if architecture is politics, infrastructure is power

Vals Breton-Muñeira Picada by Susana Seivane on Grooveshark

Some gaita again.

Little makes systemic forces more clear than the way we interact with our computers and each other online. Interfaces and systems we didn’t design modulate the way we interact and digitise ourselves, and changing them is frequently beyond our control.

In a recent and fairly interesting decision, my favourite punching bag Facebook (FB) decided to change the way they represent gender in their interface (funny enough, it is only available to US users for now). While I have written about this before and about how I feel about it, this post is about something else.

There is a common phrase among the Cypher crowd: ‘Architecture is Politics’. This is frequently said when referring to architectures of networked systems and other digital infrastructures. For example, the fact that the internet was designed to have no central authority is a political decision and its implementation is what we have today. Here’s an accidental quote from Jake:

Well, with architecture… I mean, one of the fundamental things the Cypher Punks recognised is that the architecture actually defines the political situation, so if you have a centralised architecture even if the best people in the world are in control of it, is it attracts arseholes and those arseholes do things with their power that the original designers would not do, and it’s important to know that that goes for money…

But these arseholes wouldn’t be able to exert that power without the actual physical infrastructure. While architecture might define potential loopholes—like http uses plain text readable by everyone along the way, acting on the loopholes requires that architecture to be implemented and turned into an infrastructure. If I run a server in a home network (insulated from the world let’s say), I can use http without worrying about someone listening in—my infrastructure is entirely under my control and since I don’t want to take advantage of that loophole, I can simply not listen to http traffic and read it.

With modern day internet apps things get a bit trickier. While the internet is meant to be decentralised, the infrastructure it sits upon is controlled by a handful of corporations and private entities—it’s no wonder it was so easy for government agencies to access people’s communications on the Internet. And while this happens at a lower level, the same phenomenon happens with FB.

The architecture of FB—a social network—isn’t new and has been implemented several times over the years (hello, MySpace, IRC, BBSes, etc). The political idea behind it—that it is good to be connected, to share and so on, isn’t new either. Even the advocates for radical absence of privacy precede this particular website. What FB has, instead, is a massive server and corporate infrastructure which it uses to exert its power. Its popularity has made millions dependent on its servers and applications (let’s remember a server is an actual physical machine, consuming electricity somewhere), but its servers are privately owned by FB. This is the crux of the matter. Once FB decided internally to change the gender definitions for the United States, it didn’t need democratic approval at all—not from government, not from the majority of users. It autocratically implemented it (not that I’m against it). This is the perfect example of how controlling the infrastructure (even without controlling the architecture) allows a select group of individuals to exert power over the masses (in this case, of FB users). An architecture might be well intended from the beginning, but the few arseholes that know how to rig it in their favour will ultimately profit from it (and often, send their propaganda along with it).

What is the ideological propaganda attached to this decision? Note that FB’s business is targeted advertising. The more granular its options are, the better advertisers can focus their offers. This is a massive utopian agenda that FB has promoted from day 1—a capitalist dream where businesses and individuals find perfect matches for each other. Imagine being a salesman for a health clinic specialising in sex changes—being able to access a massive pool of users that are potential clients is an incredible business opportunity.

When we fill in yet another field in FB, we are making that exact category we filled in into a category for directed marketing. We are instantly objectifying those categories and with it commodifying ourselves. FB’s business depends entirely on our own voluntary categorisation into potential target markets. Whether you identify as male, female or anything else, it shouldn’t be FB that mediates that process of identification at all, because FB owns the infrastructure and the categories you can fill in. If it changed once, it can change again, and while the spirit of the time is to be queer friendly, if the bottom line is business, then there is no guarantee it won’t change into something completely opposite to what it’s saying now—if the profit margins so dictate.

Participating in infrastructures that are owned by private entities means the architecture of the system becomes irrelevant—politics is nothing without power to enact ideology, and technological architectures are nothing without infrastructure. Until we own the infrastructure—the means of production and consumption of information—we will forever be under the dictates of the data autocrats. Today they changed the gender box, tomorrow who knows. Maybe they’ll require you to say what political party you vote for. Until we own the lines and the servers, we are the product, and we are being traded as cattle. And even queer-friendly cattle still ends up in patties for the Capitalists to munch on.

