Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Sinking of The Pirate Ship

So, it seems the creators of the Pirate Bay, after years of happily waving their Skull and Crossbones, have been torpedoed on the high seas. A whopping great fine, and a year's prison sentence for the creators of history's greatest portal of free stuff.

Whether the sentence is justified or not, too harsh or too lenient is not my interest here, what is interesting to me is that this is the first major blow against the *ahem* torrent of piracy that has so defined our media lives this past 6 or 7 broadband-enabled years. For most of us, computer nerds or not, recent years have seen us completely change the way we relate to music and movies. Most of us have only a hazy memory of the last time we walked into a shop and bought a CD, all of us have at least one iPod-type gadget and one big multi-Gig hard drive full of movies and music. Many of us have not renewed our membership at a video library in several years, and most of us have a little green icon ticking away in our taskbar all the time, catching little drops of the entertainment nourishment that seems to fall out of the sky these days. The more discerning among us dont even watch TV any more: Why sit through 10 minutes of ads for 20 minutes of entertainment when you can just download the stuff you want?

This is normal now. This is modern life. And as far as that goes, it's OK. From the perspective of my couch, spliff in hand, working my way through the 3rd downloaded series of The Wire, it seems an annoying intrusion to have some dork barge in and throw open the drapes: "But all of this is Illegal! You are stealing things that don't belong to you! Wont somebody please think of the poor addled giant media conglomerates and their dwindling revenues?"

So I snort, and shrug off this jerk and his irritatingly Twentieth Century views on media ownsership and go back to my Wire. Technology has moved on, I grunt, time to stop worrying about ownership and physical discs and copyright, its all just part of the great big wave of information that is our bathwater now. Get with it.

Or not. Like that ad which we see on those rare times when we cant find a torrent of a movie and are forced to walk to the store and rent it, we are all dimly aware of the wrongness of what we're doing: "You wouldn't steal a car..." the ad says, before informing us that software piracy is a crime. And from what we see, it is plain that the average otherwise law-abiding citizen does not agree: They think that there is a huge difference between stealing a car and stealing an album. And the commoness of this belief is worth looking at. Even though it is of course illegal and wrong to steal software, music or movies, most of us do it anyway, and yet none of us would dream of stealing so much as a Snickers in real life.

So why the difference in attitude? Well it seems to boil down to a few basic categories of arguement:

(1) When you steal a car, you deprive someone else of a car. This is bad, and we would feel guilty. When you steal by making a copy of something, however, you havent deprived anybody of anything, except in some small way deprived a large organisation of a percentage of it's profits, a guilt pang which can easily be erased by the logic: "Well if I couldnt have downloaded it, I wouldnt have bought it as it's too expensive, so I havent really deprived them of anything. "

(2) Most of us don't seem to have the moral gene that allows us to feel guilty at a large remove from our victim: So I stole 10 quid from Franz Ferdinand, so what? They are just some guys on TV Ive never met. Try this experiment. Go and see a great up-and-coming band live and enjoy the show, and maybe even chat to them backstage afterwards, then go home and try to torrent their album as you normally would. Feel that queasy feeling of old start to bite? Thought so, that's called 'guilt'.

(3) The vaguely Anarchist/Fuck The System/All Property Is Theft defense. This is a nice one for people of an intellectual bent. This takes the form of a spectrum from: "Fuck 'em, those big record companies are just another big corporation getting rich off the backs of the workers (The musicians) and they deserve to lose their profits." to "Not buying music off these people is a form of protest against Corporate Capitalism/The Miltary Industrial-Complex/Israel." All of which arguments, ignore the fact that your "protest" is taking money from the musicians as much as it is from their corporate masters.

(4) The Motley Crue/P. Diddy/Bloated Rock Star defence: Those lucky bastards are getting blow jobs in the back of Limos and snorting coke off the nipples of teenage starlets while Im asking strangers on a phone line if they would like to upgrade their Verizon Wireless Service to our New Monthly Plan. Fuck 'em.

Now this one of course, holds about as much water as the Rock Star's J.D on the rocks: The whole reason to be worried about music piracy is not that it will reduce P. Diddy's Salary from 20 Million a year to 10. This is not the problem. The problem is way further down the pecking order: Those ordinary musicians (who also happen to be the ones making the best music) who would normally have gotten by making a small living salary of say 30,000 dollars a year from their fanbase. In a world in which music is free, that revenue is gone, and that guy who wrote that song that you want played at your funeral is probably sitting in the cubicle next to yours fielding calls from irate account holders.

