Archive for December, 2010

December 29th, 2010

Those Videos Were Done With A Lot Of

You’ll see…

Also this:

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December 23rd, 2010

Nuh Gimme So-So Bunch

Notably — at least for this enthusiast of Jamaican culture bubbling through the American mainstream — to help stage Lil Wayne’s big comeback, producer Bangladesh contributed another a-milli-esque banger, in this case opting to deliciously substitute Harry Belafonte’s well-worn Jamaicanisms for Phife Dog’s more obscure ragga filigree

What’s funny — and telling, in a lost-in-translation-but-who-cares sorta way — is that the centerpiece of the song is a sample of the part of Belafonte’s recording that departs oddly, and some would say wrongly, from the Jamaican folk song that is its source. A chorus chanting six foot, seven foot, eight foot, bunch! underpins Weezy’s relentless show-and-prove show, but as the Honorable Doctor Louise Bennett Coverly — better known as Miss Lou — would explain, bananas don’t come in feet, they come in hands. Or as she puts it, they don’t have toes, they have fingers!

You have to hear how Miss Lou puts it herself. If you aren’t familiar with the pioneering work of Miss Lou, you should know, at least, that she’s a towering figure in Jamaican culture, more responsible than perhaps anyone else for recuperating the distinctive twists and turns of Jamaican creole English, aka patois / patwa. (Miss Lou’s legacy on this count includes her legitimation of alternate spelling and pronunciation practices.) Not only was Miss Lou a walking, talking, singing vessel of Jamaican folklore, she also created a body of patwa poetry that has been committed to memory by generations of Jamaican children and which includes my favorite poem about reggae (even though it was written in 1966, before reggae hit the town).

Just hear how she tells the story of “Banana Boat Song” and coaxes a sympathetic call&response from her adoring audience (note: after thinking aloud about it — what year it was? — Miss Lou guesses it was the 1960s when she and Belafonte first sang the song together, but given that Calypso came out in 1956, she must have meant the 50s):

Louise Bennett, “Banana Boat Song” (from Lawd…Di Riddim Sweet)

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The only thing is I did teach him to say “6 hand, 7 hand, 8 hand” and him a say “6 foot, 7 foot” [laughter]. My dear! So I said, after it became famous now, I think, great. Singer of Jamaican folk songs. I say, “Harry, but what about this foot ting? Banana don’t have toe, y’know. Di banana have fingers.” Him say, “yes.”

Notably, Belafonte did apparently eventually correct his rendition. By the time he’s performing the song on the Muppet Show in 1978, we’re back to “hand” –

But the classic version, as heard on the old 78, as famously re-animated in Beetlejuice, and now again given new life by Bangladesh, most definitely says “foot” –

And, so, funny enough, the one part that Belafonte gets bizarrely backwards is the part that Bangladesh and Weezy fasten onto. This makes sense: it sounds like a proud, strong-backed boast in Belafonte’s rendition, fit for full-throated brag-raps and ennobling folkloric worksongs alike.

What’s especially interesting then, about Miss Lou’s exegesis, is that it’s not so much about the correct body part to describe clusters of bananas, it’s about the central meaning of the song itself. The workers may be strong and proud; they came to work, not to idle. But they’ve been working all night and they’re exhausted. They waaaaaaan go home, and they want the bossman and the tallyman to take it easy on them as they make the final, daybreak round of a backbreaking night.



Hearing Miss Lou provide the context makes one hear even the exclamation on “bunch” as less a matter of celebration and more of consternation — “Banana Boat Song,” she explains, is a good ol’ workaday kvetch:

That is a banana loading song, and you sing it when it coming on to morning time and the poor men — mostly they were men — working at this loading of the banana boat, the whole night, and when you coming out at like four o’clock in the morning, dem waan go home. And they wanted the smallest amount of bananas they can get. And you know the six-hand little? Of course, those stay. Seven-hand. Eight-hand. Bunch!? Nine. Ten. Bunch!?! Cooyah. Noh gimme so-so bunch, me no horse wid bridle. [laughter]

Now, Miss Lou’s explanation might itself merit some explication, at least for those who aren’t quite up on their patois proverbs or banana facts. About the horse and the bridle: this is a colorful and humorous worker’s plea, eager to intervene before he gets too heavily weighed down. He’s cool (cooyah) with the reasonably-sized stems, the smaller sets of clusters, the six-hands and seven-hands and so forth. But not a bunch! And certainly not a bunch like that, not so-so bunch. If he were a horse with a bridle maybe he could handle such a load, but poor overworked human that he is, a whole bunch at this point strikes him as unfair — and worthy of some patois-peppered protest.



