A market for culture supplanted by a dictatorship of the dumb

It  might not be too much of a stretch of the truth to say that my generation may be the last where a common, perhaps even universal, experience shared by many, in the west at least, is a persons very first purchase of a physical media product such as an album, book or film.

This man having been my very first choice of CD, I wont pretend that im greatly saddened by the prospect of first album purchases dying out

This man’s debut album having been my own very first choice of CD, I wont pretend that I’m greatly saddened by the prospect of “first album” purchases dying out

That being true, the emphasis on the word physical in the previous sentence is key as instead of the market for such goods simply evaporating as many media conglomerates would have us believe it has simply involved into a digital marketplace. Regular readers of this blog will already have seen in a previous post my positive feelings about the potential of new technologies to democratise existing institutions and I believe that the migration of media from a physical format to a more digitised existence again holds tremendous potential. Tremendous potential that is, if it can only be harnessed for positive ends rather than being left  to simply replicate the pre-existing physical market in a digital environment. In this post I will discuss briefly the reasons I feel the traditional market model is less desirable and then offer a blue sky analysis of why a shift to the digital would be preferable for all creative industries. In doing this however I will inevitably confront my somewhat wishful beliefs with the realities that exist in one of the most thriving digital exchange formats, peer to peer file-sharing websites which on paper hold so much promise yet in reality are little more than the bastard children of old media and new technology.

When I reflect on the traditional market model of media sales, specifically the sale of media products in a dedicated shopping environment the thought does cause me to reminisce with a great deal of fondness that perhaps does mask some of the inherent flaws of such a model. I remember quite vividly the sense of  youthful glee that would envelop me on a a Friday afternoon as I left school for home stopping briefly at the video rental shop to pick up something to watch over the weekend and if I didn’t stop here then it would be the local library later on that same evening. As I progressed in age and starting receiving money instead of noisy toys at Christmas and birthdays (I’m sure much to my parent’s delight) my media consumption shifted somewhat away from renting and borrowing and towards purchasing products for my own collection. It was probably at this juncture that I first became aware of one of the central drawbacks in the traditional model of media consumption, Price.

Now I know naysayers will offer arguments, such as “but the artist/author/director should be compensated for their hard work  which you so enjoyed” or that “but buying CDs/ DVDs/ books is an investment”, to defend the industry but I stand by my initial opinion that the pricing of traditional media is prohibitive. Yes the creator of any work deserves to be rewarded for their work but it is a little presumptuous to assume that the sales of physical copies of their work from retail outlets is a successful artists sole source of money when you consider the numerous other streams of revenue that are potentially available to them. A further problem with the above argument is that it doesn’t really make a mention of the industry which also takes a cut if not in some cases the lions share of my money when I hand it over to the cashiers in my local record shop. I’m fully in support of artists receiving their cut of the loot but it is a lot more difficult to accept paying the industry itself for my media purchases.

Especially when you can elect to mentally replace all record company executives with this particular buffoon in your mind.

Especially when you can elect to mentally replace all record company executives with this particular choice buffoon.

Similarly there is an element of logic in the argument that purchasing media for ones own private consumption is an investment which therefore justifies the price  but I fear those offering this as a counter argument are over playing the strength of their hand. Whether the supposed investment in media is a matter of investing in a persons education or investing in cultural capital or investing in a strictly financial sense it still does not justify the drastically inflated costs that traditional media outlets historically charged for their goods. Making an investment of any sort justifies a price yes, this is something I believe none of us can deny, just not the prices that were and still are in many cases charged by the big players in the media industry. Taking the investment idea and running with it little longer, one way in which I might have maintained some of the value of my investment in the media against the massive decreases in pricing across the board for their products on the whole is by diversifying my portfolio which leads me on to my other main qualm with the industry. When I was younger it is true that like many young people I wanted to fit it in with other idiots just like me and as one could expect my media purchases at the time are a clear example of this behaviour in action. The number of CD’s I bought in this period of my childhood that demonstrate my crushing desire to be recognised as cool is quite staggering and is probably replicated exactly give or take one odd choice in the CD collections of many other people who happen to be the same age as me. As I started to become a little more comfortable with my own identity I felt more comfortable in moving away from buying only the most popular bands CDs and last summers biggest blockbusters on video or DVD and consequently I started to look around for things a little less mainstream and it is this juncture in my life that the sheer lack of choice available in the large majority of shops dawned on me.

