is the free culture movement compatible with super star celebrity?

A set of Irish reels with a Portuguese addition.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the free culture movement really says about being an artist.

Let’s begin with the very hot topic of DRM, or Digital Rights Management. There’s a lot of discussion going on about whether DRM has a place on the web. My opinion, apart from technical difficulties, is yes, and here’s why.

I already wrote about intellectual property in the past and my position is that discussing an ‘all or nothing’ strategy for copyright is self defeating if one is to promote a free media culture. Free media doesn’t simply mean downloading Hollywood Blockbusters for free, and preventing DRM from being standardised and available for big studios is basically saying that we are forcing a non-copyright logic on people (or teams of people) that want to exercise their property rights over their own work. To me, this is deeply flawed and violates the very idea of a free culture movement: is a free culture movement a monoculture of licensing and legal frameworks of copyright, or is it an inclusive movement that allows different attitudes towards intellectual property to coexist? Depending on your answer, the outcome will be drastically different. If we force everyone, even those that don’t want to share their work, to record and publish their media without DRM, we are effectively forcing them to forfeit their legal rights to decide how and where their media is played and listened to. Note that I’m not saying anything about whether or not I agree with their position, but I believe it’s a fundamental political attitude to accept that different authors might want different degrees of control over their media. If I publish my media freely and without DRM, it is my personal choice and it can coexist peacefully with other attitudes towards media. And if netlabels, self-publishing, creative commons and other movements already provide entire markets of authors and media that is free to use, then what is the DRM issue really about?

My argument is that the uproar is about piracy, or the ability to copy the media we want from authors that did not consent to it being copied. Discussions of property rights aside (which are legitimate), to me the fundamental point here is that of consent, not property rights. If an artist, or a studio, wants to capitalise and sell their goods aggressively, prosecute piracy and arrest those that download it illegally, that’s a good thing on two fronts:

  1. They exercise their rights democratically within a legal framework that protects them;
  2. The victimised people (and people that hear about it) are suddenly exposed to the idea of intellectual property and its contradictions.

To me the pathetic thing about copyright discussions is that it has never been about ‘free culture’, because ‘free culture’ is already around us: the work of many people is already freely available in places like archive.org, and none of these has the legal grounds to prosecute anyone based on copyright laws.

The real motivation behind the every day discussion of copyright is that those defending the abolition of copyright actually just want to enjoy the mass media goods for free. That’s right—what this is really about is getting the horrible products of mass media corporations for free. It is not about free culture and an ideological stance on how media should be produced and owned. It is about breaking the notion of authorship and consent disguising it as a ‘free media revolution’.

The ‘free media revolution’ has already happened. We can use Linux on our computers and phones, produce music and write books on it, we can download and share as much as we’d like. And there is nothing preventing the free and open sharing of standard, DRM free formats with anyone. That is the main point. To build a society based on free culture we can’t expect things to work the same way as they did in a mass capitalism media world. Something has to give.

It is my opinion that blockbusters and super stars are incompatible with a free, commoner owned media circuit.

