Apr 232012

We have software which can build websites.  We have apps which can make new apps.  We have a multitude of video and audio tools which allow us to generate completely new works of art within the confines of our own sitting-rooms.

We are moving to a world of robot prostitutes.

We are moving to a world where reality out there does not need to be captured for a work of art to appear real.

In the same curious 20th century we moved see-sawingly between the most abstract of creativity – as Picasso and others created new ways of perceiving the world around us – and the most insistent attachment to the physical world that was the industry of movie-making.  So it was we conflated the unreal and real in one unique and sometimes horrific time.

But the implications of such real unrealities are only now being felt at a producer-consumer level.

In a world where what we make will be made up of templates which we can commercially take advantage of, a couple of fairly random but pertinent questions arise:

  1. whither, for example, online pornography – the driver of the last ten years of Internet technologies – when real actors will no longer be needed?
  2. and as a follow-up to the first, whither the horror of the state when oppressing real people through the requirements of the sex industry becomes more expensive than drawing a line on a computer?
  3. finally, most importantly, whither the need for copyright of any kind in a world where free-to-use building blocks rule the generation of content?

It’s clear that the first two issues will leave politicians with a huge vacuum around which repressive policies on the subject of Internet freedoms will not find their justification any more.  One day, not so very far away, anyone (or mostly anyone) will be able to generate their own content pretty much as they would like it.  Will the state choose to intervene in stuff we use apps and enabling software to generate for ourselves?  I do wonder if even our latterday society would be prepared to go so far.

The tendencies are clear, though: DIY is where it’s at.  Doing stuff for yourself is something that furniture manufacturers and bathroom installers have had to get used to in order that they might effectively adapt their business models.  Why not, then, in content generation too?

For it does seem to me that the ongoing battles of copyright on content have much more to do with a future world which has been perceived by those who truly think these things through – and who already know and even fear where traditional content generation will end up.

There will come a time, just as it did for wordsmiths many years ago, when legal Lego for adults becomes par for the content-generation course.  When anyone (or mostly anyone) can build up complex superstructures of meaning out of tools which help do the dirty work that used to lie behind creativity and imagination, what will really be the point of a complicated legal system of control for a world where sophistication will not need the massive investments of even today?

If I can have safe sex with a robot which looks and feels like a real live person, why should I have dangerous sex with a real live person?

Similarly, if I can use software to turn my ideas into really clever videos or audios or even traditional written texts (look at the kind of websites amateurs like myself were producing ten years ago – and compare them to what we can create for very little investment today), why should I bother with stuff that copyrights itself out of my reach?

In such a world of enthusiastic amateurs, it will be the market which will eventually drive the copyrighted stuff away from everyone but the most moneyed.  In much the same way as we now buy unbranded baked beans, we will eventually get used to the unbranded stuff that modern technologies make possible.  We will spend money on the content-generation tools and their image and building-block files – but what we generate will be shared by each of us with every other user for either a minimal fee or in exchange for other content.

The money’s in the DIY – there’s really no turning back.

A world without copyright?  Not because of the pirates.

Rather, because of the onward march of the templates that already serve to define us.


Further reading: Rick has a lovely measured piece in response to Chris’s also excellent piece on the supposed crisis in creativity.  More from the former here and the original post which started the discussion off here.  My initial response to the latter, and which I published a couple of days ago, can be found here.

Apr 202012

Chris rightly asks the question:

The answer is that all pose what might be the most important question in economics – of how to encourage creativity.

I think, however, the question is misplaced – misplaced because economics, as well as observers of the creative industries themselves, still sees human endeavour on a playing-field where individuals are more important than mobs.  In fact, some would eagerly blame open source movements and other crowdsourcing efforts for having removed the individual – as well as their due compensation – from modern creation.

But if we’re honest about this, it started at least as early as the nascent 20th century production line that was the Hollywood film industry.  (There are, if I remember rightly, historical references to the Flemish geniuses of Renaissance art also running their own industrially produced outputs – though obviously nothing on the scale of Hollywood.  On the other hand, what did the printing-press bring to authorship if not the industry of the many cooks who might very well spoil the broth constructively?)

And this selfsame Hollywood, for quite a while, was able to impose a model that other industries such as newspapers readily copied: take advantage of the multifarious skills the properly channelled mob might apport; pay them minimally for their efforts; and cream off the profitable results in terms of massive gains for hierarchies and shareholders decade after decade.

