Archive for January, 2012

A Sweetwater Stream: Evolution of the Aesthetic Container

It might be a signal of the end of the industrial age. Of course, industrial-style production in factories will continue, but just as powerful efficiencies were created that radically changed the economics of manufactured goods, digital production is continuing its rampage of creative destruction. The politics and economics of the copying and sharing of digital files should be the subject of deep thinking and dialogue. But instead, on the one hand we have an industrial argument that mechanically reproduces itself; and on the other we have a digital argument that copies and pastes itself into a seemingly infinite number of online fora.

To start this exploration, we must trace the evolution of the product of industrial output. However, the focus here is specifically on the container used to deliver aesthetic product. For a certain generation there’s a well-known complaint. It seems like I’m buying the same music over and over again. Every time the music industry changes the standard format, I have to replace my collection. I had the vinyl, the cassette, the CD, the remastered CD and now the digital file. I’ve got the MP3, but what I really want is the high quality FLAC. It turns out that I’m not buying the music after all. I buy the container, the delivery method, and I buy one container after another. Each new standard container format makes some improvement in the audio quality and more importantly lowers production costs and increases margins. All manufactured aesthetic (and rhetorical) containers are moving along this path in an attempt to increase productivity and efficiency. All of these container formats are converging on the digital file as the lowest possible cost delivery mechanism.

Prior to the widespread distribution of the Network, the digital file seemed to be an innovation of the same kind as its predecessors. Slavoj Zizek, in his essay “The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie” exposes the mechanics of the incredibly high margins made possible by the combination of digital production and worker compensation through stock options (prior to 2005, stock options did not need to be recognized as an expense on a corporate income statement).

How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors, or ‘exploiting’ its workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). Millions of people still buy Microsoft software because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolizing the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatized part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed.

The possibility of the privatization of the general intellect was something Marx never envisaged in his writings about capitalism (largely because he overlooked its social dimension). Yet this is at the core of today’s struggles over intellectual property: as the role of the general intellect – based on collective knowledge and social co-operation – increases in post-industrial capitalism, so wealth accumulates out of all proportion to the labour expended in its production. The result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatization of knowledge.

The digitally-produced object is different than its industrially-produced predecessors in an fundamental way—the container is now a digital text. Owning a vinyl record did allow me the ability to create mix tapes, but it didn’t contain a method of spawning more vinyl records from the one I’d purchased. In the digital format, the aesthetic product is transformed into a quoted text written in an alphabet of 1s and 0s. Every personal computer has the capability to read, quote and re-quote digital texts—and this is the crux of the digital container crisis. If you can sell a digital file as though it were the analog output of an industrial process, outsized rents can be generated when large scales are achieved.

The problem is that when the digital file player is also capable of reading and re-quoting the text (code) and then sending a copy to any other node on the Network, the commercial distribution network is quickly dwarfed by the potential social sharing Network. What was a physical container produced through industrial manufacturing has become speech / text / code. The free circulation of speech and the protection of intellectual property rights collide in what Zizek calls the “privatization of knowledge.”

The Network utopians take the view that the free circulation of texts is essential to the nature of the Network. Attempting to impose limits on sharing is striking at the very heart of the Network. And while this approach easily solves the free speech issue, it doesn’t do much for the intellectual property side of the equation. Some say that intellectual property should be eliminated. Some industries, like fashion, for instance, operates without those kind of restrictions. Copying is part of the culture. Top designers even copy themselves, producing low-cost knock offs for the discount stores. But here we’re still dealing with analog manufacturing. If fashion were to become digital and buying new clothes simply involved selecting a style and printing out an outfit. There would be no difference between haut couture and pirate couture.

Other approaches to the problem depend on the good-heartedness, or laziness, of the consumer. Gabe Newell, co-founder of videogame company ‘Valve,’ is quoted as saying:

“One thing we have learned is that piracy is not a pricing issue. It’s a service issue. The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting anti-piracy technology to work. It’s by giving those people a service that’s better than what they’re receiving from pirates.”

To some extent this is what happened with Apple’s iTunes store and the P2P file sharing network Napster. This approach works until your service technology is also primarily constructed of code. Once that’s true, what’s to stop a pirate from simply copying and pasting your service technology onto their servers. Each improvement you make is replicated to the pirate server as fast as bits can travel over wires. Is this the point that you put “anti-piracy technology to work”?

Moving back to the evolution of the container, there are some who say the “file” has had its day. Once you’ve got all those files locally stored and backed up on a series of hard disks, you look at the mess of hardware you’ve accumulated and cry out for a better solution. Here’s where the cloud (remote storage lockers) comes into the picture. All those files can be moved to a service that remotely stores them for a small fee. Alternatively you have the Netflix / Spotify model of charging the consumer rent for access to the company’s collection of digital files via an authorized stream.

