Dan Connolly's tinkering lab notebook

A new year brings a new low in media and culture

The new year brings a reminder that we have turned our culture over to Viacomm, AOL/TW, Disney, Clear Channel, and News Corp, with disastrous results:

Do you know what entered the public domain in the US on Jan 1 2011? Nothing.
— Rodney Ramsey, citing Duke Law on Public Domain Day 2011

In a 1999 piece, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet, Douglas Adams said:

... during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport – the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

I expect that history will show ‘normal’ mainstream twentieth century media to be the aberration in all this.

Since I was born in the late '60s, that seemed perfectly reasonable to me, as he went on to explain:

you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:
  1. everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

Indeed, I have spent the bulk of my career leading development of open web standards and writing a little open source software; that is: on a shift to participatory media and free culture. But I spend plenty of leisure time on movies, handing ammunition to the old guard with every ticket.

Games are a little less passive than movies, but I wonder where that leads us. Why We Haven’t Met Any Aliens is food for thought:

... if extraterrestrial intelligence is common, why haven’t we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi’s Paradox.

I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Lessig's Free Culture as I commute. The tl;dr version, from his OSCON 2002 talk, is:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

If you haven't at least watched the slides+audio of that talk, stop reading this now and do it. Then let's hope that Jan 1 2011 is the low point in this media aberration.

I hesitate to call it a resolution, but maybe this year I'll make some progress toward the example that Aaron Swartz set back when the Creative Commons licenses were launched in December 2002:

when I go to a movie, I donate money in the amount I spent to the EFF.

Almost a decade later, I see they're still hard at work, fighting the absurdity Lessig notes in chapter 12: Harms:

The four students who were threatened by the RIAA (Jesse Jordan of chapter 3 was just one) were threatened with a $98 billion lawsuit for building search engines that permitted songs to be copied. Yet WorldCom - which defrauded investors of $11 billion, resulting in a loss to investors in market capitalization of over $200 billion - received a fine of a mere $750 million. And under legislation being pushed in Congress right now, a doctor who negligently removes the wrong leg in an operation would be liable for no more than $250,000 in damages for pain and suffering. Can common sense recognize the absurdity in a world where the maximum fine for downloading two songs off the Internet is more than the fine for a doctor's negligently butchering a patient?