Defining our Generation, Bit by Byte
William Lane

Our generation, or, as Harold Bloom labeled it, "Our Chaos," is popularly understood to be lazy and detached; an enormous flop that occurred at century's end. We are a generation without care or concern for the traditional American values of hard work and community, without appreciation or understanding of hardship and injustice. Thomas Friedman, for all his pro-globalization rhetoric and technological populism, referred to ours as the "Quiet Generation" for not living up to its collegiate promise to enact social change through activism and outrage. "You can't just e-mail it in," he remarked acidly. Criticisms of "Our Chaos" abound from within as well. As recent winner of the New York Times Magazine essay contest, Nicholas Handler (Yale '09), opined in his "The Post-Everything Generation:"

Like a true postmodern generation we refuse to weave together an overarching narrative to our own political consciousness, to present a cast of inspirational or revolutionary characters on our public stage, or to define a specific philosophy. We are a story seemingly without direction or theme, structure or meaning—a generation defined negatively against what came before us.

What Friedman and Handler fail to realize is that our generation, detached though it may appear, does promote—avidly at times, passively at others—one central philosophical position: freedom of distribution.

"Distribution" is the spread of information from one person to another, across social groups and cultures. The Internet has increased distribution of information to previously unimaginable degrees. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of the 'new media' is Youtube, a website that provides millions of people everything from CNN-sponsored political debates to video diaries to copyright-defying clips of TV shows. Although people of all ages and from many different countries use Youtube and its many spin-offs, the website has risen to prominence largely because people under the age of 25 have invested time enough to make it a useful tool, as well as a great timewaster. Youtube's strengths are many: it allows content to reach all people with an internet connection, wherever they are and whenever they want it; it allows news stories unreported in mainstream media to reach a wider audience; and it enables individuals to respond, rather than just listen. Thus Youtube, like Wikipedia and the blogosphere, seems exemplary of our potential to make valid contributions and evoke social change through distribution.

Yet distribution itself does not necessarily lead to social change. Using the Internet to distribute pornography, for instance, is hardly progressive. Indeed, Friedman and Handler would argue that our generation cherishes information for information's sake, whether breaking news or endless fluff. The glut of information at our fingertips has, in their eyes, rendered us intellectually and socially lazy—we feel no need to engage the world, and are content to, in Friedman's words, "e-mail it in." In this regard, Friedman and Handler are right—distribution for distribution's sake is meaningless. The significance of distribution depends entirely on the content we distribute, and, most importantly, how we engage with and utilize that content.

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For an informative example of distribution and engagement, we trun to multimedia file sharing communities. Multimedia file sharing—the practice of making artistic content available for others to download off the internet—was impossible prior to the late-nineties. Bandwidth was slow (it's painful to think about pulling out your old 56k modem these days); hard drives were small (one gigabyte was considered nearly inexhaustible in 1995); and high-compression algorithms like .mp3 and .zip simply did not exist. As transmission speed, storage size, and software capabilities all increased exponentially, each of these limitations was overcome. Their confluence gave rise to the phenomenon now known as file sharing, most commonly in the form of peer-to-peer, or "P2P," networks. The earliest P2P program to find a large audience was Napster, created by then-Northeastern University student Shawn Fanning in autumn of 1999.

For me, Napster was more than just a program for downloading mp3s; it was a gateway to the world of music itself. I began my exploration by searching for the only band I was somewhat familiar with at age twelve: The Beatles. Even though the five-megabyte songs each took about 30 minutes to download, before long I had amassed a greatest hits collection. I didn't care that the songs were often mislabeled and disorganized—it took a full two years for me to realize "God Only Knows" wasn't a Beatles song, and that "We Don't Need No Education" wasn't the name of the Pink Floyd track—because for the first time, I was connected to an influential piece of popular culture. Although Napster shut down in June 2001, it effectively launched two revolutions: one that paved the way for instant, user-based global media exchange, and another that allowed members of younger generations to experience for the first time, freely and at their fingertips, the art of generations past.

Though there were many successors to Napster such as KaZaa, Limewire, and Direct Connect, none of them was nearly as revolutionary—they were merely new iterations of Napster. It wasn't until the development of a new, radically innovative communications protocol called "Bit-Torrent" that our generation enjoyed the possibility of a defining cultural phenomenon.

Although programmer Bram Cohen designed Bit-Torrent in 2001, it took a few years for people to catch on to its functionality and put it to creative use. Bit-Torrent differed from other P2P programs because wasn't a "program" at all, but instead an entirely new method for distributing files across cyberspace.

Bit-Torrent is unique because it allows users to download files from multiple sources at once—even if those sources themselves don't have the full file requested. Users share what they have downloaded while they are still downloading it, greatly accelerating the process of file transfer. Take downloading an mp3 file, for instance. When that file is 10% complete, the user has the option of allowing others to download that 10% from him; the file will obviously be incomplete at this stage, but it removes much of the bandwidth burden from the original source (called the "seed") of the (complete) file. The user can download the file from a variety of sources, all the while sharing his material with others.

Furthermore, since it's a protocol and not a program, Bit-Torrent can be used to distribute any type of file by anyone. Blizzard, creator of the popular role-playing game World of Warcraft, utilizes Bit-Torrent to distribute game updates. As far as legality is concerned, it hinges on the type of file being distributed, not how that file is distributed. Since "torrent" files are themselves merely links to another location where files are stored, websites posting these links have sprouted all over the web. Because these websites merely provide links to illegal content, rather than distributing that content directly, they are, as of this article's writing, entirely legal. The material that users download through Bit-Torrent file sharing, however, often tends to be illegal. In addition, private interests groups such as the MPAA and RIAA "donate" exorbitant amounts of money to politicians' campaigns in order to entice them to pass legislation banning torrent link websites. The long-term legality of Bit-Torrents is very much in question.

Techno-babble and politics aside, what really makes Bit-Torrent revolutionary is how our generation employs it. Bit-Torrent websites, often termed "trackers," may not look like much at first glance. But the best of these websites tend to focus on and distribute one specific type of media (one site for music, another for movies, a third for video games, etc.). The specialized websites naturally attract avid, tech-savvy patrons. The best of the Bit-Torrent sites require private, invite-only membership. This means that in order to have access to that site's torrents, one has to have been invited by a member of that tracker. Thus Bit-Torrent websites have transformed from simple online listings of media files to vibrant communities, fueled entirely by anonymous contributions from members. Bit-Torrents allow our generation to connect to artistic works of the past in a manner that is free, user-friendly, and based on sharing. Thanks to Bit-Torrent, we are beginning to witness music and movie archives that rival those of academic and governmental institutions.

A screenshot from Karagarga, an exclusive file sharing community populated by film buffs who can connect and exchange art from all across the world.

Consider the film tracker Karagarga. Karagarga, Turkish for "black crow", is one of the most exclusive Bit-Torrent communities on the net for a number of reasons (and before you ask, I've run out of invites). In addition to its user-friendly interface and film-loving denizens, Karagarga boasts a digital archive of over 20,000 films dating from the first silent films of the 19th century to the latest in independent and foreign cinema. How does it do it? Karagarga's rules stipulate that no film from Hollywood post-Jaws in 1980 may be uploaded to the tracker. In doing so the site has remained loyal and exclusively dedicated to the interests of a particular type of film buff.

Karagarga is a lot more than just a website with links to movie downloads; it's also a vibrant online community that promotes discussion and exploration of cinema and all of art at large. Immediately after logging in, the user is directed to Karagarga's "home" page where the latest comments are posted. The majority of these are anonymous thank-yous to those who've uploaded films, but also present are recommendations from one person to another (again, completely anonymous) regarding where to explore next if one enjoyed a given film. At the top of the page are "browse" and "search" tabs from which one can sift through a huge number of genres, directors, and countries where the films are made.

Perhaps most emblematic of the community's appreciation of the arts is the "Masters of the Month" column, in which an artist of any medium, selected by the sites administrators and members is lauded for his or her contributions to the artistic world. The Master of the Month for November is German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whom Karagarga recognizes for his creative pioneering in the New German Cinema movement of the 60's and 70's. In addition to a lengthy essay on Fassbinder's accomplishments, Karagarga salutes the auteur in its logo banner at the top of every page. William Shakespeare and Andy Warhol have both been Masters of Month. And, of course, the site has active discussion boards on topics ranging from the specific "Movies based on poems" for example, to painstakingly detailed tutorials on how to turn a DVD into a movie file.

Karagarga represents a growing movement in the Bit-Torrent world. It might be the vanguard of online art-film distribution, but there are dozens of other online communities whose members are no less passionate about organizing, discussing, and above all, sharing the media they enjoy. And not all of these websites are exclusive. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of totally open Bit-Torrent websites from which anyone may download files and to which anyone might share their own. Until the RIAA forced the closing of tracker Oink.cd on October 23, 2007, the site was heralded by a former music industry employee as the "most complete and most efficient music distribution model the world has ever known." Similar sites exist for video games, comic books and graphic novels, literature, and pretty much any other type of media that can be put into a digital format.