Comic from Geek and Poke

Experiments with a 3Doodler, technopipes and a portable speaker

Generally I’m not too keen on putting commercial products on this page, but in this case I thought it would be fun.

For a while now I’ve been playing with the idea of using 3D printing tech to make instruments. My 3D printer is still being built (I supported the peachy printer), but I also supported the 3Doodler, which I finally got in the mail.

For a start, it isn’t an easy thing to use. It will take me a while to figure it out. I realised the reason why everything looks so ‘doodly’ is because the plastic coming out of the pen twists itself, which means the output is hard to control. Either way, I decided to have a go at something useful.

For a while now I’ve been playing my Technopipes with headphones or the occasional PA, but one of the things I miss is having the feeling of an acoustic instrument—it makes it easier for me to pick up tunes by ear while they’re playing. I tried having only one headphone on and I couldn’t do it as well. So I decided to buy a cheap portable speaker (the pink one was on special at KMart, cost me $5 so I bought 3 and played around with them).

Once that was sorted, I doodled a nice stand, so check the video out! It’s a pretty hilarious instrument. Good fun to carry on trips.

While we’re on the topic of 3D, just for fun—here is an experiment on making a parametric model of a wind instrument. I made it based on Linsey Pollak’s foonki. The UI is just OpenSCAD and GVim. Once the printer is in, I might have these projects up more often. Here is a copy of that .scad file.

Screenshot of the dev environment for SCAD

in the land of the kind, bullies are kings

The Great Ceilidh Swindle by Peatbog Faeries on Grooveshark

Some Highland Pipes for a change, from the Peatbog Faeries.

I had another equally amusing title for this post: ‘infatuated with bullies’. By now it should be no secret that I’m highly critical of the way the Anglo Aussies organise themselves and interact with each other. I’d like to address the strange fetishisation of The Bully in Australia, which I think has parallels in many other ‘civilised’ cultures.

Why is it that we idolise bullies so much? Say Wallace vs. Darwin or Stallman vs. Gates, where the latter is the bully version in the same field of knowledge.

Let me begin with the usual disclaimer: I will generalise a lot based on what I’ve observed here but that is entirely conditioned by the fact that I live in Sydney, more specifically, the super white, bohemian and cosmopolitan inner west. The section of the city I interact with is predominately well off and with that comes one of the great diseases of civilisation: politeness. Let me explain.

From a young age, depending on the parenting, most Anglo parents will teach their children to ‘not say anything if they have nothing nice to say’. Now what should they do when they need to say something that isn’t nice, as it so frequently happens? They lie. The civilised and the polite are experts in the art of euphemisms and white lies—to the extreme of perceiving an honest opinion as brutish and impolite. But if everyone is nice to one another, what happens if one of them isn’t? What happens when in a group of very nice and polite people there is a single person that has no problem in being aggressive in their opinions towards others? Their bullying ends up enabled by the politeness around them.

Consider someone with an unpopular opinion surrounded by nice people. The more passionate and aggressive they are at explaining their idea, more likely it is that the polite people will remove themselves from the situation because they have ‘nothing nice to say’. This effectively guarantees that the aggressive opinion will alienate anyone that could be critical of it but wants no part in it. The fear of speaking up against an aggressive individual is so strong that even just raising one’s own voice or being taller than average might be enough to get support when we’re wrong.

One of the curious things that I faced when moving here was that suddenly I was no longer of average or above average height (back home). Even though I’m still 1,82m, here in Australia most people around me are taller and heavier in build. This means that suddenly I’m faced with what I was doing back home: expressing opinions while being physically intimidating and accidentally getting confirmation not because I was right, but exactly because I was intimidating. And now that I’m not a big guy any more, I actually have to back up my arguments.

I think we can find the best examples of this in politics, where being convincing, charismatic, having a deep voice, being tall and good looking actually increases the odds the argument gets agreed with, even if it’s wrong.

