Drinking From The Same Pot

Diner 1

Coffee has been a constant in my life since I was seven or eight years old. My mother always had a pot of coffee on for as far back as I can remember. I can’t imagine how many cups of coffee she drank during her lifetime, coffee cups 3but it must have been in the millions. Back then it was brewed in a percolator that sat on top of the stove. It was one of those metal things where the Percolator 1boiling coffee bubbles up into the little glass cap that sits on top of the lid. It was store bought coffee with names like Folgers, HIlls Brothers, and Maxwell House (Sanka wasn’t real coffee and was considered undrinkable in our house). Coffee came in a big can that you had to open with a can opener. Folgers 3Some of them used one of those keys that attached to a metal strip on the side at the top edge and rolled around to open it, like a sardine can. Later on, in the sixties or seventies sometime, they invented those plastic lids that snapped on so the coffee would stay fresh. Of course, that sort of coffee was never fresh to begin with, so it didn’t much matter if you kept the lid on the can or not. The coffee always tasted pretty much the same. It tasted great, and it’s still the best coffee I ever had.

As a kid I started out taking my coffee with coffee milkcream and sugar—lots of each. It was more like a mocha milk shake than real coffee, but I felt grown up when I drank it, and I liked it better than hot chocolate, which was just about the only other hot drink they served to kids back then. I don’t think any of my friends drank coffee, and some of them gave me a hard time about it, but I didn’t much care. Coffee was something that accompanied things you did. For me at first, it was mostly reading. I loved to sit and read with a cup of that milky white, ultra sweet hot liquid. coffee_and_bookI felt like a grownup and looking back, I think the coffee provided incentive to read those books. It helped to provide an escape for me, especially after my old man left. I felt comfortable when I was alone with a book and a cup of coffee. Still do.

If we had company over, my mother would always have a pot brewing and everyone would sit around smoking cigarettes and drinking cups of coffee while they visited. I usually didn’t coffee drinker 1take part in these grownup discussions, but often sat quietly and watched. And eventually for me, conversation became the second thing that accompanied coffee. As I entered my teens I hung out at the local malt shop in my hometown. Most of the kids sipped malts or root beer floats, but a few of us drank coffee. By my mid teens I had dispensed with the milk because itwaitress 2 didn’t look as cool as black coffee did, but I still added sugar to it. I learned that for ten cents I could sit in a coffee shop and read, right in the middle of the bustle all around me. And the waitress would fill my cup up over and over, all day, while I sat reading my book. Sometimes I had conversations with friends or strangers who wandered in. Eventually, when I was playing in bands, I would sit with my musician friends and discuss life over a cup of coffee. None of us had regular jobs then, so we sat for hours at a time, solving the problems of the world. Having coffee in a café was a social experience, and it became a sort of ritual to me. It’s one that continues to this day, a cup of coffee and something to read.

As I got older, into my late teens, the coffee switched from black with sugar to just plain black. Hardcore, no frills coffee. I was facing some hard truths in my life and I suppose my choice in coffee mirrored them. Cream and sugar were for kids. I was an adult. The prospect of being drafted into the coffee cups 2Army and sent to Vietnam loomed large. I was against the war in principle, but I didn’t think of myself as an antiwar activist. I did perform at those sorts of events, and I was caught up in antiwar rallies and other events that young people did in those days. Looking back on it, black coffee seemed to coincide with all of that.

The black coffee phase lasted through my stint in the Navy, but I started taking a little milk with it (no sugar) after that. Oftentimes a roadside diner would only have powdered creamer (“whitener”, they called it), that came in a cardboard can, like salt, and I’d use that. If you poured it over an open flame it would coffee cups 1almost explode, and you could do cool fireworks tricks with it. There’s no telling what was in that stuff to make it so flammable. Coffee shops also had what they called half and half, either in a small metal pitcher that sat all day on your table, or in individually packaged miniature plastic cartons. They still have those in a lot of places. Real half and half was basically just light cream, but the stuff they put in those little plastic things… I still have no idea what’s really in them. They could be left out all day and never go sour. They lasted for months. But I didn’t care back then (and I still don’t), because the half and half tasted okay with my coffee, so I used it.

By the time the ride started I drank it as I do today, black with a bit of milk (though I still take it black sometimes). I have never gone back to sugar or sweetener, though. I just don’t like it. Nor do I like the designer coffees they make nowadays, where you have to wait in line for them to make a single cup for you. Since most cafes no longer offer coffee in a pot, I’ve had to adapt. Now I drink what they call an Americano, which is like an espresso with a some hot water added, so it’s in a big cup. Then I add a little cold milk to it. I don’t care for all that fancy fluffy steamed milk stuff. Whenever I find a café that still has a pot of coffee brewing, I’m happy, though those places are getting harder and harder to find.

