Wednesday, 27 February 2008

On Ownership and the 20th Century Mass Media Blip

Yannis writes that he likes to "own" CDs, DVDs, books, photographs etc and have a physical object that he can hold.

He and I are different that way, and there are a number of reasons for that.

I'm not a communist, but i do think encouraging folk to "own" stuff is the same as encouraging them to consume more of our limited resources, rather than less. Give stuff away, be light and free, I say. The things you own can end up weighing you down (I have landed friends with expensive stately homes they can barely afford to maintain these days)

And what Yannis doesn't mention is that when he buys a CD, DVD or book created by others, he actually "owns" a physical object, and not the content itself - he has only purchased the right to enjoy that content, and, indeed, if his CD becomes scratched beyond playing, then his right to enjoy that music is now dubious; I don't see the record label just replacing his CD.

Course, he has fair use rights to back it up in many countries, provided there is no ugly copy protection in the way, or to play those REM songs to others on his guitar if he wishes, Michael Stipe has no redress for that.

With books, it's even worse! Photocopying a whole book, to back it up, is just insanity. I'm looking forward to the second or third generation Kindle - I suspect once I've got one I'll never buy a book or magazine again, and yah-boo-sucks to all the nay-sayers who think that carrying around chunky bits of forest to read is better. They'll come round, mark my words.

So aligning my fair use of copyrighted content with physical media is not really very helpful. (Doesn't work either - just look at how long the CSS encryption that's supposed to prevent me copying DVDs has been cracked). As I pointed out in my last post, I don't use CDs anymore, really I would prefer to have some system catalogue my usage of music and my rights to play it.

Point number 2 is the environmental impact of all of us having our own physical media. OK, I do understand that data centres, networks, all of that packet based distribution infrastructure requires power, and green computing is something others understand better than me and write about at length. And I really do not have the knowledge to understand whether the carbon impact of printing a DVD, packaging it, shipping it is greater than streaming the content, be that over a P2P distribution mesh network, or direct from server to client. But I imagine that, on balance, less physical goods being shipped results in cleaner skies, and that will increasingly affect us in taxation and limited resource terms.

(As an aside, sometimes calculating carbon debt isn't always clear - we in the UK apparently like our prawns to come with their shells off, and we prefer it when humans, not machines, take off the shells. I heard on Radio 4, so it must be true, that its cheaper in monetary and carbon terms to ship prawns trawled off the coast of Britain out to Thailand, via Rotterdam, in massive freezers/containers, have some poor underpaid Thai people shell them for us by hand in no doubt hideous working conditions, ship them back, repackage and sell, than to take the same trawled prawns to a factory in, say, Leeds, have a carbon-consuming machine shell them badly. and then attempt to sell them to disgruntled customers. Even when they've done thousands of miles across the globe and back in freezers, the carbon debt is allegedly less and the supermarket is STILL allowed to label them as British produce... Course, the underlying problem here is that we should be less lazy and shell our own shrimps, and chop our own vegetables - but this is a different rant)

Point 3 is really the one that I wanted to get to in this post, and that is about the changing nature of media production and distribution, which Yannis alludes to in his post with reference to the fact that he now has a digital camera and posts photos to flickr for the world to see.

See, 100 years ago he wouldn't of had a camera at all. If he wanted a family portrait done he would have had to get stuck into a supply chain over which he had very little control (other than injecting cash), by hiring a professional, who would then come and take his family photograph, using a flash bulb that only worked once, with a nice little explosion, and then "developed" using expensive and hard to get chemicals. This was only available to the upper middle classes, and they would only be able to have one copy of the image, with no backup possibility at all, apart from sketches!

100 years before that he'd hire a portrait artist. Only the upper classes could afford this! Paint, ink and pencils and other implements for media production just weren't readily available to all and sundry, nor the education to use them correctly. So any media that most folk enjoyed was locally produced and in the collective memory, not even written on paper. The most read book in the UK was the Bible, due to the copy in the church and the trained-to-read-latin preacher.

In all of time there will only ever be one century in which there is a one-to-many mass media society.

See, mass media ultimately is a supply chain and network business, and so many parts of it now are disrupted, democratised and available to you and I. We can now take photos, with commodity equipment (how many phones have cameras?) upload and distribute at will. OK, monetizing this content is tricky, but that only affects those who think they deserve cash for their efforts - which I doubt most flickr uses intend.

Before we could replicate and transport books easily we told stories to each other, and we remembered them. Before we could record music and distribute it we created it together, with whatever we could find to make a noise, banging sticks, blowing in reeds, scratching horsehair over pig gut, or just vibrating our diaphragms. Even for me, before I ever bought a DVD or video I was involved in amateur dramatics (sadly no more, but my daughter can be a drama queen...) and performed others works, and improvisations of my own. Content ownership used to be, across broad swathes of society, only in the collective memory and if you forgot a song or a story, it was gone forever.

