Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Mark Stephen Meadows is one of those really annoying Americans who has seemingly turned his hand to everything and is probably just getting started. His story would be hard to believe, had it not been so heavily documented in the form of paintings, books, lectures, websites and US patents. Meadows claims to speak English, French and (conversational) Spanish, as well as C++, Javascript and 'cocktail conversation'. In his own words, he left school to be an artist, got hooked up in early web development – Meadows did graphics design work for Stewart Brand's legendary WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) when it became a dot com in the early 1990s – later worked at Xerox PARC and Stanford Research Institute, had his art work exhibited in Paris, and went on to found a software company called HeadCase. Something of an adventurer, Meadows traveled to Iraq in 2003 and wrote a book about his liaisons with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in 2010, Tea Time with Terrorists. He now spends his days varnishing his boat anchored off the coast of Mexico.

Like most Americans, he is not backward about coming forward (why should he be?) and there is a slightly self-mythologising quality about his remarkable career so far. But that is probably just jealousy speaking. There is no denying that the boundless enthusiasm, energy and joie de vivre apparent in such an outstanding CV is intimidating to a wannabe like me. But letting that sort of feeling overtake me is not going to help to accomplish any of the wild schemes I have in my head...

First, I will just review this book.

We, Robot is a travelogue about how technology is catching up with, and in some cases overtaking, fantasy. The book is ostensibly about robots - those humanoid worker drones invented by a Czechoslovakian playwright in the 1920s and as yet not realised - but manages to encompass a surprisingly wide range of technological phenomena. The breathless prose and sometimes stream-of-consciousness-machine-gun-of-ideas style does leave one gasping for air at times, but then you remember, in many ways, this is just an introduction, an overview - you relax and let the high winds carry you.

The book skids between the ethics of drone warfare, and remote control and autonomous weapons systems as embodied by The Terminator; the utility of Jetsons style home cleaning robots; augmentations that enhance human potential such as Luke Skywalker's hand; the odd appeal of sex-bots; and the quest for an artificial intelligence, which hopefully will not 'malfunction' like HAL in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have not even mentioned Meadows musings on Battlestar Gallactica (the newer good one), the inadequacy of the Turing Test and James Cameron's Avatar - and still more ground is covered in the text itself. It is little wonder therefore that the wanderer does occasionally lose his way, and, although much is learned during those diversions, the book is strongest when addressing the central idea that motivated his writing in the first place.

In an online interview here Meadows says that he wrote the book to 'explore some ethical questions' - and it is in those moments that We, Robot really soars. The book provides an excellent description of the Uncanny Valley, a concept with which anyone who has ever watched The Polar Express or any other Rober Zemeckis directed motion capture animation will already be familiar. People generally feel more and more comfortable around robots that look more human, until, at a critical juncture when the inanimate object looks 'almost human' trust falls off a cliff. Meadows describes the feeling as being particularly palpable when he visited a Japanese engineering and programming genius working on a life-like female droid - the more he looked at the lack of imperfection in her skin, the dullness in her eyes, the lack of vitality in her expression, the stranger he felt.

Meadows also skewers the 'openess and transparency' arguments put forward by large technology companies such as Facebook, Apple and Google, which already collect massive amounts of data about their users via websites and mobile gadgets. Given that I share much of his discomfort at the idea of privacy controls being relaxed and so-called 'openess' becoming the norm, it is heartening to read an articulate privacy advocate who is not a Luddite and who does not succumb to paranoid distortions. 'And why don't we like strangers looking through our emails or chat logs?' Meadows asks rhetorically. 'Because the more information someone has about you, the more control they have over you. And to once again refer to Linda Stone's term , "understanding workers", it is worth noting that as information becomes knowledge, knowledge becomes understanding, your behaviour and your thoughts quickly become predictable. Privacy is liberty.' Spot on!

There is a footnote to a fascinating research paper that details how 'sentiment analysis' on Twitter can already predict likely box office outcomes with (some might think) alarming accuracy. An over active imagination with a tendency towards the dystopian could run away with itself - what else might such massive agglomerations of data help to predict? Who is making those kinds of inquiries? Might the same system be used to 'push' people towards a desired outcome without their knowledge or consent?