In a culture of submission to etiquette and politeness, the few that don’t care and decide to bully others around them will thrive tremendously, and their success will be fed by the masses of submitted individuals that, with fear of retribution from others, end up supporting the bully against their will.

I like to think that this comes from a very basic fear of personal health and well-being. If the bully is bigger than us, then we’d lose the fight, so best not even try. If the people around us are going in one direction, best not stir the water too much or we’ll be in trouble. This has an amplifying effect and makes intimidating people into accidental leaders, not because they’re right, but because they have the capacity of instilling fear and intimidation (not all leaders are like this, obviously). Take the recently elected, former boxer, Tony Abbott. If you watch a debate with him, he kept his boxer face. He might be saying the most atrocious barbarities and downright ignorant lies, but since the boxer face tells everyone around them that his opinions are backed up by other ‘convincing arguments’, then many will simply agree out of fear of the consequences (one of the know long-term consequences of boxing is brain damage due to concussion—related to things like loss of empathy; a nice coincidence?)

Now, the consequences aren’t real at all, but since we live in a world where physical violence is virtually non-existent, our reactions are never calibrated to real physical violence, so even an intimidating stare, waving arms or screaming might make us cower. It might trigger responses in us designed to much more dangerous environments, but since we’ve been so cushioned, even a flat concrete floor will feel painful.

I’d argue that this is one of the things that makes us on one hand be so complacent with corruption and violence around us, and so infatuated with people that are capable of ‘taking what they want’. It is a form of envy, in that we are constrained by politeness and social etiquette to the point that we long for the day we can tell someone to ‘fuck off’. Now, Australia isn’t that bad if you’re dealing with working class Aussies—they will tell you to ‘fuck off’. But the higher up you go in socio-economic ladder, the more likely it is that these rituals and constraints are stronger, and with them, so will be the fetishisation of violence and the idolatry of the Bully.

What is so special about the Anglo world that makes this so blatant? I think it’s the century old hatred and fear for the ‘man in the street’ that Anglo philosophy has instilled in its populace for centuries. Think Hobbes, think Welles. The idea that people are nasty and brutish is a very old and popular idea in the Anglo world and has never been brought down by any popular revolution. The Hobbesian pyramid of human beings is as healthy today as it was 200 years ago when the British Empire thrived thanks to genocide and theft. The Anglo empire has never fallen at the hands of the proletariat. The idea of the Emperor taking control of the world has never been exposed for how violent it really is. Even after the American revolution, the counter revolution quickly took hold and the bourgeois of the old world regained control of it. There is no single Anglo country or colony where the ideals of the American (and French) revolution lasted long enough to show an alternative. Even worse, the 20th century saw a deliberate imperial control (and undermining) of alternatives to this way of thinking.

The idea that a world of solidarity and peace is possible, an old idea that opposed the Hobbesian view (ideas of people like Rousseau or one of my recent favourites, Kropotkin). The revolutionary forces based on these ideals have had very few opportunities to show results of their policies—the places where alternatives to the bully culture worked were destroyed by, you got it, international bullies like the CIA.

So what alternatives exist to this world view? For me, the idea of virtue as the capacity to face overwhelming forces of Imperialism (and its cousin, Capitalism) through generosity, solidarity and, above all, honesty in one’s own relationship to others—a commitment to truth, is a viable means to act.

It starts with not being complicit with abuses—by speaking out, by dissenting, by making your voice heard (think leaking documents and exposing corruption). I am not saying this is a large scale solution, quite the contrary. This is something that needs to be done at every moment at the lowest levels possible, because it is at this level that the unhealthy patterns are created. If we are to create viable alternatives, they need to begin with our own lifestyles and relationships. What we buy, what we do, how we treat others, who we sell our labour to and for how much.

If we are peasants, it is unlikely that anything more than that will ever be accessible to us. Despite usually disagreeing with the new age ‘be the change’ type argument (think Hitler, he also tried to ‘be the change’), I think it is important to gauge one’s own action by one’s own capacities. If we are poor, we must start with our own subsistence, resilience and the well being of our kin. In a way, it is not very wise to pick a battle we can’t win on our own or with our tiny social capital. Until it grows it is best to save our energy.