Again there are justifications for this lack of choice that do explain in principle why the choice was so poor in so many of the shops I frequented but they hardly mollify the disappointed and disillusioned who dreamed of buying Tom Waits’ entire back catalogue or a film that happened to be Uzbek in origin rather than from the studios of Hollywood. A lack of physical space and a record of what sells the most effectively combined to shut out those who visited mainstream outlets for media in the hope and unlike the pricing issue I mention above there isn’t a great deal of room for manoeuvre on this issue.  Physical space, even in the best of shops will always be limited and it is extremely hard to get hold of some more obscure products from wholesalers let lone justify filling the limited space with them rather than with products that proven best sellers. And so based on this we can arguably see that a lack of choice or to temper this slightly, limited choice is an inherent flaw of the traditional media outlets format. However, despair not as there is an alternative in the form of the internet to these traditional outlets that we would do well to utilise.

In offering the internet as an alternative medium for the exchange of media products I do not refer to the simple digitisation of shops that sell physical media products as well, I refer specifically to mediums of exchange that are arguably only possibly as a result of the internet, primarily peer-to-peer exchange networks. I won’t pretend to understand in any great detail how bit torrent protocols work and so will simply redirect anyone interested to this website for a significantly better summary than I could ever offer. While my knowledge of how the technology itself works is rather lacking my hopes for what may be achieved by the use of this particular technology are almost exponential in nature.

I’ll start off my analysis of why peer-to-peer services are in my opinion preferable with the most unsubtle approach possible, a direct appeal to the wallets of the common man and woman. By utilising such technologies, someone could save endless amounts of money on the purchases of media products that they might have made in physical old fashioned retailers. Naysayers will no doubt say “but then the artists would receive nothing in return for their hard work” when actually research seems to show that there is a positive correlation between people downloading content for free using peer-to-peer sites and then based on their enjoyment of that very same content they then go out and buy physical copies. So what we have in this technology is not quite the free for all that the media industry would like us to believe exists and also not quite a library or rental service which would drive further interest in ones products but a large grey area with the potential to go either way. I suppose the overall thrust of my argument is that if the industry decides to engage with the real world rather than trying to subpoena threats to its monopoly into non-existence that it could easily utilise the existing framework of peer-to-peer sites to create new streams of revenue. I would on reflection happily accept a reasonably priced service that allowed me unlimited downloads of media content that I could access for a limited time operating on the assumption that in the case of the content I downloaded and accessed for a week which I really enjoyed I would most likely buy it fully at a later date. Perhaps the key here is that the industry as a whole tends to view peer-to-peer services like they view their store fronts as the culmination of the purchasing process, when what is needed is for them to view peer-to-peer technologies as the cheapest marketing method possible. Forget spending hundreds of thousands of pounds filling my browser with adverts I ignore, or putting up adverts at bus-shelters which only ever get vandalised – let the content speak for itself in a voice louder than you ever could. In saying all of this I accept that some aspects of the industry would suffer as a result of the utilisation of such methods but all that would in essence be needed is for those parts of the industry to, in the true spirit of capitalism, adapt to changes in the market to survive or falter out – no great loss if my opinion on the matter were to be asked.

As well as the way in which they could revolutionise the pricing of media, peer-to-peer technologies could thoroughly improve on the other inherent failing of the current method of selling media, lack of choice. As I said above I completely understand that due to limitations most physical shopping environments where media happens to be sold will never be able to stock a full selection of products that represents any communities diverse interests when it comes to films, music or books. So surely on the matter of choice the internet is the solution that has always been sought with a seemingly endless amount of storage potential while being comparatively inexpensive to maintain compared to any physical shop larger than a storage closet. By ending the lack of choice that confines the inventories of physical shops, peer-to-peer technologies would in principle also do away with one of the cultural/philosophical side effects of the current way in which media is purchased. The side effect I allude to is that the culture on offer in shops is more often than not a rather ethnically homogeneous culture which stifles those who wish to truly broaden their horizons. In the age of the internet through the use of peer-to-peer technologies is should be as easy to listen to the funk of Fela Kuti of Nigeria as it is to listen to Britney Spears VERY MASCULINE MUSIC.

