Monthly Archives: September 2009

The pirate’s gospel (2)

Where were we? Oh yes, the industrial information economy becoming the networked information economy. Do throw a party in celebration.

Anyway, there are new debates of information ownership being carried out at the moment. It’s likely that these will carry on for the next couple of decades or so. Everything, including the most basic philosophy of information ownership, is being hotly contested, and it seems at times that the whole informational world is up for grabs. Questions like ‘what can/should we do with this information?’, ‘who owns it?’ and ‘how, for how long?’ are all up in the air.

It’s a caricature to say that there are only two sides to this debate, but let’s simplify it to that for now. So let’s put the incumbent information owners (Hollywood, big media, the music industry) in the blue corner, and what I’ll loosely call ‘information freedom activists’ in the red (Sweden’s Pirate Party, people like the EFF and so on). They’re not quite at loggerheads, but it’s a very close thing.

The problem with these debates is that you need to speak an arcane mixture of geek and law to understand what’s going on with them. That’s not to say you can ignore them either. Take, for instance, an apparently yawnsome consultation being done by Ofcom recently, prompted by a BBC document titled ‘Proposal to implement the Huffmann lookup tables licensing approach to ensuring content management measures are included in DVB-T2 receivers’.

Obscure? Yes. Should you care? Well, it depends whether you want to hand control of your shiny new high-definition Freeview recording box over to the BBC. It could mean that they, and they alone, decide exactly what you’re allowed to do with their HD programmes. They could stop you from recording some of them entirely, they could stop you burning them onto disc, or they could ensure that some of your other recordings self-destruct after a given number of days.

I can’t help being slightly worried about land-grabs like this. I’m even more worried that the BBC’s hand may be being forced by Hollywood’s threats to stop selling it programmes if it doesn’t comply with their wishes.

At the same time, I hold up my hand and say, yes, I have downloaded pirated copies of BBC programmes. Never a film, never anything for which I can go out and buy the DVD or CD, but yes, I have gone on BitTorrent and downloaded (mostly) recent and classic radio comedies that I can’t find anywhere else. My simplistic argument? I paid for them with my license fee (so that means they sort of belong to me anyway, right kids?) More importantly for my ethics, the BBC hasn’t given me any reasonable method to pay for those programmes the second time. If it did, I’d happily cough up the cash.

I’m aware that it’s a world of complex technical issues, and big and little fleas. I’m also aware that while on the one hand my breed of Christianity seems to give me some sort of responsibility to be vaguely counter-cultural, the religion’s big boss did make it very clear that Caesar’s should remain Caesar’s.

So with all that in mind, those first-year seminar questions, to which I never pretend to know definitive answers:

  • Should information automatically be protected (by copyright, or similar)? If it should, for how long?
  • Where do you draw the line between sharing information and stealing information?
  • Should you accept that, if you can copy a CD, a DVD or a TV broadcast with no obvious loss of quality, you should face some restrictions in doing so?
  • Are you happy to pay money to someone for a media file (from the iTunes store, say) that you know has had some restrictions put on it?
  • Does how rich you think the author is affect any of the above for you?
  • Lily Allen. Discuss.

Answers on a postcard, or in a comment…

The pirate’s gospel (1)

I’ve been delighted to see Kester Brewin blogging the talk he gave about Christian piracy at Greenbelt. For those that missed it, Kester gave a long-now account of why we’re enthralled by pirates and piracy, what pirates can teach us, and more generally how piratical philosophy can illuminate our thinking about faith. It was great. And yes, there were some appallingly bad pirate jokes.

A week or so before Greenbelt, I was reading his associated Third Way article. I was also deep in a book ostensibly about the new ways we deal with information, but which was also strangely in tune with what Kester had to say. The book is The Wealth of Networks, a weighty work currently beloved of those strange breed of people who might call themselves political economists of information. In English, those are the sorts of people who like to research the complex relationships between governments, big business, market economics, individuals, and information in its widest sense.

I like the book for many reasons. It’s properly academic, yet it wears its learning relatively lightly. It contains passages that I can read out word for word to first years, and (if they’re listening) they should then understand quite complex ideas. It contains other sections that masters students, or the sort of people that are attending Vaux’s Apple sessions, can dissect endlessly. Oh, and it’s also available for free if you want it.

One of Yochai Benkler’s key ideas in that book is that we’re going through a sea-change in how we deal with information. He talks about the old ways of what he calls the ‘industrial information economy’. In that, your DVD copy of (let’s say) Pirates of the Caribbean is given the green light by Disney, is produced by the million in a handful of factories all over the world, is shipped and distributed to places as diverse as Amazon and your local video store, and ends up in your hands once you pay for it. The information is stored in the physical object. You own your personal copy of the information, so if you lend your DVD to a neighbour then (normally) you can’t watch the same DVD at your house too.

That was the old system. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out that’s changing. Enter the networked information economy. Disney can put a single copy of Pirates… online, and it can be recoded to various forms – copied to iTunes, streamed from
a movie rental site, edited and packaged on YouTube, and ‘pirated’ on BitTorrent. The combination of ones and zeros that make up the film can be copied endlessly, remodelled, cut and pasted in the most general sense, and all without any single person being able to claim sole ownership of the information itself. The film could theoretically exist on every Internet-connected computer in the world at the same time. Want to give a copy of it to your neighbour? Depending on how you do it, and how the film company want you to do it, you could find that you don’t lose out by sharing. No more ownership of a physical object storing information. Copy, share, stream, remix – as far as the pure data’s concerned, anything’s fair game.