The possibilities are exhilarating - both amazing and frightening to think on't.

Meadows own work with artificial personalities informs his thoughts about the implications of mass data collection by corporations with clarity and insight. Like a lot of good storytellers, he posits questions but does not tell anyone what to think. Who owns the personality profiles that companies compile? What should companies and individuals be able to use those profiles for? - so-called 'sock puppets' (multiple accounts controlled by a single operator) deployed to influence debate and promote a particular agenda online - on forums and in comments sections - are already known about and being reported upon. With whom should such valuable data be shared? The questions are massive and, like Blade Runner, seem to approach fundamental questions about identity and what makes us who we are.

There is a lot of detailed research in the book but, as the allusions to fictional characters make clear – more especially the references to pop culture and comic book icons – We, Robot is not and was never intended to be a scientifically rigorous portrait of the current state-of-the art. Nor does it claim to be – in a scene that seems to directly reference William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, Meadows describes stepping out of his hotel in downtown Tokyo, high on prescription medication, trying, in the hazy neon night time, to feel the signs of intermediation between human and robot reality. In my view, a book written by someone who knows a little bit more than the average bear about the kinds of systems that might be heading our way and which takes a responsible view of big issues to do with privacy, the psychology of uncanny valleys and the rights to ownership of our personalities, when used for marketing purposes, would be very welcome. As people try to understand the complicated relationships that are emerging between internet services and their users, these issues are only going to become more important.

Personally, I would love to read a more earnest account of Meadows work in artificial intelligence laboratories, performing semantic analysis and using that data to create natural language processing algorithms. The anecdote about his work heading a team of programmers and linguistic specialists in the design of some 'very intense software' which was able to scrape personalities and regurgitate them to a user - the team 'scraped' Arnold Schwarzenegger interviews and 'When the system was asked what it thought of gay marriage it replied, “Gay marriage should be between a man and a woman and if you ask me again I will make you do 500 push-ups.”' - is terrific. But I wanted more.

We, Robot is half technology dilemmas, half joyful romp through the maelstrom of modern robot tech. Still, if you want an intelligent guide to what technologists dream about, which touches upon, but does not get bogged down in, ethical issues, this one is highly recommended.

Now, you will have to excuse me, I am off to wrestle sharks off the coast of Western Australia, but not before I build a robot Mark Zuckerberg.lunarpark.blogspot.com - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - Keyword description

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Gift of Giving

I came across this very odd article on the BBC today. Apparently, the nation is enraptured by an advert for a department store in which a little kid counts down the days, the hours and the minutes until he can give his parents a present on Christmas Day. You see, he's not counting down the days, the hours and the minutes until he can rip the wrapping paper off of the little red fire engine he has been begging and pleading for since September. No. Not like the little brat that you (dear parents) have to put up with. This cherubim has only goodness in his heart and wants nothing but the gift of giving.

If you believe the PR puff, actual grown-ups, the men and women you see walking around town and who you talk to at your place of work, have openly confessed to crying at the sight of this manipulative marketing claptrap.

Is this where we have arrived at as a nation? Welcome to 21st century Britain, where an advert for a shop has the power to make people weep.

There is no doubt that the 'reaction' has been staged managed very well. When the 'campaign' was being dreamt up in a corporate boardroom, the executives would have probably cried themselves if you had told them about all of the media attention their simple little advert would attract. The 'event' has been planned to perfection by a very shrewd marketing team (and now I am adding to the frenzy), so well done to them.

That, of course, is all boring business as usual and to be expected. What I find more troubling, more strange is the write up on the BBC. The clear, clipped, corporate prose has all of the bland certainty of a copywriter and is akin to something cooked up by the advertising company's own PR department.

To what is the BBC dedicating valuable pixels, in its role as a public service broadcaster? Not a film, a song, a book or a play, but an advert. *sigh*

For all I known, the filmmakers who produced this mini-epic are worthy of the praise and attention their opus is now receiving. I had remained blissfully ignorant of this cultural 'happening' until Charlie Brooker wrote about it in Monday's Guardian. But, why, in this new media age, is an advert garnering such a high level of attention?

