The Mind-Body Problem of Digital Information

With the human being, the mind-body problem has a specific twist: In a person, we cannot explain how mind and body (can) come together to form this specific unity. There simply is no way to under­stand how two categorical different substances like mind and body can have relations to each other without ceasing to be the distinct substances they are.

With regard to digital information the problem is interestingly quite the opposite: In infor­mation or digital content, any piece of stuff on the web, we cannot explain how the content and its carrier, the mind and the body of information, can be separated at all, how they (can) come apart. We cannot, that is, understand how information or digital content can be divided into two substances, content and carrier, without losing the information or content at all.

This situation is rather unique and recent. Just 30 years ago the majority of literal information was printed in papers, magazines, books. Our understanding of what information is and how it should be treated has been guided by the way (literal) information was to enter the world. The unalterability of its material carrier guaranteed a specific state and invariability of the information embodied. The material characteristics of its carrier or embodiment were sufficient not only to locate the information in space and time (e.g., for citation of sources). These conditions were sufficient to safeguard the identity of the information itself as well as to regulate access to it by legally determining the access to its material carrier.

Unlike the mind-body problem of digital content and information, the mind-body problem of content and information in the age of printing and publishing of material embodiments seemed rather non-controversial, even non-existent. Most criteria or conditions of identity of the content could be specified by criteria or conditions of identity of its material carrier. These criteria of identity of the material carrier were mostly sufficient to individuate the content in space and time.

In this sense legal rights, licenses, copyrights, fees, and royalties didn’t need to be attached to the content or the information itself. It was sufficient to attach them to the material body. Accordingly, the producer of the content typically sold the legal right to the content’s usability (especially reproducibility and with that: repeatability) to some publisher, who had his return of investment by exclusively selling embodiments of this content. The customer purchased access to the information by purchasing some such embodiments or carriers.

So what we have been accustomed to in our involvement with information since Gutenberg was a legal two-step of which the customer or recipient usually only saw one half: a producer of content sold the exclusive right to reproduce a material embodiment or carrier of the content he had “created” to a publisher (the copyright, that most often was not even retainable for the artist himself). That was his return of investment. With copyright the publisher gained a specific right to reproduce the material embodiment of the content while at the same time being legally able to prevent the production of other embodiments of the same content.

The customer who purchased the material carrier usually had no alternative in order to gain access to the content he was interested in. For the customer purchasing a so-called “copy”, i.e., the material carrier or embodiment of the desired content, was the only way to access the content at all. (I leave public forms of access like libraries aside.) For the customer, content and carrier became functionally the same, as without the one he wouldn’t have the other: without content, there was no book (or film, or whatever) it made sense to purchase; and without the purchase of a carrier no content was available. Even more: without production of a carrier, there was no content at all.

So what we’ve inherited from the history of book publishing is a double meaning and an ambivalence in the term “content producer” – be it the “original” artist or writer, whoever it was who came up first with the content; or be it the “subsequent” facilitator of access to this content in form of a publisher, a library, etc. This ambiguity transferred to the meaning of “content” as well: it could mean the information one was after when purchasing the carrier, or the thus endowed carrier itself. Content could be a thing of the mind as of the material world as well.

With the advent of digital content those very ambiguities still haunt us without us being able to sort them out. Still we can distinguish somehow between content and carrier, e.g., via the difference between the content presented on the screen and the 1s and 0s it takes on the machine level to make it available for data transmission and storage. But the comparison to printed information like books doesn’t hold because the 1s and 0s of the digital information would at most correspond to the atoms and molecules of the book, not to its paper, the glue, the binding, the printing ink, etc. On the level of these there is no corresponding carrier or embodiment distinct from the digital content. Altering some 1s and 0s will presumably change the digital content; but changing some atoms in the binding will not change the book as carrier of the printed content. There are, on the other hand, different ways, formats, a digital content can be presented in (e.g., formats like rtf, pdf, html, doc, txt). And of course the content can most easily be transformed from one format into another without loss. We can even distinguish the code necessary to provide a specific format from the digital content itself that is presented with it. But no specific format is necessary (or sufficient) to have the content at all. The conditions or criteria of identity for the digital information do not derive from the conditions or criteria of identity of the format or code in which it is presented on the screen or stored on a device. Put differently, there is no fixed material form as in printed books the digital information needs to have to exist and to be accessible. The information we find on the web or on our machines’ devices are not something different over and above the way they are presented on the screen.