JohnGizmoThe ride presented a problem because I couldn’t really carry coffee. In fact, I had a headache for the first four or five days of the ride because of my caffeine addiction. It was the first time I had been without coffee in a very long time, and I hadn’t considered the effects. I was a bit surprised when that headache started blasting the inside of my head, but having no alternative, I just had to toughen up and soldier on until it went away. And it finally did, and I kicked the physical addiction cold turkey. But the social addiction never left me, and whenever the opportunity presented itself I always had a cup of coffee someplace. If it came to a choice between spending money on dinner or spending it on coffee, the coffee won out every time.

A cup of coffee in a café, along with a book or a newspaper or magazine, creates a social contract between you and your environment. Thiscoffee newspaper 1 environment includes the coffee shop, its work staff, and its other customers. It even includes the street outside. The contract requires that you notice what is around you and learn something from it. The knowledge usually isn’t earth shaking, but you can observe people’s habits, their actions toward each other, and sometimes you even notice another who is observing you. The social part of the contract allows you to communicate with the staff coffee counterand patrons. It doesn’t require you to, but you’re allowed to because you’re sitting there with a book and a cup of coffee, minding your own business, so a casual comment or hello is acceptable. You can converse with people, you can say hello, and you can strike up a conversation if you like. And you can respond to others who might want to join in.

Old Cafe 2There were times during the ride when a simple hello between me and the person next to me at the counter would turn into a conversation, and that exchange would somehow leak out into the room and eventually, I would find myself in the middle of a group of people all taking part in the discussion. Some would know each other if we were in a small town, but often they were all strangers to each other. Old Cafe 1And though we never acknowledged it, the coffee bound us together in some way, if only for a few minutes. I experienced this many times during the ride and, odd as this sounds, it was something I wished Gizmo could have experienced.

If you walked into a café back in 1974 you would see that most of the customers had a cup of coffee in front of them. It was the drink of Diner 4choice. The coffee back then was a thread that bound all of you together for the short time you were in the diner. It wasn’t made for you, individually, like it is today. There wasn’t a different, made to order cup of coffee in front of each person. They didn’t call out, “Double trim mocha andante decaf chai with extra foam” in place of your name. designer coffees 1They didn’t call out anything. They just turned over the cup that was already on your table and filled it from the communal coffee pot. Back then, all of the coffees were the same. Some had milk or sugar or both in them, but it was the drinker who doctored it and not the waiter. All those cups of coffee came from a waitress 4community pot that sat on a burner behind the counter. Everyone drank from the same pot. Each dipped his ladle into the same well, so to speak. Everyone received the same coffee, like it or not. That no longer happens in today’s self-centered world, where each of us is the center of our own universe and expects everything made to order.

Today a community coffee pot at a fancy cpour coffee 1offee bar is ridiculed and scoffed at. Brewed coffee is considered substandard and unacceptable, shoddy and second rate in a growing number of places. People in restaurants turn their noses up at coffee in a pot. But just as their handheld digital phones divide and isolate them from each otherCell phones 2 at their tables, so do their individually made lattes and espressos and long blacks and flat whites. You can  make the comment, “This is really good coffee,” but no one else can truthfully say, “Yeah, it is,” because they are experiencing a different drink. They’re not drinking the same coffee you are. We’re no longer sitting in the same café together. We’re no longer a small community that has come together for the moment, tied together by a common thread.

We’re not drinking from the same coffee pot anymore.coffee pots 1

The Discipline of Individuality

cowboy boots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I finished reading Matthew Crawford’s, “The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction”. Great book, by a thoughtful person. Crawford writes:

“Our emergence from (what Kant described as) self-imposed immaturity seems to have stalled at an adolescent stage, like a hippie who hasn’t aged very well. The irritants that stand out now are the self-delusions that have sprouted up around a project of liberation that has gone to seed, ushering in a ‘culture of performance’ that makes us depressed.”

He is describing our popular culture’s framework, based within the so-called “open culture” of the internet (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…. take your pick), as compared with what he describes as “the well-ordered ecologies of attention” that are found within fry cookfields that REQUIRE discipline, and in which we are obliged to follow a prescribed order. Carpenters, fry cooks, motorcycle racers, jazz musicians, glassblowers…. all are required to follow established, conventional methods set down by their predecessors before they can fully come into themselves as craftspersons or artists, before they are set free to become truly enlightened individuals.

