One of the most cherished pieces of cyber folklore is that the internet will provide the means to reconstruct an ethic of co-operation and reciprocity. The rise of Napster and the evolution to peer-to-peer computing which enable users to share songs, movies and any other digital content; the open-source community responsible for the freely distributed operating system Linux and associated open-source programs continue the apparent gift culture of the internet.
That promise — and it was no more than a promise — is fast receding. Indeed, in some ways the internet is undermining the deeper sources of co-operation that gave rise to and sustained its ethic of reciprocity.
A case in point relates directly to the magazine you’re now reading. Each issue of Arena Magazine is sent to a multinational academic publisher in electronic form in the Portable Document Format (PDF). Such formats are necessitated by the fact that, increasingly, readers, students and researchers no longer access information by going to the bound version, but simply download electronic copies of individual articles which effectively appear as off-prints of the original article.
However, the publishers with which we deal also sell articles on the open market. This editorial, for instance, will no doubt be available from Amazon.com in the months after its publication for US$5. Arena makes very little from such sales; in 2004 it amounted to around $500.
It is here that the contradiction between the internet and the deeper sources of co-operation and reciprocity become evident. It is disconcerting to see the freely given fruits of one’s labour being sold on the internet and seeing little or nothing in return. Contributors (not to mention editors and publishers) are likely to feel that they’ve been used by such arrangements. The on-selling of articles cuts into the fabric of reciprocity and co-operation on which Arena’s publications are founded. Indeed, Arena finds itself caught within a contradiction the core editorial team has discussed at length in both the journal and the magazine; namely the tendency of highly abstracted forms of life to dominate and reconstitute more basic sources of sociality.
The problem here is that the internet enables one to bypass the embedded conditions under which magazines are produced. By reconstructing publishing and writing in these ways, they reconfigure the ground on which co-operative ventures such as this magazine are based.
One solution to this would be to undercut online providers, by putting the complete contents of the Magazine and Journal online, making them freely available. But this is a partial solution. To keep the bound version viable, some limits would have to be placed on this, such as a time gap. Ceasing production of the bound versions altogether and going to a completely ‘virtual’ Arena is not realistic: people still baulk at reading content onscreen, it would limit access to those without online access, and would be to give up on the ethic of co-operation and reciprocity based on the face-to-face relations that are central to producing a magazine like Arena. In other words, it would be to imagine that these relations, which have their basis in face-to-face interaction, could be simply reconstructed in virtual form without cost. Such a view is, in the long-term, untenable.
In the face of these changes the editors will examine alternative arrangements by which to engage with the transformations in publishing, while remaining committed to the collective ethic on which Arena’s publications are founded.