The Politics of Piracy

Zach Pine/Courtesy

The walls ooze a sticky white in my freshly painted room. Paired with what little stuff I have, the setting verges on monastic. Tony, Rodrigo, my buddy Nihil and I sit on a muted-green excerpt of carpet, a luxury of color in this space. We’re old friends, but tonight the air is unusually formal; we’ve gathered to talk about To and Ro’s class the Politics of Piracy.

Democratic Education at Cal emerged out of student activism to promote what Tony calls “intellectual heterodoxy.” In their class, Tony and Rodrigo do more listening than lecturing to encourage a diversity of thinking and participation.

We sat down to discuss how exactly they plan to get off the podium and turn the lecture hall upside down.

“When we say that this class is about piracy, we don’t mean it in the way that most people take it to be,” Rodrigo begins. “When people think about piracy, they think about file-sharing and music. We use it more broadly to denote the attempts to inhibit certain information flows. The class is about power and control over flows of information.”

It got abstract pretty quickly. When he says flows of information, that includes almost everything — YouTube, this article, the interview itself.

But the class wasn’t always so abstract. “I guess there’s been a shift from issues strictly about intellectual property — lawsuits involving the RIAA, etc. — to broader issues of freedom of speech and representation and peer production over the past several semesters,” Ro continues. Tony joins in, “With recent events such as Wikileaks and the Snowden NSA revelations, we wanted to extend the scope of the class and discuss computer networks in a way most people are not used to.”

A changing digital landscape has sent these two into the past to rethink what “piracy” really means. Rodrigo comes in with a fact-nugget I saw on the syllabus: “The word ‘pirate’ was used in the 17th century to denote those who violated a Royal Charter giving the Stationer’s Company in London a monopoly over books. That’s even before copyright. Because of that really long historical formation, we feel comfortable using the word ‘piracy’ in other attempts to inhibit flows of information in the digital context.”

Beyond “piracy,” they’re redefining the classroom experience itself. Tony reflects on his classes: “A lot of our material is actually responding to how the university itself is in a way inhibiting certain flows of information.”

Decal instructors refer to themselves as “facilitators” for a reason. “It’s a very different role from that of a lecturer and a very different role from that of a student,” Rodrigo explains. “It’s not that we have some knowledge that we want the students to consume, but that we want students to learn from each other. And in that sense, we learn a lot from facilitating the course, too.”

They are happy to distinguish themselves from the traditional lecture model they see as inadequate. Tony becomes a pyromaniacal adolescent when he says, “I’ve noticed a lot of trends, especially in large classes where a lecturer would espouse content with authority and the students just take it at face value and pretty much just regurgitate it for assessment.”  Think standardized tests. “When a lecturer or instructor gives an explanation for some phenomenon that’s being taught in the class, that is where the conversation ends. When there are no more questions, people cease to be curious.”

The course has an anonymous form with which students may critique the course any way they wish. Rodrigo explains the unusual stipulation: “The entire class can decide by power of consensus whether any particular change should be implemented.”

In the past, the course had a heavy emphasis on a lot of technical details. But the facilitators soon came to realize that information, the science behind the software, was redundant. In the words of Rodrigo, “You’ve probably been exposed to it, because it’s impossible not to hear about it here in the Bay Area. Especially at Berkeley, you’re bombarded with it all the time.” The students were more engaged in having more nuanced, sociological conversations so, Tony says, “Wwe’re moving more towards readings that critique this kind of thinking.”

If you’re worried about going mad with power and overthrowing your soft-spoken masters, that’s actually what they want. “Usually, when we have students who ‘call us out,’ they’re the best students in the course,” says Ro, “because they feel really motivated to try and challenge the reading and to try to challenge the things that we say. Usually, that inspires the best discussion.”

So who takes this course? Well, according to Rodrigo, it’s complicated. “If you come to the course, even your conception of having the autonomy to choose which courses you take is going to be challenged by your new understanding of power and information flows. Think about how you came to hear about it out of the thousands of courses that are offered. You might wonder about the thousands of other courses that are so interesting and that you never got to hear about … I hope that happens. I also hope that doesn’t happen.”

Contact Zach Pine at [email protected]