This open world of digital ecosystems that we live in is seductive. It sets each of us at the center of the universe. It wants us to believe we can havegooglebox 2 it all (knowledge, wisdom, compassion, and enlightenment) without doing the hard yards. We can learn at the feet of masters, over a long weekend, without actually having to spend years living the frugal life of spiritual master. We can google our own reality, without having to plow through Plato and Aristotle and Kant and Nietzsche and all that other boring stuff.

 

The upshot, according to Crawford, is that individualism (the idea that each of us is unique) arose from the political context of The Enlightenment, and served to liberate us from authority. It elevated each of us to a place that we think we belong: to the status of individual…. moreso, it’s a place each of us thinks we DESERVE to be, whether or not we have earned it.

A jig can be said to be a custom made tool that is used to control the location and/or the movement of another tool or device. Traditions, or “cultural jigs” as Crawford calls them, often create jigcommunities of practice in which true independence is possible. I served a saddlemaker’s apprenticeship, became a master saddlemaker, and apprenticed others under me. I lived for many years (and continue to live) within the saddlemaker’s tradition, or cultural jig. I know what Crawford writes   about. It is not until the apprentice follows the discipline and finally masters its techniques that he is able to become a master himself. And it is not until he becomes a master that he is fully free to become an individual within the discipline, and to finally place his own self within the universe.

Saddle up. It’s a long ride ahead.

Our Own Personal Frozen North

I’m in Oslo, Norway today. Never been here before. Egenes is a Norwegian name. My sister, Jane, says it means “know-it-all” in Norwegian. I’m not gonna argue with her on that one.
So, I’ve come halfway around the oslo.600world, up to the frozen north, to give a talk on record production, to a bunch of record producers and academics and such. Should prove interesting (the conference, not my talk…), but being here in Norge isn’t why I’m writing this. It has more to do with the trip over, and probably the trip back.

I finally made it to this little AirBnB apartment downtown, after 36 hours of travel. Starting in New Zealand and traveling east, you go back in time a day, right off the bat. So, you get to Los Angeles before you left. By the time they gas up the plane in LA and fly you another 10 hours over to London, you’ve pretty much lost track of which day it is. Even my smart devices and iGadgets don’t know. They all say different things. All I knjet_lagow is, It’s now exactly 12 hours difference from New Zealand, though I don’t know if I’m a day ahead or behind. It feels like it should be late night, since it was pitch black when I landed in Oslo at 4:30 in the afternoon. My computer says it’s 4:16 in the afternoon, but my iPad says it’s 4:16 in the morning. I don’t know which one to believe anymore. Maybe there’s an app for it.

But I digress. Jet lag and the travails of travel aren’t the topic here, though they do have some influence on it. I noticed, when hanging out in the club lounge at the airport in Dunedin, waiting to head off, that the place was reasonably full of people, but no one was talking to anyone else there. I was reading my book, and stopped to count heads. Twenty-seven people there. I counted 4 people who were NOT looking down at a handheld device, though two of the four were looking at laptop computers. Digital-Nomads_1So, out of 28 people, all up, three (including me) were not absorbed in their electronic gadgetry. I noticed the same thing at my other layovers. Not exactly surprising to me, especially since I work at a university, where most are under 30 and spend a great deal of time so engaged. Oh, and I should add here, this continued once on the plane. TV screens everywhere (including my own), and people sitting in very tight quarters but not really acknowledging each other. Still drawn into their own devices, headphones attached.

And except for the two clueless blowhards who were both walking about the place, talking loudly into headsets to disembodied recipients on the other end, all were quietly attached to their iphones, droids, bluetooths, ipods-pads-gadgets, and blissfully unaware of their own surroundings. Most were obviously conversing with someone… texting, e-messaging, and the like. Connecting by disconnecting. Attachment through unattachment. Embodied through disembodiment.

Time was when a gathering place such as an airport lounge, a train platform, a grocery store line, or a dentist’s office was where you’d meet strangers, strike up a conversation for a few minutes, and enrich your life by a small amount. No, you didn’t usually get to know the other person, probably didn’t get their name, and might never see them again. But you came away the richer for it, anyway. Tidbits of texting-on-a-date BWlives. The viewpoints of others. Human body language. A cross-fertilization of ideas and feelings that somehow are not quantifiable as ASCII text, or as the ones and zeros of machine language, and so are not deliverable over a network. Seems like all of that’s on its way out now, leaving us to flounder about in the wake of our ubiquitous digital connections.

I know, I know… I sound like some old fart pining away for the good old days. Maybe I am, though I must say that I love our digital connections. Seems a shame, though, to lose the ability to engage in a face to face conversation. Young people may grow up without it, and that’s a shame, too. But we older people, those of us who used to have that, those of us who have given over to texting and plexing and facebooking and such… malt shopFor us to abandon the art of conversation… well, that’s more than a shame. It’s a tragedy. Next time you’re sitting in a cafe, look around and see how many are caught up in this digital diversion. That is, if you can pull yourself away from your handheld long enough.

