The theme of this year’s Night of Ideas is “One World”. But one of the events organised in Paris, at the Georges Pompidou Centre, had an additional theme of its own.
On Thursday night, historians, researchers and artists came together here to talk about pirates: from modern day sea pirates in the Horn of Africa, to the pirate party in Iceland.
Snæbjörn Brynjarsson, a member of this Icelandic political party, spoke at the event.
He explained that the word “pirate” is often romanticised, and “can make you think of Pirates of the Caribbean, or pirates in Somalia or even the Vikings in Iceland.”
But to Brynjarsson, a political activist, “pirate” means something else.
“In politics I think it means someone who wants to hack the current system of democracy,” he said.
His Pirate Party’s platform seeks to reform the democratic process by calling for freedom of information, transparency, Internet neutrality and reform of copyright and patent law.
For him, the act of illegally downloading media content is part of what makes him a pirate.
“For me it’s what I do every day. I download stuff illegally almost every day,” he explained.
“I pay for a lot of things too,” he added. “But I illegally download most of my media consumption, my everyday reading and watching and listening.”
Today, the word “pirate” has more definitions than the sea robbers of yore.
Indeed, “pirating” can mean downloading movies and other content from the Internet without paying, and in defiance of copyright law.
Hence the adoption of the term “pirate”.
Valentin Schmite, a graduate student at Sciences Po in Paris, spoke at Thursday’s event.
He says that there are certainly differences between the maritime pirates of the 16th century, for example, and the Internet pirates of today.
But he also thinks there are some similarities.
“For me piracy is a paradigm characterised by a simple concept. Pirates evolve in non-bordered space, without any form of sovereignty,” he explains.
“When you think about it, the Internet has many references to the sea. You ‘surf the web’, the ‘net’ is the fishing net, and when you do a hacking attack you talk about ‘flooding’.”
“There are a lot of references to the sea because the space of the internet can be similar to that of the high sea,” he concludes.
Pirates in art
The Pompidou exhibit featured multiple installations, one being a big wooden boat in the middle of the room.
Another one was a film by artist Nicholas Maigret, called The Pirate Cinema.
The film shows one-second clips of the top movies and TV shows that Internet users across the world are downloading, and this in real time, as the downloads are happening.
Pirates call these downloads "torrents".
The country where the torrent is sourced from, as well as the destination country where it's downloaded, are also shown on the screen.
Maigret describes his film on his website as “making the hidden activity and geography of [torrent] sharing visible.”
Arnaud Fournier, an art student from Marseilles, thought the torrent mash-up went well with the pirate theme of the exhibit, as well as the larger “one world” theme of the Night of Ideas.
“We don’t see torrent websites as bringing people together,” he said. “But that’s what they’re doing, they bring people together.”
Fournier also pointed out that he saw clips of the the same films being downloaded over and over again.
“It’s funny to see how people in different countries are downloading the same content. It’s a very universal thing.”
“It’s cool to see this in real time,” he added.
The second international Night of Ideas took place on the same night, Thursday 26 January, in more than 40 countries across the world.
All of the events were organised around the “one world” theme.