The triumph of commerce over culture (or commerce elevated to the status of culture) is bad enough but the clever campaign is still more insidious than that. As the BBC article points out, 'True to anything that becomes an instant hit on the web, the ad has already spawned a number of online spoofs. The most popular take has been to keep the ad but change the music to something from a chilling movie. There is the "Shining" version which features spooky organ music, and the Se7en version which is accompanied by dialogue from the 1995 thriller.'

The sad truth is that these 'anarchic' attempts to 're-contextualise' the advert, by casting it as something other than what it is, are only helping the monster to grow. The spoofers, the spammers and the pisstakers are doing the work of the marketing men, helping the advert to reach a still wider demographic who will associate the brand with the outré and anti-establishment sentiments implanted by their friends. It is little wonder why 'John Lewis chiefs don't appear too bothered by the spoofs - after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery', the BBC reminds us, helpfully.

To resist is like fighting against The Blob or a stinking bog, the more you fight, the more slime, the stronger the enemy becomes.

Don't struggle, it'll be over soon.lunarpark.blogspot.com - The Gift of Giving - Keyword description

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Business Case

Mission Impossible 4 is a fascinating project from a commercial and a demographic point of view.

But is the fourth outing in the highly successful spy franchise the right vehicle to give Tom Cruise the hit he so desperately needs, and does Brad Bird have what it takes to helm a multi-million dollar live-action Hollywood blockbuster?

There is a lot resting on this film - namely, the ailing career of one of the brightest stars of American cinema of the last 20 years and the fledging career of one of America's most talented mainstream movie directors; not to mention the fate of Paramount Studios, which has bet the farm.

Tom Cruise arguably hasn't had a hit since the last Mission Impossible film, five years ago. His sometimes wild and exuberant interviews have also damaged his all-American boy image and his high-profile support of a dubious West Coast religion, fashionable among the super rich, has made him a target of ridicule and derision.

Age is certainly against him - his face has lost much of its boyish quality over the last few years - as is the amount of time he has been at the top. Tom Cruise has been there longer than most - Cruise contemporaries such as Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have been playing middle aged for a while now and although all four are still capable of 'opening' a film, a new crop of stars have already usurped them in the money making stakes. Johnny Depp, Matt Damon and Will Smith. Very few Hollywood leading men have lasted into a third decade without loosing their box office draw: John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood, all of which were best known for playing cowboys, that enduring image of the mythic American hero.

If an actor like Cruise has an equivalen persona, it is probably the character of Ethan Hunt. Something of a blank slate, who changes his emotional palette based on the tastes of the director and what each episode in the series requires, while also enabling Cruise to show off his (movie star) athletic prowess, hanging from tall structures, riding motorcycles, etc. But Ethan Hunt is hardly an American icon - in many ways he is as enigmatic as Cruise himself who, in an era of 24 hour news coverage, Twitter and Facebook, has remained commendably private off screen. But will the American public still buy Cruise as an action hero?

Brad Bird is also an interest case. Early on in his career, he leant style, class and a sense of cinematic ingenuity to the Simpsons. (Any sequence you remember from seasons one to eight that had a distinctive sense of visual flair, you can be pretty sure he had a hand in). As an animation director, he has made two near-perfect films, one traditional hand drawn animation and the other rendered digitally by a computer: The Iron Giant, a heart-breaking fable about the stupidity of authority figures who think the answer is always military; and The Incredibles, about a superhero family with real world problems who propose the dangerously elitist view that if you work hard at something and you have the talent it is possible to achieve great things. But what of his record as a director of live action feature films? He must have one. Hollywood studios do not let first time directors behind the camera of multimillion dollar franchise sequels with a major star and god only knows how many advertising and corporate sponsorship deals... What do you mean they did?... Oh.

Even the franchise itself is interesting; it has not been completely polished and planned by committee from inception to completion. Like the Alien series before it, while each new episode is clearly part of a continuum, each has had a different director, who has been allowed to bring their personality to bear on the final production. Brian de Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables) was first out to bat and made what I still consider to be the best film in the series. John Woo tried to bring his balletic style of Hong Kong gunplay to the second but, from what I have read, had the film taken away from him in the edit. JJ Abrams did a very professional job with the third film, giving Philip Seymour Hoffman the chance to ham with the best as the evil Owen Davian.

