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.


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.

Movin’ On…

This one’s for you musicians out there. Especially those of you who complain about illegal downloads, piracy, and how your products are losing their economic value. Grouse all you want… you’re not gonna change the world you live in. It’s gonna change you, instead.

When a new medium comes along, we become enamored. We fall in love with it and adopt it. We play with it, use it, and accept it as our own until it becomes ubiquitous. We did this with the first four media ages: Oral, Scribal, Print, and Electric, when each one came along. And as we did, they shaped us into something different, each time. The problem comes when we try to make it work the way the previous one did.

And now, as we enter the fifth media age, the Digital Age, we’re doing the same thing. As McLuhan observed, we don’t live our lives looking forward, we see them in the rear view mirror. It’s no different this time. We’re treating digital media as if it were ELECTRIC media. That is, we’re still trying to conform to the rules of the Electric Age, which includes broadcast, mass production, and analogue content. It embraces Professionalism. We look to professionals to produce music and other art. And now, we wonder why that’s no longer working.

The reason it isn’t working is because it CAN’T work in a digital environment. It’s not a shift in content format. It’s not just a shift from vinyl to digital. It’s not like a change from records to CDs. It’s a complete change of the environment itself. It’s like a boat in the forest. Like a bowling ball in the snow. Old methods don’t work in new media environments. They simply don’t. You can’t point a camera at a theatre play and create a good movie. The film medium dictates that you need to do other things. And even if we could somehow write books by hand, people are now used to reading print. They simply wouldn’t buy handwritten books.

If you’re a working musician–a solo artist, a member of a band, a songwriter, or someone who is in the field of popular music– ask yourself this: How often do I go down to the music store and buy sheet music? Do I depend upon that sheet music for my livelihood? How important is sheet music to my work these days?

We left sheet music behind when the Electric Age came along. Sure, some of us still use it. But the vast majority of live musical performances are accomplished without it. It’s simply not ubiquitous anymore, at least in popular music circles. Sure, go ahead and make the argument that I’m wrong. But then, show me how many rock bands on MTV have sheet music in front of them. How many singer/songwriters, folk musicians, bluegrass bands, or rockabilly groups do you see with a bunch of music stands onstage? Go ahead, I can wait.

My point is that, while old content isn’t destroyed when a new medium comes along, it does become less meaningful. It doesn’t work very well in a new media environment. In the Digital Age we’ll still have CDs, vinyl records, and other “traditional” forms of music artifacts. But they are no longer viable. You’re probably still modeling your music and your career as if you were still in the Electric Age. You’re not. We’re not.

We’ve moved on. If you really want to thrive, to make a living creating and playing music, then you need to move on, too.

A good place to start might be with reading some of Andrew Dubber’s stuff. He gets it.

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:


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. 

Science vs God

When I was growing up in America atheists were considered taboo by most people. Atheism was a territory occupied by the amoral; by godless communists, hedonists, anarchists, and let’s face it… devil worshippers. They didn’t just disbelieve in god; they believed in satan.

Or so we thought back then. Hell, how were we to know any different? No one I knew would ever admit to being an atheist. Even the most hardcore left wing flag burning pot smoking anarchist liberal could only summon up the huevos to admit that he was an agnostic. And let’s face it… agnostics are just people too weak kneed to take a stance, commitment phobes afraid to make a choice.

All this crossed my mind as I was having a conversation with a physicist the other day. He happens to be an atheist [note: atheists are not considered pariahs here in New Zealand], and we were talking about god, creationism, and the scientific method.

I asked whether he thought his belief in physics (the laws of nature) was any different than others’ belief in god. To which he replied with the usual arguments of testing by scientific method, proving and disproving theories, and using empirical evidence and such, whereas with god you just rely upon faith and believe in it all.

And so I asked if the laws of physics were really all that different from god, and I don’t think I made myself quite clear, as he seemed a bit confused by the question. So I offered up a comparison.

Physics is a thing that exists outside our universe (and inside it, as well). It controls everything in the universe, but is itself not controlled or affected by us, or by anything in our universe. It is immutable, all powerful. We live by its laws, even when we don’t know or understand them.

Sound familiar?

We don’t even have a clue as to what percentage of the laws of physics [nature] we do understand. Do we know ninety percent? Two percent? We have no idea, and probably never will. Do the laws of physics [nature] change if we go somewhere else in the universe, or to another universe? We don’t know yet. Maybe it’s not for us to ever know. Hell, we don’t know that, either.

My scientist friend posited a familiar argument about god being taken on faith, while science is tested and retested, etc. I mentioned that he was actually talking about religion vs. the scientific method, and not about god vs. physics. Religion is what we do. Science is what we do. But if god and physics exist they are beyond our grasp, and they’ll exist whether we’re here or not. They’ll exist for other lifeforms on other planets in other galaxies. And though they’re everywhere, not a single being can touch either one of ’em. 

I’m a believer in the laws of nature. Here’s a quick test for you: if you DON’T believe in them, just take a short trip to the roof of your nearest, say, 15 storey building and step off. I’m pretty sure that gravity is gonna beat disbelief on that one. But all that proves is that physics works. But who’s to say it wasn’t invented by god? 

Don’t look at me. I don’t know the answer. I’m an agnostic. 