If we are bourgeois, then a few more things might be there for us. Power and influence only corrupt if somewhere along the way that commitment is lost and turns into entitlement. There is nothing stopping a millionaire from living on minimum wage and putting their money where their politics is—except for their own distorted reality bubble where they are worth every penny. I make a higher than average salary, which puts me dead smack in the bourgeois category, but I take a chunk of it out and live with the rest. That money can go anywhere and be used for any kind of cooperative activity. But what do the leftists with money do? They keep their money as close to them as the capitalists they hate.

Beyond this simple analysis of the Bully in the Anglo world, as I’ve been diving deeper into martial arts and philosophy, I realised something about bullies, aggressors and violence in general. Allow me the eccentricity of making a classically styled argument against violence.

Are the aggressors stronger than their victims? Then they are cowards.

Are the aggressors weaker than their victims? Then they are foolish.

Are the aggressors on par with their victims? Then the result will amount to little more than luck.

None of these outcomes puts the aggressors in a good light.

If we idealise and glorify the strong that prey on the weak, we rig the very society we live in against us, not just because it is unlikely that we’ll ever be on the strong side (think having armies and endless resources), but also because we don’t all begin from the same starting position in life. Like playing monopoly where one player starts with 99% of the money and the others divide the rest—we don’t come into this world with equal challenges and privileges, and we certainly don’t choose to be the weaker party.

Isn’t it the greatest bravery of all to dare stand up and defend ourselves from those that oppress us, even if it might seem deluded at times? Isn’t it much more inspiring to defy these overwhelming forces—like flowers cracking concrete?

Small Flowers Crack Concrete by Sonic Youth on Grooveshark

family album for a whitewashed Neanderthal

Jenny Picking Cockles / The Earl's Chair by Michael McGoldrick on Grooveshark

Before anything else, a disclaimer. This article is profoundly unscientific—it is about something I noticed in how the media has portrayed the Neanderthal over the years, so I decided to dig it up. It expresses an entirely subjective interpretation of the media according to what I think is going on, a criticism if you will. It is basically cherry picking, so reader discretion is advised.

Images used were ripped at low resolution under fair use since this blog is non-commercial, if you’d like to file a claim please contact me and I will remove the image.

It is odd to live long enough to see a shift in how a whole species is perceived and understood. Not long ago my biology textbooks had dinosaurs as giant reptiles, whereas these days they show how closely related they are birds. Science progresses quickly, and that is a good thing. For what it’s worth, the work done by scientists isn’t being questioned here, nor is the tremendous talent involved in the reconstruction based on fossil remains. These are tough fields and a lot of work goes into them.

Popular representation of scientific facts, however, tell a different story. To showcase what I see as an incredible whitewashing of the Neanderthal, I decided to make a family album with depictions over the years. The big change, in my opinion, happened when in the late 90s genetic analysis of Neanderthal DNA showed that it was related to modern humans. This was only amplified by the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and the consequent discovery that some people do in fact carry Neanderthal genes in them. What people? Europeans. And if there’s one thing Europeans like to do is try to demonstrate in every possible way that they are superior to everyone else.

But the Neanderthal story starts with the exact opposite. At first, it was considered a savage and less developed hominid that couldn’t compete and coexist with modern humans, and consequently went extinct. This idea basically said that modern humans were superior and Neanderthals inferior. It is no surprise, then, that in the late 19th century, the scientific articles tended to mirror just that. Consider the following depiction from 1888, and the text of a scientific article from 1890

(…) The same alternatives present themselves when Neanderthaloid characters appear in skulls of other races. If these characters belong to a stage in the development of the human species, antecedent to the differentiation of any of the existing races, we may expect to find them in the lowest of these races, all over the world, and in the early stages of all races. I have already referred to the remarkable similarity of the skulls of certain tribes of native Australians to the [328] Neanderthal skull; and I may add, that the wide differences in height between the skulls of different tribes of Australians afford a parallel to the differences in altitude between the skulls of the men of Spy and those of the grave rows of North Germany. (…)
From L. Huxley, Life and Letters, The Aryan Question and Pre-Historic Man (1890), Collected Essays VII, my emphasis.