So that is the business case. Will Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol justify that big build up? We'll find out in December.lunarpark.blogspot.com - The Business Case - Keyword description

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The porousness of certain borders

Literary labels are a strange thing. On the one hand they are a useful shorthand, a sign that a genre or style has found a place for itself in the popular imagination. A label can be a badge of honour. It can also be a cage, a way of controlling, codifying or commodifying that which was once beyond the bounds of crude categorisation. I suppose we will always have labels of one form or another. What is really rare, however, is to come across a label that can be applied to a wide breadth of cultural product without diminishing.


What sort of genre do you think Slipstream is? I bet you already have a hazy notion beginning to form at the outer edges of the spiral galaxy of your imagination - and I would guess that you are unerringly close to a definition. I know because it is the same feeling I had when I stumbled across an article about Christopher Priest's Top Ten Slipstream Novels just yesterday. I had never heard the word before but take it to mean a kind literature, storytelling, painting, filmmaking that might be either surrealistic or realistic but which evokes a peculiar sense of disconnect, a feeling of wandering alone through a hostile landscape surrounded by shadows - some threatening, some amusing - all unfamiliar. David Lynch (Blue Velvet) is Slipstream, David Yates (Harry Potter) is not; Philip K. Dick is Slipstream, Dick Francis is not; Psycho is Slipstream, Rear Window is not (Can you tell I am making up the rules as I go along?)

Then I did what any digital-connected knowledge seeker today would do, I typed 'Slipstream' into Google. Wikipedia tells me: "The term slipstream was coined by Cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling in an article originally published in SF Eye #5, July 1989. He wrote: '...this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.'" Ha! It had to be someone as smart as Bruce Sterling who created this potent one-word description for such a genre-defying form of expression.

I particularly like the way in which the label captures the porous nature of the genre, which is (in my mind) almost exclusively comprised of 'boundary cases'. Are Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World science fiction or social satire? Is Being John Malkovich a comedy or a drama? How would you categorise the work of Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut or William Burroughs? I would contend that they are all Slipstream.

Slipstream is Atlantis and Interzone, art about and for the people who slip through the cracks in the pavement. But, in another way, it is not really a genre at all, it is the dominant intellectual and social mood of our current era - confusion, estrangement, paranoia. Labels are always contingent but Slipstream seems to embody almost everything I like in fiction - a sense of strangeness, otherness and the peculiar possibility of possibility.lunarpark.blogspot.com - The porousness of certain borders - Keyword description

Monday, November 14, 2011

When Worlds Collide

I really enjoy it when my favourite authors turn their hands to non-fiction. Something about the combination of journalistic brevity and literary prose, together with technical accuracy and novelistic storytelling, places the writing at the sweet centre of a very scholastic Venn Diagram. One of my favourite exponents of the form is JG Ballard, whose essays and reviews form the basis of an exemplary collection published in 1996 called A User's Guide to the Millennium.

The articles are taken from a wide variety of different publications: The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent on Sunday, Time Out, New Statesman, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, New Worlds, Vogue and The Woman Journalist – each replete with their own editorial policy and apparent ideology. Read a newspaper or a magazine regularly and you quickly begin to recognise familiar positions and a dogmatic adherence to a certain point of view, to the extent that, after a couple of months, you could probably draft an accurate parody of a typical news story without needing to open the paper. I defy anyone to do the same with Ballard.

Ever wondered what the master exponent of Late Capitalist disaster fiction and social satire made of 20th century icons such as Coca-Cola, Walt Disney and Howard Hughes; Salvador Dali, Casablanca and Richard Feynman; Andy Warhol, the Vietnam War and Star Wars; Shanghai, F. Scott Fitzgerald and David Lynch; or even Nancy Reagan, Elvis Presley and Sigmund Freud? Every single name evokes a world with which to conjure, but when the name of Ballard is thrown into the mix, new and intriguing possibilities begin to emerge, darker but somehow more lucid and more stimulating.

