The UK is one of the most watched over societies on earth with CCTV cameras in abundance, and the whole world is waking up to how much retrievable evidence the likes of Google have on us all thanks to our laptops and cellphones. (This spooky walking iphone was seen at the New York Halloween parade last week).
But is the invasion of privacy making our culture more secretive or less? Networks like FaceBook appear to be turning the once wild web into a cosy global village where all know each other’s business and keep an eye out for our digital neighbours and group members.
Privacy and the implications of social networking and user generation on our culture were key topics in a discussion about new technology on the UK internet TV company Doughty Street TV this November 5th, hosted by the Institute of Ideas.
Reading has always been a solitary activity where the individual’s imagination roams at will. There’s been a strange reversal now that book groups and recommendations from chat show hosts – Richard & Judy in the UK, Oprah in the USA – create a tiny pool of recommended bestsellers in the vast and frightening ocean of the unread. Who are the free thinkers now, websurfers or bookbrowsers?
Over the next few days I’ll be sifting through notes, links, and assorted epiphanies crumpled up in my pocket from two packed, and at times profound, days at the Economics of Open Content symposium, hosted in Cambridge, MA by Intelligent Television and MIT Open CourseWare. For now, here are some initial impressions — things I heard, both spoken in the room and ricocheting inside my head during and since. An oral history of the conference? Not exactly. More an attempt to jog the memory. Hopefully, though, something coherent will come across. I’ll pick up some of these threads in greater detail over the next few days. I should add that this post owes a substantial debt in form to Eliot Weinberger’s “What I Heard in Iraq” series (here and here).
Naturally, I heard a lot about “open content.”
I heard that there are two kinds of “open.” Open as in open access — to knowledge, archives, medical information etc. (like Public Library of Science or Project Gutenberg). And open as in open process — work that is out in the open, open to input, even open-ended (like Linux, Wikipedia or our experiment with MItch Stephens, Without Gods).
I heard that “content” is actually a demeaning term, treating works of authorship as filler for slots — a commodity as opposed to a public good.
I heard that open content is not necessarily the same as free content. Both can be part of a business model, but the defining difference is control — open content is often still controlled content.
I heard that for “open” to win real user investment that will feedback innovation and even result in profit, it has to be really open, not sort of open. Otherwise “open” will always be a burden.
I heard that if you build the open-access resources and demonstrate their value, the money will come later.
I heard that content should be given away for free and that the money is to be made talking about the content.
I heard that reputation and an audience are the most valuable currency anyway.
I heard that the academy’s core mission — education, research and public service — makes it a moral imperative to have all scholarly knowledge fully accessible to the public.
I heard that if knowledge is not made widely available and usable then its status as knowledge is in question.
I heard that libraries may become the digital publishing centers of tomorrow through simple, open-access platforms, overhauling the print journal system and redefining how scholarship is disseminated throughout the world.
And I heard a lot about copyright…
I heard that probably about 50% of the production budget of an average documentary film goes toward rights clearances.
I heard that many of those clearances are for “underlying” rights to third-party materials appearing in the background or reproduced within reproduced footage. I heard that these are often things like incidental images, video or sound; or corporate logos or facades of buildings that happen to be caught on film.
I heard that there is basically no “fair use” space carved out for visual and aural media.
I heard that this all but paralyzes our ability as a culture to fully examine ourselves in terms of the media that surround us.
I heard that the various alternative copyright movements are not necessarily all pulling in the same direction.
I heard that there is an “inter-operability” problem between alternative licensing schemes — that, for instance, Wikipedia’s GNU Free Documentation License is not inter-operable with any Creative Commons licenses.
I heard that since the mass market content industries have such tremendous influence on policy, that a significant extension of existing copyright laws (in the United States, at least) is likely in the near future.
I heard one person go so far as to call this a “totalitarian” intellectual property regime — a police state for content.
I heard that one possible benefit of this extension would be a general improvement of internet content distribution, and possibly greater freedom for creators to independently sell their work since they would have greater control over the flow of digital copies and be less reliant on infrastructure that today only big companies can provide.