Instead of moving big digital files over the Network, a stream sends just enough of the file to create a local cache which facilitates smooth playback on your viewing device. The stream attempts to recapture the qualities of the analog container—you can’t copy and share your stream. The stream is a part of a file, the streaming service never intentionally exposes the complete file. With some added pirating technology, you can convert the full set of streamed bits into a file and share that file. Potentially, you could even set up a server to stream the copied file to someone else.

Generally, streaming services attempt to control both ends of the transmission. If the streaming transmitter owns and operates the receiver sitting on the audience’s local device, the odds of preventing unauthorized copying and sharing are higher. The talk about “Apps” vs. the “Web” boils down to the control of data (text) streamed from centralized APIs. The cable television companies with their “cable boxes” were the first to employ this architecture. Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, Kindle, iPad, iCloud, HBOgo, CNN, the New York Times and many others have extended the strategy.

The record and the record player are becoming a single unit. They’re an updated form of the jukebox with a very large central digital catalog. All the big players are employing the same technical and architectural approach; the competitive difference is the size and quality of the library. As Zizek observes about Microsoft, the goal is to become a universal standard; a de facto monopoly. If any of these services can achieve that size, they manage to eliminate the “outside.” There’s no longer a need to copy and share through the greater external Network, because there is no outside of Netflix or Spotify. Sharing within the private network is both good for business and means that you’ve converted the people you want to share with into members of the private network. The large scale of the custom infrastructure required for a universal jukebox sets a very high barrier to entry for potential competitors. Facebook has been masterful at this.

Going universal is a zero-sum game. In order for you to win, somebody else has to lose. But there is another approach to the problem of intellectual/artistic property and the Network and it looks very promising. The universal jukebox strategy treats aesthetic product as a commodity. It’s unconcerned with artists or the actual aesthetic content of a work of art. It’s the quality of the delivery system, the player, that matters. Finding stuff, getting good suggestions for stuff and an easy “play” mechanism are the keys. A big catalog with a long tail allows the universal jukebox to punt on issues of aesthetic judgement.

There are two examples of artist-centered streams that offer some hope outside of the industrial streaming complex. The first example is a stream produced by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. They’ve created a national audience for their live HD opera broadcasts. The “player” is the network of movie theaters around the country set up to receive live HD streams and project them on to big screens with state-of-the-art sound systems. I attended a recent performance of the Baroque pastiche “The Enchanted Island” at a local movie theater. Here there’s no option to capture the stream with local computing power and store it in a file. And because you’re watching a live performance, not a replay of a file, there’s a very attractive element of danger. The technology serves the art, and the artistry is of a very high level. This delivery system has been expanded to include live symphony and theater performances and has the potential to establish a new art form where film evolves by retrieving something from the performing arts.

The second example is a little company in the north bay called the Tamalpais Research Institute. Here’s the mission statement from the About Us page:

Tamalpais Research Institute is the vision of Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead. Weir and his team have built a state-of-the-art performance studio for broadcasting live HD video and audio streams directly to the Internet.

TRI is a virtual venue where fans can gather and enjoy the performances in the comfort of their own homes, or anywhere they have Internet access.

The main performance space at TRI houses a Meyer Sound Constellation System – a revolutionary acoustic modeling technology which has the ability to dramatically change the acoustical properties of the room. With the touch of a button, an artist can instantly change the sonic environment from that of a small intimate club to sounding like a theater, an arena or even a cathedral.

Each show will be directed, filmed, and mixed live in real time. Every care will be taken to provide the highest possible upstream bandwidth to transmit high quality HD video and audio to the end user. The live stream will be accessible by and tailored to a variety of viewing equipment such as mobile devices, streaming players, game consoles, computers, Internet ready HDTV’s as well as home theaters.

All of this will take place in a small intimate setting in front of a live studio audience. The musicians may be playing in the domain of Mount Tamalpais, but their music will be beaming out to the entire free world.

Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead have had a very different relationship with pirates over the years. There’s a sense in which they harnessed the power of the pirates to create a marketing network for their live performance business. And despite the fact that you can find a large number of free bootleg recordings of Grateful Dead shows on Archive.org, the band has a thriving business with their Dick’s Picks series. They continue to mine their catalog of live performance recording with a new series of limited edition releases called Dave’s Picks.