Whippin’ a Dead Horse

Dead_horse_mongoliaI read a lot of posts on social networks by fellow musicians who complain about how digital media is destroying their livelihoods and changing their way of life for the worse. In the near future it might become impossible to make a living as a musician or songwriter. I’ve shared their lot most of my life, and I think there’s a lot of truth to this.

However, I also realize that a great deal–the vast bulk, as a matter of fact–of our current collective society and culture is centered around 2 technological advances of the 20th century: the automobile and the advent of electric mass media.

The car standardized our world, gave us homes that look and function alike, pushed our cities out into suburbs, separated our workplace and our homes for the first time in history, and created a brand new class and culture: teenagers. The word “teenager” wasn’t even invented before the car, and there was no such thing as “teenage” or “adolescent” culture before we took to paved roads in our new rides. teens carThe automobile allowed us to escape our parents, to congregate at places away from our houses at night. It created a brand new culture. And as we’ve grown older (and grown OLD…), we all still cling to that culture desperately. We still want to rock. We still want to be in a band, or go to a gig, or play the music of our youth. It’s who we are, and it started sometime back in the 1910’s or 20’s.
recording band with horn
The recording studio had a great deal to do with the evolution of this mass media culture of ours. The record, for the first time in history, separated the audience from the performance. The same thing occurred with movies. And when the recording studio evolved into a multi-track environment, the musicians themselves recording isolationwere separated, from each other. It didn’t take long for the rise of the producer and the engineer to come about, and they in turn separated the artist (and the musicians) from the finished product. From about the early ’60s onward, they have actually had more influence upon the finished recording than the artist has had. They have, in fact, taken the act of composition and performance away from the composer/arranger, and have stolen live performance from the artist, by using  their ability to edit and comp tracks in the studio. They are the ones who actually create the finished, recorded performances that we hear.

I don’t hear many artists, musicians, composers, arrangers, or others complain that their livelihood was destroyed by a recording engineer, even though it may have been. Final decisions in the studio don’t come from the artist… they come from the engineer, the mixer who actually renders the final audio file, and who tweaks each track so that it fits his–or a producer’s–vision of what the song should sound like. The artist might in fact BE the producer, and the engineer… But if so, then they may have taken away someone else’s job, haven’t they?

But back to digital media. It’s a thing that fosters–even REQUIRES–the participation of every interested party. Not only do the functions of each participant blend together, but they blend with those of the consumer, as well. In mass media, the music amateur bandindustry directed its consumer from above, in a top-down, one-directional way. Now, that’s no longer possible. Consumers get to talk back. They get a say in the creation of music, and are not simply passive consumers, they’re now creators. Brian Eno talks about how we “…stop regarding things as fixed and unchangeable, as preordained, and we increasingly find ourselves practising the idea that we have some control.”

The consumer now has the power. It came about through changes in technology, as did the changes stemming from the automobile, the movie camera, and the recording studio. We can complain about it. We can employ Draconian methods of protection in order to retain our status quo. We can implement restrictions on digital content, through programming and hardware tools, in order to direct the consumer in ways we feel are appropriate. We can do all of these things and more, but I doubt it will succeed in turning back the clock. We can hardly complain about someone appropriating our intellectual content at the same time we’re photoshopping someone else’s photograph and posting it on Facebook.

Digital media is itself a very different thing from fixed artifacts such as records, books, movies, and photographs. Anything rendered in digital format is, in fact, NEVER FINISHED. We always have the Horse & Buggyoption of tweaking it, no matter what it happens to be. An E-book is not a BOOK…it is a FILE. An MP3 is not a RECORD….it is a FILE. We shouldn’t mistake one for the other.

I don’t know the answers to the problems and questions my colleagues and friends have about this changing world of ours. All I can recommend is to study the evolution of the buggy whip maker from about the time the automobile came on the scene. Because we’re probably all headed in the same direction.

Telling Stories

Have we given up the ability and the desire to tell our stories? At first glance it seems that digital media, with its relentless emphasis upon the short term, is following television’s lead by encouraging our short attention spans. Television certainly has seduced us with its promise of instant gratification over the years, offering up its constant doses of dopamine and oxytocin as rewards for our attention. But to those ends, television has relied upon the centuries old, tried and true methods of storytelling, placing its emphasis upon tales that contained an introduction (beginning), a conflict (middle), and a resolution (ending). Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. This traces back through radio and movies to the novel, and before that to the folktale. Storytelling, it is argued, is what separates humans from other animals.

