The Banal Censorship Of Streaming

Nam June Paik at the Smithsonian

Censorship is increasingly a capital offense. If it offends capital, you don’t get to see it. I dunno if censorship is even the right word, because it’s an effect without the same intent. Capital doesn’t care about content per se, it’s just the money. But the practical effect of drawing a black marker across much of the world is much the same. For most of the world, a lot of streaming content is not possible to watch legally.

There are of course many ‘legal’ reasons for this but when I try to explain them to my six year old daughter they make no sense, and I’ll go with her pre-deluded perspective on this. Kids like pirates for good reason.

Where I live in Sri Lanka we cannot legally access content from Disney Plus, Hulu, or many streaming services at all.

What we do access is limited and/or different, as is the policy from country to country. If we want to watch something ‘censored’ in this way we have to use VPNs, change our app store, pirate it, or get the local video store to load it on a flash disk. In short, we have to break the law. Even within the imperial internet core, certain content just disappears, again if capital deems it so. This is a benign sort of censorship, but it has the same effect as banning something.

The truth is, a lot of what they’re ‘censoring’ is propaganda anyways, the unconscious background propaganda that ‘white’ people (increasingly played by black people) simply must punch their way through problems and that they have the right to do this anywhere on the globe. Just as Batman Returns was about how unaccountable billionaires should stop any threat to the status quo, or how TENET was about how anyone trying to stop climate collapse should be murdered by the CIA, and as Oppenheimer probably has the same violently conservative message (haven’t seen it yet), the message of a lot of this streaming content is about how imperial violence is justified because imaginary threats, and that the status quo must be defended at all costs.

This standard plot is merely nauseating in the abstract (once you see it), but it’s absolutely macabre when applied to real war crimes. They’ve already started the self-aggrandizing movies about white saviors in Afghanistan, and I shudder to think of the dreck the Ukraine War will produce. These are people who believe the United Kingdom won World War II through stern speeches, ignoring the more momentous Eastern Front entirely. They presumably want us in the South to see this shit — and continue oppressing ourselves and manning the imperial bureaucracy for them — but they just lazily censor stuff because the ruling principle of the ‘rules-based-order’ is, above all, fuck the poor. Hence I can’t even say that this is malign censorship, it’s just banal. They simply don’t care enough about poor countries to propagandize us. It’s not about the material. It’s about the money.

Technically, streaming is depressing because it could have been so cool. We had a peer-to-peer model (Napster) which used way less computing power (and energy) by letting anyone who consumed media also distribute it. But copyright-holders (very different from artists) didn’t like that and so they built a much more ungainly system of centralized streaming. As much as this was hailed as innovative, the effect is just recreating a cable TV subscription, which costs up to a $100 for different ‘channels’. This system also actively blocks much of the world, obviously blocks the poor, and indolently just destroys content when it wants a tax break or just feels like it. Like so much capitalist ‘efficiency’, it actually produces massive amounts of waste heat and wasted energy which is called ‘profit’ and makes the machine very happy while — after an initial bait and switch — becoming increasingly shitty or just pointless for humans.

The nature of the internet could have led to completely different types of producing and distributing content, but it inevitably got centralized. This is somewhat a property of communications technology (from ham radio and community TV to now), so I wouldn’t necessarily call it malevolent, but capital is generally evil and relentless enshittifies everything in the hunger for profit (which is actually inefficiency). The fact is that the internet could have been an efficient, distributed content system for the world, with payments or just donations built in. Instead we have replicated the old Cable TV, movie studio model, except with even less unionization and artist rights. The core innovation of capitalist is obliterating whatever rights people won before and forcing them to do it all over again.

The fact is that piracy, VPNs, and all of these nominally illegal ‘stealing’ of content is what A) enables the poor and southern to see it and B) preserves content for posterity. Because the default model of content within capitalism is censorship. When things become cheap to reproduce the money is in monopolizing the copying of content, through artificial laws. Copyright is about getting people to not share content, to not copy it, to make it into private property. The lie is that this is about the artists, but it never is. It’s about those who own the means of production, not the means of creation. The latter, however well paid, are still just workers at the end of the day and capitalism is about capital, as it says on the tin.

Just as people without cursed passports don’t notice passport apartheid, people with imperial IP addresses don’t notice that much of this content is banned to most of the world. Even if they have the money. The them Internet controls are something that happen in China, but they ignore the fact that — within the flagless capital empire they and we in the south are forced to live in — content is routinely censored. Most of the world is not legally allowed to see certain things at all and even the filthy poors within the Empire are forbidden. This is censorship without intent, but the effect is censorship nonetheless. It’s a lame new world.