December 17, 2011

Can I Just Say....

Justin Katz

For a moment, I've put down my smart phone and its apps so as better to type on my regular ol' laptop on this ye olde blog thing. The inspiration for such a retro act (apart from the evening's first two microbrews) was the appearance of Billy Joel's Glass Houses album — yes, album — in the rotation of old vinyl records to which I've been listening nights and weekends for some months when I'm in my office/basement, which may be among the final locales in the Northeast with a functional record player.

The evidence for that possibility derives from the very fact that I've got so many albums that I haven't managed to get through them all in that amount of time. As the generation of my family to which I belong approaches the next in line for the grave (in a certain way of looking at things), several shelves full of the 12 1/2" x 12 1/2" cardboard sleeves have worked their way to me. Lessons discoverable by listening to a century of the albums apt to make it into the inheritable collection of a relatively normal family, I'll leave for another day. For the time being, the notion on my mind is that medium matters.

The peculiarity of Glass Houses on the list is that it's one of just a few that I purchased myself. I recall finding it among the tables of a street vendor during a day trip into Manhattan with my grandparents and cousin. At the time, it joined several other works of the same artist that I owned on cassette tape, and through mere circumstance (as opposed to unusual affection) I've owned and listened to the album in every popular music medium to hit the market in the past fifty years. Album, cassette tape, CD, mp3, and I'm pretty sure — when bought a used 1970s Oldsmobile 98 in my late teens — 8-track, as well.

As it happens, I'm listening to the record on the very same stereo system that has carried me through all of those changes. It was state of the art when I won it in a mail-in contest hosted by a little-known-and-short-lived magazine operated by an acquaintance of one of my eighth grade teachers. Thus did luck squared bring me the still-new technology of the compact disc.

Among the first of my collection of those smaller, shinier discs was Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, which drew some notice for a message played in the middle of the recording (from memory): "Hello CD listeners. We have now reached the point in this album that those listening on record or cassette will have to stand up or sit down to turn over the record or cassette. In fairness to those listeners, we will now take a moment before starting side two. Thank you. Here's side two." In an MTV interview, Petty spoke glowingly of the old vinyl as more of an experience. It meant something to purchase and take home those large sleeves, with their poster-sized covers and broad sheets of pictures and lyrics.

It's somehow different to watch the music being played, as the disc rotates and the needle works its way toward the label. The necessity of turning the album over after 15 minutes is actually more conducive to simply sitting and listening, which is something that I've noticed even my traditionalist self to be less inclined to do with mp3s.

Just so has Glass Houses proven. Every now and then, its songs will come up in the eclectic, ponderous shuffle that I love so much on my mp3 player, but it's not the same. The classic record brings one somehow closer to the music. You can touch the record, slow it down, make it skip, force it to rotate backwards. Sometimes, you can just about hear it playing with no speakers at all. I wonder what the experience of listening to music is like, and will be like, for generations that have no experience whatsoever with tangible technologies.

I've thought the same of reading, in this season of gifted Nooks, Kindles, and iPads. Looking for a particular book of poetry, I strolled into the relatively large Barnes & Nobles in Middletown almost literally stunned by the shrinking shelf space left for actual books. In Best Buy, I knew immediately that a specific documentary would not be among the DVDs, which are allotted a mere fraction of the space they once claimed.

The media stores are shifting from sales of content to sales of content delivery devices. What, one wonders, are we buying? It's obscure enough to own a recording in electric flashes on a computer drive. What they're pushing us toward — they, the pushers — is this insidious cloud, wherein we'll own only rights (conditional rights) to content housed on their drives, which they can track and change and rescind. Will such rights be inheritable?

Along with the boxes of records came boxes (and boxes and boxes) of books, some no doubt that my grandfather received as inheritance. A better statement of the tangibility and durability of knowledge cannot be made than by a dictionary and "home reference library," bound with flat-head screw bolts, that could double as a coffee table.

Among these boxes is a woven-covered copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, published in 1940 by Doubleday Doran, "Printed in the United States of America."

This Edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was planned by Richard Ellis and produced under his direction. The illustrations by Lewis C. Daniel were reproduced in Similetone and Intaprint by the Zeese-Wilkinson Company of Long Island City. The paper was specially made for this new edition by the P. H. Glatfeller Company of Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. The Composition, Printing and Binding by The Haddon Craftsmen of Camden, New Jersey.

For sheer intrigue and mystery and pursuit of luck's evidence of the profound, I stick my hand randomly into the pages and (not surprisingly) find it in the midst of "Song of Myself":

I help myself to material and immaterial,
No guard can shut me off, no law prevent me.

How much longer? When we forget the stuffness of things, how much longer?

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Posted by Justin
"What they're pushing us toward — they, the pushers — is this insidious cloud,"

"God damn, the pusher
God damn, I say the pusher
I said God damn, God damn the pusher man.

Well, now if I were president of ths land
You know, I'd declare total war on the pusher man
I'd cut if he stands,
And I'd shoot him if he'd run
Yes, I'd kill him with my Bible
And my razor and my gun."
- Steppenwolf

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 17, 2011 8:59 PM

"What they're pushing us toward — they, the pushers — is this insidious cloud, wherein we'll own only rights (conditional rights) to content housed on their drives, which they can track and change and rescind."


Posted by: Monique at December 18, 2011 9:11 AM

You already own only rights. I'm happy to see the practice of encoding information on pieces of plastic and selling those pieces of plastic go the way of the horse and carriage. You can't touch or see or control a cloud - but that means neither can our government or those who would use government to control information for essentially unending periods of time to profit many times over what they are owed at the expense of people like you and me.

If you happen to be a believer in the concept of "intellectual property," the following "copyright" clause appears in our Constitution:
"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Under current law, Billy Joel and the RIAA retain exclusive rights to Glass Houses until 70 years after he is dead. Who here considers that a reasonable interpretation of "for limited times"?

The good news is that you can listen to it online on YouTube whenever you feel like it. Or like 99.9% of the population, you can download song files for free and "own" the mp3s. We have the insidious cloud to thank for that kind of freedom and significant improvement to our lives.

Posted by: Dan at December 18, 2011 9:42 AM

You're very quick to aggression, Dan.

One thing I'm curious about is how 99.9% of the population is downloading free music if the Constitution grants copyrights to the musicians.

With regard to technology, the "cloud" typically indicates something more specific than the general Internet, which, yes, we have to thank for so much information freedom. The "cloud" refers to server space dedicated to particular end-users who effectively utilize it as long-distance hard drives. What's insidious is the degree to which each generation of devices relies more on this technology and makes it more difficult (less convenient, less obvious) to transfer files to home-based storage or from device to device without touching down on the distant "cloud."

And it's not just music and books. It's calendar information. Contact information. Proprietary work. And so on.

Over time, the native storage on devices and the ability to connect actual wires (and then to wi-fi networks) will decrease, and the reliance on cloud servers will increase. As I said, they're "pushing us toward" that reality; we're not there yet.

I'm surprised that a freedom-loving guy like you wouldn't be concerned about that. I'm also surprised that a smart guy like you wouldn't see cultural nostalgia for older works as a method of maintaining pressure on the business types to maintain the sense of owning something.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 18, 2011 11:05 AM

The Constitution grants Congress an enumerated power to assign patent and copyright protections for limited times - a reasonable interpretation would be a few years or possibly a decade or two. Much like with the Commerce Clause, Congress has grossly exceeded its authority in this area and has now granted what are essentially timeless monopolies over certain types of media. I've never been proponent of intellectual property on philosophical or economic grounds to begin with, so it's doubly bad from my point of view. I certainly don't agree with everything in the Constitution - it was written a long time ago, after all. My point was only that if lack of ownership is your grievance, you never really owned the music to begin with.

Technology both enslaves and frees us. Those who keep up with it and harness it find it a useful tool in skirting a system that is set up between government and the biggest players to extort the maximum amount of profit and control. Those who choose to take a passenger seat quickly find themselves exploited and lamenting their powerlessness, perhaps rightfully so. I don't pay for music or movies, and I think that's pretty cool. Others get enjoyment from spending their money on pieces of plastic, and that's fine too. If you really want a specific medium, somebody out there will be willing to sell it to you on that medium. Everyone wins.