But that was then. This is now. In addition to establishing the TRI studio, Weir has reopened Sweetwater, the historic Mill Valley nightclub. And Sweetwater streams too:

Sweetwater’s new location in the Masonic Hall allowed for the complete renovation of a space that has hosted live music and events for more than a century. The remodeled interior is modern sleek, boasting state-of-the-art sound and streaming video technology, with clean sight lines and cozy hangout spots. It also features a gourmet cafe offering locally-sourced, organic fare.

There are a couple of directions you can explore if you’re interested in the future of the stream. You can look toward the battle of the giants attempting to establish a network-powered universal jukebox; or, you can look at what the artists are doing and check out the little nightclub that Bob Weir is building on his node of the Network.

Doctorow, General Computing and Preserving the Possibility of Evil

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Cory Doctorow’s talk has the feel of science fiction. This coming war on general computing seems like a movie we’ve already seen. We imagine killer robots, explosions in space and the rest of the typical fare of a science fiction epic. But that’s just a teaser—a feint, something to get us to pay attention. Doctorow’s talk is really about making laws and the possibility of creating zones of safety. How can we create zones on the Network that free us from immorality, from surveillance, from pirates who take our work product without paying?

Here’s Doctorow’s summary of the desire that drives the creation of so many new laws intended to govern and limit the Network:

Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or hysterical fears, they are, nevertheless, the political currency of lobbies and interest groups far more influential than Hollywood and big content. Every one of them will arrive at the same place: “Can’t you just make us a general-purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

Ostensively, the talk is about a certain class of computing machines and whether these machines will be deemed too dangerous to be at large. The general purpose computer in this instance might be compared to general purpose pen and paper. When we try to restrict the uses of pen and paper, we run into the same sort of problems that Doctorow outlines discussing imposed limitations to networked digital computers.

Doctorow’s technically savvy audience seems to believe this is a case of the technically illiterate interfering with something they don’t understand. One often hears the statement that it’s not okay for Washington politicians to not understand the Internet. As though, once their understanding was upgraded to the latest version of the Network they would naturally understand the impossibility of placing absolute technical limits on a general computing machine. At which point they would turn to their constituents and campaign donors and patiently explain that what they want isn’t possible. And further that he’ll be sending someone around to their house to make sure they’ve been upgraded to the latest version of the pre-approved software.

Of course, once we peel away the top layer, it’s easy to see that the computer in this parable is a stand-in for human being. There are a number of ways into this connection. For instance, if we subscribe to the idea of the extended phenotype, the computer is an expression of human DNA. Augmentation is not separate from that which it augments, the web is not separate from the spider. Limitation of the spider web is a limitation of the the spider.

Or we can return to the moment of the general computer’s conception. In Ian Bogost’s book “Unit Operations” he provides a summary of von Neumann’s revolutionary change to the architecture of computing systems. From its inception, the universal computation machine’s inspiration was the human brain. Human turned into a machine through biological understanding of the thinking organ—copied over to the machine such that the machine might become human in its approach to computation.

Here’s Bogost on the significance of this change:

The conditional control transfer allowed individual computational functions to be preserved across programs, just as the film camera allowed individual photographic functions like exposure to be preserved across images. The von Neumann architecture marked the beginning of computation’s status as unit operational, rather than system operational.

The universal computer that would mimic the structure of the human brain was a vision of both von Neumann and Alan Turing, who separately developed his own computational architecture called ACE (automating computing engine). Both von Neumann and Turing obsessively equated their universal computing projects with attempts to model the human brain; the famous Turing test serves as an illustration of such a goal. The von Neumann architecture, as the consolidated control transfer has become known, is the basis for all modern computing. The key to von Neumann’s success was not the specifics of his solution so much as his approach to the problem of computation. Rather than treating universal computation as an engineering problem, he recognized it as a logical one, antecedent to any specific instantiation.

Doctorow’s complaint is in essence that we’re attempting to employ engineering solutions to a problem of logic. Because universal computing is antecedent to any specific instantiation, a solution engineered to enforce limits in a specific instantiation will find itself obsolete in the next instantiation. Which sets off another round of engineering solutions.

If these clusters of limitations are going to be deployed into our “local” computing environment, Doctorow is asking for Admin privileges. For the computers embedded into his extended phenotype, he’d like permission to view and terminate processes working against his interests. Crafting one’s own soul, rather than being crafted by an unknown and unperceived external system with its own agenda. In a sense, what he’s asking for here is the equivalent of a computational immune system.


Imagine an object, a ball for example. You look at it and see the side that faces you. In this new scheme, if you turn the ball to see the other side, you see the same side with which you started. There is no other side.

But there’s something left unspoken in setting the frame for the discussion. Doctorow hints at it here:

There will be programs that run on general-purpose computers, and peripherals, that will freak even me out. So I can believe that people who advocate for limiting general-purpose computers will find a receptive audience.