  1. The idea that a single item of media would be interesting and desirable to millions violates the very idea of commoner, localised ownership and authorship of culture—it implies an idea of cultural homogenisation, of a cultural elite whose power determines what the masses listen to and enjoy. This is especially obvious when we see the same movie do very well in incredibly different cultural settings. This usually means that the invading media is beginning to change the sensibilities of that culture in order to increase its own desirability (and consequentially the profits of its creators). We already know what this does to cultural definitions of beauty and and physical appearance. Perhaps a good and terrifying example is skin bleaching, since most invading media tends to be Anglo-Saxon. Another example, closer to home, is the stereotypes promoted by the said media: geek/nerd/jock were foreign concepts to me growing up, but as the Americanised media arrived where I grew up, so did these stereotypes that didn’t exist before. With them, a whole new generation of young people grew up under an unnecessary categorisation of one’s own relationship to adolescence. It is my opinion that this is incompatible with a multicultural and diverse society. It is not possible for mass media to be consumed without the consumers themselves changing into a by-product of what that very media is promoting.
  2. The idea that culture and art are commodities to be bought and sold, and the control of the art is not for the artist but for the media conglomerate that owns it and sells it. This is a deeply capitalist definition of how media is to be produced, distributed and consumed, but it is not the only way to produce and share media. Media, art, culture, are a normal activity of groups of people, and the framework used to author, distribute and share that media isn’t restricted to the mega-corporation logic. It can equally be simply something with do with our circle of friends, with no need for lawsuits and contracts.
  3. The idea that it is legitimate or even desirable to have huge concentrations of wealth in a few, highly successful, artists and producers, when most other artists struggle to pay their bills. This merely mirrors the other capitalist structures that exist and that tend to favour capital aggregation. Music and art is no different. If ‘free media culture’ says anything, it’s that media is not a proprietary good to be patented and restricted, but it is also just something we all do every day. Should a ‘free media culture’ encourage capital aggregation as well? Doesn’t that defeat the very principles it stands for, and isn’t that simply impossible given the distribution and replication of the media itself cannot be restricted?

It is my opinion, therefore, that we cannot create a society based on free media values and at the same time try to replicate the capitalist structures that have been part of the media world for the past century. If strong copyleft (e.g. GPL) or even weak copyleft (e.g., CC) become the standard way of licensing cultural goods, then there is no possible way to build a profit structure that would provide the same economic benefits that a capitalist one does. A superstar worth millions cannot coexist with the idea that what they do is owned by everyone and can be traded for free. Something has to give—the very idea of super star, of celebrity, of a human being worth thousands of times more in dollars that an average artist.

Does this mean the end of trends or of performances? Hardly. It simply means localisation of trends and cultural capital—the money simply stops flowing from communities to the deep pockets of multinational conglomerates, and flows directly to the commoner neighbours that share the media. A local gig, with local bands and local music is healthy for the local economy, but it will never generate such stupefying profits as a mega star does—and that’s OK, that exactly what a horizontal society looks like.

The balance between mega media and open media has to be a democratically developed one and cannot come from forcing either party to adopt the other’s licensing paradigm. If you believe in an open media culture, start by consuming media produced by people that share that outlook on media. To me, it is a profound contradiction to stand for a free media culture and download mass media illegally. Instead, we should consume free media produced with that very same intent and ideological background. If we really want to consume mass media, then we should take a deep breath and shell out the cash—otherwise we’ll be breaching the artists’ (or producers’) definition of what they consider fair compensation for their work, and with it, breaking the very idea of consent in a democracy.

It is a good thing that copyright exists and that piracy has consequences, because it is a vehicle for the emancipation of media owners and media producers about the fundamental differences of free media and corporate media. It is OK to arrest and fine people that bootleg blockbusters—they are merely perpetuating the popularity of products that express the contradiction of the very ideals of a free culture.

Social justice isn’t getting a block buster for free. Social justice is allowing every free media producer to be heard equally, and to allow those that don’t have the means to access free media, to do so.

I, for one, hope to live in a place where locally owned, locally produced, locally distributed free media becomes the norm, media that doesn’t push market-driven ideas about what I should eat, drink, wear, how I should perceive myself or the people around me. The real enemy of free culture is mass media. Let them charge for their rotten media, and let us produce our own, free from objectification and commodification. That, there, is the death of the super star.

defeating political bias to redefine societal structures

i’ve been working on my recording gear, i think slowly the quality is getting better. well, minus the talent, but i can’t buy gear to make that any better.

part of my recent reassessment of priorities was to redefine my social circles. until now, i mostly relied on my pre-existing connections or hobbies to help me meet people and increase my local circles. in practice, this let to very little improvement over all. somehow i still think regardless of the circles we’re in, we’re bound to empathize with a small subset of the whole group, no matter what the group is about. there are, however, differences in the size of this subset that relate directly to what the actual activity is about, i.e., self-selection of people attending.