I don't favor any one particular type of technology or distribution model for the music industry or any others. I have been overall quite pleased, however, to see within my lifetime the death of the 19.99 album model with 1 or 2 decent songs on a 16-song-CD. Technology doesn't always result in a consumer benefit, but it does in the vast majority of cases. I got a kick out of my parents' record collection as a kid, but ultimately there is a reason why these obsolete technologies and distribution models fade away.

Posted by: Dan at December 18, 2011 12:52 PM

First, you should consider the difference between a complaint and an argument. In a very Russ-like way, you're missing what I'm saying because you imagine me to be taking a stance that I am not — a complaint against technology, or whatever.

Second, I suspect you do not appreciate and will not acknowledge your philosophical proximity to Occupy Wall Street types. You both want to receive things at others' expense. They think that better leveraging of political pressure ought to yield their just rewards; you think that better understanding of technology ought to do so. They target wealthy businesspeople who don't deserve what they have and the mindless drones who labor their lives away in pursuit of a dream they'll never achieve. You target content creators who don't deserve the rewards from their labors that they currently claim and the dumb sheep who don't realize that technology frees them from the need for coded plastic.

You never had to buy $20 CDs, you know. There were always tapes, even vinyl. And I imagine you'll be less enamored of free movies when those who make movies can no longer turn a profit from their activity and cease it; the advertising-on-free-content model loses its force with every good or service that technology makes free. Unless, of course, you continue to put your faith in there being enough other people willing to absorb the cost of your freeloading.

All in all, though, you paint an excellent picture of what I object to in broad ideological libertarianism. For one thing, it represents a denial of communal bonds in favor of an individual's right to take, if he's got the intelligence and the resources. For another, if my poetic waxing had an active objective, it was to persuade people that they ought to want to preserve old technologies like records and books, in some degree, not that they ought to be forced to maintain or subsidize them. That's a distinction that, I find, libertarians are very quick too elide.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 18, 2011 1:42 PM

"You can't touch or see or control a cloud - but that means neither can our government"

There's a big distinction between 'the internet' and 'the cloud'. Sure, you can access (illegally) songs and movies that you don't have rights to, they blip in-and-out of existence as infringers and rights-holders play cat-and-mouse.

'The Cloud' isn't the Internet though, it's just commercial services commoditized and offered via the same pipe. The government CAN regulate and control the cloud. The cloud will self-censor as managers and shareholders seek to reduce their exposure.

This is an interesting subject for the day... I've been buying my music online for a few years now. They still 'deliver' it to me in a way I can make a physical 'archive copy', but what will I pass along to my children? I know that when my father passes, my sisters and I will gather around his record player and divvy-up his extensive collection. Will I have to put my iTunes account password into a safe deposit box so my children can do the same? Are there even facilities for passing on 'licenses' to media?

A book or record collection speaks volumes about a person. Will my executor hand my kids a hard drive for my children can look through when I pass?

At the same time I worry about this, my basement, garage, car, and every room of the house are slowly filling up with redundant acquired knick-knacks, tools, furniture, cleaning supplies, magazines, and computers that are too-old-to-use-but-too-new-to-discard. Is it possible that we are all clinging far too much to things that don't matter while the things that actually tell the story of 'who we are' evaporate into the ether?

Posted by: mangeek at December 18, 2011 2:31 PM

There are several big differences between me and the Occupy folks - most of which have to do with the fundamental differences between physical property and intellectual property and how there are no scarcity issues in the intellectual realm. The central difference is that I am not advocating that government take anything from others and redistribute it to me; I simply wish to be left alone as long as I am not affecting anyone else's quiet enjoyment. In fact, it is others, such as the RIAA, who claim a monopoly not just over infinitely replicable information and media but of its very usage, and would use government to enforce this artificial monopoly that technology is quickly eroding. I don't buy the argument that people won't create things anymore without intellectual property and have found very little evidence in support of that argument - economically, historically, and from my own experience. At a minimum, it makes more sense for some types of products than others. I don't claim to have all the answers there, but I can say that I have put considerably more thought and investigation into it than the average "stealing is wrong" and "gimme free stuff" crowds.

