The New Media Fills Me With Fear – 2012

This began as a commission to write something about digital music distribution and the impact on the artist. All reference to music was ultimately edited out by me and I subsequently shied away from publishing the piece as I remain uncomfortable with the authority of my own voice, or the lack thereof. It should, therefore, be read solely as a curiosity, and an indicator of where my sympathies may lie.
Here is a small episode. It occurred several months ago. To me, it seems that the event reveals something about how easy it has become to lose perspective in the blizzard of technological affordance. We have evolved questionable notions recently about power, publicity, discourse and democracy. I’ll relate the small event and allow the perspective to spin up in scale and consequence.

I spent an evening pulling clips of digital video from the camera onto the laptop. I used the free tools that came with the Mac to edit together a short film of our family summer holiday. My intention was not to make a creative masterpiece, merely to assemble as quickly as possible a snapthot of scenes that could be compiled and exported to Youtube to be shared among distant relatives. The editing tool authenticated directly into my iTunes library and allowed my to pull music painlessly into my little film. I dragged and dropped and cut and mixed and very soon had a passable three minute long album of holiday memories, backed up with some evocative mood music. Five minutes later the clip was loaded and I was posting off the link to various family members around the world so that they could use their phones and tablets and laptops to catch up with how the boys were growing.

Within 2 minutes of having uploaded the clip I received an email from Youtube indicating that my clip may contain material licensed by EMI, but that I didn’t have to “do anything”. A link was offered to a web page promising further details. This page alluded to un-negotiated use of copyright material and banning of the clip in “some territories”. The territories were not specified, nor was the copyright material.

This was unsettling enough just to realise the depth of monitoring deployed by Youtube and the exquisite advance in technology that allows them to automatically sniff into an encoded video clip, pick apart the audio stream, fingerprint a waveform that corresponds – presumably – to some monstrous, but far from all inclusive database of audio fingerprints relating to copyright protected material and global territory rights, and have a corresponding warning email automatically returned to the user – and all within 120 seconds.

This struck me as the moment when the coin flipped. The joy of easy tools, friendly, sociable technologies, and open access, suddenly became, without warning, a hostile environment of cold, automated control, corporate aggression and constraint.

Focusing on the advice in the veiled warning, that I “didn’t have to do anything” I tried not to give the matter any more thought. However, when I looked at the clip a couple of days later to see if any family members had either left comments or made suitable noises to suggest that they were in one of the violated territories, I was surprised by the appearance of a button under the clip that offered a link to purchase Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

I sat back in my chair and gazed at the screen. The whole episode was cultivating an ever more bitter taste in my mouth.

The process to date had been that I made use of user friendly software provided with my laptop, which interacted seamlessly with my digital music collection, which allowed me to apply a soundtrack to my home movie, which could then be exported directly to my Youtube account from within the editing software… Which then was reviewed by scanning software, which recovered data on musical content within the home movie, which then reported against a geographical territory specific datamap of copyright playback and distribution permissions, which generated a warning, which led to complicated legal text… which led to the advice that I should sit still and do nothing… with the resolution that they generate dynamic links to affiliated retail partners to generate sales on the back of my home movie.

It was during this period in which doubt began to grow in line with anxiety and I viewed with growing suspicion the social tools and networks which seemed to be sliding into an increasingly central role in culture and its governance that I discovered and became enthused and moved respectively by two individuals.

Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Harvard, one of the visionaries behind Creative Commons and longtime campaigner for copyright reform.

Lessig observed that the law, in conjunction with a (very) few powerful businesses, had ensured that creativity was unduly compromised, crippled, in fact, by legislative appropriation of new technology and its capacity to control and constrain. This was, it seemed to me, a far cry from the libertarian rallying call that surrounded much of what we assumed new technology to stand for. In particular, Lessig detailed the thickening of the law around copyright to do away with aspects of cultural discourse such as unregulated use (say, the lending of a book or a record to a friend, or the making of a mix tape) or fair use (quoting passages from published work) So, with the new technologies and their very public emphasis on sharing, creating, syndicating and connecting at a democratic grass roots level, what we were actually seeing was the invention of new laws of constraint and control that were added to the existing laws.  This kind of thickening of the law is a historical byproduct of technological advance, but is seldom reported as such.