The problem, of course, for all the above now, is that the mob which once scraped a living by working for the corporates – which quite correctly invoked the added value that centralised communications, places of work and managed teams of able staff brought to very many creative people – has “disintegrated” into free-culture producer-consumers on the web.  The problem with the web isn’t just that the corporates are getting their content “ripped off”; the problem with the web is, really, that the ant-hill mob of selfless striving has replaced the permanent expectation to be individually famous – and paid for it.

If you stop blogging, another blog will replace you.  If you stop posting to Flickr, another photographer will step into your shoes.  We have taken on board so completely the fifteen-minutes-of-fame dynamic of Warhol’s that we actually now expect to be eventually trodden on – and our only desire is to carry on scurrying creatively for as long as our own personal resources last.

The problem, then, with creativity in modern economies isn’t finding ways of generating more of it.  We only have to read up on YouTube’s download and upload stats, on Wikipedia’s daily pageviews and on Pinterest’s current levels of interest to realise that quantity – and even quality – isn’t an issue.  The ant-hill mob is doing its biz – there’s no doubt about that.

No.  The real problem with creativity only exists within an individualist – and perhaps libertarian – focus on what human reward should really look like.  Even as traditional socialism vanishes from most of modern political practice, the old sharing and community instincts which form a part of being a human being find their expression in modern online creativity.

Essentially, creativity has finally gone all post-modern on us: it no longer needs the traditional economic process of investment, worker oppression and shareholder reward to produce its goods.

The question is whether this is satisfactory for any of us who still believe we human beings should be more than grains of sand on anonymous beaches.

And to that question, I really have no answer.

Maybe because part of its answer, sadly, lies in the meaning of life itself.

Mar 182012

Over at Labour List today, Sue argues we lefties should get a grip:

I don’t like the current Labour position on welfare, I’m almost constantly head-desking whenever they issue a press statement, I do realise they set a lot of these “reforms” up and I worry about the possibility of an election any time soon – they clearly couldn’t run drinkies-in-the-proverbial right now, but on the whole – on the whole – get a grip lefties. 

Start defending our record. Accept the bits we got wrong and move on, but for goodness sake, anyone claiming “They’re all the same/Triangulation/They’re worse than the Tories/I’ll never vote Labour again” might want to ask themselves just how long they’d like to keep this cabinet of millionaires. And just how much we’re going to allow them to get wrong before we unite and fight.

It’s funny – or perverse; whenever someone argues we should jack in political parties I find myself beginning to disagree, but whenever someone comes to me saying the primary responsibility of us lefties is to unite … well, I really can’t help reacting rather negatively.  Yes.  I agree with Sue that we should get a grip – the question is who gets to get the grip and precisely on what.

Unable, in a first instance, to answer this question, I thought I’d carry out a thought experiment to see if that would help.  A list of personal positives which I would be prepared to attribute to Labour:

  1. when I came back to Britain in 2003, I was in a serious state of mental ill health – the NHS managed in the end to help put me back together again;
  2. my children received a better education from the time they rejoined me in England than they almost certainly would have done in Spain had they stayed – they are now bilingual, the eldest is studying Mandarin Chinese and Russian at university, the middle one wants to go abroad to study film and the youngest is already considering proactively how she might get jobs once she is sixteen;
  3. my wife regained confidence in herself and her own ability as a teacher due to the then relatively buoyant labour market – little by little, she has achieved a certain degree of stability and self-respect;
  4. I have finally managed to get to a position where I can see I may be able to earn my living from writing via the Internet – something I dreamed of since 2002 and which would make my life entirely fulfilled if I achieve my goal;

These are all good, big and life-changing moments which allow me to see Labour – even New Labour – through a positive prism of perceptions.  However, I have to say that at least one of them – my mental ill health – was in part due to the lies and obfuscations which surrounded the process leading up to the Iraq War.

I lost my faith, during that time, in much of what could be reasonably expected of party politicking – I still resist, for example, at a local grassroots CLP level, to get involved with active politics.  In part I do feel it has something to do with this back story.  A story of political innocence being taken advantage of by those who know how to manipulate sincere emotions for their own personal benefit.

So many big positives for me in a little under a decade of living under New Labour – even as the primary one which brought me back to Britain was the massive negative of a questionable and bloody political process.

If I, as a relatively unpractised leftie, do need to get a grip as Sue suggests, then I might be inclined – in the light of all the above – to suggest the grip I really need to get is over a political party which doesn’t know how to communicate; doesn’t understand that consultation is nowhere near a proper dialogue of equals; and is riven with the triangulatory instincts she blithely tells us to ignore.

