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.


The Devil Is In The … Database

In the digitized world we currently find ourselves living in , the old and somewhat hackneyed saying that “knowledge is power” has certainly never been more pertinent. Entire industries have sprung up with their business model based around the calculated use, and abuse no less, of knowledge. Undoubtedly the glut of information that humanity creates  by virtue of its day to day online existence (imagine how little the internet might have grown had news never been incorporated into it) has the potential to been utilised in many exciting ways to progress the trajectory of the human race. However there is also the potential for this information to be misused by those we entrust it too or those who have both the capability and capacity to take it illegally. I do not mean to sound overly alarmist in discussing this topic as there are plenty of writers on the internet who already do so. Although that being said I wish to draw the attentions of the reader towards the somewhat worrying behaviours of governments and private companies whose attitudes to the supposedly confidential nature of our private data are somewhat cavalier at best, wilfully criminal in the worst of cases.

The problem is not the existence of this data online in itself, if the internet consisted of just peoples birthdays with no other information or way of filtering information there would be no problem as it would be illegible. That however is not the case, instead there are all manner of places online that compete for our custom and also our data. social networkings sites, online shopping sites, in all likelihood if a website is on the internet then at some point you have either willingly given it your own personal data or it has captured data about you without any input, as such, on your part. Perhaps a prime of example of this would be Amazon’s “Todays Recommendations For You” feature which monitors what you look at on Amazon and then makes further suggestions based on this. In this instance data has been collected about you and is then used to be make suggestion for other similar products you might care to purchase alongside your original purchase. While this is a fairly innocuous feature on Amazons part it does mean that ultimately your interaction with the site in question is monitored and further this data collected despite you having given no consent for this to occur. I am not campaigning for an end to Amazon offering recommendations as I have found them at times to be highly useful , simply pointing out that often the collection of data about us is often hidden in plain sight and that we should remain mindful of this process going on.

I purposefully found the only list of recommended items  stranger than my own

I purposefully found the only list of recommended items stranger than my own for this image.

Another notable contemporary example of the use and as many would argue, abuse of our personal data is the recent case of Instagram, owned by the true social media giant Facebook,  who announced in the later stages of that year that there were some changes due to their terms of service which were jumped upon by many in the media and also many Instagram users who were concerned for the safety of their images. For a summary of the initial analysis which was ultimately off the mark see this guardian article. However as this article published later into the anti-Instagram frenzy points out in all reality the truth of the matter is that Instagram has always had loopholes which allow it  to use its user’s content, as the articles writer Nilay Patel summarises “Instagram has always had the right to use your photos in ads, almost any way it wants”. And as pointed out earlier in the article, another fact which speaks a great volume about how valued we are as living customers as opposed to living and breathing repositories of data to be used is that fact that Instagram need not actually alert users whose photographs have been co-opted by commercial users.

Watching and stealing your data (technically at least) since the day it was born

Watching and stealing your data (technically at least) since the day it was born.

Through those mentioned above and many similar collection techniques social media sites such as Facebook and twitter both build a succinct picture of who you are, what you like, how you speak, when you speak, what games you like and also collect some sensitive personal information along the way too such as date of birth or address you live at which techy minded Talking Head John Simeo points out is all the enterprising thief may need to work out things such as your social insurance number. An individual might feel they are fine with this amount of their data being collected in a central repository and I’m not here to argue that they are wrong. My point and the wider point of this post also is the potential for misuse of this information that we so willingly put out there for all to see. Our friends, lovers, enemies and spies all have potential access to this information which when combined with data currently held by my government and others around the world represents a fuller picture of myself than I would ever willingly give to anyone. In fact there is only power that humanity has really ever been comfortable giving that much knowledge of self too and that was God. Saviour though he might have been, according to many commonly held notions he is also the judge , one who will sit over you in final judgement.