Ballard eschews conventionality, received wisdom and established orthodoxies at every turn. He has no firm political or religious affiliations. As a writer he is no one but himself and regardless of whether you agree or disagree, it impossible to ignore the sense of an independent mind, puzzling out new approaches and affirming new ideas about (sometimes) familiar topics in precise, declarative sentences. Care to guess what Ballard thinks about global branding giant and sugar water seller Coca-Cola? Any Marxist or anti-American might decry the "malign geopolitical influence" that has been exercised by the corporation but in Ballard's more sanguine view the "mind-numbing" efforts of the marketing men dedicated to selling the image of the world's "most refreshing burp" are much more interesting; representing a "certain kind of American cheerfulness, not to everyone's taste but hard to resist”. And what about that glamorous billionaire playboy Howard Hughes - The Richest Man in the World - an aviation pioneer who made movies, dated Hollywood starlets, designed aircraft for the US military and eventually went crackers, holing himself up in a sound-proof room atop of the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas?

I admire Hughes most of all for the casual way in which he closed the door on the world. Lying back on the couch with the blinds drawn, popping pills and worrying about fad diets while watching the 170th re-run of Ice Station Zebra, reminds me in many ways of life today in the Thames Valley. Hughes may well have been more in touch with reality than anyone assumes.lunarpark.blogspot.com - When Worlds Collide - Keyword description

Thursday, November 10, 2011

One Worth Catching

The people in Contagion are probably among the most well organised, well behaved victims I have ever seen in a disaster movie - a smashed window here, a building on fire there but, on the whole, the people who survive the deadly influenza that afflicts the world conduct themselves with commendable sobriety. Matt Damon, in particular, is a bastion of good sense and moral virtue - as one would probably expect. How very different things would have been had the same story been directed by the politically-minded purveyor of zombie gore George A. Romero (writer and director of the Dead movies), to which Stephen Soderberg's film owes some debt.

The biggest difference between the two is the amount of research up on the screen. While Romero's films are almost always allegorical, Contagion takes its cues from pathogen science and viral mutation. The film sometimes resembles the kind of instructional video the World Health Organisation might put out in order to increase awareness (the experts generally agree that we are long overdue a similar disaster), albeit one with a much larger budget than would typically be allocated and an A-list cast.

Personally, I enjoyed the film for its educational quality - apparently the most important measure that governments and other international bodies need to establish in the event of a global pandemic is something called the R=0 (or R-nought); the daily infection rate. An R=0 of 2 means that on the first day 2 people have the disease, on the second 4, on the third 16, then 256, then 65,536...

The film is more concerned with logistics - establishing forums for the distribution of food packets, commandeering sports halls and other public spaces where the sick can be cared for and quarantined, ('FEMA can go over there') - than it is with getting under any of the character's skin (ha!). Soderberg relies on the fact that his actors are all famous faces towards whom the audience will already feel predisposed - Lawrence Fishburne is a solid authority figure, Matt Damon is Mr Dependable, Marion Cotillard is beautiful and French and... was that Elliot Gould?

The one actor who plays slightly against type, and who probably has the most interesting role in the film, is Jude Law's oddly-accented blogger (which former British colony is he supposed to come from?) Law wears a snaggle tooth (his idea apparently), so you know he is not to be trusted but it is his dubious obsession with getting hits on his website that brings the film into the 21st century. The idea of information spreading like a virus is not novel but Contagion does a very good job of illustrating the way in which instant communication globally via the internet enables information as well as misinformation to spread with (sometimes) alarming rapidity. This, for better or worse, is clearly threatening to the established authorities. 'Blogging isn't writing, it is graffiti with punctuation', says Elliot Gould, challenging Law - a funny line but the old media message is implicit: don't trust those horrible new media types, they are just as crass and venal as the established order, if not more so.

Probably the most enjoyable science lesson I have attended this year, the trailer led me to believe I would be getting something from the point of view of the virus (brilliant!). However, I was perfectly happy to watch the institutional point of view - very intelligent people doing their best and just about keeping it together under exceptional circumstances.lunarpark.blogspot.com - One Worth Catching - Keyword description

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Digital Artists

On Monday 31st October 2011, Pete Townshend gave the inaugural John Peel Lecture, named in honour of the great DJ, who was possessed of the kind of obsessive musical mind and sarcastic humour so badly missed on Radio One today. Surprisingly, the ageing rocker used the lecture as an opportunity to talk about the complicated way in which the internet is changing notions of propriety, ownership and the digital rights of creative artists. Even more surprisingly, Townshend made apposite observations about a medium people half his age are still struggling to understand, and no shortage of proposals for rebalancing the asymmetrical relationship between artists and online aggregators.