Along came the 20th century.

As a result of the industrial revolution the printing press, and paper production got cheaper. Now content could be created centrally and distributed, using railways and those new fangled "roads" to a larger audience - we got the concept of popular fiction, and the concept of "I own this" crept in to the common consciousness, which of course flies in the face of copyright law, but is, according to Yannis, still the common perception.

We got radio. Now distribution no longer involved physical media, and we had one-to-many broadcast - we got popular music. To be fair, we had popular music for many millennia, all those traditional folk songs that exist in the collective memory, but these did not really cross geographic or cultural borders. With the advent of radio what was deemed popular across the globe really started homogenising. Sad in some ways, but this temporary cultural flattening seems to lead now, in the twenty first century to greater diversity as we have influences from everywhen and everywhere to inspire creativity.

We got cinema and television. Now locally produced drama and entertainment really flew out the window because the state-owned-broadcast networks, with their two or three channels, knew best, and could choose our entertainment and deliver it to us. And I'm not happy that still folk often just prefer whatever is broadcast to them, but I see that pattern changing, first with multiple channels of unwanted content through broadcast TV, then with internet distribution prototypes like YouTube.

We got persistent storage of music. and we felt we owned music. If you'd asked anyone 100 years previously what music they "owned" they'd give you a blank stare, I'm sure the concept would just be alien to them. Musicians back then made money because of the creation of works, normally by performing, not with the process of song writing itself. Sound familiar to any musicians out there today?

Yes, things are turning full circle. We're getting back to the world of distributed production, and local interest groups. Only this time around local interest means "we share the same interest" rather than "we share the same locality". We've mixed up all our cultural references, we've made the tools of production available to a swathe of the people who could receive mass media, and isn't it all so exciting? So much content produced has now become, to quote an increasingly popular phrase "social objects".

I like this emerging world where I have the choice, if I want entertainment, to completely disregard the top 5 record labels and mass broadcast technologies, and find music through a network of like minded friends and semantic ontologies that are really beginning to understand, through ratings and recommendations, wisdom of crowds etc, what is is that I'm interested in.

I really like the fact that I can easily watch movies made in Korea! Even 20 years ago this was not much of an option except to the cognoscenti, stuck up media types that they often were (apologies to those who think they're still there)

I really like the fact that I can produce mixes of other folks music and put them on this blog (and wish it were legal, but technology has always been ahead of society and regulation on matters like this). I love the fact that I can write this blog, and post it, and that there's a possibility that folk in my local/social interest group, across the world, can read and refer it on. I'm not getting paid for it, but that's not why I'm doing it! I'm creating content and enjoying doing so, and if other folk like it too, then great. If we can all learn from each other and empathise more, even better.

I like the fact that even design and fabrication of objects such as furniture and jewellery is become available to you and I

So do I want to own media? Do I care where the film, or the music, or the prose or the photo physically is?

No. I don't care and I don't want to know. I want systems that make it easy for me to produce media for others consumption and make it easy to find things that I'll like and want to share. And no, neither production nor distribution is perfectly commodotised yet, but things are changing so fast. I recall that 10 years ago the world had barely heard of mp3s, and 10 years before that home taping was killing music.

I assert that the 20th Century was just a blip in the world of entertainment. It will one day be remembered as the only century in which we had Mass Media, and that our choice to be content producers to our circle of friends was largely taken away. I'm so glad that increasingly content production and distribution are highly participatory acts, and the quality of the content we choose to enjoy will be in our hands once again.

I predict the demise of Hollywood as the source of all our movies (in the western world). I predict and hope for open source music. I predict collaboratively written stories once again becoming the norm. I know that you can sing and enjoy it, no matter what you say, and that the only true criteria for writing great music is knowing what we like.

Believe me or not. After all, nothing is true, right?


DE said...

"I know that you can sing and enjoy it, no matter what you say,"

Its not what I say, its what everyone else says..

Nigel Pepper said...

One-to-many media distribution is here for a while longer methinks, but I agree, may indeed only be a blip on the timeline.

Now who was it who said things go in cycles...?

Tim Stevens said...

@DE - if you sing and enjoy it, that's good enough, screw other peoples opinions, you don't need to sing to impress them.

@drpep. yes. here for a while, but the trend says it's going away in my eyes.

Robbie said...

Good write up San1t1, the theme of home entertainment has always been of interest to me and you've touched on that here at a few junctions.

I tend to agree that I'd prefer to let someone else 'manage' my entertainment and that I'd like to collaborate on projects of interest to me. I'm keeping a eye on the Swarm of Angels project ( for open source movies, Musigy ( for distributed recording artists and Ficlets ( for collaborative stories

Tim Stevens

Tim Stevens
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