one thing i tried was to increase the likelihood that i’d meet people equally interested in philosophical questions. meetup.com happens to work very well in sydney, and i ended up finding, and attending, a few of these meetups offered by different philosophy groups.

this brings me to this post. yesterday i attended a lecture on anarchism organized by an excellent group of people. needless to say, this is a topic that is very dear to me, for obvious-past-experience-reasons. while most of what was discussed was highly theoretical, one question was thrown at the room for the discussion: “is an entirely anarchistic society possible at all?”

i cringed. i had lived in working examples of anarchic systems (or at least, communal systems). one could argue that what i lived through wasn’t a real example because we were never really “outside” society, so never really demonstrated anything. i concede, there’s a lot of truth to that and what i lived through isn’t a proper controlled example. however, what i’d like to discuss is a completely different matter: that of political structures and their post-rationalizations, frequently oblivious to their implicit dogmas about human nature.

as the discussion progressed, the idea of anarchism was overwhelmingly ruled out, mostly based on the Hobbesian idea that humans are naturally brutes and need some kind of hierarchy to keep them under control. the modern version of this is a basic fallacy of appealing to that being a “fact of human nature”, as in, human nature is brutish therefore humans cannot be entirely autonomous, always requiring some form of “higher intellect” to prevent them from falling back into destructive behaviours. this is the old idea of the Leviathan, recycled by pop psychology and bad neuroscience magazines, using arguments such as that humans were naturally selected by living in hunter gatherer societies to cheat and to steal. while we may have been naturally selected without a doubt, i do wonder how that makes any difference to whether we cheat or not in practice.

when we discuss political models more often than not we’ll hear things like “democracy sucks but it’s the best we’ve got” or “power has always naturally organized itself the same way over and over, so anarchy isn’t possible because those patterns are part of human nature and they would repeat themselves”. i see these arguments as simple appeals to fallacious ideas of “human nature” or “tradition”. these fallacies stem from an unquestioned definition of human beings as limited, tending to be violent and power hungry, and entirely conditioned (and conditionable) by their surroundings. if we accept these premises, then obviously anarchy (or communism, or socialism for that matter) become logically impossible. but more importantly, these definitions of human beings are they themselves biased by the very political and social system in place. if we use an evolutionary argument for politics, we might end up concluding that patriarchy is good because it was “naturally selected”. i’m sure feminists would agree this is empirically verified nonsense, so i would like to steer this discussion in another direction, hopefully without (much) personal political bias. i will also not try to bridge the is/ought divide. i accept that words like “good” and “right” are problematic but they functional enough for my argument.

as a disclaimer, i am historically a leftist, but that only informs my anti-authoritarian criticism of society. my dedication to critical thinking overrides any theoretical leftist principle that contradicts peer-reviewed evidence. in that sense, i’m exploring how anarchism is possible and how it isn’t in the light of basic ideas of information and inference.

while i don’t think we are born brutish, i do think we are born with a limited capacity for knowledge and information. this means that to be entirely autonomous (i.e., make all the right decisions about our reality — no matter our definition of “right”), we either need to deal with a simplified world, as to not have too much information to deal with, or we must deal with a complex world collectively and intersubjectively. this seems to me a simple matter of evidence from history, and this is not a new idea at all (democracy and delegation have a long philosophical history of discussing this).

considering this, anarchism, defined as each individual being autonomous and deciding to the best of their knowledge what is the best outcome, is possible if a) the world is simplified and therefore computable or b) the world is complex but can be analysed in sub-problems collectively that provide a perfect global collective solution. to me, both of these are impossible, so under that light, and at the present social and political situation, anarchism is impossible in that sense. now, what makes it impossible is the present state of our capacities to approach these problems, and not our potential capacity to solve them. what constrains us is our belief in these bogus ideas of human nature, which feed back into our own self-identification with that hypothetical brutish human being.

