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Remix (part 3)

May 13, 2009

I got the outline written yesterday for chapter four. My open source reading is actually going to come into play earlier than anticipated. It’s time for Caroline to start growing her suspicions, and growing those suspicions dovetails nicely with introducing the principles of open source and the state of AI today. The more she reads, the more she knows Alex is just beyond the commonly known abilities of AI, and the more obstinate Christopher is about refusing to let her meet the other participants, or find out more about the project, the more she knows that this is not your typical “open source” project. I’d originally meant for OS to come into play in part two, when she meets – well I won’t spoil it if you haven’t been reading the old posts. It’s already Wednesday, so I honestly doubt I can complete a chapter by this weekend, but we’ll see.

Honestly, if I wasn’t worried about money, this would be pretty much the golden age for me – working half days, writing copiously, hiking in the Sierras in the afternoons. It can’t last; I’ve got enough contracting payments to last me through June as supplement to the half-time paycheck. Oh well, tra la la la la la live for today. (Oops, that’s a song lyric, here comes the takedown notice.)

Here’s my take on chapter four of Remix:

Lessig (an attorney) draws the parallel between writing and other art forms, and asks why “sampling” the work of others is perfectly acceptable in writing, even necessary in law and criticism, yet change the source cited from novels to lyrics or a bar of music and suddenly the citation is illegal. (In my novel A Serious Person, about a songwriter, I’d quoted a number of real songs, and I was told they would have to go, since it would cost my small publisher $500 a song for the rights to reproduce even a couple of lines.) In a judgment against rap artists in 1991, “one of the twentieth century’s worst federal judges, Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy,” invoked the Seventh Commandment in his denunciation of musical sampling.

Lessig continues his argument from chapter three about music having been “professionalized”:

While writing with text is the stuff that everyone is taught to do, filmmaking and record making were, for most of the twentieth century, the stuff that professionals did. That meant it was easier to imagine a regime that required permission to quote with film and music.

He does, lawyerly, draw the difference here between “record making” and music making, the activity he said became professionalized in the previous chapter. And “writing with text” is not the same as “publishing,” a professional occupation in which there are legal areas such as plagiarism and permission (say, the letters of J. D. Salinger) to be considered. It would help his argument to think about who controlled these “professions” and set up the corporate cultures we live with today – in the case of movies and music, it was oftentimes ambitious “new men” who saw their product in a mercantile rather than artistic light, whereas the publishers of old, before the mergers and acquisitions of the last 20-30 years, were often Gentlemen of Means, dabblers who disdained the filthy lucre of commerce and who would have considered their hands soiled by squeezing the fruits of monetization.

Lessig’s primary argument for unlocking the quotability of all media is that “RW creativity does not compete with or weaken the market for the creative work that gets remixed. These markets are complementary, not competitive.” He cites the development of the “comments” function on blogs as a conceptual breakthrough, transforming blogging (and journalism itself) from “little more than a public diary” featuring “people (and some very weird people) posting their thoughts into an apparently empty void” into a multi-person communications device. Another breakthrough was the creation of aggregation sites like Digg and Reddit, which filtered the plethora of blogs down to the most useful ones, and in turn allowed comments on the site and its comments, force-multiplying the back-and-forth communications involved in the overall “text,” as the theorists would say, that comprised the original post and all its on- and off-site threads, and, in turn, increasing the social connections between bloggers, commenters, and Redditors (Reddit being the brainiest site of the lot, if not the most popular). If every commenter on Reddit had to ask permission before quoting a blog, none of this would be possible.

This upends the power structure everywhere, including print media:

A major national newspaper could have the highest- paid technology writer in the world. But what happens to that writer when it turns out that the columns read by more, and recommended by most, are written by eighteen-year-old bloggers? The New York Times used to have the power to say who was the most significant. A much more democratic force does that now… So, in addition to content, content about content— tags, and recommendations—combined with tools to measure the influence of content. The whole becomes an ecosystem of reputation.

Lessig notes the increasing difference in analytical power between the MSM and the blogosphere. An “In Depth” segment on the evening news runs three minutes and features “ordinary folks” selected for their demographic appeal to the target market, and is selected for its “stickiness” with which its teasers will keep eyeballs on the box through the commercials to come. Analysis on the Internet, done properly, can cover a subject with no respect to commercial breaks (or irate advertisers) or page length (for instance, this review will probably run longer than anything to be found on this book in print).