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.

Drinking from the Wellspring

I was a saddlemaker for many years. And I’ve been a musician for even longer. It occurs to me that the two paths are not all that dissimilar, that they have some things in common. Those who follow these paths make things up, from scratch (or nearly so), using some tools, some materials, and their wits. Both create intellectual property, or creative content if you want to call it that. Both can claim ownership of that property. For the saddlemaker it’s his designs, patterns, and finished creations. For the songwriter it’s his songs and compositions. But the paths diverge once their so-called intellectual property sees the light of day.

Craftsmen do what craftsmen do… we make stuff. When I made a saddle, or this bag for instance, I knew that once it went out my saddle shop door I no longer had creative control over it. Whatever happened to it, whatever design changes it would undergo, it was no longer my concern. My name was stamped on it, but the design was not mine to control any longer. It could be copied by other saddlers, or it could be changed by the owner somehow. If copies were made of it I wasn’t about to sue anybody over them. In fact, I copied others’ designs, just as every other saddlemaker does.

Copying designs is not about plagiarism. When you steal a good idea and incorporate it into your own work, three things happen:

  • It elevates the level of your work.
  • It gives new life to an existing idea, a rebirth.
  • In its own small way, it enriches our culture and makes our universe a bit more vibrant.

Saddlemakers know this intuitively. Fashion designers know it. Even automobile manufacturers know it. For the most part, these industries are relatively free from copyright lawsuits, especially considering (in the cases of fashion and cars) the ENORMOUS sums of money that are made within those industries. They know that they need constant renewal, which means reusing, remixing, and giving new meaning to existing ideas and designs.

Music, film, publishing, and the arts? Not so much. They don’t want renewal at all. Much to the contrary, they want to control their ideas forever, and continually work to bolster copyright laws to make this happen. Besides changing our laws, this process includes lawsuits, villification of offenders, and even polarisation of the public at large, causing us to choose sides in the copyright argument that rages over illegal downloads and unlawful appropriation of so-called “intellectual property”.

As a sideman, a person who plays for other artists onstage and on their records, I must use the saddlemaker’s approach to my creations. When I create a musical part on a song, it is most certainly my own creation. However, once I walk out the recording studio door, it’s lost to me. I have absolutely no control over its use or its ultimate fate on the recording. And that’s the way it should be. We session players do this as a work for hire, and we let go of our intellectual property as if it had never belonged to us. And we’re happy to do so, because it’s the making of the music that’s important. As artists who make “creative content”, we basically want two things–in this order:

  1. People to listen to our music
  2. To somehow make a living

Most of us can (and do) live without number 2, but none of us would give up number 1. Yet we seem to be stuck in this argument that focuses solely on the second thing, and has changed the idea of copyright from a UTILITARIAN concept to a MORAL one. It was never meant to be moral, and still is not meant to be. But it now serves a moral purpose instead of a utilitarian one. [hint: read Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts about this]

Why is it that I’m happy to let go of a design for a bag that took 160 hours to make, yet I find myself wanting to keep control of a song that took me an hour to write? Why is the song more precious to us than the leather artifact? I don’t know. But here’s a tidbit from Woody Guthrie that sort of sums up the argument, and reveals how he felt about numbers 1 and 2 above:

“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ours, cause we don’t give a darn. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do”

Don’t want to preach, but here’s some food for thought: Share your ideas. Don’t be afraid of letting go of them. And don’t be afraid to avail yourself of others’ ideas, as well. We need more stuff in our public sphere, more creative waters in the wellspring from which we draw our inspiration. And what the hell, it makes for an interesting life.

Saddle up. 

The Aesthetics of Code

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot lately about aesthetics and computing. More specifically, about the divide that exists between form and function in regards to computer code. There are two cultures at work, two views of the same thing, but vastly different. Take the programmer… He sees his job as requiring him to consider two points:

1) The usability, by non-programmers, of the software that he creates

2) How the software (code) is to be maintained by other programmers.

This generally evolves into a sort of reductive language, rather than a productive one. It ends up as a mathematical artifact that becomes embedded in the natural world. Originally, these were not really part of our natural world, because the only demand for computers and software was from the people who created and maintained them. There was no real link to the “normal” world of non-programmers.

But now we, as non-programmers, are beginning to hold opinions about the aesthetic aspects of the programmer’s work. But we’re still in flux, in a state of transition with it all, because for the most part, we still have no idea what the hell a programmer actually DOES. Code is still mysterious, still reserved for geeks, still an arcane, unknowable thing that works as if by magic. We never see it; we’re not concerned with it, any more than we’re concerned with what makes our cars run or our planes fly. We just use it, blindly and happily. Who cares what lurks inside? It plays music on our iGadgets; it streams YouTubes; it lets us text each other, follow each other on Facebook, call each other on Skype. Who cares? It just works. Somehow, all those odd sentences, those brackets and parentheses and semi-colons… well, somehow they just seem to make it all work, and for me that’s all that really matters. Isn’t it?

As McLuhan said, while we’re still focused upon the content of our new digital media, we will fail to recognize its very nature. We’re enamoured of the contents of our computer screen, but we fail to understand that it is the code behind it that creates the rules by which we are now living our lives.