by Tarleton Gillespie. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2007. 420pp. Hardcover. $29.95/£18.95. ISBN: 9780262072823.

Reviewed by Debora Halbert, Department of History and Political Science, Otterbein College. Email: Dhalbert [at] otterbein.edu.


Tarleton Gillespie’s WIRED SHUT is another interesting addition to the growing literature on copyright law and the impact of copyright on the digital cultural landscape in the United States. The book addresses the approaches employed by the culture industries and their lobbyists to develop a safe digital landscape for the commodities that constitute much of American culture – specifically, music, movies and software. Gillespie describes the efforts made by major industry players to develop a “trusted system” that includes digital rights management (DRM), legal initiatives, and a narrative campaign to shape the digital future by asserting that numerous acts of sharing are actually copyright piracy. The argument of the book is implied in the title; that major industry players are developing strategies to “wire shut” the Internet in such a way that the free flow of cultural commodities will be controlled to assure the digital culture of the future will be one of passive consumption instead of active creation.

To make his argument, Gillespie builds on Lawrence Lessig’s thesis that a shift from the legal layer (making laws to protect intellectual property) to the code layer (writing programs that make infringing intellectual property difficult) is the preferred strategy for content owners. As this shift occurs, regulation becomes less visible and thus less easy to resist, even when the copying involved is legal under the law. In the “wired shut” world, culture is owned, consumed, and tightly regulated through the digital vehicle designed for its delivery and the free flow of cultural products will be stifled not only by the law, but by the computer systems themselves, taking regulation out of the public and placing it in the self-interested hands of content providers.

While Gillespie is not the first to claim that the future looks less than bright for the free flow of ideas and non-commodified culture, what he contributes is a sophisticated accounting of several key developments and the ways in which these developments have impacted our ability to use digital cultural products. Although the book is not specifically divided into sections, there are two parts. The first part, chapters one through three, establish the paradigm which informs Gillespie’s work and where he defines the relationship between law, technology, copyright and users. The second part, chapters four through nine, looks in more detail at the political and technological issues affecting access to digital culture and the ways in which technology is used to limit access.

Chapter One serves as an introduction to the book as a whole, and he introduces the concept of a “trusted system” (p.9). [*857] The trusted system is the relationship between technology, “the persuasive force of law and the legitimacy of new political and commercial alignments” (p.9). Developing a trusted system is the ambition of culture industry groups.

Chapter Two provides a brief history of copyright within the context of the Internet, fair use and technological efforts (such as DRM). The evolution of the Internet using open standards has led to a clash between commercial culture intent upon owning products and the social networking that is at the heart of the original Internet design. The peer-to-peer phenomenon, culminating in the controversy over Napster, displays publicly the efforts of industry to shape digital culture to fit the rules of commodified cultural ownership. Although primarily descriptive, this chapter questions the use of technology to control, while Gillespie endorses the need for a “non-commodified breathing space” (p.60).

Chapter Three investigates the nexus between technology, culture and law by summarizing the debates about the role of technology in shaping culture and vice versa. This chapter serves as an introduction to the role technology plays in shaping our social life. Weaving together the many theorists of technology, Gillespie makes the argument that technology is a subtle form of social control because it builds invisible mechanisms for shaping behavior that are difficult to see, much less critique. While software code is a form of regulation, he suggests that it alone is not sufficient. Instead, we have seen the development of a “regime of alignment,” the configuration of hardware, software, law, and industry to control the digital future. As Gillespie states, “this is not a mere imposition of code, not just a speed bump, but the interlocking of the technological, the legal, the institutional, and the discursive to carefully direct user activity according to particular agendas” (p.102). Such a regime has implications for the free flow of culture in a digital age, the theme that underlies the book as a whole.

Chapter Four examines the discursive aspect of the regime of alignment by analyzing the rhetoric of Jack Valenti, the former CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and one of the leading lobbyists for highly restrictive copyright laws. The chapter demonstrates how Valenti uses the threat of copyright “piracy” to shut down even legal uses of movies and how he made the concept of piracy into an important policy issue. Gillespie maps how the discourse on piracy is produced and its success in creating the ground rules upon which the issue of copyright are debated. It is an interesting case study that highlights how powerful actors were able to set the agenda by creating a threat and getting Congress to work to protect “innocent” industries from the threat.

