Activists vs. Big Cellular

Questions of copyright infringement, piracy and user communities are usually treated as battles of intellectual property and morality, but there is a deeper battle of access and infrastructure that may end up having more to do with how the battle is resolved. Here is a timeline of a recent skirmish, over at Storify!


Citizen Journalist vs. the Signal-to-Noise Ratio

Sometimes I imagine that online journalism (or maybe “fact and opinion spreading” is a better term) is like a sifter with a whole bunch of screens. I get nothing from the source anymore, the journalist on the scene who was sent to cover a story and wrote about it. I get it from the retweet from a twitter I follow of an account I’ve never heard of, who got it from the same process a dozen times over, who got it from a blog, or an aggregator, who got it from… it goes on.

This information is digested for me as it passes through all of these hands, a process that is kind of like how a newspaper story passes the desks of several editors and proofreaders before it sees print, but with a greater  diversity of opinion, and with much more potential for mischief.

Thinking about these questions, I wonder if the world isn’t just too big to handle psychologically; we have come to accept that we cannot experience all of it, so we rely on the next person (and the next and the next), assuming that somewhere in the chain will be someone who knows firsthand what has happened, someone who will sniff out the irregularities and find the truth of the thing. I have been to China and know that it is there when I am in Canada; the same is true the other way around. But I generally do not need news of the other place quickly, except that which pertains to my immediate life; I am content to wait until it is correct.

I think a central point of this course has been about understanding how people process information, and whether that changes when the information is digital or top-down or produced by an everyday person; I think most people, including me, do not approach information as critically as academics think they do. At some level we acknowledge never being able to know anything ourselves, so we put trust in veneers; we got it from x, so it must be right. We trust x because it is linked to often, because it looks authoritative; we feel like if we know the source, we can trust them to know the story for us.

We trust in layout, tone; if a “citizen journalist” has command of html and the English language, we relax our skepticism. Witness people fooled by Onion stories, when more credible blog posts that happen to be written in green text on a black background are ignored. I’m not sure that signal-to-noise ratio matters in the new journalistic environment as much as the radio being expensive-looking.

I commented on these posts this week:

Online inActivism

I am suspicious of any argument that technology will make us “better.” I am also suspicious of any argument that technology will make us worse. At most, we will do what we have always done, but slightly differently. This week’s topic about political engagement and how it has been affected by the internet is one where there are a lot of extreme statements made on both ends. Accessibility gets equated with democracy, and no one can quite agree about what “democratic” actually means. The first thing that came to mind on this topic for me are the dozens of online petitions I get sent every week.

It started with signing a petition on, which is a site that is devoted protecting Canadians’ online privacy and creating more competition among service providers. They had a petition against a government spying bill, and I signed it; the bill was defeated, at least for now, so perhaps it did some good. They, without my consent though I kind of accepted it, shared my email with peers: SumOfUs, RootAction, DemandProgress, Avaaz… every day I save honey bees, political insurgents, whistleblowers and rainforests by signing my name and email in a box and clicking ‘sign’; actually, these sites know me well enough to fill my name in for me, so that’s even less effort.

I get a little thrill out of these gestures at fixing the world, but I never follow up on what they’ve caused, or do any research beyond reading their initial email pitch before signing. Is something so inactive in any way activism?

Jenkins and Thorburn, paraphrasing from a monograph by Raymond Williams: “Williams’s research suggests that the introduction of a new medium will engender debate about political culture but cannot by itself significantly alter the society in which it appears. Instead, the new medium generates an extended negotiation or contestation among competing forces-some emergent, some well-established; some encouraging change, others resisting it; some publicly visible, others operating covertly. The impact of new media, in Williams’s model, is evolutionary, not revolutionary. ”

Like Jenkins, Thorburn and Williams, I think that the internet has simply put a new frame on the way we interact with  a political world that has become too large and impossibly complex for anyone to understand. We feel powerless to influence the world, but if given an easy, low-commitment apparatus to voice our opinion that the world should be better, we feel less guilty about not making it so. As if it could be.

Gibson notes, “A major problem for participation (and democracy generally) is the tendency for accountable political power to diminish within the formal political system under the onslaught of neoliberal versions of societal development, resulting in an expansion of unaccountable power in the private corporate sector” (29). If there is any consolation in this new, limp online activism it is that corporations tend to be more sensitive to being negatively perceived by their customers than governments, who need only care around election times; corporations have fewer legal constraints preventing them from doing harm to the world, but they need at least a veneer of public image. These petitions against corporations like JC Penny and Walmart, spread through social media and email, do battle with the corporate branding these companies spread through the same channels. If they muddy the waters a little for consumers, that is at least a slight way of imposing accountability on the corporations.

Jenkins, H. & D. Thorburn. Introduction: The Digital Revolution, the Informed Citizen, and the Culture of Democracy. in Jenkins, H. & D. Thorburn eds. (2003). Democracy and New Media. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. p1-17.

Dahlgren, P. (2012). Reinventing participation: civic agency and the web environment. Geopolitics, History, and International Relations. 4.2, p27.