My generation lived – indeed, it’s still living – through this change. The dim crystal balls of the early web prophets, the ideologies of internet pioneers, and their talk of music ‘being free’, led to the Napster revolution of the late 1990s, which made millions all over the world law-breakers; renegades; yes, pirates. We realised we didn’t need to own a CD to have a copy of its music. And unlike the days of swapping worn-out cassette copies in the school yard, the digital copy could be indiscernible from the original to all but the keenest ear.

To say the least, the music industry got a bit worried about this.

A confluence of factors – the forcing of Napster onto a more industry-friendly business model, the rise of Apple and iTunes, the increasing speeds of home connections and the growing ease of streaming music – led to the original renegades becoming squashed or legitimised. Kester commented that ‘The heresy of Napster becomes the orthodoxy of Spotify.’ Or rather, the legitimacy of Spotify. It’s the free music model that (for the time being) keeps everyone happy: artists get paid, the music industry push their tunes out to millions, and music lovers don’t have to pay for their music. (Want to hear what’s been going round my head as I’m writing this? If you’ve got Spotify, you can).

It doesn’t always work that well though. There are huge bits of the networked information landscape still up for grabs. Benkler reckons that changes, such as the one we’re living through, create a time of flux for a generation or so, before things settle down. (And in Kester’s argument, a piratical critique of capitalism is usually quashed or moderated by the authorities that come to make sure things really do settle down.)

I fully realise that Kester’s argument has been developed far wider than music/film/video piracy, but I’m quite interested in exploring the questions surrounding just that. I’d quite like to know what a Christian way of thinking about such piracy actually is. I’d quite like to know whether we can even form a legitimate Christian way of thinking about Hollywood vs the individual, of Napster vs Spotify, of copy/rip/burn vs going down to HMV.

[Some specific questions surrounding just that in the next post, but it’s getting rather late now, this is getting too long, and I really need to get Alela Diane out of my head…]

The long now, through the rear-view mirror

Greenbelt was rewarding, as ever, this year. Thought-provoking (if some astonishingly rude) speakers, a welcome chance to meet up with old friends, and that all-too-rare sense that thought and ideas were welcome.

And a good theme too: the long now. The shadow of eternity, the sense that our actions today may have repercussions in years if not centuries to come, and a counter-cultural shout against the sort of world where the long term means ‘a couple of years from now’.

For a few days I’ve been trying to map the links between that and the field in which I now work, and a chance conversation with one of my colleagues earlier today made this all make a bit more sense. We were discussing Marshall McLuhan. You know – McLuhan, the mad, freewheeling Canadian pop-sociologist, who told us all that the medium was the message, and many other things besides.

McLuhan’s reputation has rollercoastered over the past decades. The toast of the alternative subcultures of the 1960s, he fell very quickly out of favour as the ideals of that era died (to be fair, he also then stopped writing anything of interest whatsoever). Oddly enough for a discipline he in part prophesied, media studies largely hated the man in the 1970s. It called him simplistic when it came to his view of technology. McLuhan’s death in 1980 made very few people speak well of the man. We mocked, with some justification, his weird hippyish ideas of ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media. And then in the 1990s, something very strange happened.

That something was the Internet.

Overnight, McLuhan was rehabilitated. His 1962 idea of the ‘global village’, of everyone being able to know each others’ business instantly via media technology, made some sense when it came to the growth of television at that time. The shared event of the moon landings in 1969 showed that McLuhan needn’t have stopped with the idea of just one globe being part of a village. But when the Internet came along, a shared communication medium that connected one person directly to another without needing a central broadcaster to do it for them, people began to seriously take notice of McLuhan again. The global village was suddenly within everyone’s reach.

Media studies was still at best ambivalent about the man (for my part, he says too little about the technology have-nots for me to take him seriously). But outside the ivory tower, things changed. Wired magazine, beloved of the Web’s adopters in the early 1990s, called him its ‘patron saint’ (and in a phrase that will chime with many who read this blog, its ‘holy fool’). He was deemed to have Seen The Internet Coming twenty-five years early.

But then, his fans argue that McLuhan saw coming the fact that he would only make sense after his death. He wrote:

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.

In McLuhan’s criticism, we understand the present only as it disappears behind us. The acceleration of technology means that things move too fast for us to make any sense of them at the time. And it’s only the hindsight of now that lets us understand the changes of years past.

Which in one sense chimes with Greenbelt’s idea of the long now, and in another sense almost completely contradicts it. Illustrating this year’s theme on the Greenbelt blog, Martin Wroe quotes Danny Hillis, co-founder of The Long Now Foundation in 1996. ”Civilization is reviving itself into a pathologically short attention span.” according to Hillis. Worse still, “the trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology…”

I’m not about to argue whether ‘technology’ (whatever Hillis actually means by that in this context) decreases our attention spans. But it’s obvious to anyone who lives with new media that it’s pretty futile to resist the sort of accelerated culture that McLuhan argues it brings about.

If we can’t resist it, we might as well try to live with it.

And McLuhan’s resignation to the fact that we make sense of today’s changes only in years to come is something that more than a few Greenbelters had at the back of their mind, as they tried to put meat on the bones of ‘the long now’. I know I did in retrospect (appropriately enough).

Hence, I suspect, why I’m restarting this blog. I came back from Cheltenham with a vague commitment to ‘share more’. I shifted a year ago to a field which deals with the long now in ways it’s yet to discover. With all that in mind, I hope it’ll be ok to share some ideas again. Many of them will be half-baked, some na├»ve and some just plain wrong, but they’ll be out there. And I can look back at them, through the rear-view mirror, and boggle at just how wrong or right (yeah, right) I was, in time hence.

I suspect it’ll all be a lot of fun too. Well, for me anyway…