Chapter Five introduces the reader to the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) and the failure of the music industry to develop an industry-wide digital rights management (DRM) system. It is an interesting chapter because it fails to support the larger argument, which is that a net of code, regulation, and technology are merging to stifle free use. Contrary to what the regime of alignment thesis might predict, SDMI failed, and while music industry actors have used the courts to enforce the law, [*858] already written to protect their interests, they have not been successful in controlling on-line music (yet). Gillespie acknowledges at the end of the chapter that SDMI offers a problematic example for his thesis. He states, “SDMI is a reminder that the alignment of technology and content, of hardware and software necessary for the trusted system to work, cannot be imposed without a matching alignment between the commercial institutions that produce them, and such an alignment is not easily achieved” (p.165). I would like to see additional analysis focused on what we might learn about how to avert the tightening of code and regulations in other industries from the failure in this one.

Gillespie turns to the successful path taken by the motion picture industry to regulate DVD technology in Chapter Six. This chapter discusses the encryption efforts of the movie industry, the controversy over the Content Scramble System (CSS) and the decryption efforts (DeCSS). Additionally, it offers a nice critique of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the ways in which its prohibitions against anti-circumvention create a non-neutral law designed to protect some rights holders over others (p.177). Ultimately, the movie industry has been far more successful at creating a “trusted system.” Gillespie suggests the fact that one initiative was mandatory and one voluntary (p.188) is a reason for the different outcomes, but I would like to have seen more thorough analysis here.

A further example of the attempted “regime of alignment” is outlined in Chapter Seven where the issue of the broadcast flag is discussed. This chapter describes the attempt to control digital broadcasts and industry efforts to align law and technology to seal off any possible non-sanctioned use. However, as with SDMI, this story is as much about the failure of industry initiatives as it is about their success. Industry lobbyists sought to use the state to impose their will upon the public, but FCC jurisdiction and public resistance made the initial efforts fail. Gillespie makes clear that the current political structure leaves little room for the public interest (p.220) and that, while the broadcast flag efforts were not successful, the stage has been set for control to be implemented in the future.

At this point, the “wired shut” element of the argument needs to be reexamined and better solidified. The examples offered so far do not point definitively to a successful “regime of alignment,” but instead to the fact that industries are trying to build that regime. In part, the failure to align the regime around new regulations and technological controls has occurred because there is a counter-narrative available, one that is discussed in Chapter Eight. This chapter discusses forms of “frustration” that have emerged to challenge the regime of alignment. It is fairly short and offers no avenues for action, but simply highlights that the regime of alignment has not gone unchecked.

The final chapter draws conclusions regarding the impact of encryption and copyright on digital culture. Gillespie does not see a bright future, but one that includes increased privatization, increased commodification, the use of surveillance to assure adherence to the law and the possible creation of a [*859] pay-per-use society. Gillespie sees these implications as damaging to a free and open society premised upon democratic values. While his optimistic claim is that a grassroots movement may be able to win the day, he remains pessimistic about the possibilities of resisting the power of the culture industry (p.281). I generally agree with his pessimism, but it should also be noted that most of his examples do not demonstrate definitive wins for industry players at the expense of the public interest. Additionally, while his chapter on frustrating forces is short, he should not discount the vigor with which public interest copyright organizations fight for open access against the regime of alignment.

Overall, I found WIRED SHUT to be very readable, well researched and worthwhile, specifically the chapters on encryption, SDMI, DeCSS, and the broadcast flag. Additionally, Gillespie does a good job of using technical points to make thought provoking theoretical arguments and weaves together theories of technology with his policy analysis. It is also beneficial to have an author writing from outside the legal profession, since the issue of copyright is most often addressed by law professors and needs to be discussed across the disciplines. The book will be suitable for students and scholars dealing with policy, encryption, technology, and copyright law.

Ultimately, I think Gillespie is correct that the transformation of citizens into consumers is troubling, but this shift has already happened in the non-digital world, and I would like more argumentation on how the digital future will be unique in this regard. The book also makes clear that the evidence does not support a simple story about a successful corporate strategy to control future digital culture, though this is not the ultimate intention of the author. While he does convincingly argue that a regime of alignment is eminent and that avenues for resistance are limited given the different levels of power the actors enjoy, resistance (or frustration) is still possible. I would like to hold out more hope for positive transformation than he does, in part because books like this help to problematize the status quo and offer us a different way to view what the digital future could be.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Debora Halbert.