Multimedia file sharing is extremely important for our generation because it has the possibility to expose us to meaningful content in a way that no generation has yet achieved. Never before has so much culturally rich content been available to so many. Bit-Torrent communities are not downloading movies and books merely to brag about their collections—they have the potential to revolutionize the way we discuss art and prove that we are not, as Friedman accuses, a "quiet generation." Our generation has created a new form of social action. We enjoy the extraordinary opportunity to cross borders and languages and converse over meaningful content. There is a lot of potential for progress when young people who, according to our critics have increasingly little interest in the artistic contributions of our predecessors, employ this method of digital distribution to explore art and whatever relevance it has in our "post-everything" lives.

Indeed, this kind of activity can foster social change by promoting a highly sophisticated kind of cross-culture interaction, open to billions of Internet users, that was previously unthinkable. These online file-sharing communities could represent the most culturally significant and progressive of web-based software and thus the best of our own generation's contributions. Bit-Torrents have the possibility to serve not only as a tool for mass education, but a tool for mass enlightenment as well.

I stress the word "possibility" because Bit-Torrent communities aren't without their share of pitfalls. Simply put, Karagarga and similar websites are built around, thrive on, and encourage theft. A good deal of content that users download via Bit-Torrent is free because it is stolen. If Bit-Torrent communities are going to serve as the defining contribution of our generation, they cannot glorify stolen material as the keys to cultural enrichment. Bit-Torrent communities must square with this stark reality and lobby for much-needed reform of copyright and intellectual property laws.

Yet even the relevance of exploring "art" is questionable. Are watching derivative Hollywood movies that important for kids these days? How does downloading the CD of the week constitute anything that remotely resembles online activism? If users employ file-sharing methods to download video games, are they benefiting anyone, themselves included? And how culturally beneficial are non-Karagarga Bit-Torrent sites, where cheap pop culture and the new hit singles are the most downloaded material? These questions not only raise concerns about how, if at all, file-sharing is a progressive generational movement but also ones concerning the distinctions—again if there are any—between "high" and "low" art.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of Bit-Torrent sites, however, is not that they are too extensive, it's that they're too narrow. If our generation is to be celebrated for its free digital distribution ideology, then how come the most cutting-edge websites like Karagarga are so exclusive? The Bit-Torrent revolution isn't reaching the proverbial "masses" because its content is only available to insiders, right? The answer is yes—for now. Bit-Torrent, along with digital distrubution at large, is still in a stage of infancy. With the current legal situation, webmasters need to keep the numbers low to avoid attracting attention. In other words, when a Bit-Torrent site gets too big, it gets shut down.

Yet Bit-Torrent communities have the potential to become unique and important cultural phenomena, and they are all entirely the result of our—the quiet, post-everything, chaotic—generation's growing appreciation for art. Should Bit-Torrent communities succeed, our generation could be remembered as much for whatever traditional social activists we produce, as we will for quietly connecting millions of regular people to culture that the masses have never been able to access previously. Indeed, never before has there been such fervor among the world's youth to distribute, preserve, and most significantly, discuss so much of human culture. Bit-Torrent communities continue to expand daily. In time, there will be enough sites with room on their servers to satisfy the demand users create, and when that happens, Bit-Torrent will truly be open to everyone.

Thomas Friedman and Nick Handler might think our generation is quiet and unsystematic, but the thousands of us from all over the world who dedicate our time to sharing our passions with the greater online community defy these characterizations. Our efforts are transforming the way we acquire and interact with art; our actions are laying out, often quite bluntly, a framework for constructive change through better distribution models. Friedman is correct in that we can't just e-mail it in. But we can start a grassroots cultural movement that places a century's worth of culture at the fingertips of a spirited generation.

We have the ability to package Shakespeare with Indie Japanese films, hand them to those who have never enjoyed such culture before, and discuss. Bit-Torrents and the people that use them can potentially revolutionize our perspectives on art both centuries old and cutting edge. It is our task to realize the possibilities of Bit-Torrent by confronting their flaws and adjusting accordingly. Our generation might not display much fervor beyond the computer screen, but our attempts to distribute, share, and discuss art in a way that previous generations could never have fathomed is in itself a call for optimism. Bit-Torrent websites might not constitute the type of activism that Americans are most familiar with­—but they can and do lead to progress in artistic and cultural appreciation.


William Lane is a Columbia College junior majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures.

design by Zach van Schouwen