All writing from this time must be taken with lots of scepticism, since it was common to legitimise genocide using anthropological justifications. In the quoted text, it is quite clear that the author is linking native Australians with the ‘lesser Neanderthal’. Duly noted, the author seems to do the same with other groups, such as the Frisians, so the racism seems to be just an expression of the time of writing. Nevertheless, the Neanderthal here is a lesser human, and the depiction clearly shows a person of color with rough features.

As time went on and the scientific knowledge grew, with discoveries of their complex rituals, art and bigger brains, the perception began to shift. But even in the 20th century, before the discovery of Neanderthal genetic information, the depictions remained. A brute that could not face the superiority of modern man fresh out of Africa armed with culture and technology. Jared Diamond’s theory that germs brought by modern humans being responsible for the extinction of Neanderthals mimics almost perfectly the European colonial spread of disease. Coincidentally, the colonisers are the modern man and the colonised are the Neanderthals. At this time, the idea that modern man and Neanderthal could be related was already brewing, but polemic. If the superior modern human had made Neanderthals go extinct, to admit that Europeans might be in any way related to this lesser kind of man was not a popular idea. It is no surprise, then, that the depictions remained savage and brutish, even against many scientific theories that were developing. For example, consider this write up about that period (1929-1994) from The Field Museum, Chicago

Many generations of adults remember coming to the Museum and being transported back to a time when people were living in caves. The first of two Neanderthal family dioramas was installed in 1929, in the Hall of Historical Geology which was located on the Museum’s 2nd floor. In 1933, the Hall of Prehistoric Man (located on the Museum’s Ground Floor) opened with a series of 8 prehistoric scenes. In the early 1970s, the Neanderthal figures were replaced with new ones made by Museum artist Joseph Krstolich. By 1994, the Hall of the Stone Age of the Old World exhibit had been dismantled because most were considered to be scientifically inaccurate. The Hall had included the Neanderthal Family diorama as well as dioramas depicting Mas d’Azil cave in France (also called Azillian Boar Hunt); Aurignacian Cave Art (Gargas cave, France); Chellean scene in northern France; Neolithic Sun Worship; Solutrean sculptor; Swiss Lake Dwellers; Cap Blanc Rock Shelter and the skeleton of Magdallenian girl.

The big breakthrough was when the first DNA testing revealed that there was Neanderthal genetic material in modern humans. In the early 2000s, evidence started mounting that there was genetic material in modern humans, but it wasn’t mtDNA, i.e., if there was a mix of modern humans and Neanderthals, it had been between a male Neanderthal and a female human. See, for example, the state of this research in the 2000s page of the Neanderthal museum. By now, the depictions were shifting, thanks to a better understanding of the Neanderthal’s environment and biology. Consider this other text, also from the 2000s page of neanderthal-modern.com:

Numerous genetic studies of DNA from living people also appear to support the “Out-of-Africa” theory. These studies reveal that the genetic differences between the far-flung peoples inhabiting the globe today are actually quite small. This indicates a relatively recent common ancestry. The studies also consistently show present-day Africans to be the most genetically divergent, and therefore the most ancient, branch of humanity. This points toward an African origin for modern humans. These studies have recently been enhanced by analyses of ancient DNA from actual Neanderthal remains. The scientists studying this DNA have reported that the Neanderthal DNA differs significantly from our own, which they see as support for the Out-of-Africa theory (see Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe web pages).

