CODE: Chances and Obstacles in the Digital Ecology

By Florian Cramer, 10 April 2001

At the recent conference CODE: Collaboration and Ownership in the Digital Economy, conceptual sophistication rubbed shoulders with aesthetic primitivism. Florian Cramer reports on the highs and lows.


The recent Cambridge conference CODE amounted to more than a straight-forward expansion of its acronym into – in computerese – its executable “Collaboration and Ownership in the Digital Economy”. It actually got some of its participants collaborating. The most interesting idea regarding collaboration came as an off-the-cuff remark from James Boyle, professor of law at Duke University, who compared the recent interest in open digital code to environmentalism. The first environmental activists were scattered and without mutual ties, Boyle said, because the notion of ‘the environment’ did not yet exist. It had to be invented before it could be defended.

After two packed days of presentations, it could well be that the virus will spread and make artists, activists and scholars in digital culture associate ‘IP’ with ‘Intellectual Property’ rather than ‘Internet Protocol’, whether they like it or not. Unlike many Free Software/Open Source events with their occasional glimpses at the cultural implications of open code, the CODE programme covered the free availability and proprietary closure of information in the most general terms, setting it into a broad disciplinary framework which included law, literature, music, anthropology, astronomy and genetics. Free Software has historically taught people that even digitised images and sounds run on code. But that this code is speech which can be locked into proprietary schemes such as patents and shrinkwrap licenses, thereby decreasing freedom of expression, is perhaps only beginning to dawn on people. John Naughton, moderator of the panel on “The Future of Knowledge”, illustrated this situation by describing how, in the US at least, it is illegal to wear T-Shirts or recite haikus containing the few sourcecode words of DeCSS, a program which breaks the cryptography scheme of DVD movies.

There is little awareness that any piece of digital data, whether an audio CD, a video game or a computer operating systems is simply a number and that every new copyrighted digital work reduces the amount of freely available numbers. While digital data, just like any text, can be parsed arbitrarily according to a language or data format (the four letters g-i-f-t, for example, parse as a synonym for ‘present’ in English, but as ‘poison’ in German), the copyrighting of digital data implies that there is only one authoritative interpretation of signs. The zeros and ones of Microsoft Word are legally considered a Windows program and thus subject to Microsoft’s licensing, although they could just as well be seen as a piece of concrete poetry when displayed as alphanumeric code, or as music when burned onto an audio CD. The opposite is also true: no-one can rule out that the text of, say, Shakespeare’s Hamlet cannot be parsed and compiled into a piece of software that infringes somebody’s patents.

The legal experts speaking at CODE also explained the enormous expansion in intellectual property rights in the last few years. While patents are widely known to conflict with the freedom of research and even with the freedom to write in programming languages, the conference nevertheless extended its focus beyond this and made its participants aware of IP rights as the negative subtext to what was once considered the promiscuous textuality of the Internet. Still, it was surprising to see speakers with very diverse academic and professional backgrounds position themselves so unanimously against the current state of IP rights. In another informal remark, Volker Grassmuck proposed that we refocus “information ecology” from software ergonomics to the politics of knowledge distribution. Does digital code need its own Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund?

The conference took its inspiration from Free Software, but didn’t bother going into basics and priming the participants on what Free Software and Open Source technically are – which was both an advantage and a disadvantage. General topics were advanced right from the first session without first clarifying such important issues as the meaning of the ‘free’ in Free Software. GNU project founder Richard M. Stallman – who usually explains this as “free, as in speech” not “free, as in beer” – revealed his own questionable conceptions by proposing three different copyleft schemes for what he categorised as ‘“functional works’”, “opinion pieces” and “aesthetic works”: as if these categories could be separated, as if they weren’t aspects of every artwork, and as if computer programs didn’t have their own politics and aesthetics (GNU Emacs could be analysed in just the same way Matthew Fuller analysed the aesthetic ideology of Microsoft Word). It was annoying to hear Stallman reduce the distribution of digital art to “bands” distributing their “songs”, and it was equally annoying to hear Glyn Moody call Stallman the Beethoven, Linus Torvalds the Mozart and Larry Wall – a self-acclaimed postmodernist and experimental writer in his own right – the Schubert of programming.

To make matters worse, the artists who spoke on the second day of CODE echoed these aesthetic conservatisms in perfect symmetry. Michael Century, co-organiser of the conference and Stallman’s respondent, unfortunately didn’t have enough time to speak about the notational complexity of modern art in any detail. He was the only speaker to address this issue. Otherwise, artists were happy to be “artists”, and programmers were happy to be “programmers”. Stallman’s separation of the “functional” and the “aesthetic” was also implied in Antoine Moireau’s ‘Free Art License’ <>, a copyleft for artworks which failed to illuminate why artists shouldn’t simply use the GNU copyleft proper. This question is begged all the more since the license is based on the assumption that the artwork in contrast to the codework is, quote, “fixed”. While Moireau’s project was at least an honest reflection of Free Software/Open Source, one couldn’t help the impression that other digital artists appropriated the term as a nebulous, buzzword-compatible analogy. While there are certainly good reasons for not releasing art as Free Software, it still might be necessary to speak of digital art and Free Software in a more practical way. Much if not most of digital art is locked into proprietary formats like Macromedia Director, QuickTime and RealVideo. It is doomed to obscurity as soon as their respective manufacturers discontinue the software.

On the other hand, the Free Software available obviously doesn’t cut it for many people, artists in particular. The absence of, for example, desktop publishing software available for GNU/Linux is no coincidence since the probability of finding programmers among graphic artists is much lower than the probability of finding programmers among system operators. This raises many issues for digital code in the commons, issues the conference speakers seemed, however, to avoid on purpose. While most of them pretended that it was no longer necessary to use proprietary software, their computers still ran Windows or the Macintosh OS. It would have been good to see such contradictions if not resolved than at least reflected.

Florian Cramer <cantsin AT>[]

CODE, Queens College, Cambridge, UK, April 5-6, 2001 "Anywhere out of the World" is the first episode of "No ghost just a Shell" by Phillippe Parreno and Pierre Hyghe. (c) Phillippe Parreno.  Image courtesy of Aire de Paris and The Institute of Visual Culture.