I'm compensating....

I’m compensating….

All of the above being true this is not to deny that as they stand, peer-to-peer websites are an ugly beast (much like two gentlemen pictured somewhere in this article – leaving that call very much up to the readers own prejudices). Yes they do drive business for physical retail outlets and yes they aren’t anywhere near as detrimental to sales as the industry would have us believe but they have their flaws, by the bucket load. First off, they seem to replicate exactly the old methods of media distribution’s inclination towards only making massively popular items readily available therefore destroying the inherent benefit in principle that the internet should be able to stock anything a man could desire. Further compounding the issue is the way in which peer-to-peer technologies work in that items that are popular will download far faster as more people will be available to seed the files, meaning that even if well meaning people upload the rare files you are looking for, it could take you literally all of fucking eternity to download them if the interest in those files, alongside your own interest, is not very high.

And then suppose you do find what your looking for after many hours of trawling through the internet, then your problems really have only just begun. Seriously, take a look at the top 100 lists on most peer-to-peer websites, specifically ebooks and “movies”, and prepare to see the ugly face of the abyss staring back. How could so many people need advice in the bedroom, it might not be satisfying  for you but you are mostly doing it right for heavens sake – the human race has increased by a billion just in my very short lifetime. And if its not sexual help you seek it seems to be pathetic self help books aimed at teaching you to be confident or how to make friends. Really, if you find what your looking for on peer-to-peer websites there is a high chance your some sort of deviant whose abusing this incredible technology that is the internet, capable of holding in effect all recorded knowledge, to gets your rocks off.

a prime example of both the content and the users of much of the internet.

a prime example of both the  seedy content and the seedy users of much of the internet.

I’d like to one day look back on the way I just summarised the internet and its users and think I was wrong but I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Much the same as I highly doubt the record labels will listen to my logic that they should surrender their monopolies but the least a man can do is try.

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Houses of history and the irresistible march of progress

Much has already been speculatively said about the revolution that will begin when 3D printing migrates from being a niche hobby to a mainstream practice. The commentaries discussing it often focus on the industrial and legal ramifications of this innovation being as it has every potential to sound the death knell of traditional industry, doing away with mass production and ushering in a host of political changes. It is undeniable that however wide the scope of uptake of 3D printing is that it will have massive repercussions that will echo throughout history much like the printing press before it. Although it is arguable that an unhealthy amount of the discussion of the potential of this technology has focussed on its predicted impacts on consumerism to the detriment of the other likely ramifications. In this post I will attempt in my own way to remedy this by discussing a potential usage of the technology that I feel could one day dramatically alter the way we engage with our culture and history as a species for good.

To begin with I will attempt to offer the briefest and least jargon heavy explanation of the fundamental principles of 3D printing possible. The reason I aim to do so is as much for my own benefit as the readers, the tendencies of  the tech and science communities to assume that the general public get the same thrill from technical terms as they do is one of its biggest PR failings and will only serve to hamper the growth of this revolution in coming years. Perhaps the best summary of 3D printing I found while researching this post was written by Spencer Thompson at The Guardian in an article discussing the need for regulators of all forms to be wary of measures that could strangle off this industry in its birth if not careful, the article in its entirety can be found here. When discussing the technology Thompson had this to say in summary:

“what is 3D printing exactly, and why should we be so excited about it? It allows people to download designs from the internet and turn them into physical objects, building them up layer by layer. Enthusiasts are already making dollsguitars and – more sinisterly – perhaps even guns, and the technology is advancing all the time. Recent advances mean you can now 3D print in metal and bio-materials, prompting some aerospace and medical firms to make specialised parts with them. This list of uses will only keep growing.”