Blogging, Lessig notes, done properly (i.e. with comments turned on), lets everyone be a critic – in “old media,” the Great Man goes to his keyboard and Weighs In on the Big Topic after a Good Lunch and a Couple Scotches, and the only voices he hears or cares to hear in response are those of his colleagues, those with whom he weekends in the Vineyard, those who he chummily reports on and with whom he attends the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, all in good fun, Mr. Cheney, just business. (Which is why we all cheered so loudly at Stephen Colbert’s speech at this dinner in 2006, excoriating the whole sorry lot of them.) You put in your time, rise to the top, and then it’s your turn to speak, not to listen. Blogging and Redditing blows this up – whereas noble Romans at their triumphs had a slave riding behind them in the chariot reminding them, “thou are mortal,” today we have a thousand voices reminding us every day.

But those of us in the blogosphere, and our fans and critics, are still the vast minority, Lessig reminds us – “text is today’s Latin,” the language of the few, whereas the vulgate of the people is audiovisual media.

Using the tools of digital technology— even the simplest tools, bundled into the most innovative modern operating systems— anyone can begin to “write” using images, or music, or video. [But] Unlike text, where the quotes follow in a single line— such as here, where the sentence explains, “and then a quote gets added”— remixed media may quote sounds over images, or video over text, or text over sounds. The quotes thus get mixed together. The mix produces the new creative work— the “remix.”

Moreover, in a world where we are carpet-bombed by sounds and images, seizing the means of production is a means of fighting back against the tide of diktats from corporate culture, yelling at us to buy Obnoxi-Clean or used cars and telling us how awful it would be if the gummint got its hands on “your health care” (as if I would have any if the gummint wasn’t involved). It’s what Stewart and Colbert do every time they assemble a montage of “staying on message” quotes from politicians, like the example Lessig provides of a video artist who put together an endless string of G. W. Bush (who spent nearly 1/3 of his Presidency on vacation) prattling about “hard work.” Lessig also provides the example of a five-minute movie, The Mashin’ of the Christ, a compilation of all the scenes from Hollywood movies of Jesus being “beaten, flogged, whipped, abused” – Lessig is silent on the point of all this, as is the artist, who only says he thought it would make an “interesting montage,” though it may have been intended as part of the criticism of Mel Gibson’s Passion and its almost sadomasochistic homoerotic glee in the endless scenes of torture.

Sampling/remixing can function as criticism, as seen above, or work to enhance the “user’s” understanding of the artist’s message. A quotation from Oscar Wilde can illustrate a point in a way that few other writers can achieve, and moreover, choosing to select from Wilde sends a message about your own sensibilities beyond the quote itself. “When you hear four notes of the Beatles’ ‘Revolution,’ it means something,” says one artist. The “cultural reference” indicates more about you than just that you think those notes are pretty – to give so much weight to the Beatles implies much about your age range, for starters.

Lessig states that the primary benefits of remix culture are community and education. Remixing anime or creating machinima and sharing the results with the fan base is a way for consumers to upend the passive purchasing culture. In Japan, kids get into characters like those in the Pokemon universe and are encouraged by the manufacturer to remix, to personalize their sets of Pokemon. In America, the manufacturers want you to buy the doll, the outfits, the accessories, the “super friends,” and anything else you might want to play with; the only modification encouraged is for kids to destroy toys with magnifying glasses or firecrackers so that they might be replaced with a new purchase (my thought, not Lessig’s).

The benefits of interactivity flow into educational benefits as well:

I wrote about this in an earlier book, Free Culture. There I described the work of Elizabeth Daley and Stephanie Barish, both of whom were working with kids in inner- city schools. By giving these kids basic media literacy, they saw classes of students who before could not retain their focus for a single period now spending every free moment of every hour the school was open editing and perfecting video about their lives, or about stories they wanted to tell.

Appropriation serves as apprenticeship; kids learn how to create by remixing existing materials. I can see the sense of this; certainly as a young writer I would get obsessed with a single author and devour all his/her works, and find my own style molded accordingly until I could integrate what I learned and loved about their work into my own. More importantly, as Lessig quotes Negativland’s Mark Hosler:

Every high school in America needs to have a course in media literacy. We’re buried in this stuff. We’re breathing it. We’re drinking it constantly. It’s 24/7 news and information and pop culture. . . . If you’re trying to educate kids to think critically about history and society and culture, you’ve got to be encouraging them to be thoughtful and critical about media and information and advertising.

This reminds me of what I read once in Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, one of the formative books of my life. Discussing in her essay “Group Minds” the way people are manipulated, she says,

Imagine us saying to children: “In the last fifty or so years, the human race has become aware of a great deal of information about its mechanisms: how it behaves, how it must behave under certain circumstances. If this is to be useful, you must learn to contemplate these rules calmly, dispassionately, disinterestedly, without emotion. It is information that will set people free from blind loyalties, obedience to slogans, rhetoric, leaders, group emotions.”

But of course we don’t.

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