i’ll use an analogy that hopefully will make it clearer. we as human beings cannot fly. it is our nature not to be able to fly, we are ground animals that occasionally can climb trees. if we were to say flying is impossible because human nature does not allow for it, then how come we have built planes? the mysteries of flight are virtually impossible to decipher to an individual with no prior scientific knowledge, and the engineering challenges of building a plane, drilling for fuel, regulating air traffic and so on are impossibly complex without a massive collective effort. however, it would be silly to deny that we do, in fact, “fly” around the planet. therefore, our human nature as beings that can’t fly does not inform our capacity to create conditions under which we will be able to (in this case, by jumping inside a plane).

this example shows how political bias tends to be stuck on the “we can’t fly” part of the debate, and tends to ignore the fact that societies are built collectively and based on things we ought to be and things we ought to do, and not things we are. i.e., societies express our desires to “fly”, to transcend our individual constraints, by engaging reality collectively, with our values subject to a seemingly impossible goal.

anarchism is simply another one of those goals, but it seems to us to be impossible because we have never seen it done, and we argue that it is so because “we have no wings”, or in anarchist terms, we cheat, lie and are power hungry. but what if we collectively engage this with the same mix of pragmatism and idealism as the quest for human flight? what is the difference between these two that makes one more feasible than the other?

my opinion is that we forgot that they are the same process, because politics and how society is organized are far too built into the fabric of our every day lives. we forgot that societies are no more than people agreeing on something collectively, that money is people agreeing that it exists collectively, that a lot of what we consider problems are actually a product of our own creations.

so how do i envision a possible anarchist society? (disclaimer, i wouldn’t like to live in one). i envision it in many different ways, depending on how far we can stretch contexts. i’d like to offer these ideas as open questions.

  • does the population have absolute control over their own subsistence? if not, they will need power to prioritize who subsists and who doesn’t.
  • does each individual in that population have the knowledge to decide the intersubjectively best outcome for the community? if not, then decisions will cause conflicts for the simple fact that they have insufficient information.
  • does the collective allow for dissent? if not, then diversity will be stifled, and with it, autonomy, as autonomy is undermined by the impossibility of thinking differently.
  • does the collective allow for self-correction of its own decisions, collectively and individually? if not, there is the possibility that an accidental bias in the collective will eventually undermine autonomy.
  • above all, does this group of human beings have a capacity to look at its own group critically and recognize patterns such as the ones discussed by political theory and sociology? if not, then they will not be autonomous simply because they will exert authority via cheating, bullying, violence, coercion and so on.

these examples are things that need to be present in order for any of this to work properly, and i’d argue it is impossible in our current state of affairs to have anything like it. consider national borders, and how corporations exist beyond them. consider the commons and how they are privatised and at the whim of the few. consider now that you’d wish to start a commune somewhere? what guarantees would you have that you wouldn’t be raided and your resources plundered?

but given enough isolation and control over natural resources and means of subsistence, there is nothing preventing a group of critical and educated individuals from starting anything anarchist organisationally speaking. what elevates us from the brutish conditions of our subsistence is our capacity to engage reality critically, coherently, and according to abstract visions of seemingly impossible realities. like the flying steel bird, they are pure mythology for anyone unfamiliar with the scientific method and the basic principles of engineering. but for a 21st century human being, emancipated by thousands of years of reflection, flying, or anarchism, are merely ends for which we have the means in ourselves. we recognize that we have no wings, politically speaking, but we also recognize that we know how to create the conditions that allow us to fly. we created our political institutions to serve us, if they don’t, then it is only logical to abandon them and replace them with something different.

maybe this is naive idealism, or maybe it’s simple pragmatic social engineering. i do think there is a deeply rooted anti-human narrative that comes from a hangover from 20th century horrors, but that narrative is as flawed as any other naturalistic fallacy. we create our own social and political realities, so we can also question them, undermine them, and create entirely new ones along the way. anarchism is just another one of these possible ideas. lease out a plot of land and keep the gates open. you will be surprised by what happens if people squat it.