He argued that 'content aggregators' like Apple were like 'digital vampires', taking a 30 percent cut of the profits while doing none of the work. 'Music publishing has always been a form of banking in many ways, but – in cooperation with record labels – active artists have always received from the music industry banking system more than banking' he said, before suggesting that Apple could and maybe should be doing more to develop and promote new artists. Apple has taken over the 'distribution' and 'banking' roles previously occupied by music labels, but does not yet provide the creative support or nurturing environment aspiring artists need. 'Why not?' asked Townshend.

Townshend also expressed his concerns about digital piracy:

Whether the public listen or not, creative writers and musicians should get paid if their work generates money by virtue of its mere existence on radio, television, YouTube, Facebook or SoundCloud. It's tricky to argue for the innate value of copyright from a position of good fortune (as I do). I once suggested on a forum that people who download my music without paying for it may as well come and steal my son's bike while they're at it. One woman was so incensed that she tried to argue that she was still supporting me as an artist by 'sharing' (my parentheses) music with others who would eventually filter down some cash in some form or other to me, that would pay for my son's bike – and she was not, in any sense, a thief or a criminal. I think she was in a kind of denial. Cutting the body to fit the cloth rather than the correct way around.

Some of the less kind commentators online described Tonwshend as a 'dinosaur' for expressing such an antiquated view (in place of antiquated read: 'unfashionable'). Of course, it is very easy to attack a millionaire rock star for complaining about theft, but that is to ignore the fact that there was actually some substance in what he was saying. This was not a preening, rock star winge, Townshend was expressing legitimate concerns about the uncertain future for artists who want to make a living out of recorded music in a digital world in which copying is not only ubiquitous but socially de rigueur.

This put me in mind of Cory Doctorow and Jaron Lanier, both of which have interesting things to say about creativity online, offering alternative prescriptions for how creative people might try to take control of their own destinies once again.

The Doctorow doctrine

Cory Doctorow is right when he says that 'there is no future in which hard drives get smaller smaller, less capacious, more expensive, harder to use, harder to find. There is no future in which networks are going to be harder to log into, slower, more expensive'. He is also correct about the intrusive and ineffective anti-piracy schemes developed by corporations, which take skilled software developers years to develop and are broken by teenagers in minutes. DRM or Digital Rights Management is the euphemistic term given to a proprietary standards that limit the 'terms of use' for any song, game, music or book purchased in a digital form. When you buy a printed book from Borders, Waterstones or your local independent or second-hand book store, you are free to loan the book to whomever you want and can even sell it on when you are done reading. An e-book purchased from the Apple iBooks store, on the other hand, can only be read using Apple's proprietary software ajustify certainly do not have the right to sell it or loan it to someone else. What you buy is license, nothing more, and you, lowly consumer, would do well to remember that. Also, just in case you are thinking about reading your iBooks copy of Neuromancer on your new Amazon Kindle – its all digital, right? – forget about it; you are locked into whatever 'ecosystem' you use to make your purchases.

Effectively, you no longer own the book or indeed the device that you use to read it, which, because it is 'tethered' to the manufacturer or the software maker (inevitably a very big company), will only grant a 'licence' to read, watch or play whatever you 'buy' from their online store, and even then, only provided that you agree to comply with an arbitrary set criteria that the company reserves the right to change on a whim. It is a lot like being told that you are only permitted to read your newly purchased hardback by Neal Stephenson under a certain type of lamp, while sitting on a certain type of chair. Indeed, two years ago, thousands of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to find their e-book copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four replaced by a voucher for the Amazon Kindle Store. The company that had sold the e-book did not have the rights to do so and so Amazon had taken remote control of all of the devices that had purchased the book (whose devices are these again?) and deleted the digital file. Oh, the irony!