This summary perfectly highlights both the promise and the threat that is inherent in this technology although again the focus tends towards industrial ramifications at the expense of other possible ramifications. Before I begin my own discussion of the possible effect 3D printing may have on the consumption and recording of human history and culture I will say a little more about the technical process that it entails so as to make clear for the reader how this industry differs from traditional industrial processes and why it is that 3D printing is so revolutionary.

Taking the basic description of 3D printing from Wikipedia as my start point, the difference the entry offers between traditional industry is that the traditional model is reliant “on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes)” . The 3D printing industrial method however “is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes” according to digital template.  It is this very critical difference between additive processes and subtractive processes that is reason that it is such a revolutionary idea. Traditional industry  with its subtractive process is by definition wasteful as it takes a certain amount of any given substance and from this crafts a product discarding what is left over. Even in cases where the discarded material can be used for other means it can only be used a certain amount of times in a highly specific number of ways. The technical aspect of 3D printing that makes it so as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s printing press is that it is an additive process meaning that it only ever uses the necessary amount of material to make things which in a world increasingly aware of its own limited resources is truly ground-breaking.

That this process will come to thoroughly alter the world in which we live is not a contention that I am willing or plan to argue with, as to do so would be utterly futile. Make no mistake about it – this technology will have political ramifications equal in nature to the printing press which similarly challenged the monopolies that certain aspects of European society enjoyed before its introduction. The effects on traditional industry and specifically the power and wealth of the owners of big industry are likely to be drastic, and unlike the printing press which challenged only small albeit powerful aspects of society, 3D printing will affect the whole world in a way that few existing technologies have or ever will.

That is as long as they aren’t simply used just to make bongs for video game fans.

To grasp the scale of how revolutionising the effect of the technology might be in years to come lets conduct a little experiment. Look around the room you sit in while you read this post and count the number of truly unique items in it, the likelihood is that almost everything in that room was mass-produced and that the unique items number so few that they can be counted purely with fingers. As a process for all its positives in terms of personal economy mass production is a process which clearly favours the rich and powerful in society who can afford to build consumer goods on an assembly line at the expense of artisans in every field in every community who may now finally see a chance to produce unique goods which aid them to pay taxes and directly benefit localised economies more than corporations ever could.

This post not sponsored by Nike.

This post not sponsored by Nike.

This being true however does not change the fact that too much of the dialogue on 3D printing focusses too heavily on the industrial and economical implications of its widespread adoption. The aim of this post is to argue that one use I recently thought of for 3D printing could have equally tremendous implications for educational and cultural reasons. The title gave a small clue as to the brain wave which overwhelmed me recently much as moments of seemingly divine inspiration are wont to do.

Museums, they’re one of my favourite places to visit whenever I have the opportunity.  I’ve been fortunate enough to travel in my years on earth and central to every trip that has had a inalterable impact on me as a person was a visit to a museum which in some distinct way changed my view of the world that I held before entering the building. From Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a late Roman church turned mosque turned museum which is arguably the world’s most beautiful ugly building to London’s Natural History Museum which in no small part caused my obsession with dinosaurs that devoured whole days of my childhood at a time – museums have had a irretractable impact on me as a person. How positive this impact has been on my personality of course is open to interpretation, however one concrete notion that I take from the influence museums have had on me as person, that I feel is inherently positive, is that I have a great love of and appreciation for history and why it is worth studying.

All of my above feelings on the topic of museums being true, I do at the same time recognize some issues with museums that trouble me greatly. These conflicting emotions lead me to see a way in which 3D printing could potentially be utilised to serve cultural and educational purposes and solve the flaws of museums as we conceive of them. I’ll begin this section of today’s update by firmly establishing what I feel the main flaws of museums are before moving onto a discussion of how 3D printing could be used to alleviate these issues.