no matter the mindset, like Icarus, we will always build wings not from an embarrassment of not having been born with them, but from an irrational urge to fly closer to the light — an endlessly curious quest for the illuminating beauty of reality and our capacity to engage it and expand it.

into 2012, a new mandala cleared out

another year, another mandala. featuring another of my game boy experiments. sound is pretty shitty, but i’m hoping to make it get better with time

i’m quoting here what i wrote for the garden blog, the community i participated in for my first 7 months in australia


a mandala for the goddess

i left the garden yesterday with the sobering feeling that it will be gone soon

it was perhaps the most successful and beautiful of all events we ever put together (thank you Sara). everything worked perfectly, thanks to the months of devotion, hard work and generosity of everyone involved in the garden project: residents, guests, friends, and Ash’s guiding vision

it is hard to see it go, especially when we are ending on such a high note. but i’m not left with a sense of loss but instead with a sense of exhilaration. in tibetan buddhist tradition (of which i’m not a follower), there is a ritual called the sand mandala. monks gather around for a very long period and draw a symbolic circular sand picture. when the picture is finished, the sand is swept and poured into moving water, to return it to nature

during the last few months, we drew a giant warehouse painting, colored with the life stories of over 100 people that visited from dozens of countries, contributing and donating their creativity and work to the space. these contributions were driven, among others, by the natural desire of human beings to be part of a purposeful meaningful space, where beauty, art, music and conversations intertwine every day. a desire, i’d argue, to step out of the concrete boxes we live in every day and to let out what these boxes won’t allow us to: our songs, our colors, our sights and dreams for a better world

as we wash away the life from the warehouse and return it to the goddess, we will also be making a statement on how nothing lasts forever. this being both the shepherd street garden and the concrete boxes it questioned while it existed

so here’s cleaning this one and start drawing the next

物の哀れ


i already found a place and am living alone at the moment. what we did was very well received so i imagine there will be more. for now, i’m taking a break

p.s.: some stats:

total guests: 116 (including entries with missing country info)

distribution by country (duplicates removed, missing data removed) data here

my new drummer, the game boy

as i’ve expressed many times here, i’ve been struggling to find folk musicians to work with. so i decided to go in an entirely different direction. i bought myself a game boy, lsdj, a cheap mixer and have been doing folkore, a mix of folk and breakcore/chiptunes. this song is the first one i taped, it sounds poor because i’m taping it out of the shitty mixer.

i’m actually working on proper songs, this one was the first sketch for fun. i didn’t think it’d be as fun as it is. lsdj just sounds so good it’s ridiculous.

my current gear:

  • game boy classic with lsdj
  • S60 phone with beat ed (not used on this track, probably going to be used as a sampler)
  • technopipes by fagerstrom
  • a cheap second hand mixer (Behringer Xenyx 502)

i still need to mod the game boy to have a backlight and the pro sound mod. there’s a lot of noise in that recording. the pipes are also very noisy, but i’m hoping to tape real pipes with a mic at some point in the future

truth be told, it’s a pretty silly song. but hey, it’s a pretty silly concept anyway!

carvalhesa d’alcântara

i’m trying out the music typesetting (using absjs), here’s a simple song i wrote. i recently discovered that on my C major pipes it is easier to play in D minor than in C minor. so i wrote this one that juggles D minor and F major. it’s a silly folk song, so don’t take it too seriously. below you’ll find the ABC notation. the rendering is done automatically. i’m also pretty shitty at it at the moment, so i added no ornamentations, pipes suck without them. enjoy!

X:1 Q:110 T:Carvalhesa d’Alcântara M:2/4 L:1/16 R:carvalhesa K:Dm DE |: F2A2 G2F2 | G6 EF | G2B2 A2G2 | A6 DE | F2A2 G2F2 | G6 AG | F2GF E2FE |1 D6 DE :|2 (D4 D3)C | |: ECFC G2BA | G2F2 G3C ECFC | G2AG F2E2 |1 (F4F3)C :|2 F8 |]