In briefly mentioning governments aims for storing existing data and digitizing the data it holds in actuality on the population here in the UK above, I feel the need to highlight some recent government ideas and plans to illustrate for the reader how serious the government is about moving our data to a digital environment. In highlighting this I hope to demonstrate the amount of personal information that will eventually be held online about each individual, a large part of which we willing contribute to daily and make available for wide public consumption. If this data were to exist in a vacuum then there would be no intrinsic problem but reality teaches us to not be so foolish as crime also increasingly shifts to the digital environment. Further to this online exodus of talented criminals who will increasingly shift to hacking as their preferred vehicle for crimes as exotic as murder as this article points out . As well as the nature of crimes that people will be able to commit through hacking becoming more exotic than the bog standard identity theft of the past, an added issue is that with the world becoming increasingly digitized more and more people will potentially fall vulnerable to these attacks such as recently when a hacking of twitter affected 250,000 users . Another area of concern should be the nature of those who hold the more confidential data about us online, the data over which we have no control, the government. If history teaches us each one lesson and one lesson only, then I hope the lesson it has imparted to my readers is that our trust for those who we have deemed suitable to govern us should be ephemeral at best and subject to continuing scrutiny lest they fail to fulfil their promises upon which they glided to power.

Not the face of a man most trust to keep even the most simple of promises

This is NOT the face of a man I would trust to look after my grandmother’s shopping

Amongst the more notable and arguably worrying measures that involve digitizing government held confidential data, and using this to monitor/reward/punish the population that Messrs Clegg and Cameron have proclaimed from on high include the following ideas:

  • In recently published proposals, a Conservative council and think-tank,  not the UK government as some initially reported, suggested that obese and unhealthy people should be monitored to check whether they are taking regular exercise and further to this that these same people might have their various benefits, not strictly tied to health, cut if deemed to be taking insufficient exercise. That this social engineering policy is even being discussed at an official meeting rather than a stand-up comedy show speaks volumes about how emboldened the UK government are by their increasing ability to access the data of every aspect of the citizenships life in one way or another. The proposed idea is so harsh that it is a little terrifying, the amount of exercise in this hypothetical situation is not only deciding how much in the way of health benefits an individual can access but also determines the amount of housing benefit they can access as well, housing benefit usually being decided in the sane world by annual wage and days taken sick per year as opposed to more zany statistics like resting heartbeat and number of laps completed at nearest Olympic length swimming pool. I may sound glib or needlessly worried in commenting on this but I fundamentally believe in the inalienable right of the population for support from government when the individual struggles to support themselves in times of trouble and I would seriously question any who tried to make the receipt of  such aid from the state dependent on a measure as arbitrary as exercise levels.
  • The third and final wacky UK government policy I wish to highlight to demonstrate the use and abuse of data is the planned changes to communications law that would enable the government to effectively monitor private communications, putting the UK, one of the founding places of many democratic ideals on par with many of the worlds worst and most intrusive regimes. For a summary of the proposed changes to the law check here and here . My main argument against this unwarranted access to private data is that it goes some way towards reducing the importance of the ideal of every man being innocent until proven guilty by making every communication suspect and worthy of scrutiny. the proffered reasons for these changes according to the UK government are reasons of “National Security”, and what worries me more than this reference to a somewhat hollow notion is the amount of otherwise intelligent people I have heard willing to accept the governments erosion of their rights for the illusion of safety. Ben Franklin summarised my feelings on listening to these people perfectly when he said ” Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety “.

In Conclusion I am not advocating that people begin an anti digital exodus, to do so would be to cut ourselves off from the fabric of modern society, simply that people consider deeply the level of private information that they put out there and whether it really is necessary. Further to this I would ask that all readers who feel similar concerns about their data falling into the hands of governments who have no right to access it should research in great detail those they plan to vote for’s policies regarding the safety of our data and vote based on that. We can see already that governments are entertaining the idea of using our data to monitor and in some ways control us so it is the utmost requirement of those capable too make sure  that elected leaders are people we can trust to hold the data safer than even we ourselves could. Otherwise when right wing death squads come for you at three in the morning because they know your always offline at three in the morning for your three o clock shit which you told someone about on twitter once you’ll be sorry you didn’t listen.