Here, then, is where Los Indignados can teach us more than one lesson: in order to unite around positions and policy, you first have to agree on process and procedures.  Without due agreement on the latter, no progress shall ever be sustainably made.

Do not, then, as a leftie who needs to get a grip, simply exhort me to hate the Tories and fight the good fight.  I don’t want them to define how my politics will function any more than you want them to define how the country will function.  And if we give up on truly empowering process and procedures before we’ve even really started, if we refuse to learn the lessons other groups and organisations springing up across the world can teach us, we shall remain anchored in a past that will become – by itself and not because of the Tories – evermore irrelevant, ineffective and ineffectual to a proactive and generally empowering producer-consumer society such as ours could become.

If the Tories manage to force us to limit our ambitions to creating a New Labour (II), they will have won a long-term political battle without us even having cared to engage.  Just as the terrorists of 9/11 created a generation of fearful legislation and terrified citizens, so the Tories may yet achieve their goal of turning us lefties, those of us who supposedly need to get that grip of Sue’s, into a wearisome terracotta army of conservative instincts ready to continue implementing the philosophies which Tony Blair so carefully set up and entrapped us all with.

As a Lib Dem acquaintance of mine (yes, it’s possible for a leftie like me to have one) quite rightly said to me recently, the NHS bill we’re so desperate to get dropped had its foundations laid by New Labour in 2006’s National Health Service Act.

If we really want to get the current bill dropped, and I am sure we can all agree we do, we should surely also campaign to unravel the straitjacket of philosophies which Tony Blair was directly responsible for – and which have led to Lansley’s moment of awful glory.

Meanwhile, dear Sue, we should surely remember that “getting a grip” can just as easily mean subjugation as empowerment.

And remembering thus, act accordingly.

Jan 312012
Wikipedia Commons

“¡El capitalismo es la leche, joder!” as the Spanish might say.  Loosely translated this might mean: “Capitalism is fucking amazing!”  And not in a necessarily complimentary sense …

James has the publishing industry’s very own version in his crosshairs this week:

Although documenting Stalinism, the lessons in Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four could apply equally to copyright and intellectual property.

Like Animalism, copyright is a system that should protect all creators.  But, as in Animal Farm, the pigs of the publishing industry – the ones who decide the rules amongst themselves – are running the farm for their own ends.

Moving on to Nineteen Eighty Four, a system designed for common social good can only be enforced with a policeman – in the form of Big Brother – in every home, street corner and gymnasium.

In an era where very low barriers to self-publishing make us all both copyright owners and capable of serious infringement, fundamental questions about enforceability and proportionality are being raised.

Will a system of copyright which attempts to detect and punish every minor infringement ever work? At least not without the threat of disproportionate punishment alongside the ability of Big Brother to monitor every web server, internet connection and home computer.

James’s post deserves to be read in full by everyone unhappy about SOPA, PIPA and now ACTA – amongst other pieces of draconian legislation currently being forced both on countries around the globe and very much behind the scenes.  The real issue here, then, is how our democracies are being circumvented – essentially, I suppose, because the voting publics of these democracies are composed of very many infringers of copyright, infringers who have so grown up in an environment of such casual law-breaking that they would probably consider what they do to be a generational norm.

As a result, those who would like copyright to be exerted more firmly simply do not trust democracies to be able to deliver on their expectations.  For the content industries, the people are unhappily both their nadir and their potential salvation.

A psychologically complex place for a powerful sector to find itself so demonstrably in.  “We need you,” they’re admitting, “but neither as you are – nor just yet.”

Clearly, if you are starting out and have a book or film to sell, you need to recover your investment.  You need to make a living.  But whilst it’s one mighty step for an eager and enthusiastic new self-publisher to require a value-adding platform such as Amazon’s Kindle, it’s quite another for an established and dinosaur-like business structure to decide it has the right to covertly change – behind democracy’s discourse – the rules of something as strategic as the worldwide web before the processes of its very own business model.

Instead of attempting to circumvent democracy, the content industry should surely try and circumvent the worldwide web.  Not by detonating what it does but – simply – by refusing to use it.  Not use it themselves.  Not tease us with their porous paywalls.  Not play silly games as they attempt to gain our dollars.

That’s all just fiddling around with an existing way of doing business – without caring to innovate in the least.

That’s all just lazy.

That’s all so 19th century.

For Pete’s sake, if you don’t want to get your tootsies cold, don’t dip them in the ocean.

