of restraints, the freedom to produce whatever I want (within certain technical limitations) and my ability to collaborate with almost anyone (whether this be by mutual agreement or via sampling), makes non-commercial digital production an attractive proposition. I like it even better when there is arts funding behind a project and I am paid for doing pretty much whatever I like (although I have yet to find a funded situation which equals the freedom I enjoyed to create - or, in some instances, not to bother creating - when I was able to claim welfare). That said, when I have been involved in projects such as "Torkradio", "Mongrel" or "Sonic Sea Air" (all of which having been funded were able to provide me with modest payment), my re-use and detournement of copyrighted material was not an issue for those with a hands on role in running these ventures. When dealing with commercial publishers one has to be far more careful. There is a strict ban on the sampling of copyrighted material without it having been paid for prior to publication (and the costs are usually too prohibitive to make payment viable, since most publishing contracts contain a clause making this the responsibility of the writer, who would lose money on a book which did anything more than very lightly sample material still in copyright). That said, while I often find commercial publishers overly concerned with copyright laws, if these laws did not exist there would be little incentive for publishing companies to pay me for my work. Moving on, due to the existence of draconian libel laws, it is also rare to be allowed to describe (for example) a real bar as a dump in a work of fiction. Positive descriptions of bars, restaurants and other businesses are, however, generally acceptable. Serpent's Tail insisted I change the name of a well-known tourist trap close to Oxford Circus to the almost fictional "Bonnie Cockney" in my novel Slow Death. Likewise, in the same book (and after I'd seen the "final" proofs, thereby ensuring that I did not know about this until after the book was printed), all references to Cork Street were changed to the more generic Mayfair, even when this resulted in sentences that were blatantly stupid. It should be stressed here that Serpent's Tail's attitudes are typical of those in the trade. They are cited merely to provide a concrete example of this and not because I want to single them out for criticism. I could have illustrated this point just as well with similar experiences I have had with a number of other publishers. Commercial publishers are terrified of being sued, and the ridiculously stringent English libel laws give them good reason to err on the side of caution in these matters, regardless of the fact that many authors find this extremely irksome. Were it not for the fact that I need to earn a living and writing is something that I prefer to factory work (please bear in mind that welfare cuts mean the dole is no longer a viable option for me), I might well shift virtually all my cultural activities into the non-commercial realm. Indeed, given that the vast majority of books are now printed on auto-destructive pine paper (which destroys itself due to a high acid content) rather than hemp, fifty years after my novels have gone out of print as paperbacks, electronic versions of them are likely to be the only thing that survive. Nevertheless, although my first two novels have been out-of-print for a number of years now, I'd rather hold out for a reprint deal with advances on each of at least a few thousand pounds. I have a "fan" site ( through which I could make my out-of-print books available, but I'm holding out for wedge up front. While I like being able to make my work available for free - and I also realise that I'm never going to get paid for a good deal of what I most enjoy producing - (for the time being) I still have to live in a commodity economy. As long as capitalism persists, I see digital media becoming increasingly regulated and controlled, so I don't necessarily envisage being able to work in non-commercial fields the way I do now for very much longer. Enforcement of libel and copyright laws is likely to become more stringent. Search engines already show a bias towards commercial sites (this is at least partially due to manipulation on the part of businesses other than the search engine operators themselves). Likewise, free "content" provided by various parties for a variety of reasons will increasingly become a means of flogging hardware (indeed, it is already common for cyber-businesses to pay people to provide "free" "content" and "digital tools" to eat up space and power on the computers of potential customers, and to give away formerly paid for "content" and "digital tools" once they have aged a little - and have thus become difficult to sell - for similar reasons). It should go without saying that in response to this we must push for an increasing recognition of the collective nature of all human activity and stress the need for real human community. Unfettering our culture entails the abolition of wage-labour. Art is not autonomous - and all of anarchism can be found in the ideologies of those who idiotically parrot Adorno's elitist assertions about its critical autonomy. If the ongoing shift into the digital brings about a wider acceptance of the fact that there never were and never will be any "masterpieces" (since wo/man is fundamentally social and "cyber-space" like language is a collective invention), then that is a step in the right direction. That said, virtual revolutions alone will not overthrow capitalism.