Blind Man with a Pistol

Virtual Victory

First: Go read Michael Geist on why Jim Prentice’s digital rights copyright bill is a betrayal.

Then: register your disapproval here and join the facebook group here.

What is most interesting about the mobilized outrage protests against Bill C-61 (what Geist cynically refers to as the Canadian version of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the less strict American digital rights bill that the U.S. defeated) is that they have proven the viability of online, virtual protests. It appears to be a very real possibility that the growing facebook group, the online petition, and the automatically generated emails to MPs will change this bill. Even if the bill passes (with the Liberal Party of Canada’s usual strategy of sputtering anger followed by abstention) the online protest has educated thousands while inspiring political action and demand for change.

When politically motivated online protests emerged a few years ago, they were dismissed as a watered-down version of the marches and sit-ins of the 1960s. This is possibly true, but it is also true that contemporary politics are a watered-down version of their postwar counterparts. In fact, it was easy to be cynical about current marches against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Slavoj Žižek is fond of pointing out, most protests nowadays are virtual and toothless.

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

Žižek is the comedic provocateur of philosophy, so perhaps it’s best to take him skeptically. But it is difficult to rid ourselves of the defeatism and pessimism that came with the failure of the anti-war protests to actually stop the war. And while it appears to me that there is a significant disparity of degree between protesting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and digital copyright, the chance for success for the (actually) virtual protest is greater than the (virtually) actual one.

It is possible that this virtual action is finding traction because it occurs in the medium it affects. But more than this, I think it demonstrates that there is no virtual anymore.  Or, rather, it’s all virtual. After all, isn’t the intention of the digital lock provisions in C-61 in part, to make the virtual physical property? To deny digital proliferation online and shore up its singularity and uniqueness? I’ve always been suspicious of appeals to the “real world” (perhaps, as a graduate student of literature, that’s a matter of psychological denial) and this latest online protest seems to confirm those suspicions. Virtual political action isn’t opposed to the real world, it is the real world.