As such, Cory Doctorow's 'no-DRM' stance is laudable. DRM is intrusive and annoying, not to mention doomed to failure. His contention therefore is that because bits are only going to get easier to copy and DRM utimately abstracts people's understanding and control over their own devices, artists should adopt a freemium model, giving their work away online in order to promote their work in other media, which can then make money. He tells us that his experience of giving stories away online (DRM free of course) has been entirely positive – quoting Tim O' Reilly he says, 'The big problem for any artist isn't piracy, it is obscurity' – and I can see the logic in that. But what are the prospects for someone trying to get their foot on the first rung of the ladder, given that digital content is already freely available online and that digital may soon be the primary means of distribution? Giving away a free e-book in order to promote the physical artifact assumes that there will always be a market for ink on paper – books, journals and magazines. This is far from certain – last year, e-book sales in the UK surpassed paperback sales for the first time. What happens to the artist who has been giving their work away online when print is no longer a viable source of revenue?

The second implicit assumption is that, provided the work is good, people who read the first few chapters of the e-book will still want to rush out and buy a printed copy. This might be true if your name is Cory Doctorow. But what if you are an aspiring writer or artist looking to make a name for yourself? I worry that potential readers will be less likely to support someone they have never heard of before, to whom they have no loyalty or alligence. I understand that Cory Doctorow's first novel was released simultaneously in print and online under a Creative Commons License, but were his first published stories given away free online? Or did he make a name for himself in traditional print media and by doing so acquire a publishing deal? I think that form of propriety might be important and worry that without it the possibilities for people who wish to earn a living as creative artists will be diminished. I would be quite happy to be proved wrong, but I am sceptical.

Lanier's lament

Indeed, what Cory Doctorow proposes may be practical in the short term, but it is hardly the digital revolution people had hoped for; overturning outdated, outmoded structures and replacing them with something vibrant and new. The music charts are still dominated by artists signed to major labels, independent filmmakers still rely on major distributors for financial support, and the publishing industry is hardly awash with talented individuals making a name for themselves by giving their work away on the internet. With a few high profile exceptions – Radiohead's 'pay what you want' gimmick for the initial release of their album In Rainbows – the internet has so far proved almost wholly ineffective as a medium for nurturing new talent. I am sure that there are people out there doing interesting things, but they are not breaking into the mainstream in anything like the numbers one might expect. The 'advertising-supported' and 'freemium' models that have emerged online only replaced one set of guardians with another and do not point the way towards a credible future in which millions of independent artists are free to create.

The internet seems to have become an advertising vehicle for corporations and artists working in other media. For the time being, artists who find an audience online can still earn money for the work they do on the printed page, on films and on TV. But what happens when the internet becomes the primary delivery system for all of those different media? It is a question that needs an answer. It is wholly conceivable to imagine world in which those potential revenue streams no longer exist and, if people cannot agree to pay for digital content, artists will be either impoverished or reliant upon the patronage of rich bakers – most likely corporations. In other words, it will be very much like the world in which we live today, only with less freedom and power for creators, instead of more.

Some of those who believe in the internet as a force for positive change are concerned by this apparent trend. Jaron Lanier, the' father of virtual reality' and an early internet pioneer, has been very vocal about the unforeseen consequences wrought by the 'open and free' culture movement. By making web 'content' (an awful Web 2.0 coinage that in itself seems to diminish the hard work of creators) free, you deprive it of value and thereby create the odd circumstances in which people who profess to love music/film/TV/books feel entitled to 'share' what they do not own on BitTorrent sites. As Pete Tonwnshend said in his talk: 'We now live in a digital world in which the only absolute is work by the hour. Lawyers, accountants, doctors, nurses, plumbers, painters, truck drivers, farmers, pilots, cleaners, actors, musicians – they all get paid for work done as a clock ticks. Creative work is not like that. Any one of the people listed above could create a method that would help other people to do their job in their place... However, if someone pretends to be me, or pretends that something I have created should be available to them free (because creativity has less value than an hour's work by me as a musician in a pub) I wonder what has gone wrong with human morality and social justice.'