Computer media doesn’t like storytelling. It doesn’t lend itself to long term relationships with any of its content. We don’t watch sports on our smartphones. That’s partly because the screen is too small, but mostly because most team sports take too long and we end up becoming distracted by the device itself. Same goes for watching movies, or for anything that requires a long term commitment (anything more than a couple of minutes) in order to receive the payoff. Games offer continuous payoffs as we move from obstacle to obstacle. We don’t read novels on our computers or handheld devices. Sure, we have our Kindles and other e-book readers, but as they become smarter and smarter, with more built-in features, we will find ourselves more and more distracted by them, unable to read for two hours the way we used to with a printed book. In fact, as we use our digital devices more and more, we find ourselves unable even to read a printed book for as long as we used to.

Have computers followed television’s lead? No, it’s the other way around. It’s no accident that reality shows have taken over much of TV’s programming content. We no longer want to sit through an entire episode of conventional storytelling. We want a more rapid payoff, a continual reward for our attention, so we choose instead the spectacle over the narrative. The spectacle—the reality show about cops, or bachelors, or fashion victims, or cooking contestants, or singers, or island survivors, or apprentices, or fat people—has replaced the narrative. Storytelling—that with a beginning, middle, and ending—has been exchanged for spectacle—that which is non-linear, random, and without any underlying sense of story.

Television is simply competing with computers, with the internet and with our newfound abilities to communicate across multiple channels, instantly with substance that means something to us as individuals. But even as we try to quench our endless thirst for something new, we sacrifice our ability not only to tell stories, but to listen to them as well. For all its faults, television used to supply us with stories, from Saturday morning cartoon shows to the evening news, from sitcoms to crime dramas, and from movies to miniseries. It still provides us with some of these, but their supply is dwindling. As television continues its struggle to compete with the internet (a struggle that it will ultimately lose) it steadily remakes itself in the internet’s image.

If storytelling is what separates humans from other animals, it is also what teaches us about ourselves. It is how we learn to become good people, how we discover who we are. While the internet provides us with amazing opportunities to find out about these things, it doesn’t put them into any sort of meaningful context. We are left to our own resources as individuals to try to make sense of it all. And the smarter the internet gets, the better it becomes at steering us toward what it thinks we like, and the more it shields us from opposing points of view. And within all of this, it doesn’t tell us stories. It simply offers up short term connections in the form of easily read blogs (such as this one), youtube videos, tumblr pictures, and endless sources of amusement in all manner of shapes and forms. It gives us bits of the story, but doesn’t really tell the whole story.

And so, who are our narrators now? From whom can we get our sense of self, and with it our sense of morality? TV is still a viable source, though probably not for much longer. For stories, I look to three sources. And no, it’s not politicians, religious leaders, and news commentators.

My three sources are writers, poets, and songwriters. Yes, they’re all writers of sorts, but each approaches the craft in a different manner, with different criteria applied.

If you want to do something to save humanity, my advice is to seek out what these three sources provide. Read books. Read poetry. Listen to songs (not just music… songs). Be selective. Be judgemental. Raise the bar on quality.

And if you really want to serve humanity, then become one of these… become a source.

The Empowered Consumer

Until now most recording artists have gone about making a new record by simply using conventional mass media means, by creating a musical statement around an album and delivering it to passive consumers in a one-directional manner. Even today, the consumer still has little or no say in the matter of production, and is considered only when tallying up sales numbers. This has no effect upon the creation of the album itself (it has already been produced and released), though the sales figures might affect the next album’s production.

In the mass media culture of the 20th century artists and consumers were two separate groups of people who never met. There was no social contact between performers and listeners, no personal interchange between artists and fans.

But in the folk cultures of the past, everyone was a musician of sorts. That is, everyone was involved in creating music in the community, at least on some level. Music was a community affair. Everyone played or sang along, or were at least in attendance as active spectators. We were participants then. There were no professionals, no expert musicians. Everyone shared in the making of music. Christopher Small called it “musicking“.

Our print culture of the past 500 years has slowly put an end to this. We have relinquished control over our cultural artifacts (folktales, songs, writings, artwork, etc.) and have handed it over to professionals. As a community we quit being producers and became consumers.  In turning that control over to professionals, we created what Lawrence Lessig refers to as a “Read-Only Culture”, a no-questions-asked society in which we embrace a “look but don’t touch” approach to creative content. We have even put a fence around it and call it “intellectual property“.

