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Remix (part 4)

May 15, 2009

Had to watch Roddick-Federer this morning, but still got through another chapter of Remix.  Traffic on the site is way down again; I suppose if what I really wanted was high numbers I should be posting “funny robot videos” instead of book reviews.  Stats can be a really unhealthy obsession, like checking your book’s Amazon ranking day after day.  I remind myself that I’m just getting started, momentum is happening, it’s not how many people visit but how many people read it and provide constructive feedback (which I’m definitely getting; see the Chapters page for comments).  Still, those dreams of instant fame and fortune die hard. 

Unlike many cultural revolutionaries, Lessig respects the positive power of the Great Man Alone/”Read Only” method of creation, though he sticks a few pins in its body along the way:

RO culture speaks of professionalism. Its tokens of culture demand a certain respect. They offer themselves as authority. They teach, but not by inviting questions. Or if they invite questions, they direct the questions to someone other than the speaker. Or performer. Or creator… RO culture [is] central to the growth of the arts. The ability to channel the commercial return from music or film has allowed many people to create who otherwise could not…And finally, RO culture makes possible an integrity to expression that, for some at least, is crucial. Artists want their expression framed just as they intend it. RO culture gives them that freedom.

Whereas read/write culture:

[E]xtends itself differently. It touches social life differently. It gives the audience something more. Or better, it asks something more of the audience. It is offered as a draft. It invites a response. In a culture in which it is common, its citizens develop a kind of knowledge that empowers as much as it informs or entertains.

Lessig draws the difference between RO and RW with an analogy about higher education:

When students come to law school, most come from an essentially RO education. For four years (or more), they’ve sat in large lecture halls, with a professor at the front essentially reading the same lectures she’s given year after year after year. “Any questions?” usually elicits points of order, not substance…But the best legal education is radically different. The law school classroom is an argument. The professor provides the source for that argument. The class is a forum within which that argument happens. Students don’t listen to lectures. They help make the lecture. They are asked questions; those questions frame a discussion. The structure demands that they create as they participate in the discussion.

That analogy extends to the whole of public discourse:

The value of blogs is not that I’m likely to find a comment that surpasses the very best of the New York Times. I’m not. But that’s not the point. Blogs are valuable because they give millions the opportunity to express their ideas in writing. And with a practice of writing comes a certain important integrity. A culture filled with bloggers thinks differently about politics or public affairs, if only because more have been forced through the discipline of showing in writing why A leads to B.

Just as, for instance, blogging about Lessig’s book gives me a deeper understanding of it than I would get just “reading” it. Remixing culture, Lessig argues, and I believe him, is not just appropriation; it’s criticism and appreciation and showing off your learning the same way dropping Greek or Latin epigrams into one’s speech were once the secret handshake of the educated classes.

It takes extraordinary knowledge about a culture to remix it well. The artist or student training to do it well learns far more about his past than one committed to this (in my view, hopelessly naive) view about “original creativity.” And perhaps more important, the audience is constantly looking for more as the audience reads what the remixer has written. Knowing that the song is a mix that could draw upon all that went before, each second is an invitation to understand the links that were drawn—their meaning, the reason they were included. The form makes demands on the audience; they return the demands in kind.

So remixing stimulates “active listening,” participation vs. consumption. The work of (Lessig’s example) Britney Spears may be “original” in the sense that it doesn’t sample, but the work of someone who combines cultural references in a new and exciting way is far more original than work that is derivative without acknowledging, let alone criticizing its sources.

Lessig digs deep into the legal meaning of “copy,” and how that meaning has changed with technology. We now “copy” every song we play, as it’s copied from disk into memory; a e-book is “copied” when you transfer it from your computer to your Sony Reader or Kindle. (And of course you’re copying it when you torrent it, though piracy so far has been outside the parameters of Lessig’s arguments.) And the law of copyright has changed its focus, from the danger of one company appropriating the rights of another to the “threat” of individuals taking on the rights of corporations.

For the first time, the law regulates ordinary citizens generally. For the first time, it reaches beyond the professional to control the amateur— to subject the amateur to a control by the law that the law historically reserved to professionals.

The riches to be had for attorneys writing takedown notices and negotiating licensing and permissions mean there’s little incentive in the legal community to change the situation. “The system loves the game; the game thus never ends.”

The danger is not that the law will stop people from remixing any more than it stops them from smoking pot; the danger is that:

the law as it stands now will stanch the development of the institutions of literacy that are required if this literacy is to spread. Schools will shy away, since this remix is presumptively illegal. Businesses will be shy, since rights holders are still eager to use the law to threaten new uses. Uncertainty about the freedom to engage in this form of creativity will only stifle the willingness of institutions to help this form of literacy develop.

Law and commerce lost the opportunity to ride the wave of technology rather than being subsumed by it, when peer-to-peer file sharing was swept into those social issues governed by the “zero tolerance” school of social policy – no negotiating, no accommodation, even if that could have meant a system (proposed in the late 90s) by which p2p sharers and the sites that enabled them could be billed or taxed in such a way that the industry and artists might have made more money in the last ten years, at least more than the zero they get on the millions (billions?) of songs shared since then.

Lessig touches on the broader problem, but doesn’t expand the argument the way I would have liked to see:

[H]ad we had a system of compulsory licenses a decade ago, we wouldn’t have a generation of kids who grew up violating the law. As a recent survey…indicated, “more than two- thirds of all the music [college students] acquired was obtained illegally.” Had the law been changed, when they shared content, their behavior would have been legal. Their behavior would therefore not have been condemned. They would not have understood themselves to be “pirates.” Instead, they would have been allowed to lead the sort of childhood that I did— where what “normal kids did” was not a crime.

The overarching problem, to me, is that we have a culture where too many people with power have maintaining that power over others as their sole goal . There is no room for negotiation or accommodation; obedience is the principle at stake, not whatever “public good” is being promoted. Better to jail file sharers and pot smokers at vast public expense, than to admit that pot is not, actually, as bad for you and for society as “white drugs,” or to admit that file sharing might lead to new opportunities for monetization.  Better to see people die of AIDS, suffer STDs and unwanted pregnancies, than admit that abstinence-only education is a failure and that people are still having sex. The point isn’t that abstinence (sex or drugs or file sharing) is a better path, the point is that you are being ordered to abstain, and if you defy that order, then the legal system, the health care system, all systems will be set up to punish you. Not for making a choice that may be bad for you or society, but for disobeying, regardless of the value of the order being disobeyed.  Your continued obedience to a bad idea is the priority, because it’s preferable to having those who ordered it admit that they were wrong.

In this world view, the law is read only; government is not “of the people” but “over the people” – the people may not decide that marijuana laws need changing or that gay marriage is okay. The moral and legal centers of the Obey Me faction’s arguments are empty: “respect for the law” means respect for the lawgivers, who themselves are above the law when they consort with prostitutes or patronize men’s restrooms. “States’ rights” are all well and good when you’re against federal civil rights legislation that would dismantle the legacy of Dixie, but my goodness, let the states ask for medical marijuana or gay marriage and the states’ rights crowd runs screaming for federal intervention. 

(I wonder, given the recent successes in changing state government’s laws on those issues, if state laws could be a place to begin addressing these copyright and “fair use” issues – do states have the power to make their own law on these problems?)

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