But the most dramatic shift happened in the 2010s when the Neanderthal genome was finally sequenced and the evidence was now clear: a vast group of Europeans was not only related to Neanderthals, but other branches of the human tree, such as the African lineages, weren’t. Here was clear, scientific evidence that coloured people and Europeans were biologically different, and that the Europeans had interbred with a hominid with a bigger brain. If your critical radar hasn’t gone off yet, it should be going off right now. Not only do these reconstructions look tremendously European, they also show finer features, lighter hair and blue eyes, a traditional European sign of nobility and pure lineage. Note that there is little evidence pointing either way as to where light eyes come from, but some are beginning to say Neanderthals could be the origin of blue eyes. Perhaps this quote from the New Yorker might make it even more obvious:

Of course, while the shape and proportions of the face are determined as objectively as possible, some characteristics, like the color of the eyes, the skin, and the hair, can only be approached with subjectivity. But even if decided without certainty, the color of the skin, for instance, will be chosen according to the environmental setting.

While it is obvious that the Neanderthal’s environment was very different from our own, most likely much colder, how valid is this depiction and skin colour, versus, say, one based on the look of indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic? Perhaps this is little more that an expression of the never ending human need for a definition of its own identity, as if our biology determined us somehow and we could attribute our qualities or shortcomings to external factors, instead of admitting mistakes as our own. Maybe it isn’t me after all—it’s this darned Neanderthal gene!

Consider the 2012 BBC programme How scientists recreated Neanderthal man, where the hosts confide:

— I still can’t get my head around the fact that this guy is in my ancestry, not that far back. What do you think John?
— Give me a break, you look like twins!

Never mind the fact that this reconstruction shows a fair skinned, light haired rugged looking young man with neatly arranged body hair and an out of bed look. I’m sure I’ve ran into a few of these “Neanderthals” at parties.

And this brings us to today, and what better example of today’s astrology-like fascination with genetic lineage than this episode of Meet the Izzards, Eddie Izzard: ‘I’m 2.8% Neanderthal’. Here we can see a discussion of what percentages each one of them might have of Neanderthal, with Izzard being in the top tier of Neanderthal heritage. What a journey! From under-evolved coloured man in the 19th century all the way up to famous rich blonde white English comedian, all in a bit more than 100 years.

And while the science continues to progress even further, it has already answered the questions we might have about these genetic percentages. From The Guardian:

So why do newspapers report these claims and why do TV and radio programme makers base documentaries on them? After all, there are plenty of experts who are engaged in scientifically cautious research on our genetic history and will point out their absurdity. One reason is that, being simple “just so” stories, they have a popular appeal that cannot be matched by the more rigorous population level testing of migration histories. The bias is always towards the story rather than the science.
Another possible reason is that “ancestry testing” is aimed at individuals, although in reality the statements made are sufficiently general that they could be true for a large number of people. This is reminiscent of the “Forer effect” in psychology – the observation that individuals will tend to believe descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. The same effect has been used to explain the popularity of horoscopes.
Perhaps it is harmless fun to speculate beyond the facts, armed with exciting new DNA technologies? Not really. It costs unwitting customers of the genetic ancestry industry a substantial amount of hard-earned cash, and it disillusions them about science and scientists when they learn the truth, which is almost always disappointing relative to the story they were told.

In other words, what the Neanderthal representation story tells us is how genetic information is basically replacing the older ideas of lineage and is being instrumentalised again by the ruling ethnicities of the world. The fantasies about a higher evolved human being continue and refuse to go extinct as they should. They are little more than a fantasy, say nothing about who we are, and instead reflect the constant need of Europeans to justify their oppressive role in the world. It seems the poor Neanderthal man has been turned into the modern day genetically backed equivalent of the Aryan race. And we all know what that leads to.

Some links. – More (great) reconstructionsNeanderthals in popular cultureHistory of the admixture theory

announcing ‘escotilha’, my first memoir about my hospitality exchange experience

Légua da póvoa by Dazkarieh on Grooveshark


This is a minor announcement of a pretty big thing. My book is finally out on its way to distribution. It is a memoir of my times at escotilha. I’m giving it away for free! Also added an icon to the sidebar.

Instead of writing yet another gigantic essay, this is enough for now, it’s time to share and enjoy the rush of letting go. Have you read it? Let me know your thoughts!

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.

folk music, sessions and intellectual property

L'Arrebatu by Tejedor on Grooveshark

First, a tune and an apology for the silence on this page. For the past year I have been writing a book — the book that was promised years ago. It is now in the editing phase and will be out in the coming months. Since my writing efforts were focused there, I ended up not writing much here at all.