We have created an environment in which those who use the works of others without permission are considered thieves and pirates and under many circumstances are prosecuted for their actions. Vilification of offenders is directed not only at those who copy and resell recordings, but at those who perform the simple act of playing another’s song in public. Think about it… If your cell phone rings in public with a copyrighted ringtone, you’re breaking the law. The rights of the individual to own and control artistic creations have become sacrosanct and inviolable within our mass media culture, and the function of the community as an active participant—a function that had previously ensued for thousands of years—has been dismissed. More and more, those “individuals” who own and control our intellectual property–our songs, films, books, and other works of art–are large corporations. But corporations don’t create anything… people do.

Control is changing.

The 20th century mass media system continues to function, propelled by its own inertia, but its momentum is decelerating as it crosses farther into the realm of the digital. Not only the recording industry but radio, film, and television industries as well, still employ the old mass media methods—top-down, centralised, one-to-many, specific and specialised. These are now giving way to the digital—bottom-up, decentralised, many-to-many, automated and generalised. Most artists today still create their music within last century’s paradigm, choosing to delay a song’s release until they have created a collection—an album. It’s the same old 20th century concept, a product that is produced using a one-to-many philosophy that ignores the centuries-old traditional ideas of folk culture and community driven music.

We continue to move steadily away from the mass media aproach—linear, proprietary, and centrally controlled—toward the digital—an ecology of random access that is communal and decentralised. Our means of playback has moved away from the proprietary devices—record players, tape machines, and CD players—that were largely controlled by the same industry that created the music played upon them. Consumption and playback of music now moves toward open, non-specific devices: computers, cell phones, iGadgets, and other digital appliances. These are no longer seen simply as media players, but as access points, entryways into the digital world that stores not only our musical content, but the fabric of our everyday lives.

We no longer carry our music with us but instead choose to store it in the cloud. We need only possess a connected device—a cell phone or digital player—in order to listen to our music on demand. Place and time are no longer important, and only our ability to connect is required.

Ownership no longer matters… access does.

Digital culture by its very nature returns control to the community—at the expense of the individual. Collective intelligence is replacing the expert; crowd sourced information is replacing professional opinion. For better or for worse, the authors of Encyclopedia Britannica (professionals & experts) have been replaced by the authors of Wikipedia (the general public).

The thing to remember about the digital domain is this: we’re all in it together. It’s no longer a zero sum game. One man’s gain does not equal another’s loss. One man’s gain is everyone’s gain. We might not all get along here, but it’s a community.

Peace

Tapping Into Our Wellspring

Ask yourself this: what is copyright for? Why do we have it? What is its function? Not surprisingly, most will answer that it’s for protection from theft of our intellectual property. It’s to keep people from stealing your songs, or your films, or photographs, or other creative content. To protect you from thieves. It serves to punish those who steal. Well, yes and no. It has a sort of secondary function that serves all of that, but its true purpose is not a moral one, it’s a utilitarian one. And it goes all the way back to 1710, with the Statute of Queen Anne. So, what utility, exactly does it serve? It might surprise you to know that its purpose is to give incentive to creative type folks… to coax them to create more cool stuff  for us to enjoy… Copyright’s originators (and among them in the USA was Thomas Jefferson) intended that its purpose was not to protect those creations forever, nor was it to protect them for the artist’s children’s and grandchildren’s estates. Nor was it to protect them for corporations (who, by the way, don’t create anythng.…. people do…). It was meant to give the artist a bit of breathing room (around 14 years, then 28, back then) so they could reap a bit of profit from their works, while creating more works. After that, creative content was intended to go into the public sphere, or the public domain as we know it, to be freely used by everyone. To enrich our culture. The whole idea (and I believe it’s a good one) was to encourage people to create works of art in all  fields, to allow them to profit from them, and then to enrich the public domain (and consequently, our lives). Capitalism has put an end  to all of that in the 20th century. We now see copyright as a moral  issue, using terms like ‘pirates’ and ‘thieves’. We’ve come to accept–no, to expect–that an artist should own their work for decade upon decade, that their children and their children’s children will own it long after they are dead, and that nothing should be forthcoming from them that we’ll eventually be free to use. This is not only wrong for our society, it’s downright dangerous, because it is steadily shrinking the public domain. A lot’s been written about this, by people far more eloquent than I am, but I wanted to throw my hat in the ring alongside them. This is something that needs to be constantly talked about, until this stigma of guilt and shame is lifted and we can begin to see that the shrinking of our public sphere is not in our best interests. I want artists to get paid for their work. I want to see them profit–even to see them get rich–but I also want to live in a world where it’s just natural to share your art as a gift to your community, as a way to help, in your own small way, to make the world a richer, more vibrant place, and to help nurture the wellspring that we all need to draw from for our inspiration.