The necessary feature of the open systems and networks that Doctorow advocates is that they must preserve the possibility of evil. The systematic exclusion of evil breaks the open (unit operational) nature of the system. From a political perspective, you won’t score too many points campaigning for the preservation of the possibility of evil. The most successful argument of this kind is the theological argument around why God has given humans free will. Being good without choosing good means that goodness isn’t a virtue. The possibility of choosing evil makes the choice of good meaningful. Pre-deleting evil processes from the operating environment pre-empts the possibility of choosing to run good processes and the act of terminating the evil ones.

Doctorow trots out the crowd-pleasing quip: “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” This is the logic of the dictatorship; but Doctorow fails to see the subtle passing of the baton to hegemony. Here I give you the baton and train you to beat yourself until morale (morality) improves. You do know which processes should be terminated and which should not. Don’t you?

Once you dig below the surface, this war on general computing seems to have been going on for quite a long time. As Bogost notes of von Neumann’s architecture, it’s “antecedent to any specific instantiation.”

Architecture, Arena Rock and Big Box Stores

It was Aron Michalski who turned me on to David Byrne’s thoughts on the effect of architecture on music. The gist of the idea is that popular music is composed to be performed in certain kinds of venues. When rock music moved from clubs and theaters to arenas and stadiums the music had to change to accommodate the space.

My first real experience of this phenomenon was hearing The Who perform at one of Bill Graham’s Day on the Green concerts at the stadium in Oakland. Pete Townsend’s windmill electric guitar chords rang out filling and shaking the stadium. It was shock and awe, a form of the Burkean sublime. In my memory, the figures on the stage seemed like giants.

At the same time there was a withdrawal of music from physical space exemplified by The Beatles retreating to the studio to create music they would never perform in an arena, stadium or any where else for that matter. This direction was solidified by Brian Eno in his writings about the recording studio as compositional tool. Eno compares the advent of purely recorded music to the split between theater and film into separate art forms. Film, like constructed and recorded music, can create an experience in playback that can’t be produced in live performance. The medium shifts from the room to the playback of music in some domestic space or perhaps even in the mental space of headphones. The new medium for music becomes its transmission over wires and broadcast to an endpoint.

And just as with popular music’s adaptation to the vast open spaces of the sports stadium, music changes to accommodate the contours of the Network. A higher percentage of music becomes music for playback. The number of bands that can fill a stadium with both music and fans—always a small number, shrinks even further. And among the new acts climbing the charts, fewer set their sites on the stadium as the ultimate venue.

When I saw the headline about Best Buy slowing going out of business, I didn’t immediately make the connection to arena rock. But there’s a sense in which the progress of retail mirrors that of popular music; moving to larger and larger venues—packing in both the people and the product. And just as with music, there’s a virtual channel that has been able to treat the retail space as an endlessly plastic medium that can be mixed and remixed into a seemingly infinite variety of shopping experiences. Here also the medium changed from a physical space to bits coming over a wire and broadcast on to a screen. And just as with arena and stadium rock, the number of acts who can fill those big boxes is shrinking in number.

The movie “You’ve Got Mail” is a interesting artifact of the rise of the big box bookstore. The film lifts its love story from Ernst Lubitch’s “The Shop Around the Corner.” In the zeitgeist of the time, it was all too clear that the small independent bookstore was doomed and would be driven out of existence by the book superstore with its huge inventory, low prices, cozy chairs and access to legal stimulants in the form of hot beverages. It wasn’t something to get mad about, it was just the way of the world—not personal, just business. So Meg Ryan’s carefully curated children’s bookstore ‘The Shop Around The Corner (named in tribute to its predecessor) is put out of business by Tom Hanks’s giant Fox Books. Now if we look at the landscape of booksellers today, we see a much different picture. The arena rock bookstores can’t sell enough tickets and are shutting down—their role is being filled by the plastic virtual bookseller. We’re sort of in the era of the headphone retailer.

I’ve always loved browsing in used book stores. The combination of lower price and serendipity is wonderfully entertaining. I don’t expect to find a complete set of books in print, instead the experience is more like a performance in a small space. I take in and appreciate the set of books that are here in the space right now. I know that next week, or the week after, I’ll see a largely new set of books. The used book store is an incredibly efficient filter for discovering what might be worth reading and what people in general are reading. These books have already experienced ‘use.’ It’s an interesting example of how a small space can provide much more value than a large space.

This rehabilitation of the small space is a trend that seems to working its way through music, retailing and even social networks. It may signal a return to intimacy. Kinda makes you wonder what it’d be like to shop at “The Shop Around the Corner’s” Matuschek and Company.