The first slice of bread that is mostly crust

Noisy, uncomfortable, messy, and amidst all of it I feel very small – In hindsight, my first impression of digital media continues to inform my relationship with the digital to this day.

In the early 00s, which is as accurate as I can place this memory, my father brought me along to Gorbushka, a market which name translates to “the first slice of bread that is mostly crust”. Occupying the building of a former television factory, it started out over a decade prior as an impromptu outdoor meeting place for sale and exchange of vinyl records, audio- and videotapes and quickly grew into one of Moscow’s largest black markets for digital media, software and hardware. Greeted upon entrance with large signs warning against the sale and purchase of unlicensed media, a visitor was immediately surrounded by music blasting from several audio shops, long rows of flashy signs, neon lights, endless stacks of polycarbonate and plastic, sellers holding stacks of discs and cassettes in their arms, loudly advertising their goods in a similar way they would at the produce market. More information than it is possible to consume in a lifetime had a corresponding physical presence, displayed in various degrees of neatness. As a user you are separated from this vastness by the comfort of the limits of the interface. And it was unnerving in a way I was yet to understand.

Today, I feel that the noise, chaos and discomfort, perhaps came as a part of rather than in contradiction to Gorbushka’s proliferation for over a decade as a place of global knowledge exchange and cultural encounter. The terms on which these interactions and exchanges were carried out were far from equal. But if this game was to be played by the existing rules, generations would miss out on digital media. An urban legend tells us that in 1997 it took only four hours between Bill Gates’ announcement of Microsoft Office 97 sales and it appearing on sale at Gorbushka. The prices of licensed software were prohibitively high for an average Muscovite, and many foreign titles and labels were not licensed for distribution in Russia until years or decades later. As I look back, the long gone meeting place of digital media and society made visible to me many of the injustices and paradoxes of the cyberspace in which they are too often obscured; sometimes as a bug and sometimes as a feature.

As I grew, so did the availability and speed of at home internet in Moscow. Speed and ease of distributing pirated content online followed, and ultimately it was rather digitalisation than law enforcement that saw Gorbushka’s end. Pirates now sailed the high tides of the internet, and when eventually my dad handed down his old laptop to me, I became one of them. One of my first computer crimes was downloading a copy of a well-known graphic design and editing program, and today I list it amongst skills on my resume. I owe much of my English to pirated music, film and TV, which was reproduced complete with voiceovers and subtitles by amateurs and professionals alike. This unlawful pursuit of knowledge and culture has contributed to countless people’s lives; there is no way to quantify or trace how millions of people learning computer skills, languages, discovering their passion for art, being inspired, connecting, creating – all via copyrighted media that they otherwise would not have access to – contributes positively to our world.

After I moved to the Netherlands in 2016, I was enticed by the newfound comfort and seemingly simple ethics of streaming services which were not available in Russia at the time. However, a new challenge and necessity appeared – access to scientific publishing. I have many times found myself hitting the paywall, at the limits of institutional access, wondering whether it would be worth paying an arbitrary amount for a book or an article that might help with my research – or it might not. Fortunately, I knew two links that solve this issue altogether. Both websites were created by scientists from the former Soviet Union, provide free access to over 80 million academic articles and books, are blocked by several internet service providers in Europe, and were sued by the world’s largest academic publisher Elsevier, which profits off largely publicly funded research, for piracy and copyright infringement citing “irreparable harm and damages”.

I find it hard to see irreparable harm in students and academics from countries such as China, Russia, Brazil, India, Iran being able to study and work, despite the success of the business model that would rather see them not. Perhaps instead we should count the harm of the 456% increase in universities’ expenses for journals and other subscriptions since 1986. Or the greatest harm there is, to human life – exemplified in the tragic death of open access pioneer Aaron Schwartz

2020 has been dotted with loud statements over equal and open access to digital media and scientific research especially, yet they all end with a no less loud silence that leaves me thinking we may be further away from digital – to say the least – equality that we seemed to be almost twenty years ago.

I still occasionally visit first the Russian torrenting website for which I signed up in 2010. Under the logo, there’s a slogan that is evocative of Soviet posters – “Downloaded? Seed!”.