As the creation of digital content is independent of the practical conditions that underlie the produc­tion of material embodiments, the ambivalence of content as “the idea” and as “the presentation in material form” vanishes. The “idea” is what is “present” on the screen. But given that the possibility of an economic wedge driven between “content creation” (writer) and “content production” (publisher) vanishes at well. There is no way that the content created can be embodied by a material carrier the production of which essentially differs from the creation of the content itself. The economic trade offs between creator and publisher cease to exist, as a material carrier is no longer necessary for the content to exist and to be accessible. Accordingly, the creator cannot earn royalties or fees by selling an exclusive legal right for the exclusive production (or enablement) of access.

This breakdown, to be sure, is a feature of the ways data nowadays are transmitted and accessed, e.g. via the web. It’s not a feature of license-formats like Creative Commons or copyright. Neither of both can restrain access to the content. Restriction in access comes with hardware and hardware related means, not with legal constructions. And as one can publish printed books (and prevent others from publishing them) one can create an Apps and a store so that customers are forced to purchase a specific hardware in order to access the content. iTunes, walled gardens, paywalls are attempts to re-establish conditions of content production and dissemination that copy the conditions of the printing area. That this procedure works – as the tendencies to partition off restricted access areas on the web show – should not be of surprise. It is the result of the gambit to try to attach to the digital content the analogue of a material carrier.

But to forget that digital information has a rather specific mind-body problem distinct from that of content that uses material carriers or embodiments means that digital information keeps being seen as a commodity whose reality starts with attaching a material body to an otherwise elusive and invisible being. It means to believe that digital content is unreal as long as and until one has given it a particular material form and that this attaching of a material form is a necessary step not only to give the content any existence at all but to give it a form so that it can be transacted and economically manipulated. Conversely, it means that every presentation or appearance of content on the web is seen as a material body susceptible to specific handed-down legal conceptions.

The history of publishing gave us the conception that ideas are things (via their carrier), that content is something with clear conditions of identity. Besides material embodiment in a carrier, the construction as a legal entity is a further attempt to give ideas, content, information a kind of precise gestalt or form. They are less treated as stuff and more like facts.

Facts are not what we find out there, facts are things that are being made. Lawyers know that facts are not out there but what can properly be summoned under specific (legal) laws (and is thus “created” or “fixed”). They tried to understand ideas or contents not as something embodied by a material carrier but by the specific set of laws and legal constraints that are applicable to it (e.g., licensing). It was mostly software that split up accordingly : into an abstract entity in the possession of an owner, and licences governing reproduction and usages given to the customer. Again, this approach repeated the attempt to put some body to a mind, some embodiment to a content, some “functional” carrier to an “abstract” procedure.

But this approach somehow conflates the usage of tool to produce something with the exertion of a skill and proficiency to reach a goal or fulfil a task. It is as if the piano teacher of Van Cliburn after having taught him in his childhood how to play piano years later tries to earn a royalty from Van Cliburn’s brilliant performance in a concert playing Tchaikovsky. The pupil has been taught a skill, but the subsequent exertion of the skill cannot be part of the royalty agreement between a teacher and a pupil. Somewhere the boundaries of the “content” have to be set. Accordingly, with licensing the prolonged individual usage of a software, the licenser resembles someone who lends a tool to someone (the customer) who does not own it and cannot purchase it.

In digital content we cannot distinguish between its mind and its body, its “idea” and its “carrier” that miraculously give it a presence in the material world. Data on the screen, on servers, in transmission from here to there, have no material being. They are what is present, they are what is accessed. But if digital content does not need a material embodiment or carrier for its existence, nor some licensing, how can creators and artists be financially rewarded for their work at all? If there is no carrier to put around a content, for what and how can they be paid royalties?

Artists on the web do not earn enough royalties for the contents they produce to have a decent living. This should not come with too much surprise. In the Old Worlds, artists were not paid for content creation either. They were paid only (or mostly) for trading off the exclusive rights to manufacture material carriers (not: “copies”) that simultaneously prevented others from making material carriers of the same content. Copyright meant selling off the right to produce a carrier. But if there is no need for a carrier distinct form the content, what exclusive right could there be left for the creator or artist to sell and for a publisher or “middle-man” to purchase? None, it seems.

It’s no small wonder that in this situation the affinity to painters and musicians came to mind. The painter creates a picture that is unique and only in its own. The musician performs in a concert the experience of which is what is sought by the audience. The problem (or task) seems to be to mimic the unique situation of a concert in which many customers can access a unique occasion for which they are willing to pay.

