Archive for April, 2010

I’m not really all that interested in setting the record straight every time I come across some wild claim, bogus argument, or manipulative video. There is simply too much of it. But the video below (which I found on BoingBoing), called When Copyright Goes Bad, just pisses me off.

Much of the video is expertly done in that all the major signposts of a carefully constructed documentary are present, especially visual appeal, threatening soundtrack, slanted commentary, and transparent advocacy. But its basic premise — that copyright law is encroaching upon existing consumer rights — is flatly wrong. The supposed consumer rights this video defends are these:

  • back-up copies
  • format shifting
  • mash-ups/remixing
  • fair use
  • fostering access

The suggestion is that copyright is expanding to make these things illegal, but in fact, it’s the reverse that’s true: emerging technologies now enable home users to make virtually cost-free copies, which is driving demand that, in effect, is rendering copyright obsolete in the same fashion that vehicle speed limits are often moot except to those few singled out for selective enforcement. The law is now hopelessly behind the times when it comes to technologies that make copying so easy that infringing behavior is now wrongly perceived as a consumer right.

At various points in the video, Fred Von Lohman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is featured (unaccountably framed as a big, fat head) talking about copyright. What he says isn’t inaccurate exactly, but rather, is subtly shaped to give the wrong impressions to the easily misled. For example, he says that “copyright has actually been expanding,” which is true as to duration but in no other aspect. (Many copyright experts believe time extensions to copyright protection, at the behest of owners of a few valuable properties, is improper. I agree.) He also says that “copyright law intrudes deeply into our everyday lives,” which is also true but only because we now demand the freedom to illegally copy protected content at will and have grown increasingly aware that this is a legal issue. The entire video uses that same tone, referring to infringers as pirates and terrorists and showing children being frustrated in their innocent attempts to, well, infringe copyright.

This isn’t sudden at all, although Von Lohman says it is. Rather, a decades-long, unsteady equilibrium with infringing technologies such as the photocopier and cassette tape has been upset with the advent of digital technologies that make exact or near-exact copies available on any home computer with copy-and-paste ease. Acts of infringement are so widespread that their illegality is felt a mere irritation by end-users who recognize that everyone is doing it. As with news available for free on the Internet, you’re a chump if you actually pay for content.

Copyright (a subset of intellectual property rights) is difficult for most laypersons to understand precisely because it’s intangible. The rights vest not so much in the copy, embodiment, or medium but in the idea behind an embodiment and the subsequent monopoly right to control fabrication and distribution of copies, whether tangible (e.g., a book or CD) or virtual (e.g., an e-book or mp3). If a cheap, easy way were devised to make fully bound copies of books on paper at the cost of broadband access and hard drive space, there would be demand, and pirates (actually, that’s the correct word despite the untoward associations) would seek to meet the demand. But the book on paper produced by legitimate publishers and copyright holders is already relatively cheap in terms of the content it delivers, and library copies and used book markets make legit copies readily available to anyone without the modest funds necessary to buy first-run books immediately at bookstore prices. No one, BTW, keeps a back-up of a book. If the same were as true of CDs and DVDs, and if digital formats weren’t so vulnerable to data loss and corruption, there would not be such robust file sharing, downloading of illegal copies, creation of back-ups, and format shifting.

If a single copyright holder were insisting that you can’t back up your computer files, I would be surprised. Most software license agreements include allowances for multiple-use installations and back-ups. The real problem is the proliferation of pirated copies of all sorts. That goes to the intent behind copyright, namely, to encourage an environment where content creators are rewarded monetarily for their work. Instead, now that the genie is out of the bottle with respect to illegal copying, the revenue model behind publishing any creative content is failing, just like the revenue model behind serious news gathering and reporting is ebbing away. As I have warned before, when the financial reward disappears, so does the incentive to create, and so we’ll be left with a vast archive of content available to everyone but only degraded new content.