Imagine if you will, if the same drastic restructuring were to occur in any other artistic field: Imagine if somebody said to the struggling painter, "Yeah listen, love your work, in fact I have some above my mantlepieice, but paintings are just not something we pay for anymore, sorry." Or to a writer "Great novel, changed my life, but you'd probably have written it cash or no cash, so I'll give you my goodwill instead of $8.99...Well maybe you can convince some local companies to stick some ads in between chapters 3 and 4? Well there's always book tours and speaking engagements...."

Which leads us to number (4) The Gigs Defence: So recorded music has become a loss leader: The CD or download is now merely an ad for the main attraction: The Gig. That's where artists can make their money now, problem solved. Well, not quite. What this fails to notice, is that for the vast majority of artists the costs of gigging either outstrip or roughly equal the amount of money made from it. It is only when you get closer to Sting's level that you start making money. Gigs used to be a way of generating interest in albums, which was where money was made. Now we are told they are supposed to be a way of generating revenue on their own. But for most artists, playing to 80 appreciative punters in an intimate bar will barely pay for the petrol money that got them there.

Now of course, real musicians are not in it for the money, and will probably continue doing what they do anyway. Maybe all this new technology will do is strip away the Breadheads from the True Artists. Well either that, or consign a whole generation of Lennon/McCartneys, Morisseys and Marrs to hock their guitars to pay the electricity bill.

And (5) is The Disingenuous Civil Liberties Defense: Stopping people from illegal downloading is a restriction of personal liberty, and before we know it we'll all be goose-stepping around the place and governments will be controlling our every thought and deed with microchips in our heads.

This is quite plainly bullshit - and most of the progenitors of this arguement are clever enough to know so too. If we go back to the days when regular bricks -and-mortar highways were the hippest new thing (as opposed to Information Ones) - nobody would have pleaded civil liberties when government set a Speed Limit on them, nor is anybody particularly worried that you're not allowed to drive on them after necking a bottle of whiskey. These are freedoms we are quite happy to restrict. Restricting people's freedom to commit crimes, be they bricks-and-mortar crimes or dot com ones, in no way conflicts with Civil Liberties, in fact it strengthens them. It is , as tedious and as Poli-Sci 101 as it sounds, the basis *yawn* of Civilization.

And furthermore, having advanced to the point where so many of our products are virtual rather than physical, it is EVEN MORE important that we protect Intellectual Copyright, not, as so many seem to wish, to abandon the idea of it altogether.

Another arguement we hear is the Technological One (6) where it argued that for vaguely understood technological reasons, you cant protect information thats out there on the Net, pirates will always find away around Copy Protections/DRM/IP trackers and so on. Which may be true, but ignores one basic truth: The more difficult and dangerous we make piracy, the more people won't bother to do it: Look at computer games for example: The vast majority of us freely copy music and movies, but tend not to pirate computer games at anything like the same rate. Why?

The answer is simple: The difficulty or downloading something that is 8 or 9 Gigs in size and having to fiddle around with CD-keygens and .iso files is not worth the quick jaunt to the shop and the cover price of 19.99 (and 7.99 after a year or two) , for something that will give you between 40 and 80 hours of entertainment. So we buy it. Most of the time.

If illegally downloading music meant installing some-sort of proxy browser that hid your IP from your ISP, and you had to trawl through some darker corners of the internet to get your torrents in the first place - probably to the kinds of sites that come with a squillion pop-ups, malware, spyware and annoying "Vote For My Website!" prompts, a huge majority of people would simply say "Fuck it." and stump up the 5 or so bucks for an album download direct from the band's website.

As well as this, if legal repercussions became a real possibility as opposed to a vague laughable threat, most of the decent folk would stop the moment they heard that a friend of theirs got a letter in the door saying that they now owed a $1000 dollar fine. Only the true die-hards would continue past that point.