The use of so-so here marks a significant way to voice the resistance of an Afro-Jamaican laborer. As this Dictionary of Jamaican English elaborates, so-so(h) is possibly derived from a Yoruba term (sho-sho). Of course, tellingly and a little confoundingly, it sources the very line Miss Lou quotes from the “Banana Boat Song” as an example of usage:

SO-SO

Now, if all that six-hand, seven-hand stuff is still not clear, we can look to, say, early twentieth-century accounts of the burgeoning banana industry for some good technical prose. In his 1914 work, Conquest of the Tropics: The Story of the Creative Enterprises Conducted by the United Fruit Company, Frederick Upham Adams provides the basic lowdown on counting clusters while specifically big-upping Jamaica and black Jamaican workers (who, we should note with a nod to reggaeton, were also crucial, as migrant workers, to the operation of plantations across Central America):

…A bunch of bananas consists of a stem, hands, and fingers. Each hand has from ten to fifteen fingers. A bunch of bananas is thus known to the trade as a “five-hand stem,” “a six-hand stem,” and from that up to the nine or ten-hand stems, which are average commercial limit, though Costa Rica has produced stems containing as high as twenty-two hands — a veritable giant of tropical fecundity.
.
In Jamaica the bananas range from five to nine hands to the bunch, with an occasional one exceeding this grading, but the individual fingers are smaller than those which grow in the humid lowlands of the Central American coast. But they are good bananas, wholesome and marketable. The Jamaican negro is the workman who has made possible the wonders which the United Fruit Company has achieved in Central America, and Jamaica can lay just claim as the birthplace of the banana industry.

And now, dear readers, as they say inna Jamaica, you done know.

It may not matter much to that Wayne and his flights of fancy, but it does to this one.

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December 21st, 2010

Screw Remix-mas

Well, five years on and I’ve still yet to produce a follow-up to my woozy take on Xmas music. But since this appears to be the year when the world, ironically, finally caught up to screw, here’s ye olde Remix-mas pitched down a few –

w&w, remix-mas (screwed) 43 min / 99 mb

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Tis the season for giving and screwing — so go grab yourself some more molasses for the mind over at DuttyArtz c/o Wordthecat.

And if you’re really in the mood, Gavin’s annual effort never fails to disappoint.

//

may your holidaze be sweet and slow–

minor molasses disasters

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December 17th, 2010

Berkman Talk w/ Reax

My Tuesday lunch talk at the Berkman Center is now available for viewing/listening/downloading/etcccc

And I’m happy to report that, in fine Berkman tradition, the talk has already been blogged by some very astute observers of digital/internet culture:

  • Jillian York offers an affirming precis here
  • David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous, live-blogged the talk in impressive detail, including the Q&A
  • And I’m honored to get the EthanZ treatment over at his blog. As usual, Ethan does an excellent job distilling the central points of my talk, maybe even better than I did myself! I especially appreciate how he extends the conversation with some thoughts about the problems of hosting public culture on corporate platforms and with regard to music’s remarkable — perhaps even unique — mobility, and the implications thereof in the age of YouTube and global exchange. (I’m also grateful for this informative post on Dominican dembow he turned up!)
    .
    On the other hand, while I appreciate the genealogy, I must admit a certain unease about the parallels Ethan draws between my project and the preservationist ethnomusicology of the mid-20th-century. To be clear, while I’m sorry to see particular tracks and videos disappear, my concern is more with the sustainability of interactive structures for making and sharing music and dance, rather than with, say, making sure jerkin never dies. This is a crucial part of the distinction I seek to draw between what we might hear as a brave new world music, propelled by peer-level circulations, and the outmoded, hierarchically-curated sort of “world music” we still associate with that freighted misnomer.

Thanks again to all, and may the conversation continue!

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December 13th, 2010

Platform Politricks


orthogonal image copied from some website or other

I’ve been working on this monstruo post since last January, and hinting at it here and there, making it feel all the more urgent to finish though I haven’t had the time to tie it up. And yet, what has made finally publishing this post so hard is also what makes finishing it all the more pressing: the seemingly unending array of reasons to be suspicious and cautious toward the so-called “platforms” of the net.

The issue has, of course, come into more intense relief than perhaps ever before with the last week’s commotion around Wikileaks and the way that what many of us understand as, in some sense, “public” “platforms” hosting “free” “speech” have been exposed as anything but public or free. But we’ve been following this plot for some time now, with ephemeral but irrepressible songs&dances serving up so many canaries in the coalmine. In other words, the so-called platforms falling out from under Wikileaks are the same ones that have been shifting beneath our footworking feet for years. Once again grassroots popular culture — as animated by music in particular — stands as a harbinger for a brave, new, and rather unstable future.

Clearly, mere vigilance will not suffice. New media literacies, even, only go so far. My aim here, then, is to reaffirm (with the support of many smart thinkers) that for those of us who see, hear, and feel a lot of promise in the participatory publics and creative, critical cultures that coalesce around certain websites and protocols, there is real need for action — toward bringing the most popular platforms to heel with regard to users’ demands and expectations of fairness, for one, but more importantly, toward a collective investment in self-determined and self-controlled architectures, where we can share in the value we ourselves create through the network effects of a critical massive.

While I don’t think I’m saying anything terribly new here, as my reliance on the writers below attests, I do think music plays a remarkable role in these matters and can offer an instructive, persuasive thread through this tangled web. Moreover, I’m interested in synthesizing various debates in recent technology and media studies for the music-centered conversation (esp for participants and practitioners — namely, many of you who read this blog).

IMEEM, I’M SAYIN

For some time now, my research has felt increasingly like sorting through a disturbed graveyard, names and dates scraped off tombstones, everything scattered if not missing.

We’ve all seen blogs and blogposts and videos disappear, often thanks to specious legal challenges. Even more troubling, we’ve seen entire media ecosystems, such as imeem or Jamglue, succumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.

Many imeem users were shocked and dismayed when MySpace, after acquiring the site in a copyright-hobbled firesale (for reportedly under $1M), suddenly nuked it without warning. They promised post-facto to let users “transfer” their media over to the misguidedly redesigned MySpace Music, but this turned out to be true only for the sort of corporate-owned content that proved to be imeem’s downfall (in the form of unauthorized uploads impossible to monetize to the satisfaction of certain record labels). The substantial amount of independently produced and remixed music on imeem, which is what drew me and so many there in the first place, simply disappeared into the e-ther.

What’s striking is how much more vibrant imeem was as a musical-cultural space than MySpace Music or Facebook could ever be — precisely because it was so unruly. For some time, it stood as a remarkable platform for musically-organized social networks, musically-animated public conversations, and the peer-based, non-commercial sharing of worlds upon worlds of music.

I mean it when I say imeem was amazing: I often found myself drawn into a veritable maze of media there. As a somewhat self-contained (but outwardly connected & embedded) media ecology, it managed to become a willynilly archive for all kinds of audio (YouTube now largely fills this function, of course), and it networked a variety of vibrant publics (e.g., juke publics, Trini publics, West Indian publics, Caribbeanist publics, nu-whirled publics, and so on).

Unfortunately, especially from a research/advocacy perspective, unlike the more widely mourned and archived Geocities, no one seems to have mirrored imeem — or even get decent screenshots. More recently, a similar site, Jamglue, which also offered users the ability to (re)mix tracks online, joined imeem in the web2.0 scrapheap (though that metaphor fails to capture the utter lack of scraps left behind). At least in this case, there was a little notice, leaving me enough time to get some screengrabs. A glance at the number of jerkin mixes and tracks in circulation at the time of the site’s shuttering, most of them home-produced, is impressive:

This disappearance of archives, of crucial contextual data, is a product of “preferred” protocols as dictated by Big Copyright. Flash-based media are not so easily archived. (Had torrent technology triumphed in the battle over critically-massive streaming media, we likely wouldn’t be having the same problems.) And the sort of ad-hoc archiving that perseveres in an age of flash-media — save something here, fave something there — will hardly help us to reconstruct some of the most important information we lose when sites like imeem go under (whether data or “metadata”). Even if many of us take the trouble to download an FLV file or rip some other format from it, that’s hardly the same sort of preservation as one that would keep intact the broader contextual framework for any particular instantiation of audio or video. When platforms go poof, a lot more disappears than awesome dance vids.

Following a host of media scholars, we might productively (if provisionally) think of all this contextual data — interfaces, playlists, connections, conversations, and records of embeds and changes and the like — and to the careful cultivation it calls for, as constituting a particular site’s ecology (which, of course, is itself embedded in other ecologies, not to mention situated in various topographies). Thinking about media in terms of “ecologies” or “topographies” can help us to understand the implications of the so-called “architectures of participation” that increasingly structure social connectivity and cultural production. Such biological and spatial metaphors suggest modes of interplay as well as types of terrain, as shaped by particular affordances & constraints.

It is instructive to note how the distinctive design and address of Fotolog, for example, facilitated the efflorescence of flogger culture in Argentina and beyond. No less a spokesperson than the de facto leader of the floggers, a tomgirl photogenic who calls herself Cumbio, has discussed the signal differences of certain socially-networked media-sharing sites, and how they can seem inviting in certain ways, or not:

“Facebook asks your religion, your eye color, your relationship status,” she explains, “We don’t ask any of those things. We floggers just accept people as they are. We say, ‘Show yourself.’ And we accept you.”

Floggers may be an extreme example in this regard; after all, they’re named after their preferred platform for a reason. But given such a clearly constitutive relation, we might wonder about the implications, say, for a substantial shift away from Fotolog (in Argentina, at least) in the wake of increasing inroads by Facebook:

Given the important irruptions of the public sphere that floggers staged in Argentina and across Latin America, we might find a statistical plunge like that worrisome. When we talk about disappearing platforms, we’re also talking about disappearing people. And in reflecting on various kinds of “disappearing people” on the net, from bloggers to floggers to subjects of extraordinary renditions that never get leaked, I inevitably start thinking of this as a serious collective action problem.

For some time, including rather explicitly on this here blog (sheesh — that post is nearly 4 years old!), we’ve been bearing witness to, and bemoaning, the effects and losses associated with this relocation of public culture to the corporate net. But we haven’t done much at all to change the status quo.

“IS OUR CHILDREN LEARNING?”

After my “Skinny Jeans and Fruity Loops” talk last year, the ever-sharp Chrysaora asked me the silly but poignant question above. At the time, she was working at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, and my concerns about public music-and-dance culture on the web clearly resonated with the underlying issues they’ve been exploring there. My answer was, simply, no. Savvy as they clearly are, I don’t generally see a lot of young people (or older folks, really, myself & peers & forbears included) employing what we might call a strategic approach to culture on the net; rather, it would better be described as tactical.

But alas, moving relatively unhindered from imeem to the next thing, or ignoring ‘watermarks’ from demo/unauthorized software — essentially privileging, as I’ve put it elsewhere, “participation, immersion and immediacy” — is not what activist-artists usually have in mind when they talk about “tactical media.” The sort of tactics we behold on web2.0 may represent a form of subversion, in a sense, but they hardly constitute an intervention.

As I attempted to trace out in the “Sounds of the Wide, Wired World,” what we see and hear on the net offers ground for celebration. And yet, the audible and visible aesthetic traces of our compromised ability to freely share the fruits of collective creativity also remind us that we’re building our cultural heritage on shaky foundations. They may even highlight what Siva Vaidhyanathan, in his forthcoming The Googlization of Everything, would call a “public failure.”

Clearly, this predicament is far from ideal. “Kids these days” enjoy an effervescent, exciting, but deeply compromised public culture. Which, among other things, gives the lie to facile celebrations of “millennials” or “digital natives” as inherently or naturally equipped to navigate this brave new world. Take, for example, David Parry’s warnings about assuming far more digital literacy on the part of our students (and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters) than is warranted:

I do not mean here to suggest all of that nonsense about digital natives versus non-digital natives; indeed I am actually suggesting something quite the opposite: students are not digital natives who possess some unique set of skills whereby they can magically manipulate the network and gadgets to do whatever they want with outstanding acumen, rather that students are for the large part unreflective about the way they use these network technologies, and what is more are unreflective about the ways in which their use (or our use) has already been historically determined and shaped, an unreflective response which gives up power and control over to these systems.

And yet, as important a reminder as this is, the critique of naive kids and their crummy tactics can also go too far, as in the elitist screeds of Andrew Keen, Mark Bauerlein, or Jaron Lanier. As pointed out in a pointed critique in Pop Matters, such rants tend to miss out on a lot of what does drive this stuff — the sort of thing I’ve celebrated here again and again, the stuff of music as social life:

The implication of Lanier’s argument is that people are motivated to create only by rewards rather than by the pleasure of creation or participation itself, an assertion belied by Web 2.0 voluntarism. “In the open culture future, your creativity and expression would also be unpaid, since you would be a volunteer in the army of the long tail. That would leave nothing for you.”

Nothing, that is, except the pleasure that stems from creative work itself, the solidarity that derives from participation, the satisfaction of contributing useful social labor, and the expanded potential for recognition expressed in non-monetary terms.

This calls attention to the importance of understanding what motivates people to do what they do (and hence opens up important space for ethnography). The question of motivation came into fine focus, at least for bloggers, with last February’s so-called “musicblogocide” (which also extended to such seemingly unlikely targets as insouciant teen fashion blogs).

What the musicblogocide debacle highlighted was that, at least in some quarters, a spectacular instance of platform failure can actually prove instructive. In addition to generating thoughtful takes and helpful hints, a number of afflicted blogs relocated to their own server space and others adandoned Blogger preemptively.

Among those that moved, some offered poignant testimony about what they do and why they take umbrage at having their platform unjustly pulled out from under them. Allow me to quote Masala’s manifesto-like response to Blogger in some length:

- At Masala we believe that music, like culture and art at large, is a mix of influences and is largely derivative. No artist is creating anything from scratch. We also believe that if the copyright laws (DMCA) prevent culture and music from circulating and being reinterpreted and mix, we’re moving towards a monolithic culture (to the economic benefit of a few).
- The music we’re promoting here is the incarnation of this idea. It’s often music made by young people wired to the world through internet or 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants. People who are inventing themselves through and with the world they’re living in, trying to connect their local tradition and history with what they receive from the outside.
- We believe that by posting MP3s on this blog, we’re encouraging people to broaden their horizons, be curious and open minded about other peoples music and in the case it’s possible, (and it’s often not possible), to buy the music, support the artist and the people who made it possible to circulate.
- Don’t believe the hype, every download is not a theft or one less sale. Music lovers have a pretty limited bank account. But do support art when you can! Recording music industry is shifting and doesn’t make as much money as they used to and on the other hand, the music industry at large is doing ok (publishing, shows, merchandising, sponsorship etc.).

This resonates righteously with Larisa Mann’s (aka, DJ Ripley’s) notion of “saving the world” (a phrasing that also evokes archives), by which she means to underscore how music blogs, regardless of the platform on which they’re hosted, are an important part of the cultural ecology of popular music and the forms of sociability that grow up around it –

Masalacism is a perfect example of music-making, in that the blog is part of the conditions for my favorite music, it creates the possibility of audience for/creation of music variously rooted in geographically and socially distant scenes.

I’m talking about music as a social practice, not music as a recording or a particular moment frozen in time or on paper. Masalacism makes music involving actors from all over the world, it draws them together and opens lines of communication between people, places, scenes, who might not get to know of each other in any other way. This is some of the best music-making there is, in my opinion. I love the specific &local, juxtaposed with other specific & local, to make a kind of conversation between localities and experiences, when music does this well, it also does this for the bodies &minds of people involved, bringing them into conversation or dance with each other, physically or mentally or both. Which is part of saving the world, kind of, or at least getting us there.

How do we save a world that can disappear behind a URL redirect in the blink of an eye? In the long term, we need to build better platforms; in the short term, we need to proceed with far more suspicion when that term gets so loosely thrown around.

PLATFORM POLITRICKS

For internet marketing guru Tim O’Reilly, who coined the term, web 2.0 described the “new participatory architectures of the Web.” A couple years later he put it another way: web 2.0 is built on the idea of the “network as platform.”

In a recent article, Tarleton Gillespie discusses the politics of ‘platform’, arguing that the term serves as an effective bit of rhetorical judo to do the delicate job of knitting together the multiple constituencies of sites like YouTube — among them, the uneasy triad of professional content producers, advertisers, and end-users (that’s us, pretty much, though I hate being called a user, esp when I’m actually a product). For Gillespie, “This is where the discursive work is most vital.” He continues,

Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them. … Curiously, tropes like ‘platform’ seem to work across these discourses – in fact, the real value of this term may be that it brings these discourses into alignment without them unsettling each other.

More specifically, Gillespie notes that

The term ‘platform’ helps reveal how YouTube and others stage themselves for these constituencies, allowing them to make a broadly progressive sales pitch while also eliding the tensions inherent in their service: between user-generated and commercially produced content, between cultivating community and serving up advertising, between intervening in the delivery of content and remaining neutral.

And yet — and you saw this coming? — for Gillespie, portraying itself as a platform “is a claim that arguably misrepresents the way YouTube and other intermediaries really shape public discourse online.” Gillespie’s use of the term “intermediaries” is important, for he argues that sites like YouTube, or in his own words “a handful of video platforms, search engines, blogging tools, and interactive online spaces,” have become — for better or for worse (for better and for worse?) — “the primary keepers of the cultural discussion as it moves to the Internet.”

Hosting the public conversation on private, commercial “platforms” is problematic for any number of reasons. One of the primary ones — and the one most salient for me — being that our shared culture (especially in the form of recorded sound and video), and all the discourse in and around it, is not only constantly vulnerable to cooptation and exploitation — worrisome as those are — but to outright disappearance. This is problematic from an archival/heritage perspective as well as for anyone interested in contemporary practices, politics/publics, and the chilling effects constraining the creation and circulation of the (peer-to-peer) popular culture of the 21st century.

Without needing to get so romantic about it (e.g., invoking das volk), we would do well to consider the framing offered by Yochai Benkler in chapter 8 of Wealth of Networks, which concerns the power of peer-production: “From the perspective of liberal political theory,” writes Benkler, “the kind of open, participatory, transparent folk culture that is emerging in the networked environment is normatively more attractive than was the industrial cultural production system typified by Hollywood and the recording industry.” He is quick to caution, though, that, “We cannot, however, take for granted that the technological capacity to participate in the cultural conversation, to mix and make our own, will translate into the freedom to do so. The practices of cultural and counter-cultural creation are at the very core of the battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment” (277).

It should probably go without saying that the biggest threat to continuing the “cultural conversation” on our own terms is the hammer of copyright being wielded by Big Media companies — and more recently, in the case of Wikileaks, by the US government — to force compliance from the corporations who are hosting more and more of our socially-networked digital culture. In Benkler’s words: “the tension between the industrial model of cultural production and the networked information economy is nowhere more pronounced than in the question of the degree to which the new folk culture of the twenty-first century will be permitted to build upon the outputs of the twentieth-century industrial model” (300).

Allow me to quote him at a little more length (as appropriate for Yochai ;) –

In this battle, the stakes are high. One cannot make new culture ex-nihilo. We are as we are today, as cultural beings, occupying a set of common symbols and stories that are heavily based on the outputs of that industrial period. If we are to make this culture our own, render it legible, and make it into a new platform for our needs and conversations today, we must find a way to cut, paste, and remix present culture.

On the other hand, lest technoptimism run away with the spoon, in a provocative article about what he dubs our emergent “network culture,” Kazys Varnelis contends that if “appropriation was a key aspect of postmodernism, network culture almost absentmindedly uses remix as its dominant process” (150). The effect is to invite the tentacles of capital into everything we do, via legal capture and a certain subtle, insidious consumerism:

But such peer-to-peer production also faces challenges. Chief among these is new legislation by existing media conglomerates aiming to extend the scope of their copyright and prevent the creation of derivative work. Even if advocates of the free circulation of cultural goods are successful in challenging big media, it is still unclear if the burgeoning fan culture is critical, or if it only re-inscribes, to a degree that Guy Debord could not have envisioned, the colonization of everyday life by capital, with debates about resistance replaced by debates about how to remix objects of consumption. Furthermore, the possibility of consumers not only consuming media but producing it for the (new) media outlets suggests the possibility of new, hitherto unanticipated forms of exploitation.

FREE CULTURE, FREE LABOR

In an attempt to debunk the all too uncritical embrace of web 2.0 rhetoric in the tech conversation, Trebor Scholz charges that:

The Web 2.0 épistémè will not just go away. Therefore, it is important to have a clear understanding of its false claims, its ideological embedment, reinforced by professional elites.

“A fine example of the Web 2.0 Ideology,” writes Scholz, “is immaterial free labor,” which he calls “a fairly unpopular and very complex subject.” But he gives it a shot:

The Web makes people easier to use. By “surfing” it, people serve their virtual hosts and they are not unhappy about it. Online, service platforms rather than products are offered, and users are encouraged to participate, communities become the brand.

It’s precisely this scare-quotable way of “surfing” the net that inspires Astra Taylor’s recent critique of the myriad ways we’re actually “serfing the net.” For Taylor, the key bit of deception is with the word “free,” namely that it excites both the technoptimistic “free culture” kids as well as the rapacious capitalists eager to have “pirates do the work of mass marketers, while industry pretends to defend the very artists they have exploited for so long”:

Where free is concerned, we’re typically told that “the kids,” impatient and entitled, want their culture this instant and will not pay a dime, so they’ve embraced piracy. But the young pirates aren’t really leading a mass insurrection; they’re a symbol or a scapegoat employed to obscure a larger struggle about culture and value—and in whose pocket that value accumulates. The owners of social networking sites may be forbidden from selling individual songs posted by members, but the companies themselves, including user content, can be turned over for a hefty sum: almost $900 million for Bebo and far more for YouTube. Google doesn’t see the mammoth archive of books it currently hopes to digitize as a priceless treasure to be preserved; it’s a trove of content to sprinkle with banner ads. Google, as Chris Anderson points out many times, succeeds because of an almost unfathomable economy of scale; each free search brings revenue from targeted advertising and fodder for the data miners: each mouse click is a trickle in the flood. Technology writer Nicholas Carr and others call this “digital sharecropping”: It’s not that the production or distribution of culture has been concentrated in the hands of the few — it’s the culture’s economic value. Somebody’s got a massive financial interest in free, and it’s not the people uploading footage of kittens to Vimeo.

Given all this talk of serfing, it’s no surprise that feudal metaphors appear to be proliferating in critical discourse about the current state of the net. Matteo Pasquinelli offers up “digital neofeudalism” to call attention to the alarming trend whereby the utopias of the net have shifted “from self-organised media to generic activism on corporate platforms with their closed code and protocols,” a provocative parallel to Jodi Dean’s critique of activism in an age of “communicative capitalism.” For Pasquinelli, digital neofeudalism describes

the polarised scenario where few landlords owns the whole infrastructure of communication (hardware layer, protocol layer, meta-data layer, social network layer) and face a multitude of cognitive workers forced to ‘creativity’.

Describing digital neofeudalism as creating new spaces of rent (and in the process raising the specter of what James Boyle calls the “a second enclosure movement“, namely “the enclosure of the intangible commons of the mind”), Pasquinelli also takes aim at the rhetoric around “free culture,” contending that

profit is the income made selling commodities, rent is the income made by a monopolistic exploitation of spaces. In feudal times, it was the exploitation of land cultivated by farmers, in the internet age it’s the exploitation of the immaterial spaces cultivated by cultural producers, prosumers and the notorious Free Culture.

And while I’m not nearly as cynical and I might take issue with Pasquinelli’s use of music as an example — I’m not sure the situation is “squeezed” for more musicians now than a decade ago; the myth of a middle-class of musicians better off under Big Music is one that really needs debunking — taking a big picture view, with the idea of a hamstrung 21st century (popular, p2p) culture in the balance, this is a necessary and bracing critique.

