Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It is not free unless I say so

An upcoming presentation/panel at TLTR here on campus is titled "Free Culture* (*while supplies last): Mashups, Remixes, and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines".

While I understand that the intent is to let people know about the state of copyright law, education and - that term again - Mashups - there are some things about the topic that I am sure won't be covered.

Of course, everyone (except perhaps Andrew Keen) is down with the idea of Free Culture (unless it pertains to my own work of course!). Higher education is at it's present philosophically believes in Free Culture, but the busines of Higher Education is diagrammatically opposed to Free Culture.

I will spend some time talking about why that is, but there is quite a bit of hypocrisy to go around. I struggle with this quite a bit when it comes to my own work, I am still not how this could work.

But, it appears that there is no one on the panel that actually makes stuff. We get a presentation about copyright law and education, and the problems here. This is quite the wrong discussion to have -- even the title is in the wrong place. It's to let people know what the deal is, what can be done -- but things are so beyond screwed up that it is almost like explaining the war in Iraq (support the troops, support Amurica!) in a way that is acceptable for a pacifist. It just can't be done. Copyright and intellectual property is beyond broken, it now points to deeper problems with how we approach knowledge and content in society -- not a particular country's laws -- but how we as a species consider it. So much is assumed.

I wish for Free Culture, I really want to believe -- but the data keeps saying otherwise. RadioHead's "pay what you want" album is widely pirated. But wait -- maybe that is not a bad thing -- the album is really on a small portion of a band's income -- it is touring where the money comes in -- so they may come out of it okay.

Film, video and text definitely have a problem here. Each performance of a recorded work is the same. There is no variation. You go once/read it and you have seen all there is to see. How can a filmmaker/writer make money in this environment? Let's face it: if a big name director/filmmaker puts a film out there with the same model as RadioHead, it is doubtful they will even begin to recoup costs. Free Culture be damned when we talk about new media.

Lev Manovich trys to dispel the belief that digital media is different from analog media because it doesn't degrade. I disagree -- he focuses on "lossy compression" in jpeg to illustrate is point that new media is capable of degrading like analog, but but but that is a pretty weak argument -- I just downloaded a jpeg of ronald reagan, and there it is -- in all it's digital glory. I made a copy and it is just like the original. Yes -- if I open and resave as a jpeg, it is damaged -- but this is just an exception, not the rule. It circumvents the bigger question with a technical argument, which is that we are a point in time where things can indeed be moved fluidly with little or no loss of quality, but perhaps with a large loss of context. That I think is much more worth considering.

Again, there is no one on this panel that actually *makes*. This is a problem. Let's not talk about all the different ways someone can go to jail for reusing content -- audio/visual quotes, outright re-visioning of work. Let's not talk about how we can "push back". Let's just do it. Run the red light because the traffic light is broken, and won't get fixed. There is no incentive to do that, but there is plenty incentive to keep things the same.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Beyond the Mix

I'm half-way through reading Language of New Media again, and I have decided that while it is one of the best books I've read in the next five years, the fatal flaw is not getting down with the analog. I talked about that (perhaps elliptically) last week. The digital is dead until we make it live.

Out of this comes the following realization. Mix Culture as a revolutionary form of media does not exist.

We have always been a sum of our parts -- bits and pieces of culture, text, images, sounds, thoughts. These things flow through us, we give them an identity and a life.

We cull fragments and it makes up a big part of who we are. It is our history.

The digital does change things. I will not deny that. We touch it and it changes us.

We put much on the manifestation, the tools....not the message. "Mix culture" as a term is all about the digital. It denies something much more fundamental about ourselves. We look, listen and learn. Stories come from this.

We come from the sum of our parts. We see something new, and it is different, but the thing that drives it, that which makes it intriguing or useful, is ourselves.

This is why I reject the term "mix culture". We have collapsed thousands of dollars worth of equipment and access to a desktop computer. The underlying output does not change. Our palette increases, but if we let the digital define things, we see it's parts as well as it's combination. We need to see the message. We will get over seeing it's components soon enough, and then we can get on with using it effectively.

What I am getting at is that these discussions of "appropriation" of media for re purposing get bound in legal discussions. Laws are these things we make up for a variety of reasons. We need to examine those reasons, not the laws themselves.

We need to get down with our analog selves. Doing digital allows us to pretend that somehow, maybe, this time, technology will make us a better version of ourselves. A Hal 2.0. We better get down with some "mix culture"!

I don't think any of us are really prepared for these kinds of discussions. Forget laws for a minute. What do we want to do? How do we want to treat contributions to our knowledge and our culture? What is language, and can anyone own it? Can we at least share?

"Mix Culture" acknowledges sources (which is good) but somehow sets that apart from what came before -- it is seen as a mongrel, but that is not how these things work. All that has changed is the way that it is done. One person can make a cartoon, not a shop of 12. This is a change akin to the rise of textile mills. Manufactured fabric tore apart a economy -- a way of doing business. This is happening now.

We find this power in the individual liberating but threatening.

Cinema changes, books change, economies change, culture changes. How we think of ourselves changes. This is disruption.

If we give it a name, something unique, we can perhaps embrace the new. See it as a new way of thinking about what we have done before.

What I am asking for is to look ahead.