I heard that another possible benefit of such control would be price discrimination — i.e. a graduated pricing scale for content varying according to the means of individual consumers, which could result in fairer prices. Basically, a graduated cultural consumption tax imposed by media conglomerates
I heard, however, that such a system would be possible only through a substantial invasion of users’ privacy: tracking users’ consumption patterns in other markets (right down to their local grocery store), pinpointing of users’ geographical location and analysis of their socioeconomic status.
I heard that this degree of control could be achieved only through persistent surveillance of the flow of content through codes and controls embedded in files, software and hardware.
I heard that such a wholesale compromise on privacy is all but inevitable — is in fact already happening.
I heard that in an “information economy,” user data is a major asset of companies — an asset that, like financial or physical property assets, can be liquidated, traded or sold to other companies in the event of bankruptcy, merger or acquisition.
I heard that within such an over-extended (and personally intrusive) copyright system, there would still exist the possibility of less restrictive alternatives — e.g. a peer-to-peer content cooperative where, for a single low fee, one can exchange and consume content without restriction; money is then distributed to content creators in proportion to the demand for and use of their content.
I heard that such an alternative could theoretically be implemented on the state level, with every citizen paying a single low tax (less than $10 per year) giving them unfettered access to all published media, and easily maintaining the profit margins of media industries.
I heard that, while such a scheme is highly unlikely to be implemented in the United States, a similar proposal is in early stages of debate in the French parliament.
And I heard a lot about peer-to-peer…
I heard that p2p is not just a way to exchange files or information, it is a paradigm shift that is totally changing the way societies communicate, trade, and build.
I heard that between 1840 and 1850 the first newspapers appeared in America that could be said to have mass circulation. I heard that as a result — in the space of that single decade — the cost of starting a print daily rose approximately %250.
I heard that modern democracies have basically always existed within a mass media system, a system that goes hand in hand with a centralized, mass-market capital structure.
I heard that we are now moving into a radically decentralized capital structure based on social modes of production in a peer-to-peer information commons, in what is essentially a new chapter for democratic societies.
I heard that the public sphere will never be the same again.
I heard that emerging practices of “remix culture” are in an apprentice stage focused on popular entertainment, but will soon begin manifesting in higher stakes arenas (as suggested by politically charged works like “The French Democracy” or this latest Black Lantern video about the Stanley Williams execution in California).
I heard that in a networked information commons the potential for political critique, free inquiry, and citizen action will be greatly increased.
I heard that whether we will live up to our potential is far from clear.
I heard that there is a battle over pipes, the outcome of which could have huge consequences for the health and wealth of p2p.
I heard that since the telecomm monopolies have such tremendous influence on policy, a radical deregulation of physical network infrastructure is likely in the near future.
I heard that this will entrench those monopolies, shifting the balance of the internet to consumption rather than production.
I heard this is because pre-p2p business models see one-way distribution with maximum control over individual copies, downloads and streams as the most profitable way to move content.
I heard also that policing works most effectively through top-down control over broadband.
I heard that the Chinese can attest to this.
I heard that what we need is an open spectrum commons, where connections to the network are as distributed, decentralized, and collaboratively load-sharing as the network itself.
I heard that there is nothing sacred about a business model — that it is totally dependent on capital structures, which are constantly changing throughout history.
I heard that history is shifting in a big way.
I heard it is shifting to p2p.
I heard this is the most powerful mechanism for distributing material and intellectual wealth the world has ever seen.
I heard, however, that old business models will be radically clung to, as though they are sacred.
I heard that this will be painful.
I still have my husband’s visitor pass for 2 World Trade Center. He had clients on the 34th floor, so he visited frequently. On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the first plane hit, he called to tell me he was safe in his midtown office. He stayed on the phone with me as I sat on the front porch of our Brooklyn apartment to watch, helplessly, as the Trade Center Towers burned and fell. In the weeks following, I walked around in a daze, overwhelmed by the grief I felt for people I did not even know and for the city itself, which seemed strangely animate in the wake of the disaster; like a wounded giant. That the nation rushed to our aid and poured out its heart to us made things easier, but not many outside the city understood how bad it was. (To get a sense of what things were like in New Orleans in the days following the hurricane, I recommend this incredible First Person Katrina Account published on “Democratic Underground.”)
In that context, I’ve been trying to understand the enormity of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, but I can’t even begin to. September 11 seems small by comparison. We didn’t lose our homes. Our city didn’t drown. Our citizens were not abandoned, starved, mistreated, and driven to despair. My heart goes out to these victims whose suffering is exacerbated by leaders who are failing them so profoundly and, in some cases, so willfully. Attempts to deliver food, water, and much-needed relief to stranded survivors were purposely thwarted by armed authorities including the National Guard. (see Boing Boing’s September 9th article Katrina: Authorities bar Red Cross from NOLA; Blackwater gets carte blanche). The Red Cross Disaster FAQ page also has this answer to the question: Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?
• Access to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.
• The state Homeland Security Department had requested–and continues to request–that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.
• The Red Cross shares the nation’s anguish over the worsening situation inside the city. We will continue to work under the direction of the military, state and local authorities and to focus all our efforts on our lifesaving mission of feeding and sheltering.
• The Red Cross does not conduct search and rescue operations. We are an organization of civilian volunteers and cannot get relief aid into any location until the local authorities say it is safe and provide us with security and access.
The hero worship of 9/11 victims and relief workers, which bolstered morale and lent some humanity to the crisis, is almost entirely absent from the Hurricane Katrina “spin”. Katrina victims suffer the added humiliation of insensitive, uninformed, or blatently racist remarks made by elected officials who are trying to minimize the tragedy, shift blame to the victims, and deny responsibility. These quotes were selected from about.com’s 25 Mind-Numbingly Stupid Quotes About Hurricane Katrina And Its Aftermath
“I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don’t have food and water.” -Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Sept. 1, 2005
“I mean, you have people who don’t heed those warnings and then put people at risk as a result of not heeding those warnings. There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving.” -Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Sept. 6, 2005
“I don’t make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.” -FEMA Director Michael Brown, arguing that the victims bear some responsibility, CNN interview, Sept.
“Now tell me the truth boys, is this kind of fun?” -House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX), to three young hurricane evacuees from New Orleans at the Astrodome in Houston
We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” -Rep. Richard Baker (R-LA) to lobbyists, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal
“I also want to encourage anybody who was affected by Hurricane Corina to make sure their children are in school.” -First Lady Laura Bush, twice referring to a “Hurricane Corina” while speaking to children and parents in South Haven, Mississippi, Sept. 8, 2005
And this from the Louisiana Senator:
“Thank President Clinton and former President Bush for their strong statements of support and comfort today. I thank all the leaders that are coming to Louisiana, and Mississippi and Alabama to our help and rescue. We are grateful for the military assets that are being brought to bear. I want to thank Senator Frist and Senator Reid for their extraordinary efforts. Anderson, tonight, I don’t know if you’ve heard – maybe you all have announced it — but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating.” -Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Aug. 31, 2005, to which Cooper responded:
“I haven’t heard that, because, for the last four days, I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians slap – you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?”
I can sympathize with the incredulity expressed by the writer of yesterday’s post on Daily Kos “The Conscious Decision to Let People Die”. I’m not naíve, I know that poor and middle class people are at the mercy of the rich and powerful and that if the rich don’t feel like helping, nobody can make them. But I was under the impression that some things are sacred, and that in America we don’t take food and water away from starving thirsty people. We don’t abandon our people to certain death, and we don’t sneer at those who are suffering. The way I understood it, American Freedom (with a capital F) had to do with the powerless having at least enough power to demand fair and humane treatment. I thought it meant that the hardworking tax-paying public could expect help in a time of dire crisis. I thought our Democracy had checks and balances to minimize corruption and incompetance. I thought America (even under the current administration) had something to do with being civilized, humane and fair.
I don’t anymore.
(The above has nothing and everything to do with the future of the book.)