Now to qualify: I say all of this as an inveterate pirate myself: From the day in 1986 I figured out how to stick a microphone up to a stereo speaker and press record, I have loved copying music that didnt belong to me: All through the 90's most of my music collection was tapes, when I got my first CD burner 10 years ago, I never looked back: I watched helplessly as my once colouful wall of store-bought CD's morphed into wallets full of silver discs with marker on them, and then slowly watched them transmogrify into a hundred-buck Western Digital MyBook and a shiny iPod.

So I'm a hypocrite then? Well yes, I am. But then you don't ask a Mormon for advice on how to deal with the World's drug problem. I know full well, that the best way of stopping a guy like me (and almost everybody I know) from copying stuff, is to make it too hard, too fiddly, too risky, too technical, too nerdy or too dangerous. In real life, I have only ever met one person who doesn't pirate heroic quantities of music and movies and he, you guessed it, is a music industry professional. Lets face facts here: EVERYBODY who isnt a music industry professional is doing it, and in huge quantities too, and it is extremely unlikely that you will get them to stop by "conciousness-raising" or appealing to their better nature.

So outside of the world of sticker-campaigns saying "Downloading is Killing Music", what options remain? If we dispense immediately with any sort of idea of a perfect copy-protection system (they are always broken in 5 seconds flat) what we can do is actually pretty simple: Here are my suggestions:

(1) ISP's required by law to send you threatening letters if you are downloading illegal stuff, and cut off your internet service if you do it more than say, three times. Beyond that, criminal prosecution and fines become automatic. Do it a fourth time: 1000 dollar fine, do it a 5th 10,000 and so on. This is not snooping or restriction of civil liberties, it is no different to being caught shoplifting.

(2) Subscription based service gives you access to whatever music you like, yearly. You pay say 100 to 150 dollars a year for the privelege of downloading whatever you want. The money is shared out to the artists according to how many downloads they generated. The average person doesnt spend and never has, much more than this amount of money on music, so it would add up to the same basic amount of revenue. Simlar service exists for movies, though with less money, as movies can still make money from Cinema and tie-ins.

(3) Could possibly institute an amnesty on all downloading of old music which has already generated enough revenue for its creators. I dont see much crime in downloading Dark Side of The Moon, when Roger Waters and David Gilmour are already comfortably settled on the pages of Forbe's Rich List. Ditto for The Beatles and other older music that has made piles of cash and is practically a part of our shared heritage at this stage: The point of all of this is to ensure that new, up-and-coming artists can earn enough money to feed themselves by providing entertainment for everybody else.

So where does this leave the giant record labels you might ask? Well, hopefully it doesnt. There is no reason for them to exist in their present form. They once held the position that they did by monopolising the then very expensive Means of Production: The recording studios, pressing plants, stores and distribution networks that made up the Music Industry. Now that all that heavy duty industry now fits inside a laptop, their role should become reduced to that of marketing and advertising agencies: An Artist will hire them to promote his music (which he owns) and pay them a percentage of his profits (or a fixed fee) for doing so - in the same way in which any other business works with an advertising agency. They will not 'own' an artist or his music, and they certainly will not make anything like the huge percentages of the music revenue that they do now - that, hopefully will be going to the guys and girls who create the damn prduct in the first place.

One day, we will look back on the era of illegal downloading the way we now look back on the era of Drunk-Driving. Once upon a time, respectable, upstanding folk thought nothing of getting a few belts of scotch in to them and driving home. You would have been seen as quite a bore if you suggested otherwise in 1976 and probably had your sexual orientation called into question too. However, sometime in the 1980's attitudes and laws began to change and most of us look with horror on anyone who drives drunk, still less boasts about it.

And this didnt happen merely because people became more conscious of the danger: It happened because we introduced laws that made sure it was never tolerated. It is analogous, I think to the early days of The Fire Service: Previously, in some countries the Fire Department was merely a bunch of private companies, with whom you signed an agreement that they would protect your property in case of fire: If your house was on fire and you didnt have a contract with the nearest company, they'd let it burn to the ground.

Eventually, we realised that this was a pretty crummy way to run an essential service and we developed something better: A proper, government sponsored service that put out fires, whoever's they might be. Doubtless there were people then too saying that fires are inevitable, that government organisations are oppressive, that fire is simply the way of things, and that individuals should look after their own damn business. Thankfully however, we didn't listen to them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Enuff Z Enuff

One of the benefits of a recession, many of my friends have been saying, is that it has a way of bringing you back down to earth: You can no longer afford any of the shiny crap that fills the windows in the high street, and the fact that you have a job at all when so many dont seems to make you content: Somehow the boomtime gripe that your job isn't meaningful and fulfilling begins to seem like a luxury problem. Plus, so the story goes, we begin to reforge our human relationships again, huddling around a candle with a good friend and a bottle of cheap wine when once we would have been yelling into each other's ears in an overpriced Dublin bar(n).

As cliched as the above might be, it seems to be a bit of a 'meme' that is doing the rounds these days. In the same way as veterans of The Blitz like to reminisce about what a wonderful atmosphere there was in wartime London, there seems to be a bit of a feeling in the air that we are all going to go back to 'the things that really matter' : A recent ad on T.V. showing girls pissing themselves over a pair of Manalo Blanhiks, then cutting to a family having a Sunday Walk on Dollymount Strand is pushing this idea, as is the return of a few pre-boomtime cultural artifacts - the return of the Cadbury's Caramel Bunny for one, and (possibly) the fact that I have heard The Special's 'Ghost Town' playing in at least 3 Dublin pubs recently.

Now, like all good truths, this idea is a cliche: "Oh we were poor but happy." "Can't buy me Love." "If you've got your health what else do you need." and so on. But I wonder if there may not be a deeper truth in here somewhere. I am reading a book at the moment called 'Enough', by an author called Will Samson. Its basic thesis is that, living, as us lucky Westerners do, in what is easily the most materially comfortable society that has ever existed anywhere, we are nonetheless unhappy: And that this may be connected in some way to the human brain, being designed at the animal level, to endure long periods of scarcity punctuated by brief moments of plenty. We are designed, he says, to cram our faces with whatever food is available now, the better to weather the weeks of famine that may follow. We have the same gerbil-like attitude to other things than food as well: Information, sex, alcohol and drugs are all pursued in the same blind, primal way.

The problem is, that being the clever little bunnies that we are, we have managed through our awesome powers of organisation, to create societies in which scarcity almost never rears its head, even for the poor: You want meat? You got it. Ice Cream? No Problemo. Sex? Type 'Hot latin pussy' into Google and you're away. The problem is that we are living in a body designed for scarcity, designed not only to grab what it can when it can, but also to accept it in whatever form its available in: Your animal brain doesn't necessarily care about the difference between gentle, intimate love-making with your wife of 10 years, and desultory one-handed website surfing. It doesnt distinguish between a day at the beach with some good friends and a nose full of Andean Happy Powder. The same mechanisms of reward are activated anyway. Except that with drugs, Ice-Cream, or Porno, all you have to do to activite the reward is pay the fee.

Thus, living in a society in which the pleasure tap is never turned off, we rarely have to practice abstinence of any kind, and our happiness receptors are burned out as a result: Remember the awesome paroxms of pleasure a new bike would have sent you through in 1986? Buying a bike now is a dull thud in comparison, a functional purchase like a new fridge. Remember the shiver of anticipation as you slid your fingernail under the shrink-wrap of that first Bon Jovi tape you bought with your pocket money in 1989? Does clicking on that yellow folder on your Terrabyte hard drive full of mp3s even come close?

Well, probably not. Firstly: It seems to be the case that happiness/satisfaction work best when they are restricted. I have had the sickening experience of being bored in front of the internet (as Im sure you have too): You think, here I am, sitting in front of almost all the information mankind has produced up to now, from articles to TV shows to music to games, to artworks, to history, and I am bored. And in contrast to this, when you go on holiday and mistakenly pack Remembrance of Things Past, or War and Peace in your backpack, find yourself in a hotel room at three in the morning with no T.V. and actually wind up reading the damn thing and enjoying it immensely. And you think: "Why dont I read this stuff all the time?", knowing damn well that Proust or Tolstoy hasn't a snowball's chance next to watching a guy take a football in the nuts on YouTube.

Secondly, it seems to be the case that we would do well to restrict our access to 'fake' forms of pleasure. Fake pleasure it seems to me, is that in which no effort is required to get it beyond, say, spending some money, and it exists within a pleasure universe of it's own: Take for example a computer game: A software company simply creates a universe with certain rules in it, and certain conditions that need to be satisfied for rewards to be given, and you play it and get pleasure in those limited terms: To anyone outside the created universe, your actions seem nonsensical: Why would one bother spending hours developing useless skills and solving challenges that dont need to be solved?

This type of limited liability pleasure universe is available in lots of other forms too: A set of criteria for satisfaction is created, and our reward centres are flooded with dopamine when we fulfill them: It costs millions in advertising and marketing to create a big empty Manolo Blanhik shaped hole in a young woman's heart, and her reward is that her pleasure centres will light up like a christmas tree when she finally gets her grateful mitts on them. There is of course, it hardly need be said, no essential need being fulfilled here: A need has simply been created and promptly filled: Like a worker in the last days of Soviet Russia whose job is to dig holes and then fill them in again.

And there are many other things that work in precisely the same way: Consumer products, pornography, drugs legal and illegal and the ultimate one: Cigarettes, which surely must be the work of a diabolical genuis from a Bond movie - a chemical which does nothing for you but remove the desire for itself.

So what of all this Puritan ranting? Is there a point here? Well, yes, of a sort, and probably a very profound one, though I fear it will probably sound trite, or like something your mother would tell you: It seems that there is something to what our religions have been trying to teach us all along: As the Oracle at Delphi famously proclaims in it's version of Deep Thought's '42': "Nothing Too Much" is the supreme wisdom.

Understandably, most of us don't listen to a blind bit of what the Church has to teach us any more, and understandably so: How could you take any advice for the most complicated and confusing part of life (human relationships) from a man who has never experienced one? Not to mention that any advice he will give you is taken from a book written by people so primitive they had never heard of bacteria, Australia, or the theory of Evolution.

Understandably we have turned our backs on the Bible as a compass, and rightly so: There is probably more useful guidance in a Self-Help book written by a creepy Californian in a chunky sweater, and less that is apocryphal, meaningless or downright barbaric. This aside, it does seem that if their were any common spiritual guidance to be gleaned from the mulch of the big religions it would concur with the Architects of Delphi.

Happiness, we might say, lies in Nothing Too Much. Buddhism consists of little more than repeated exhortation to get us to realise this basic point, if we discard the usual religious guff that was tacked on after old Guatama kicked up the daisies. The Abrahamics also attempt to get us to head in the same direction, though tend to muck it up by being rather like an ill-equipped teenage mother disciplining her scruffy brats in Tesco's Car Park: Instead of a calm, enlightened explanation of the potential dangers of overindulging, it tends to clap its followers over the head and shout "Dont fuck anybody ye vicious little bastard or Ill fuckin' bate ye roight?". No wonder, then, that now that they've moved out and gotten a place of their own, they have tended to disregard everything their poor harried teenage mom had to tell them.

And as a result, to go all Samuel Huntington on you for a moment, our world has become split into two camps: The 'Developed' World, which has been on a huge binge since Elvis invented fun in 1955, and the Eastern World , which is full of millions of young men so desperate for a good cleansing knee-trembler, that there is seemingly no shortage of them willing to strap explosives to their bodies to finally get their hands on some action in the hereafter.

This state of affairs seem to have been brought about by the simple-minded way we used to deal with the problem of enoughness: When the various bearded Patriarchs who dreamed up the Bible/Koran and Torah were having their brainstorming meetings, they must have realised that the problem of Enoughness was pretty central to the whole thing: Not least because for most of their target market, a decent meal and a day off would have constituted extravagant luxury.

Secondly, most of that target market were illiterate and would not have been capable of the sort of complicated abstract reasoning that goes on in the smoke-filled-rooms of men trying to start a world religion. So they crushed up these big, complicated, multi-course ideas into easily digestible pill form: Murder Bad, Stealing Bad, Adultery Bad, and definitely no coveting of your neighbour's wife or her ass. As simple as a Coca-Cola slogan. Easy to understand and will play well in the sticks.

Well, as Industry and progress and the inevitable March of History did their little thing on us lucky Westerners we emerged from the Second World War with a few lessons learnt. Lets stop going to war with each other cause it's largely a pain in the ass, and devote ourselves to getting nice and rich and comfortable and change our economy into one based on satisfying our every desire. And should we need to have any wars, lets try and confine them to the hot and sticky places we get our resources from. (Locals there don't call troublesome high-priced lawyers when you carpet-bomb them.)

So we did that, and the spoiled brats raised on Howdy-Doody and The Lone Ranger hit their 20s and demanded their spiritual Desires be as well-catered for as their material ones. This became known as the 1960s and was largely confined to America and the parts of Europe rich enough to think that money isn't important. Once the dust settled on this storming of the ramparts of consciousness, we began to realise that there was actually very little connection between wanting to end the war in Vietnam and demanding a Zipless Fuck. So we gradually took Bob Dylan off the Turntable and replaced him with Disco, stopped rolling joints and rolled up 100 dollar bills instead.

This then led to an Era of unabashed selfishness and greed which we liked to kid ourselves ended with the release of the first De La Soul album. But largely, from that period on, we had entered the second phase of becoming a truly Godless, consumerist society. Not only had we lost faith in all the old stuff: God, Country, Authority and all the other so-called "Grand Narratives" that Cultural Studies professors like to wank on about - but after Thatcher and Reagan and their broadsides on "Society" we lost faith in higher ideas almost entirely. So what did we do? Well for the most part, we went shopping. Buying and selling useless shit to each other to keep the economy ticking over.

We began to discover that the best way to do this was to sell shit that didnt actually exist. So we invented the internet and had a big bubble based on the buying and selling of shares in companies that didn't actually do anything. Once this tanked, some genius realised that the same model would work with houses, which we could all sell to each other for ever, as long as we all simultaneously believed the price was going up.

Which brings us up to the present day: We've discarded the hairy old Faith Of Our Fathers for the most part, and wound up behaving much as the cassocked old buzzards said we would - largely by reversing the negative on each one of the Ten Commandments. So is it time for us all to go all John Waters, pour the Whiskey down the sink and start re-assessing our Christian Heritage?

Well, no, in the opinion of this author. It isn't. Christian teaching on most matters of morality is actually astoundingly simplistic, what the Bible has to say on most of these issues is firmly pitched at the illiterate Bronze Age peasant. That plenty of clever people came along later within that tradition and said a few worthwhile things on the subject is a testament to human progress, not to the depth and subtlety of the Christian religion or The Bible. That we binged in the ways that we did, is largely the result of the Christian religion failing to teach us the real intracies of morality and opting instead for "Because I say so and I'm your Mother. Now Go To Your Room."

It is quite possible to develop a philosophy of enoughness, or to lead a life free of spiritual pollution without ever needing any help from Leviticus, Moses or Saint Augustine. At the risk of sounding like a Patchouli scented Asia-Groupie, the basis of the Buddhist tradition is closer to that, and can easily offer guidance, without asking you to swallow any crap about virgin births or Great Floods. The Four Noble Truths say it in the clearest way: Unhappiness is everywhere, because we always want what we haven't got (unless we are Sinead O Connor) , so the best way to become happy is not to get what you want, but to learn how not to want it so much.

Easier said than done, you might say and you'd be right. We live in a society that is literally designed to make sure we are constantly walking around with some sort of a hole in us that needs filling: Happy contented people are useless to the economy: We'd much rather have a pathetically needy and insecure woman spending her days frantically hunting around Liffey Valley for stuff she doesn't need than a happy self-confident woman who spends her Saturdays hiking in the woods. The second type doesnt need to spend much money to make her content and that's no good for a consumption based society.

So whaddya do? Well the first thing not to do, is not to allow this to make us run screaming back to the Bronze Age: The spectacle of a man like John Waters giving up the booze and going back to God is like watching a friend have a nervous breakdown and wind up sucking his thumb in fetal position on the bathroom floor. Going back to the fearful childish way we used to deal with things is no way to deal with our unhappiness at the modern consumerist Smorgasboard we now live in. To do so is rather as if having grown up and suffered all the petty disappointments of adulthood we say "Sod this for a game of soldiers, I'm off to play with Tonka trucks in the back garden. "

Well there are better ways to deal with it. Practicing Enoughness is one of them and maybe Mr Waters has a point about pouring the booze down the sink, and the same for a few of our other illusory pleasures. Now lets see if we can achieve that without having to bury our heads in the sandpit. Well the Four Noble Truths might be as good a place as any to start.