Chen’s Audio Blog: Steinski, Christgau and Remixing

Here is my audio blog! I am talking about a 1986 piece by the rock critic Robert Christgau. Even though this article is twenty years old, the topics Christgau is talking about are still important today. His argument is that copyright holders are often not as concerned with if someone is “stealing” their work without paying for it, as they are with losing control over how their property is understood.

Here’s the Steinski JFK mix mentioned in the blog:

Money = Love?

One of my classmate’s posts that I thought was interesting this week was this one on Maggiehee. In it, she talks about her CD spending habits have changed over the years through a story about a K-Pop star she is a big fan of, named Jay Chou.

As the blog says, eastern Asia is full of piracy and has been since a long time before things like the Pirate Bay made copyright infringement so mainstream. Young students want to buy Chou’s CDs to show support for him, but even this action is hard to do because so many of his CDs are pirated versions sold by bootleggers, and the money will never get to him. But even though she tried her best to buy the real thing, as Chou became more and more famous, his CDs became more and more expensive. At a certain point, she concluded that the price was too high and stopped buying; even though she still liked the music, she says she is “not really his fan any more.”

This is interesting because it points out how capitalism has changed the language of how we express liking or admiring a person/their work. In capitalism, it doesn’t matter whether we like something if there hasn’t been an exchange of money. I’m sure a lot of artists still appreciate when people like their work, or respond to it, or create something else out of it (like a remix), but there is also a sense that a “true fan” is one who buys the albums, the merchandise and pays to see them live.

The maggiehee blog post ends with a quote from Condry (2004): “If music is just a commodity, consumers will get it as cheaply as they can. If music is the art and lifeblood of a group they care about, fans will support that group” (259). I find it funny that spending money for art is now the romantic, idealistic response, and freely distributing it for all to enjoy on their own terms is the evil. I feel like these terms can be a clumsy way of trying to understand ethics in the language of capitalism; aside from giving to charity, I just don’t most people simply do not take morality into account when they spend their money, whether it’s clothes made in a sweatshop, or buying at Walmart instead of a small business, or downloading a warehouse worth of music without paying a dollar.

Condry, Ian. (2004). Cultures of Music Piracy: An Ethnographic Comparison of the US and JapanInternational Journal of Cultural Studies. 7 (3), pg. 343-363

The Digital Jolly Roger

The battle between digital piracy and content owners has been going on for many years, with pirates becoming more and more bold in flouting the law (see The Pirate Bay’s general PR campaign) while content owners exert more and more pressure on governments to alter laws to protect their copyright. Neither side seems to have faith that it is possible to negotiate with the “other” side, and so they continue circling each other and trying to gain advantage with the resources they have; skill and adaptability in the case of the pirates, and scads of money in the case of the record companies.

As for the “citizens” in the middle, given their choice of buying or stealing content, I think it mostly comes down to convenience. Most people I know who don’t steal content don’t because they find the technology required to do it (primarily torrents) too intimidating to master. They’ll complain about the selection on Netflix rather than download the movies they want to see because Netflix has an element of pre-selection, more akin to watching television; you don’t have to know in advance what you want to watch out of the millions and millions of options, you can just cycle through categories until you see something you might maybe be in the mood for.

As Steinmetz and Tunnell note, “participants simultaneously engaged in activity which undermines capitalist enterprise (piracy) and has a distinct communal quality (as demonstrated by the ‘‘Sharing is Caring’’ ethos) while also supporting the existence of the capitalist political economy.” This is because wanting to hear new music without paying for it is not, for most, a revolutionary gesture. If it expresses disastisfaction with capitalism, it’s only the immediate sense of not wanting to spend money. I think we in general accept capitalism because no alternative seems to have gone well enough elsewhere to be preferable; we steal music because there seem to be so few consequences for doing so. It’s a pleasure we get from outside of capitalism, but it does not make most of us question capitalism itself.

Condry, quoting Lessig, says downloading can serve four purposes:

“(a) to replace purchasing, (b) to sample then purchase, (c) to access otherwise unavailable content, and (d)
to access content that is not copyrighted.”

In my experience, a, c and d for most consumers amount to the same thing. We don’t want to buy, our not buying makes music inaccessible except through piracy and copyright is meaningless to us except insofar as it can be enforced. I don’t think many people download an album illegally and then buy it on iTunes afterward; that’s paying money for something we already have, which few would bother to do. Look at the sales of CDs to see how much b) is still a big part of people’s consumption habits. Whether someone buys on iTunes or steals through The Pirate Bay has more to do with which platform is more comfortable for them to use, and which has what they want to hear. But maybe I’m a pessimist.

Condry, Ian. (2004). Cultures of Music Piracy: An Ethnographic Comparison of the US and JapanInternational Journal of Cultural Studies. 7 (3), pg. 343-363
Steinmetz, K., K. Tunnell (2013). Under the Pixelated Jolly Roger: A Study of On-Line PiratesDeviant Behavior. 34 (1), pg. 53-67

Inventing the Remix

I made a video about the Beastie Boys being sued over an inconsequential sample in their song “Pass the Mic.” I hope you enjoy it, and learn a little more about a landmark copyright case!

(had trouble embedding it, but this link should work!)

Some sources I used: