More on DRM America

November 13, 2006

The hits just keep on coming. Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing finds a classic example of the kind of thinking that contributes to an authoritarian/DRM view of the world and this country:

Universal Music CEO: iPod owners are thieves
The CEO of Universal Music has called iPod owners thieves. In explaining that Universal required Microsoft to pay it vig on the sale of each Zune, Doug Morris said, “These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it.”

Yesterday, Microsoft agreed to share revenue from Zune sales with record labels and artists. Forcing the issue was Universal Music Group, which at deadline is the only label named in the program. UMG refused to license its music to the Zune unless it could receive a percentage of each device sold, in addition to standard music licensing fees for downloads and subscriptions. “These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it,” UMG chairman/CEO Doug Morris says. “So it’s time to get paid for it.”


That’s right – everyone who has an iPod is a criminal. Given the universality of iPods in many communities (e.g., high schools), the meaning is clear enough – everyone is a criminal. Unless they get the permission of the authority (in this case, Universal Music Group) not to be a criminal, which is pretty much the textbook definition of authoritarianism enacted.


A New Day

November 10, 2006

What happened on Tuesday was very big and very hopeful. It was an end in and of itself, but it was also just the first step on a path towards creating a new, more responsible and responsive discourse and politics in the United States. And it’s no secret which team I was rooting for.

Perhaps the only thing that pundits and political junkies like more than prognosticating outcomes (a task which many actually excelled at this year) is interpreting results. It’s not for nuthin’, neither – often, the interpretations of results will impact future political realities dramatically.

Simon Rosenberg has an excellent analysis at DailyKos, wherein he posts 2006 11 08 as the death of conservatism. I think it may sputter along a while longer, but what I’m more interested in is his talking about what comes next:

This next American era will not be one dominated by these two exhausted ideologies of the past, but will be a battle for the mastery of a new, as yet unarticulated 21st century governing approach suited to the challenges we face today and built around the media and people of our time. The core direction of this battle is not the left-right one fought at the end of the last century, but will be more about forward and backward. Meaning that the way we will have to measure progress from now on is to look at how a party or ideological movement captures the three main dimensions of this emergent, post-liberal/conservative politics of our day – a new governing agenda capable of tackling the challenges of our time, and new political arrangements built around the emergent media and people of the 21st century.

Digby puts it even more succinctly:

People of sense are beginning to see that liberal-hating, low taxes, guns and Jesus aren’t enough to sustain the country they want to live in.

Rosenberg has his own extensive thoughts on the subject, and I don’t necessarily disagree with many of his conclusions, but let me try to define it in much simpler terms:

The emergent political binary in this country (and most of the global North) will be between a politics of authoritarianism and a politics of individual liberty.

Broadly speaking, it’s pretty obvious which currently existent parties will correspond to those visions, but there are exceptions. Those pushing the “moral panic” narratives – who traffic in fear and view government primarily as a bulwark against a dangerous and threatening world – are, ultimately, authoritarians, and in little time their place in the political binary of this country will reflect that fact. Many of those currently in positions of power (of many different political persuasions) do not quite understand the realities of the world as it now is, and the world as it is emerging, and will thus succumb to their authoritarian tendencies reflexively in an attempt to protect their own power. But ultimately, theirs is a vision of Police State America; of walled borders and permanent surveillance of its citizens; of exit and entry visas.

To wit, the recently-nominated replacement for Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, is on record saying that cyberterrorism is the greatest threat to the United States. Wired responds incredulously, but misses the larger point. Framing cyberterrorism as the country’s greatest threat – even absent any evidence or history of purposefully malicious anti-U.S. attacks – necessitates that the military establishment take the “fight” to the Internet. Militarizing the flow of information necessitates monitoring of citizens, any and all of whom could be a potential “cyberterrorist.” It is a future of DRM America, where users/citizens are assumed from the first to be criminals; a world where permissions must be granted for the exercise of “rights.”

Atrios has a post that neatly summarizes this view of the world:

I Don’t Understand

I’m watching local news and they’re covering an exciting system which lets you install webcams in every room in your house which you can easily dial up on your cell phone and monitor what’s going on all the time.

I really don’t understand.

And that’s the point – it’s not a vision of a world that he’d like to live in. But it is a world that authoritarians find appealing.