The Four Americas

Posted: April 19, 2010 in Culture, History

Nationalism has been both boon and bane in different locations around the globe. Virulent forms tend to lead to strife and war, whereas harmless or even beneficent forms can be chalked up to national character. Many such characterizations are borne out of cliché or may be the result of joke memes that proliferate and self-reinforce over time. My mind drifted recently, perhaps in the wake of another biannual celebration of national glory (the Vancouver Olympics), toward how the American national character has changed over the centuries. There is considerable overlap to the characterizations I propose below and no nice, easy, dividing lines. Collapsing several hundred years into a few paragraphs is also admittedly a radical reduction. But then, I’m not exactly writing a doctoral dissertation.

Colonial America

Our early character was heavily informed by a combination of believers seeking escape from religious persecution and others seeking economic opportunities in what they erroneously believed to be an uninhabited continent. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean and homesteading in a relative wilderness was a risky proposition best suited to the bold, adventurous, and sometimes desperate. The intrepid spirit of freedom and self-determination we now take for granted may well have been a direct result of the sorts of people attracted to the New World, which spirit eventually had its expression in the American Revolution and the formation of a new country.

Frontier America

While homesteading was by no means easy for the earliest settlers, it was the westward expansion during America’s frontier phase that informed and solidified such notions as perpetual expansion, manifest destiny, right of conquest, and resource exploitation. Whether animal skins, gold and oil deposits, or arable land, frontier Americans believed that by dint of hard work and rugged individualism they could make a better life for themselves and their kin. Alternative theories propose that even though more than 90% of Americans lived rural, agrarian lives nearly up to the turn of the 20th century, it was cities — especially on the eastern seaboard — and the political and financial elite that formed the American spirit during that time. Although the demands and influence of cities were important, even out of proportion to the rural population, I insist that the way most Americans lived is a better approach. Otherwise, you have the tail wagging the dog.

Innovation America

The Industrial Revolution began in the factories of the United Kingdom, but when it began in earnest in America, it catalyzed generations of tinkerers, inventors, and not insignificantly, developers of business methods. Perhaps it’s merely selective perception, but after widespread adoption of the steam engine and building of railroads in Europe, it’s difficult to cite an example of a major innovation that didn’t spring from America’s restless minds. For example, the telegraph (and later wireless telegraph), the telephone, the incandescent bulb, the automobile (and with it the assembly line), the airplane, weapons of mass destruction (notably, the Bomb), television, the computer, and the Internet are all American creations that transformed the world.

Empire America

Up to World War II, America had been fairly isolationist, which is to say, it was more concerned with its own westward development and admitting states to the Union than with the “old country” or countries. But after being drawn into (an arguable bit of history) the world’s second great war, America’s perspective turned increasingly outward. We perceived military threats from abroad — some real, some paranoid, and some wholly imagined — and we sought to expand our markets and political influence globally. In the process, we perhaps unwittingly adopted the imperatives of empire. History demonstrates that empires rise and fall over time (but they all fall eventually), failure often occurring as the result of overshoot or overreach of one type or another. Whereas U.S. politicians and citizens frequently believe that, as the last great superpower, we are the default global police, most of the rest of the world regards us as a tyrannical bully — including some of our allies. The familiar trope about our being a beacon on a hill only plays to our own vanity. If each of the other formative eras had a combination of pros and cons, the latest development in the American national character is, according to many cultural critics, the result of a decadent, commodity culture plundering the Earth’s resources without concern for either equitable conduct or a positive legacy.

Topsy-Turvy Argument

Posted: April 9, 2010 in Consumerism, Debate, Economics

Here is something a bit unusual: a quote of someone else’s blog post in its entirety so I can respond here rather than on the blog itself. (I don’t comment on blogs that retrieve tens and hundreds of comments, often repeating the same points again and again. Further, if the blogger him- or herself doesn’t respond to comments, I withhold.) The post is titled Borrowing from our Children by Scott Adams, the cartoonist who draws Dilbert:

Last night I heard on television for the millionth time that our national debt is like borrowing from our children. Millions of viewers from around the country were probably nodding their heads in agreement. That saying has been around so long that we accept it as a simple statement of fact.

But are we borrowing from our children or investing in them? Suppose we decide to stop spending money so our children will have lots of money for themselves. That would be generous of us, right?

I don’t think so.