*CLARIFICATION* The entertainment or 'copyright industries' that bleat about the need for more censorious laws to limit internet piracy are barking up the wrong tree and should be opposed. Their plight is really a side issue in a much wider debate which I am attempting to address. Large movie studios and record labels are perfectly capable of defending themselves. As far as I am concerned, what happens to the copyright or 'cultural industries' is less of a concern than what happens to Culture and Creativity per se. What we should be aiming towards is a system in which people who are motivated by passion and the desire to innovate have the freedom to do so and it is my contention that the most effective way of granting people that freedom is to devise a way for them to make money from their efforts. We need to make a distinction between the big guy and the little guy because whereas big business can stand the losses, when people pirate the little guy, they are reaching into his pocket and robbing him of his ability to support himself through his art.

Pete Townshend was himself guilty of perpetuating an unhelpful myth about artists in his talk when he said that his 'inner artist' 'don't give a shit about making money'. The only artists who 'don't give a shit about making money' are those who already have enough to live comfortable lives. We should all be so lucky. Money is never the primary motivation for the creative artist, but that does not meant it is not important. An artist who cannot make money from their art has no choice but to do something else to earn their keep, which inevitably distracts from their creative endeavours. Creative freedom and the time to create – that is what I am about. It just so happens that money enough to live on makes those things a hell of a lot easier. *CLARIFICATION ENDS*

The tricky part is, of course, working out how to utilise the communicative power of the internet to enable artists to earn enough money to be free to create, while also reaching an appreciative audience. As Pete Townshend correctly identified in his talk:

What creative people want is to know their music has been heard. They would prefer a response that was constructive than a positive or negative review. They would prefer expertise to opinion. They would like to know the public if they had a chance to hear the music, also had a chance to make up their own minds. They would prefer that in the long term the public were willing to pay for their music. But looking at the John Peel model what is clear is that just knowing there was a chance the great man would listen, react and offer the music on air, for whatever reason, was enough for budding musicians and bands.

That is where we must be going. Musicians need to be heard, to be judged, if possible to be paid, but also allowed to believe they had more than a single chance to get a hit. Software systems that offer this model will survive and prevail – loved and embraced by musicians of every sort – whatever happens financially.

Ted Nelson's network

As I have already said, I am sceptical about the idea of giving digital copies away away for free; there probably is a place for a certain among of that, but it is not a long term solution. Jaron Lanier's proposes that we look back to the work of early internet pioneers as a means of inspiration. He say that we need to rediscover the idea of the internet as a globally distributed peer-to-peer network connecting people directly to other people. In the globally networked system envisioned by Ted Nelson in the 1950s, there was substantially less machine intermediation and just one logical copy of every digital file – much the same way as there is on iTunes today (there are back-ups and the file is cached on local exchanges, but as far as the user is concerned there is only one logical copy), and instead of being free (as in gratis) users had to pay to access content, sending micro-payments zipping back and forth between the various participants. This proposal probably seems even more radical today than it did at the time because now people know what the internet is and it is nothing like what Ted Nelson envisaged.

Certainly Ted Nelson' ideas raise as many questions as they answer, but that to me is their great strength. The Ted Nelson scheme might not be ideal, but neither is the current status quo. Parts of the internet need to be protected: namely, its openness – anyone who can pay the nominal fee to own a domain name can post online. Wereas other parts should be being questioned: the medium's apparent inability to make money for all but a chosen few – the companies that Jaron Lanier refers to as 'The Lords of the Clouds' (Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, etc.). Above all else, the Ted Nelson model reminds us that we options; there is nothing inevitable or natural about the internet and its inherent biases. By imagining an internet different to the one that we have now, we can look again with fresh eyes and imagine how it might be made better.

The debate about the future of the internet and content online needs to move beyond polarising debates that insist people make a choice between one extreme (open, free and, as Jaron Lanier fears, an impoverished middle class) or another (closed, controlled by corporations, with spying everywhere, all the time). The current debate seems to needlessly reflect the binary nature of computer systems, whereas what we should be striving towards is a network that protects the freedoms of citizens and places people at its centre, enabling them to profit from the contents of their hearts and minds.

My prescription is very simple. The internet is surely an ideal medium for various forms of direct distribution, so, the people who read, watch and listen to the articles, books, films and music that other people create and post online should pay them for it? Ta dah! What is wrong with that?


Pete Townshend's John Peel lecture

Cory Doctorow's talk at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007

Jaron Lanier, You are Not a Gadget (2010)
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