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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, 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.

Published in culture desire digital music opera real time web theater

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