A eulogy for what.cd

Perhaps this is the first time you hear about What.CD. If so, I must try to describe it for those who never knew it, and, now, will never know it. I could say what.cd was a website, and it would be true; or that it was a private tracker, and it would also be true; or that it was a community… That is a start, but it doesn’t suffice, anymore than saying a piano is a machine that strikes metal strings with hammers.

There is a common story to many nerds. Family, school, smaller or larger group of friends, and the magic of reading. Reading requires books, and those books, more often than not, come from the library. One learns through reading the children’s section, an more or less precociously graduates to the more adult material. The story may include learning to use the catalogue and inter-library systems, and one’s relationship with librarians as walking indexes of knowledge, as the guardians of the metaknowledge of how to find things out.

This is a common story for nerds, and yet it is not my story. I’m blind, and, when I was a child, this meant I had relatively limited access to books. Braille books are much bulkier, heavier, and more expensive to produce than printed ones, and typically have much less of a readership. Every year I had to submit a list of my textbooks (I did learn about ISBNs early in life) and if the fates were kind, towards the beginning of the academic course the books would begin to show up (sometimes weeks, sometimes months late). There were ways to access books in braille through a sort of lending system, but this experience is very different from browsing volumes in a library, where one can get an impression or begin to read and give up. When it came to personal reading material, it would require planning: check the catalog, request a book, hope that it is available, get it sent (usually in several braille volumes), wait for weeks or months, and then read it and send it back. Braille is a wonderful system that opens up the written word to the blind, but it doesn’t lend itself to keeping large private collections. I was very fortunate that my parents read a lot to me, and I found other ways to learn, such as radio programmes about science or history.

Around 1995 (I think?) I got an electronic notetaker. It was a fairly small device, roughly the size of a videotape (the tape, not the player). It weighed perhaps 200 grams, had 14 hours of battery life, a synthetic voice which I listened to with an earphone, and 7 keys to enter text in braille. It had a storage capacity of 640 kilobytes, and I was in love.

This device substituted my Perkins typewriter, which is the machine I learned to write on as my first. I remember carrying it to school when I was a small child. It weighed 4.8 kilos and took up most of my desk. It had an uncompromising industrial feel: the pressure required to activate the braille keys was a challenge for my small hands, since it wrote by punching holes on a special sheet of paper that is extra thick. The standard paper size, 11x8.5 inches, close to an A4, held a maximum of 25 lines with 42 characters per line, and when I took notes or did class work on it, it sounded like a machine gun. It was built like a battle tank (the entire case was metal) and it was the modern, reasonable way to write braille (I shan’t mention slates).

The change from a mechanical typewriter to an electronic notetaker, which was really a special purpose computer, was tremendous. I could write quietly and privately, whatever I wished, and I could keep my writing in files and find it easily. I didn’t have to mess about with paper anymore. The notetaker also had a serial port, which I started using to print things out so teachers didn’t need to learn braille to mark my work. It could also be attached to other devices through the port and function as a portable voice synthesizer (at a time when this was expensive enough it required hardware). That’s how I used my first proper computer.

Soon after, a blind friend gave me a floppy disk with a book in it, in plain text. I remember it to this day: Pericles the Athenian, by Rex Warner. I loaded it on my notetaker (it hardly took a fifth of the memory) and read it in a matter of a few days. That completely changed my understanding of reading. It turned out that one didn’t need to check a catalog, choose a title more or less at random, wait for weeks, get kilograms of paper delivered, read them and send them back.

My relationship to reading is inherently linked to my relationship to copying books. You may, if you wish, call it piracy or copyright infringement, although I was, for the most, covered by copyright excemptions for the blind, but the undeniable fact is that since then reading has been a matter of exchanging computer files with others, sometimes proof-reading them and giving them back improved, and generally belonging to that implicit universal library which is the province of people of good will when copying is effectively free.

The internet, to which I first had access around 1996, only confirmed my views on this matter. For my IB’s Extended Essay (a sort of monography one must write on a topic as a sort of highschool mini-thesis) I compared Napster, Gnutella and Freenet, as P2P bloomed. Around the year 2001 I acquired the core of my library after someone decided to share hundreds of books on a 630mb zip file that took me several days to download through dial-up.

What.CD is all of this for music. All of this with the added advantage of community, quality control, excellent seeding ratios and a long-term view that aimed for ever greater improvements to the system. What.CD was, in two words, music communism.

I’m aware that it is not quite like that. It is not good to speak ill of the dead, but What.CD had some minor shortcomings. As a private tracker, sometimes there was a certain elitism involved. There was an interview process to get access, other than by invitation, which required applicants to show knowledge about spectral analysis to the satisfaction of the site admins. There were also user classes, which got different perks on the site, such as number of invitations one can issue or use of some features like private album collages. The fact is, What.CD is as close to music communism as I have seen and am likely to see for a long time to come, and it is dead.

There were always some inevitable tensions in the essence of What.CD. It wanted to be the implicit universal library for music for everyone, and it succeeded at amassing an incredible diversity of content. There were hundreds of thousands of albums, properly tagged, and often losslessly compressed. At the same time, because of the legal conjuncture, it had to live as a clandestine operation, which always left it short of funds, and required access to be granted by invitation or selection procedures which excluded the vast majority of the world. The necessity to measure ratios forced people to keep the torrents private to What.CD and not to share them through DHT. The ratio requirements led to users being overcautious about downloading, to the point that unlike in public BitTorrent sites, where the problem is orphaned torrents without seeders, a problem in What.CD was to be able to seed at all.

The reality, though, is that all the problems of What.CD stem from a single cause: the existing copyright regime. The selective membership was a means (ultimately insufficient) of protecting the operation. The need to incentivise users to seed, and the whole user class system and ratio requirements, came about because the torrents shared on What.CD were only shared by and for What.CD users and so a lot of the power of the BitTorrent network was outside our use.

I find myself remembering Byte Monsoon, Torrentz, or Demonoid. I wonder how long this will go on. We, the people of good will, continue building the implicit universal library, and the power hunts us, and ultimately destroys much of our work. If it is true that What.CD’s databases have been destroyed, this is a crime against culture. It is the wilful destruction of socially useful work for the purpose of upholding an exclusionary property regime. It is, in one word, an enclosure.

I feel sad at What.CD’s closure, but I also feel, in some measure, guilty. I am only one person, but I, more than most, have a precise regard for the cardinal importance of access to culture, and how it makes a difference to someone’s life. I have also the training of a computer scientist, and have thought about issues of metadata, sharing, and resilient systems for a while. But I did nothing. I simply used what systems other people built, hoping that this time the clearances wouldn’t get me.

I call on everyone to think about this issue. I don’t expect everyone to agree. Many people have reasonable objections to the notion that all culture, or all culture that is subject to digitisation, at least, should be universally accessible in a society in which capital yet reigns and cultural creators must eat. The promise of the universal library is also only as universal as access to computers, and computer networks. Perhaps there are better things to do in order to improve people’s chances to experience things they never knew existed, build, and learn together. However, as I see it, we should think carefully about this, and if we think What.CD should endure, if we think this implicit universal library is worth protecting, we should think further on what and how to build to make it so, and plan for it to be eventually attacked. We should make sure the careful work of thousands of people who meticulously verify and enter metadata will not again be lost. We should make sure we build for failure, and that when it happens, the library will clone itself and sprout anew with as few losses as we may contrive.

What.CD is dead, but the dream… the dream yet lives.