So why not just leave the worldwide web for the producer-consumers amongst us – and let us consume and produce our own content to our virtual heart’s content?

And, meanwhile, use the infrastructures of the Internet itself to set up parallel systems of distribution and monetisation which fit your goals for the future.


As a final – perhaps dramatic – thought: how about we decide – as a society, democracy and global community – that, once such reasonably watertight systems of distribution and monetisation are in place, everything which can currently be found on the web enters an automatic public domain?

An intellectual property amnesty, if you like.

Draw a line under all infringement; draw a line under all our complaints about the shrinking public domain; draw a line under all our potshots at lazy cash-cow industries; draw a line under content confrontation …

Decide, instead, to turn over a page in the historic battle between traditional producers and those consumers who would mimic them – and start from the boldest scratch in publishing history.

After all, in a globalising world, it’s not only time we liberated capital’s right to go wherever it should choose but also, far more importantly, especially in a democratic context, producers’ rights to decide how, where and when they might both produce and deliver their content – whether this be rather more traditionally, as in the US film industry, or as part of the more amateur and widespread generation of latterday producer-consumers.

Those who make massive investments in content and creativity do, of course, deserve a commensurate return.  But in their desire to assure that return, they do not – in the 21st century – have the right to erect barricades to entry which once inevitably existed for technological reasons … but do not have to exist any more.

And in the absence of such technological barriers, they should most certainly not be allowed to get away with using the law to prevent the wider progress of that grandeur under discussion today – that is to say, that socialised human imagination.

Jun 062011

Aiming to add value by repackaging products and services is a dangerous game.  It can even lead you to the unconscionable crimes of plagiarism – crimes which no one is ever happy to commit, even when by accident (and the Lord only knows, in our multidimensional and hyperlinked worlds, how these are accidents just waiting to happen).

Some recent examples I think would be useful now.  Firstly, Fifa’s latest wheeze: employing “politicians, celebrities and former footballers” to clean up the mess that currently reigns (at which point I am minded to remember MPs’ expenses, irrelevant buckets of tittle-tattle galore and superinjunctions not a million miles away from the British Isles).  I’ve already discussed how salespeople and environments can prejudice bodies such as world football’s highest.  This is just another example of how those predisposed to melodramatic gestures run their businesses on the basis of inflating expectations, in the hope that future promises become concrete through the sleight-of-hand of marketing spiels.  As the Guardian report in question points out:

Fifa’s sponsors may have brought about the corporate governance rerforms. Adidas, which lavishes more than $40m a year on Fifa as its sportswear partner, was the first to speak out last week. Later Coca-Cola, Emirates and Visa also expressed their dismay.

“You live by the sword, you die by the sword” is the phrase that comes to my mind.

Meanwhile, another example of how the desire to make money out of repackaging what already exists can lead to unfortunate results has just reared its ugliest of heads once again:

A new private university college founded by the philosopher AC Grayling and staffed by celebrity professors will teach exactly the same syllabuses as the University of London, which charges half the price, it has emerged.

Students of the New College of the Humanities will pay £18,000 a year to take courses in history, English literature and philosophy that are already on offer at Birkbeck, Goldsmiths and Royal Holloway for £9,000 or less.

Academics complained that syllabuses listed on the New College website appeared to have been copied from the University of London’s own web pages in a move some said amounted to plagiarism.

And I can see quite plainly what is operating here.

And it’s not a million miles away from Fifa.

I was once contracted to give ESL classes in a private university someone who claimed to be my friend set up with a group of individuals I later refused to touch with a bargepole.  This business proposition had little to do with wanting to educate people – rather, what fascinated the group of businesspeople I mention was the following very simple idea: heavy start-up costs in the first year, double the number of students for the same infrastructure in the second, captive markets in the third, exponential growth in the fourth – the sky, indeed, would then be the limit they promised to anyone who cared to listen.

It seems to me that the New College of Humility (not) is making the same foolish assumptions.  And committing the same mistakes I describe above.

Incidentally, the private university I worked at for a while eventually closed down under the weight of its own contradictions.  As this tweet pointed out yesterday:

A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in the students :).

Repackaging is all well and good – but when it leads to plagiarism (and, as I have already pointed out, this now so easily takes place) it is hubris clearly squared. 

A final thought – and we come back to Internet freedoms.  Charlie Booker has a piece going the rounds at the moment, also on the Guardian, which seems to berate us for not wanting to pay for anything we stumble across through our PCs.  Thus he argues:

Anyhow. I’m not claiming five quid a month is insignificant: it’s more than many can afford. But in this case it’s bloody cheap for what it gets you. The problem for Spotify is that no one wants to pay for anything they access via a computer – and when they do, there’s a permanent level of resentment bubbling just under the surface. Hence the anger about “only” getting 10 hours of free music.