The alternative to this fearful vision will be of individual autonomy and of a world where government exists to set and enforce the rules for the free exercise of liberty. Key to this vision is an acknowledgment that there is a proper-but-limited role for government in society – that left unchecked, private institutions will seize power and agency from citizens. Government in this view is the method and tools by which citizens guard against tyranny, both public and private. It is explicitly not what one would recognize as present-day libertarianism – the lessons of late-20th Century governance in advanced nations are far too clear on the limitations of the “free market” in regulating many, many aspects of society. Government is the way we assure our most basic of rights – to health and hearth; to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – rights that may otherwise be tramped by the imperatives of others to profit and power.

But the expression of these ideas has not yet taken a single clear shape. There is not yet any agreed-upon formulation for how we will protect – nay, affirmatively assert – our rights in opposition to the latest re-formulation of the police state. And this is a necessary step. We must not play defense, not wait for the walls to go up so we can tear them down but must rather assure that those walls are not erected in the first place, this time. We must together agree how the project of democracy and human dignity will progress in times to come.

To my mind, the greatest advances in technology are not those that cause greater explosions but those that have allowed us to better connect with and understand each other – those that have brought us closer together. We should not allow those who are primarily fearful of other people – and especially of the power of people acting together – to take those things away from us.

It is, in the end, not quite as Rosenberg suggests. Conservatism and progressivism will still be the underlying motivations of the politics of the future. The authoritarian vision of the future is at base a conservative one; it still “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” And the vision of the future focused on individual liberty remains a progressive one.

The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

[Consumer] {and} [Identity]

September 18, 2006

In a BoingBoing’d post last week, Glenn Fleishman of WiFiNetNews wrote about a very exciting new…something:

Chumby received a rush of blog-licity when the firm handed out these portable Wi-Fi thingamabobs at O’Reilly’s Foo Camp to alpha-geeks: The device, in prototype, is small, designed for the “kids,” and sports a Wi-Fi adapter, an AC power plug, a small, color touchscreen, and an open architecture. The company wants people to hack the software, hardware, and even the device’s case with their own modifications. It’s not precisely open source, but it’s all open. They hope the device will ship in the second quarter of 2007 for about $150. They also expect that it could be licensed or replicated in many forms—they have released or shortly will release the parts list and schematics among other parameters—and they’re curious what results. In this podcast interview with Avalon Ventures partner and Chumby Industries chairman Steve Tomlin, we talk about how having a device that’s designed to be open affects what gets developed for it. We also talk about how Chumby, as a general-purpose appliance, make available many kinds of applications—it’s not just another picture frame, just another music player, or just another RSS display. In its current iteration, the Chumby has a touchscreen but no keyboard interface. Tomlin expects someone is already working on that.

This is fascinating in so many different directions that I can’t really hope to address more than a few, even partially, but here goes.

The market researcher in me (he lives down next to my liver) is just giddy about this for the frankly revolutionary idea that the product embodies. That is – it’s a product whose entire existence is premised not on any particular consumer need but appealing to a strongly culturally-identified demographic first and then, literally, letting them decide what it is that they’ve bought, and bringing the product into existence.

I’m no alpha-geek but I already definitely know what I’m going to get my Chumby to do (it’ll be my cookbook – think about it). And that’s the exciting thing about the product: we all get to be product testers, researchers, engineers AND members of a bleeding-edge community at the same time.

This entire enterprise – which included a perfectly-timed kickoff at uber-geek happening FooCamp – seems to have in its DNA (in its very existence) one of the best understandings I’ve seen of contemporary identity, consumer culture and the intersection thereof.

And if you still don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, what this “thing” is and/or why you should be excited – that’s kind of the point. Or rather, that’s part of the point. Most identities are, in some measure, exclusionary – deciding what’s not included, or what you aren’t, or what you’re better than is part of determining what you are. That last part is especially important in understanding tech culture, as the 1337 component is one of the core elements of the identity (both in defining, and defining against). Put another way: if you are an alpha-geek, or know how they think and operate, it’s actually surprising that a Chumby or Chumby-like product – one that you have to hack on some level in order to make useful in any way – didn’t already exist. Ownership of Chumby and its ideological descendants will be a proud badge of identity because it will be a tactile representation of the statement, “Look at the cool stuff that I can do.”