An Early Martian Scenario

I’ve been fooling with the notion of humans as a spacefaring species for many years. Sometimes I go so far as to toss out scenarios in which we might leave our mortal coil here on earth and head for the stars. The obvious first step will be to establish our permanent presence on Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and in the Asteroid Belt. Here’s a funky little scenario, written as if looking back upon the 21st century. The misspellings, bad grammar, and technical errors are all mine:

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Early Martian Society

By mid-century the framework of spacer society was firmly laid. What had started out as a system of trial-and-error experiments became honed, as the new generations of spacefaring people learned to cope with the demands of their foreign environment. By the year 2038 a rudimentary government was in place, headquartered  at Clarke City, Mars. The Martian Constitution was written as a guideline for expanding upon the human penchant for curiosity and inquisitiveness. Its authors sought to encourage new ideas and new discoveries while laying down the ground rules for a democratic society in space. It allowed for no countries and no other governments to be established within its jurisdiction, while at the same time encouraging spacers to look after their own local affairs. Tort law as was practiced on Earth was all but abandoned, and the concept of personal liability was discarded. There were very few attempting to practice law in space. Personal lawsuits simply didn’t exist outside Earth’s gravity well.

In 2042 it was decided, via the Earth-Mars Treaty, that the new Martian government would govern the area from the Sun-Mars LaGrange points to the outer reaches of the Jovian system. The Earth was so self-absorbed in its fight to eradicate crime and terrorism at home that its leaders quickly gave in to spacers’ demands for self rule, and surprisingly, allowed them to lay claim to Mars, Jupiter, and the Jovian moons, and to the asteroid belt. Had they demanded jurisdiction over Saturn and the outer gas giants they might well have bargained for that as well. But they settled for control of the area of the solar system that they deemed most valuable to them. In return, Earth would serve as the seat of government for Earth, Venus, and Mercury. The area inside the orbit of Mercury, including the Sun itself, would fall under no jurisdiction and would be a “free zone”, intended for scientific study, as would the space outside the orbit of Pluto, up to the edge of the Oort cloud.

The Martian treaty with the government of Earth was the first of its kind, for it not only described the initial colonization of space, it represented a new kind of land ownership which illustrated an area in constant change, a dynamic space where the real estate was in a constant state of flux. Due to the differing orbital sizes, eccentricities, and periods of the planets and asteroids the shapes of the areas governed by Earth and by Mars were always variable. Therefore, a system of relational data had to be used to describe these areas, using diffeomorphism for the first time to describe these relationships. The benchmarks used were not fixed in space, but were constantly moving. Today, it is the diffeomorphic relationships between those original benchmarks that determine where a government’s sovereignty begins and ends.

Armed with a new outlook and a new set of incentives, spacers moved quickly to build their new colonies within the new frontier. Land-based stations sprang up all over the surface of Mars, on Callisto and Ganymede, and among both the eastern and western groups of the Trojan asteroids. Space colonies were built in orbit around Mars and Ganymede and within the asteroid belt. Spartan and efficient, these colonies and stations grew steadily, acting as jumping off points for new and distant places.

In 2064, after a long series of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the removal of Earth’s corporate presence in the Martian territories, spacers launched an attack against those corporations, now referred to as the “Four Day War”. During the short conflict every single corporate holding in Martian territory was seized. Those working for offplanet businesses who were not sympathetic toward spacers were allowed to return to Earth. A great majority of them considered themselves to be part of the spacer community and chose to receive Martian citizenship.

On the last day of the war several corporate headquarters on Earth were attacked from space, destroying them and killing thousands. Damage to the net was extensive, causing people everywhere to fear a repeat of the holocaust of 2019. It was this bold attack on their own homeland, and with it the fracturing of their belief in their own safety, that caused Earthers to back off their quest for corporate dominance of the solar system. For the time being, it seemed as though the people of Earth had lost their appetite for rule outside their own atmosphere. After the dust had settled from the Four Day War, Earthers and Spacers began to live together peacefully, and have managed to do so for the last two decades.

As with the exploration of any frontier, the first laws of the spacer community came about through necessity. They were common sense rules meant to keep a person alive in the hostile environment of space. Most of the rules set forth in the original Martian Directive were prohibitions against allowing a fellow spacer to come to harm, through either action or inaction. They formalized the rules that spacers had known and followed for many years. The Martian government, and spacer society at large, has purposely kept government small. Most of the work of the Martian government concerns relations with Earth. In Martian culture the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment, which includes safety, has been left to the individual.

Excerpts from “Beyond Sanctuary: A View of the Twenty-first Century From the Outside”

 © 2083, by Jefferson Landley, published by MicroPlex

Brave New Internet

I’ve talked a little here about the aesthetics of code. It’s interesting, how new tech industries have evolved in 20th century. I’m thinking of radio, tv, phone, film, recording, and publishing industries. They start as open platforms, with common access to production, but end up closed, run by monopolies or cartels. The Internet might be headed in the same direction. 