The first issue that I have with museums is that for all their appeal I feel that they still retain a somewhat elitist air about themselves as institution that stems from their history often as the pet projects of rich philanthropists. That the appeal of museums is one that offers more to the upper and middle segments of economic and class groupings ultimately works for museums as an institution with such patrons able to pay or donate towards the upkeep of such facilities.  But let us not forget that in reality business is more often than not a reciprocal relationship rather than unidirectional and so even if museums “work” as a business when viewed from their own perspective this is not reason enough to protect the status quo. If the stated aim of a museum is to inform and educate society then what value is an institution that exclusively informs patrons who in all reality have the finances to be able to educate themselves independently while neglecting the class of people who due to economic circumstance would otherwise be unable to do so. Even in cases such as like here in the UK were entry to the largest and most popular museums is free there are still barriers to entry that hamper people in lower classes from accessing museums. One of the major barriers to entry is the location of many popular museums with world class collections which are often in national capitals meaning that travel and perhaps accommodation are requirements to visit them, again only serving to price out those who might gain the most from a visit to such sites. One way in which museums in the past have attempted to meet this challenge head on is by having travelling collections often arranged around a theme which move from museum to museum in order to allow more people the chance to see their artefacts although despite perhaps the best of intentions such travelling collections rarely make it to regional museums and instead simply rotate around world capitals.

The other problem I have with museums, specifically here in Britain, is their hoarding of artefacts which once perhaps were in danger of damage or destruction to lack of care or civil strife in their country of origin but no longer are. The main culprit which springs to mind in typing that last sentence is the British Museum which contains numerous artefacts that arguably can safely be returned to other countries museums and whose hoarding is so in spite of any notion of decency actually has been detrimental to international relations between Britain and various other countries. Examples of artefacts which are housed in the British museum that have been requested for repatriation include the Elgin Marbles (Greece), Rosetta Stone (Egypt), Benin Bronzes (Nigeria) and statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (Turkey). The supposedly enlightened thinking of saving such artefacts from destruction may have once been true but they ring false in the modern day and age.

Greece wants these back even though only one has got a head ...

Greece wants these back even though only one has got a head …

Now that I’ve established what I feel the flaws of museums are I will now offer what I see as one possible and fairly simple alternative to their current behaviour that would incorporate 3D printing and remedy these issues – printing duplicates of existing artefacts. By scanning the dimensions of existing artefacts into data form and then printing these and perhaps painting them to make them completely identical to the original artefacts museums could solve their two biggest flaws by allowing museums and perhaps even schools and universities too all over the world to own copies of the most important cultural and historical items from human history which in turn helps by freeing up the original artefacts up for repatriation to the national museums of the countries they originate from. By utilising 3D printing to catalogue and recreate historical artefacts museums would truly democratise the experience by allowing far greater swathes of humanity access to its history, fulfilling to a much greater degree their aim to educate people in the illustrious history of mankind. Some may argue that because the duplicates are exactly that – duplicates – that they would hold no appeal, my counter argument is that when you view items in a museum the history of the item itself is actually a very secondary quality. The more important quality the item possesses by far is that it is a representation of mankind’s evolution as a species and ultimately copying the item retains the items value as a representation of mankind’s progress being as the original item is only ever a representation of such an idea and therefore is a perfectly worthwhile act in my mind.

Even if you are vehemently antagonistic to my ideas as I have worded them above then please consider another scenario which I feel couldn’t fail to win you over. 2000 years from now the earth is literally ending as a result of mankind’s utter disregard for its environment although humanity is safe as we have finally mastered interplanetary travel. In this situation in an attempt to preserve the most important elements of human history are we really to load rockets with the contents of the world museums knowing how much fuel it takes to lift just 1KG into orbit or might we benefit from carrying simply the scanned data of the worlds museums on a hard-drive  and then printing them upon arrival.

Hardly classifiable as carry-on luggage is it ?

Hardly classifiable as carry-on luggage is it ?

However we feel about the idea of duplicating historical artefacts we can surely see at this juncture that we have at hand in this precise moment in history a technology which will aid in the fight to preserve and protect human history as museums have strived to do in more recent years and I fear we would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand without seriously considering the rewards to reaped from its utilisation.