The other individual whose story I came across at this time was Carmen Hermosillo – an early pioneer of virtual communities, notably The Well, or Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, an onine community that predates the internet (  Hermosillo moved from the position of being an early adopting advocate to one who was driven to say “I have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and I did so myself until, at last, I began to see that I had commodified myself. Commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value. In the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories, which Karl Marx called “the means of production.” capitalists were people who owned the means of production, and the commodities were made by workers who were mostly exploited. I created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board I was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that I sold my soul like a tennis shoe and I derived no profit from the sale of my soul.”

Technology serves those who have money and power. To suggest that technology is agnostic and enables, unaided and unresourced, democratic process and capacity is, ultimately, naïve. You have little say in your retail transactions and can, at best, contribute to the suggestions thrown at you in the wake of your purchases. Time was that you’d buy a book, read it, give it to a friend, get it back, give it to another friend, lose it, and wonder where it was and with who. The writer’s work had a life. Now it is stopped dead at the point of sale. The devices and the content work in harmony to protect the company investment and nullify the organic growth of the word.

Something more troubling is suggested, however, when all of this is considered alongside the OCCUPY movement begun in New York in September 2011 – another culturally significant phenomena involving new technologies, democracy and freedom. The movement began by the will to protest. A blast of tweets, mobile phone video clips and pics ensured that the numbers stacked up to make an impact hard and fast.

The police, as one has come to expect when the word comes down from above, respond harder and faster.

We were treated to shaky video clips of women being dragged by the hair. Crowds gathered round – but the limit of their intervention was to point cameras and film the spectacle – making sure to adhere to the cops wishes to “get back onto the sidewalk”. Then we were treated to the sickening image of a row of students, tagged and shackled, being maced by a fat cop taking his belly for a stroll down the line.

The event at UC Davis was captured on multiple devices. The event, predictably, went viral via social media; Facebook, Twitter, IRC, Tumblr, Pinterest… add your outlet of choice here.
The outcome of this highly visible, morally abhorrent, and illegal activity was that a new internet meme surfaced in which the cop – Lt. John Pike appeared spraying everything from bears, to smurfs, to Ghandi, with Pike himself featured in a range of Photoshopped contexts – Botticelli’s Venus, catwalk model, Star Wars extra, Indian God Vishnu.

The student victims of the pepper spray attack were each subsequently paid $30,000. Lt. John Pike, however, having submitted a workers compensation claim for psychological injuries incurred by the event and the subsequent media attention was awarded over $38,000.

The question has to be asked whether the viral globalization of these events are more effective agents of real political change or whether they are, primarily, an entertainment. The question could be further refined by considering that if an event can only become news relevant by being entertainment, is that good news? And certainly, does it really add anything of value to the politico cultural environment?

Much is made of the role of Twitter in global events such as the arab spring (which, in part sparked the OCCUPY movement), the UK riots, and indeed, the subsequent clean up, but is it not fair to propose that the scaling was as much down to television reporting of said tweets than the tweets themselves.

So, in the same way that a heated blast of protest aimed at the killing of Mark Duggan by a policeman in London was wickedly teased within hours to become a national story about looting, the real sting was deflected from the rightful target into the limitless hollows and shadows of virtual reality. And the deflection was brought about by traditional media, rather than the devolved and disparate mass of social media reporting.

If governments and other expressions of power and control fully appreciate – and I suspect they do –  that video clips of civilians being beaten, maced and dragged by the hair will be captured by conscientious witnesses who merely film the scene without intervening, and publish the clips to the web to be shared, liked, commented, photoshopped, converted to memes, appended with adverts and statistics, have its impact measured by only its market reach – then the revolution is pretty much contained, in virtual discourse.

The real world is theirs for the taking. Flash your hand under a scalding tap and count the seconds until the pain sings.