I don't consider this to necessarily be an argument between us, but just as you are making a point about what is "lost" with new technologies, such as cloud computing and digital media, I am making a point about what has been gained. You are concerned about less freedom to do the things you enjoy and experience them in a personal way. My own experience has been that each new technology has granted me more freedom and individualism, not less.

Posted by: Dan at December 18, 2011 2:33 PM

Two things (probably among others) are preserving content creation.

First, enough people are willing to pay for content to create a target for which the creators can shoot, and the advertising model is currently filling in some of the gap. I think both will abate over time as more stuff becomes accessible "free" and the respective industries attempt to find ways to monetize their products despite it all. (No fan of the RIAA am I, by the way.)

Second, that which is created will change to suit the new model. Artists working out of love for the art will have to create shorter works if they can't survive by them. The incentive will also shift toward shorter works in order to catch the more fickle winds of choice. So, for example, we won't get any more albums astonishing in their completeness. Dark Side of the Moon? Gone. Let alone Beethoven.

The point is that your freedom and individualism comes at a cost, and we should be aware of it and discuss it as society evolves. Again, it is a core failing of libertarianism not to see that technology isn't creating your freedom from thin air. In any system that has some people conceiving a good, others producing it, and a broader group consuming it, nobody in the chain can act without affecting the others. That doesn't always (or usually) necessitate government's acting as a referee, but it does (again) advise considered behavior, with an eye toward societal health.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 18, 2011 3:00 PM

I'm much more agnostic about making these kinds of predictions - particularly where technology will play a pivotal role. We can remember the 1950's predictions of moonbases and computers the size of living rooms as cautionary tales. There is no principled or scientific way to say whether there will ever be another Pink Floyd (whatever that means), or something even more creative or valued in a different form. Two things that have been consistently underestimated throughout recent history are the extents of human creativity and competitiveness. Another example of this has been the backwards mess that is United States antitrust law - based in neither sound economics nor sound legal theory (for this reason, it undergoes a major overhaul every decade or two). My contention is that if somebody has something that millions of other people want, and they can't figure out a way to make money off of it, they simply aren't being creative enough or their product wasn't actually "valuable" to begin with.

My personal guess is that "free" is the future of most media, with "premium" services being offered from the producer through additional micro-transactions. Lots of examples of this in the video game world, which recently surpassed the movie industry in size. There will still likely be hard copies - as you point out, for whatever reason, people still like to hold and admire things. But it could also turn out that none of this will be the case. One of the most interesting trends in music recently has been the return, full-circle, to the performance model. Decades ago, artists went on tour to push record sales - what I call pieces of plastic. Now the opposite is true: concert and merchandise profits dwarf actual music sales. I don't know that this is a good thing or a bad thing: it simply *is*.

There is a saying in economics that there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. Liberties aren't always a zero sum game, but they will naturally have costs and benefits, as everything else in life. The market economy may not make everyone better off (although it does make most people better off most of the time by definition), but I trust it far more than bureaucratic committees of central planners relying on cherry-picked experts to decide what ought and ought not to be. Returning to the original topic, rest assured that if there is something truly "valuable" about owning your own record collection, and it sounds like there is to many people, then there will be somebody willing to provide them to you - at an appropriate price.

Posted by: Dan at December 18, 2011 3:59 PM

And therein lies the (or at least a) difference between conservatives and libertarians. The former believe (I would say, "acknowledge") that some things of real, even critical, value require a basis of encouragement to get them past a threshold below which they aren't of sufficiently immediate value to attract market support. (Marriage is an excellent example.)

Liberals acknowledge the same (although their priorities frequently differ), with the distinction being that conservatives don't believe that government is the best (or even a workable) means of surpassing the threshold, typically preferring social and cultural exertions that change the market calculation below the threshold.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 18, 2011 4:32 PM
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