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Will the concept of a library die with the advancing digital age?

Listen, if you haven’t heard – although the gaping vacuum in the Internets is hard to miss. That’s the whisper, in ever corner of the digital ‘verse, of the Pirate Bay vanishing, taking with it massive swaths of culture-hungry, file-sharing traffic. It’d hardly be news, except that this time there are whispers that it may be the end. In fact, in the eyes of the very people who built our beloved haven, it should be.

Among pirates and freedom-minded tech people, the idea of decentralization is sacred. This deep-rooted belief is reflected in the opinions of those saying The Pirate Bay should die. It is too big, they say. Too commercial. We have come to idolize a king, instead of building new and better challenges to the powers that be. The Pirate Bay needs to die, so it can be replaced with more and better sites that do not sit in the hands of a few people, at a single point of failure.

I do not disagree with that.

But I think there is value in having a commons.

The Pirate Bay was a commons – a space everyone knew, where everyone was welcome, where participation was free, without barrier and without exception. It was indeed a single point of failure, a central place controlled by…. who knows who, a tiny invisible thinktank that bartered in porn ads and millions upon millions of hits. But it was also home to the decentralized masses – torrenting is, after all, a decentralized act by its nature. Ultimately, as a commons the Pirate Bay was a central space, but not a wholly centralized power structure. It was not a governor, but a facilitator. The Pirate Bay was an empty space that it’s users filled up. It’s power didn’t really come from the invisible thinktank, but from the millions of people who met within it to swap and spread culture.

I deeply respect the thoughts of the founders.

I do not disagree that there is a time for everything and maybe the Pirate Bay’s time is passed. I agree that good will come from new things growing where old things die out. (At 10+ years, TPB is indeed an old thing on the Internet.) The internet is a hydra, after all. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again. One head falls, only to make room for two more. The Pirate Bay’s permanent death (whenever that is) will no more be the death of file-sharing than Napster’s death was.

But I’m sad, too, wondering if This is It. As Henrik Alexandersson muses on What will the world look like without the Pirate Bay, I too fear: “a world without TPB would be a poorer, duller and worse off place.”

I have written before about the importance of the library in digital space. Libraries are, inherently centralized in some way. They are gathering places, like the Pirate Bay. They are protected and public repository of information that may not be accessible to everyone otherwise. And ultimately, they facilitate the very decentralized act of culture- and knowledge-sharing. I believe, as other do, that the Pirate Bay did serve a library-like function. Yes, it was a central location that could be exploited or brought down. But it was was this very fact that made it most useful to the most people.

I am hopeful for what will come next, but I am shaken at the loss of such a massive library.

Will the things that grows up in its place reach the same heights? The same level of accessibility? The sheer volume of culture and knowledge it held?

More importantly: will the Internet ever have a library that is not under constant threat? Will such a vast commons ever be safe online, or will there always be someone fighting to destroy it? I understand the fear of centralization in this context: one point of failure is catastrophic when very powerful people are dead-set on making you fail. But will that fear preclude us from ever having a truly free, truly accessible, truly comprehensive library in the digital space?

I don’t know, but I know we’ll find out.

I’ve used the past tense here, but honestly I don’t think the Pirate Bay is in the past. Maybe that’s Denial talking. But here’s the truth: the Pirate Bay is not just the handful of people in control, it’s also those millions upon millions of users that filled up the commons. That’s the difference between a truly centralized power and a commons: we’re all still here and we’re not lost without a “king.” The Pirate Bay is too many people to disappear without a trace, and I know that something will rise from its ashes. Maybe it will be the Pirate Bay. Maybe it will be something else.

I look forward to what comes next. For now, I’m just talking into the void…

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