While we like to think of the internet as a free and open platform, a thing that is apart from and above the workings of government, nothing could be further from the truth. The idea that free speech is inherent within the platform of the internet is a common misconception. It is not inherent, and it is certainly not guaranteed. 

The internet–and all its attendant technologies–is made of code. Computer code, that is. Code is its governor. It is the ruler, the authoritarian, the dictator, in what can be viewed from one angle as a totalitarian environment. In order to use our computers, our cell phones, our mobile devices and big screen TVs, we have no choice but to follow the rules that code describes. Code itself can be changed from time to time, but it is still the law of the land. 

But it turns out that this process of following our authoritarian master is not a bitter pill for the public to swallow. On the contrary, it is a very sweet pill, reminiscent of the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. We are in love with our new medium and we are blind to its nature. We are smitten by its countenance, infatuated with its content, but anesthetized at the same time, so that it numbs us to the consequences it embodies.

I’ve written about the idea of a new “informationalism”, where those with knowledge will assume power, replacing those who own capital (capitalists). Signs of this can be found in TED talks, the Singularity University, and other gatherings of industry insiders and celebrities. Celebrities, and others, are seeking to become part of the knowledgeable elite. Right now, that elite is made up of a disproportionate number of computer geeks. This isn’t surprising. The 20th century’s ruling elite was made up of a disproportionate number of actors, musicians, and other celebrities. It’s only natural for those on top to want to remain there, and the only way for a celebrity to become a member of the new elite is to become an informed insider. Just as the aristocracy handed over the reins of power to the capitalists, so are the capitalists now handing them over to the new  informationalists. In both cases the old ruling class hangs onto its wealth—and a fragment of its power—by a sort of tacit agreement with the new one. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s just the way things tend to shake out. 

When I think of companies like Apple, I am reminded of Huxley. Consumers are guided happily into our own luxuriously padded jail cells. We go cheerfully, voluntarily, and have even stood in line (literally) to do it. Our enjoyment of the product leads to our own enslavement by it. We follow its code without a second thought. We don’t care who wrote the code, or why. But we jump through the same hoops again and again, without ever knowing what an iteration loop is. 

Breadcrumbs on the Digital Trail

I was reminded lately that I constantly leave a digital trail while online [and sometimes while offline, too].
Ah, you say, but I erase all my private emails from the server. I’ve set my email client to do just that, so when I’m finished with them they are all erased, just like that. I erase the private stuff in my Facebook, Google Plus, Linkedin, and other accounts all the time. I only sign up on sites that say they don’t use my personal data. Everything I do online remains there, forever. No matter what. Every single email, picture, thumbs up, purchase, and yes, every single private exchange is still there, sitting on a server somewhere.

None of this means that your data is erased. Fact is, it’s all still sitting there, waiting for a future digital anthropologist to sift through it, using forensic methods not yet thought of, to create a picture of who you were/are. And my guess is, future digital forensics will be far more accurate at sizing a person up than any that have been used up until now.

Think about what sorts of clues you leave online every day, clues to your daily habits. But also, clues to your hopes and dreams, your secret fantasies, your hidden personality. Things that even you might not be aware of. Add up all those “Likes” you clicked on Facebook. There must be hundreds… thousands of them. Just by analyzing my Facebook “Likes” alone you could get a pretty good picture of my friends, my likes and dislikes (okay, they don’t have a “dislike” button yet…), and all sorts of psycho-drivel that would probably paint a pretty complete picture of who I am.

Add to that my other online activities. Emails, public posts on social networking sites, tweets, searches for answers to computer problems (or any other search via google or another search engine), use of online maps, purchases from Amazon or eBay or various other online vendors, music listened to online, YouTubes watched, downloads of all varieties [software, music, torrents, videos, you name it…], uploads and contributions to same, donations, and yes, even voting. It’s all still there, and will still be there well after we’re all dead and gone. We’re far more public, more exposed, online than we ever were in the print world. It only seems that we have privacy because we’re sitting here alone, in our rooms, with our computers or handhelds, logging in and lurking, thinking no one knows.

Sometimes I go on about digital culture and its democratisation of processes, and about its communal nature. The digital world–and indeed, the real world that it is a part of–champions the community over the individual. That is, what’s good for the community is more valued than what’s good for the individual. This surrender of our privacy is all about that communal thing. It’s not about smiley faced communal love. It’s about coming to grips with the fact that, as individuals, we’re no longer as important as the community.