One of my recent lifestyle changes was to start attending Irish music sessions. A music session is basically a rehearsal in a pub or venue: a bunch of traditional musicians get together and practise tunes they know. While this is the main historical background story of these happenings, in practice, sessions are more fun than gigs because there is no official audience and no official performers. There is also mostly no original repertoire: it is all from the vast troves of public domain music available. And when a tune isn’t public domain? Well, you steal it.

Back in the days when recorded music was for a small select group of elite musicians, folk musicians had no other option but to learn by ear and follow an oral tradition of transmission. Bagpipers in Portugal were no exception, in that if they liked a bagpiper’s style or tune, they’d hear it and copy it and start playing it themselves. Piracy isn’t new — it’s as old as our capacity to communicate and to understand.

These pipers had a fundamental community purpose: they were the DJs and entertainers of their time. They played for dance halls for the sole purpose of making dances and festivities more enjoyable. The music itself always served the practical purpose of feeding the party, instead of any other particular high aesthetic (with exceptions, maybe, for airs and religious themes).

Whenever a particular tune was a hit among crowds, that meant more money for the pipers. It is no surprise, then, that most pipers took issue on teaching how to play pipes — if they couldn’t control the tunes themselves, they had to control the medium to prevent competition from other pipers.

Times have changed for folk musicians, but not too much. One of the things that has changed is the fact that the quantity of folk music that has been written down and documented and published as public domain is tremendous — more than any single musician could ever remember and play in a lifetime. This has an interesting side effect in the folk music scenes: authorship is a curiosity about a tune, not the main point. The main point, instead, becomes the interpretation and performance aspects of the tunes themselves: the interpreter effectively brings the public domain material to life. Learning and mastering the art itself becomes the main focus of the artists, and the tunes vehicles to express their creativity.

Traditional artists that record their own tunes quite often let their friends play them at sessions — authorship respected, playing with fellow musicians dissolves the economic interests that might have mediated their interactions with others.

This, to me, is one of the incredibly powerful ideas that comes from the folk scenes: music isn’t theirs to begin with, but that is accepted as part of a tradition, even when the tunes themselves are less than 50 years old and would therefore fall under copyright laws. In folk music, ownership of a tune is meaningless. It either is a hit for dancers and fellow session musicians, or it isn’t, and the way that success is measured includes how many other musicians like your tunes and decided to cover them (or better put, copy them and modify them).

While the way traditional music is studied and passed on has this interesting characteristic in regards to intellectual property, it also has another interesting idea in what a performance really is.

Here in Sydney the art scenes are ripe with “Look at me” type events where everyone has a shot at the stage, yet doesn’t watch what others do there. Be it an exhibition where the exhibitor doesn’t see anyone else’s work, or the gig where the band leaves early and doesn’t watch others play, the idea of stage and performance is fundamentally different to the one represented by sessions and dance halls.

In a session, musicians are rehearsing and having fun together, collectively exploring and practising tunes they don’t own and most likely didn’t write. There is usually no stage, and the venue is usually a pub where most people are interested in the big screens with matches than the music. The music in these places isn’t a commodity — it’s a collective experience. While a gig represents a ritualistic relationship between the musician and the audience, a session breaks that down and turns music it into an every day thing we do with our friends and acquaintances.

Like jam sessions, DJs mixing for a live audience, jazz dance halls, it is in the commoner’s world that music is alive — prevented from being merchandise simply because it is a vehicle for a communal experience. And while the congregation spaces where this happens might shift over time, the idea remains that we prefer art to be free to interpret and modify, since that serves the public enjoyment of that very same art. If property is an idea of alienation, then folk music is a perfect example of the opposite: how creativity persists and is enhanced by the absence of property, and how it creates bridges between people and communities that thrive.

That is why I abandoned most other music scenes and moved to folk music — it is where I find this rich balance of creativity, community spirit and a surprising lack of self-commodification persists and thrives. And in such an alienating world, it is a great source of fresh (moving) air.