I think future generations might like to have most of the things we’re investing in, such as infrastructure, healthcare, schools, a clean environment, energy sources, and freedom, to name just a few. No one wants to inherit a country full of sickly, uneducated hobos, on the verge of being conquered by Cuba.

Obviously there’s a middle ground, where we spend our money as wisely as possible in the present for the benefit of all. But stop making me feel guilty about leaving future generations a clean, educated, healthy, well-defended country with a vigorous economy, even if it comes with some debt attached. It still seems like a bargain.

And perhaps we should stop talking about the future debt in absolute dollars, because “trillions” scares the food out of my esophagus, through my large and small intestines, and about four feet into the surface of the earth. I prefer to hear our national debt expressed as percentages of, for example, our next 30 years of projected GDP. That way it doesn’t seem so scary.

Future generations should go get a job. And a haircut. And stay off my lawn!

Mr. Adams gets high marks for being entertaining, as the last line and snark like “being conquered by Cuba” demonstrate. His sense of humor is well honed and appeals to a lot of people. But in choosing the national debt for joke fodder (or is it?), he risks that someone earnest like me will take him literally rather than accept the obvious irony of turning the argument on its head just for fun and sport. But it’s not harmless fun, as his comments demonstrate, to dick around with people about major domestic policy points. Clever writers buffalo the credulous all the time.

Mr. Adams begins be redefining debt as investment. Even simple terms in economics have the potential to confuse average people, and the whole of gross national product, national debt, and numbers in the trillions are so far removed from our grasp of immediate reality that they become free-floating notions capable of carrying multiple, competing interpretations. Some priming of the pump via national debt is good, but at some undetermined point, it produces severely diminished returns. No one can say for certain where the dividing line (or large grey area) is, but we have most surely crossed into uncharted territory by exceeding all historical precedent with our current level of deficit spending, which is projected to continue for at least a decade.

Mr. Adams also congratulates us for “investing” in infrastructure, schools, healthcare, energy, the environment, and not least of all, freedom. He forgot to say that “it’s for the children.” If only these objectives were taken even halfway seriously, we wouldn’t be in the unrecoverable mess we’re in, both nationally and globally. But instead, we’ve institutionalized a way of life based on enjoy now, pay later (or not at all), and damn the consequences, since by then we’ll be dead anyway. Without admitting it, we’ve chosen to live like a bunch of overfed clowns — which doesn’t even make us especially happy — while dooming anyone unfortunate enough to follow in our wake to truly desperate times.

Bertrand Russell observed that during WWI, the British rail stations were “crowded with soldiers, almost all of them drunk, half of them accompanied by drunken prostitutes, the other half by wives or sweethearts, all despairing, all reckless, all mad … I had supposed that most people liked money better than anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better.” [quoting from John Gray’s Straw Dogs, p. 182]

Nerdiness and Geekdom

Posted: April 5, 2010 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

This Venn diagram from Nerd Approved struck my fancy:

I don’t buy for a moment the arbitrary distinctions between the nerd, the geek, the dork, and the dweeb (my preferred term is goober), but it’s a humorous picture to contemplate. Polling for how one identifies also runs the obvious risk of false self-reporting, the results slanting safely heavily toward geek. Of course, it’s undoubtedly a mark of my own nerdiness that I appreciate the humor in, of all things, a very unscientific Venn diagram. But as a friend of mine once remarked, it may not be considered cool to be a nerd, but it’s a lot more fun to indulge one’s enthusiasms without worry about keeping up an image. (Fanboys and -girls dressed in costumes from Star Trek, Star Wars, or Harry Potter clearly have more fun than jocks and bimbos who have adopted the pointless pose of sulking detachment. It’s revenge of the nerds in real life.) The whole point of Nerd Approved is to highlight such enthusiasms in a veritable nerdgasm over products such as these by Fred and Friends.

In a similar vein, two webcomics make me laugh by combining tidbits of technology, math, goofiness, and subtle cultural criticism: The Abstruse Goose and xkcd. Considering just how uneducated much of the public is, I’m suspicious that the humor is lost on those without a decent grasp of science.