Regrettably, this analogy breaks down as well, as again the mind-body problem of digital information is not taken into account. With a concert you introduce the distinction between the “idea” or “work” on the one hand and a “mode of coming to be” distinct from it on the other. Again, you introduce the distinction between an audience or customers who access the idea by purchasing (or entering) the carrier. And again, in the case of digital information exactly this distinction cannot be made.

But, again, when creators are not paid for the creation of the content but at most for selling off the right of exclusive reproduction, and, again, in the case of digital content the difference between “idea” and “presentation” cannot be made, then nothing is left for the artist to sell and the customer to purchase. Even conceptions of royalty along the line of Commons break down, as the resemblance between Digital Commons and Natural Commons is at most superficial. [1] (E.g., as the communal usage of a Common in the natural world enhances “its” value by creating bonds between people at this given place in time, digital content cannot be seen as a Common, as it lacks such natural world characteristics.)

In tribal societies elders are revered for their knowledge, their acumen, their lineage that put them into obligation of stewardship for specific cultural specialities the handing down of which is vital both to the (spiritual) survival of the society as to the ambiance and world the tribe is located in. Prestige and support accrue to them inasmuch as they prove up to the task.

In a sense in western societies artists and writers have been seen in a likewise fashion. Since the 19th century we have a concept of the artist distinct from that of the artisan that evokes images of genius, muses, ideas coming down from the heavens entering the receptive mind of the artist. This somehow secular version of deities visiting man, of gods touching the receptive, trained, but also marginalized psyche of the shaman, lies at the bottom of our admiration for outstanding artists, writers, painters. It’s the exceptional that makes its preservation worthwhile.

And again, this model of the exceptional artists cannot be transferred to the mass of content creators. The exceptional artist, even as he creates a unique piece of art, is rare, not the mass of journalists, researchers, writers, artists, musicians who try to make a living from the “production of content” on or via the web. Again the scarcity of access to the material carrier cannot translate to the sphere of digital content that has no “carrier”.

But with the exceptional artist comes exceptional art. So a way out may lie in thinking about systems of distributing royalties depending on the impact and significance a contribution has had over a specific stretch of time in specific contexts or complexities of problems. Royalties could be paid retrospectively or in advance, depending on the context and the persons involved. Content creators would not be paid through the purchase of a copy of their work, but for the significance the work, the idea, the content has for a specific human situation. People would not pay because they “like it” but because they “need it”. They would pay for the right to disseminate it in the sense that they pay for the right to introduce a new friend (viz. the idea) to their pals. They would pay in order to nourish a community, to alleviate a situation.

Along such lines there still would be an incredible amount of content “for free”. But this content would “be free” because it had not been noticed and appreciated yet. We would find that content becomes content inasmuch as it is perceived, noticed, and appreciated. This is for the very reason because digital content has no “carrier” in the old sense. There is no content without someone appreciating it – as there is no person or soul if there is no-one perceiving, acknowledging, and cherishing her. We come to find the web of data and transmitted content having changed into sparkling blips of mutual appreciation. Content seizes to be data and becomes, like knowledge, something that has being only because it resides in a mind that it moves. Art becomes again our way to be human.

Taking the mind-body problem of digital information seriously means that our commodity-driven ways of perceiving things do not apply. These ways simply leave us in a position in which we neither understand what “digital content” is nor how we can reward those to whom we have to thank for their being.

The analogy I suggest is again the tribal situation and the position of the elder who not that much “creates” a “content” – it is mostly already there since the beginnings of time – but rather brings this “content” into existence at a specific time, place, occasion. What compares to a digital content we perceive is the storytelling, the listening (not reading) to a story somebody tells and that may strike us or not, which we may retain at heart or not, which we do not own but may allow us to impress. Stopping to see digital content and information as akin to things and more like stories heard, we may find orality the better means to describe the streams and contents of the web. The specific twist herein is that with accepting the peculiar mind-body problem of information we stop looking for carriers distinct from content, and accept their resemblance to elusive but very real entities like stories heard from our parents and elders. We come to see that the web is permeated by conversation. We find orality, not data-structures to be the more appropriate model for describing the web. And we find in particular that it is orality in a written form. Paradoxically, we regain this orality by means of writing.


[1]  Cf. my FLOSS, Commons, And the Space Between


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