Look at the App Store. Read the reviews of novelty games costing 59p. Lots of slaggings – which is fair enough when you’re actively warning other users not to bother shelling out for something substandard. But they often don’t stop there. In some cases, people insist the developers should be jailed for fraud, just because there weren’t enough levels for their liking. I once read an absolutely scathing one-star review in which the author bitterly complained that a game had only kept them entertained for four hours.


And so we see, as is often the case, that a commenter provides a far more succinct explanation than the original post of why Internet monetisation is fraught with so many pitfalls:

 @muggwhump Actually the internet already sits behind a paywall, it’s called your ISP.

It’s not that we’re not prepared to pay for anything on the Internet, Charlie.  It’s that we’re not prepared to pay any more.

As I pointed out a while ago at a different place:

Distribution was always the key to making money in publishing – always will be. In a world where the content is neither printed nor physically moved from one place to another but replicates itself as if by magic through downloads that allow access from virtually anywhere to virtually anywhere, there will always be money to be made somewhere along the process. It just so happens that this place will shift from time to time, as technology evolves, as consumer habits change, as the hierarchy between consumers and producers modulates. Amazon’s Kindle shows us that the wonder of sitting in a neighbourhood coffee bar and downloading – on impulse – a book you’d really love to get your hands on actually works. Translate this opportunistic way of purchasing content to the field of newspapers and I’m sure we’d see an about-face in the world of journalism.

I’m paying not for the content itself but for the communication channel that allows me to access it. That’s the mad thing about this. We perceive an added value we are prepared to pay for in a multi-product provider like Sky or the phone operators; an added value we no longer perceive in the content itself that they piggyback off. I’m happily paying £20 a month for 600 minutes and free Internet on my mobile. I know plenty of people who pay £40 or more for their cable and satellite television.

These days we’re absolutely used to paying for the access; we’re not looking any more to pay for the films or articles themselves.

So it all depends on how you bill it. Bill your online subscription to all the major newspapers as part of your Internet deal and no one will notice the difference. The papers will then have a business to business relationship with their distributors. Direct customers will be kept at an arm’s length.

It has to be in the interest of the service providers to keep the content providers on their feet – without decent content, people will simply move on to other, greener, pastures.

If people get greedy, if the distributors insist on taking a greater percentage of the (now available) cake than is their due, which is what is happening at the moment (all that money flooding into the coffers of the ISPs, all that money flooding out of the war chests of the big newspaper and magazine publishers), the authors and editors will simply disappear.

This relationship, often hard-nosed and bordering on the pig-headed, has been true of publishing throughout its history.

It’s not going to change now, not even in a digital world.

Digital worlds, for all their differences, are still analogous worlds – even where they are not analogical.

In conclusion, then: those of you who wish to add a potentially spurious value through a simple repackaging of existing tools, services and products should be very careful of savvy producer-consumers who know the true cost of all things these days.

Dec 012010

This, in the new virtual world of social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, blogging in general and all those producer-consumers who now populate so much of the Internet, is absolutely splendiferous news:

In his comments on the judgment Lord Walker said: “…the defence of fair comment (now to be called honest comment) originated in a narrow form in a society very different from today’s.

“It was a society in which writers, artists and musicians were supposed to place their works, like wares displayed at market, before a relatively small educated and socially elevated class, and it was in the context of published criticism of their works that the defence developed.

“Millions now talk, and thousands comment in electronically transmitted words, about recent events of which they have learned from television or the internet.

“Many of the events and the comments on them are no doubt trivial and ephemeral, but from time to time (as the present appeal shows) libel law has to engage with them. The test for identifying the factual basis of honest comment must be flexible enough to allow for this type of case, in which a passing reference to the previous night’s celebrity show would be regarded by most of the public, and may sometimes have to be regarded by the law, as a sufficient factual basis.”

As far as I now understand it (and I would happy to be corrected by those whose job it is to both implement the law and protect those who sometimes find themselves at its mercy), as long as we can show good faith in what we say, write and comment, this ruling gives us a much better foundation than was the case before to defend our peculiarly online mix of factual references and opinionated reasonings – reasonings which often snatch their basis in reality from a sometimes difficult to identify miasma of prior understanding.

This lovely piece of news came my way via Ian Bissell’s Twitter feed today.