It’s a little dispiriting, to say the least, that this harrowing specter was raised at least a decade ago. In an article called “Free Labor” (pdf | html), first published back in 2000, Tiziana Terranova argues that, if I may update her argument a bit, the kids on web2.0 “are not working only because capital wants them to; they are acting out a desire for affective and cultural production.” For Terranova, “Free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.”

She also speaks to the particular predicament of such collectively produced fields as fashion and music:

If knowledge is inherently collective, it is even more so in the case of the postmodern cultural economy: music, fashion, and information are all produced collectively but are selectively compensated. Only some companies are picked up by corporate distribution chains in the case of fashion and music; only a few sites are invested in by venture capital. However, it is a form of collective cultural labor that makes these products possible even as the profit is disproportionately appropriated by established corporations.

Recently, a number of artists, writers, bloggers, etc., in sectors like fashion, are picking up on this, um, thread. And clearly, a large number of artists design workers also agree with this perspective, feeling more and more like assembly-line workers in a precarious world of rapid deskilling, reskilling, and unsatisfying work.

I like the Rasta term ‘politricks’ for its slip-tongued critique: in a Babylon system, politics is rigged so better to turn to (and invest in) culture, to various practical toolkits for dealing with, persevering under, and triumphing over Babylonian fuckery. But what happens when that culture to which we’ve turned gets folded back into what Peter Tosh dubbed the shitstem? And where does a total retreat leave us? (All too often, it seems to pave the road not for independence but for exploitation.)

The irrepressible DailyMotion so embodied by youthful (net-abetted) dance crazes tells me, again and again, that the genie’s out of the bottle. They can’t shove it back in. But they can try to build a bigger bottle. And call it a platform.

THE FUTURE OF MUSIC … AND HOW TO STOP IT

Against this creepy, creeping context, some suggest that “web 3.0” might well be conceptualized as a “grand retreat back to our own servers.”

But will this vision of an interconnected independence prevail, or will it be a ZuckerBorgian colonization of the net as we know it? Given what I’ve sketched out above, the specter of a “second Internet” should be a scary one–

Facebook, with the private information of over 350 million members, now constitutes what Wired magazine has called a “second Internet.” By encouraging members to bring their Facebook settings with them onto the rest of the Web, Zuckerberg hopes to take this new Internet, with its pretensions to privacy, and place it at the foundation of the old one.

While Zuckerberg’s ambition to reduce the experience of the Internet to a more human scale should be applauded, his site, despite its recent openness, prevents users from transferring their information to other social networks — a restriction, considering the huge time and effort many members put into their profiles, akin to prohibiting homeowners from packing up their houses and moving elsewhere. Moreover, with the site’s huge database of personal information and its hopes to profit from highly targeted ads, Facebook creates its own surveillance problems. If anything, Zuckerberg looks, in some distant but discernible way, like the Robert Moses of the Internet, bringing severe order to a chaotic milieu.

Facebook’s OpenGraph indicates that they’re moving away from the walled garden approach toward simply being one’s portal to the web (like AOL 2.0), but the fact is, there’s an increasing amount of self-censorship in the ever-expansive realm of Facebook. And that’s not great for the kind of unruly culture that many of us prize.

As far as silver-linings go, the Robert Moses reference above makes me wonder: if Facebook is the Cross-Bronx Expressway of the Internet, what sort of hip-hop will emerge from under its overpasses and beyond its walls? What kinds of cultures will thrive in the corners of the net, unhindered by auto-takedowns and the prying eyes of parents and employers?

This degree of dominance, Facebook’s increasing mediation of the internet itself, opens up the idea that Facebook resembles a utility and perhaps, as danah boyd argues, it should be regulated as such:

If Facebook is a utility — and I strongly believe it is — the handful of people who are building cabins in the woods to get away from the evil utility companies are irrelevant in light of all of the people who will suck up and deal with the utility to live in the city. This is going to come down to regulation, whether we like it or not.

Props to Gavin Mueller for raising this possibility, if more cynically, many months before:

I’d advocate turning social networks into public utilities to better hew it towards the Bill of Rights, but not in a country that passes the Patriot Act. We’ll have to wait until the revolution comes to nationalize Facebook. And by that point, lots of people won’t even be able to afford the internet.

But why expropriate when we can innovate? That’s what Mark Andrejevic suggests with regard to YouTube — or more to the point, suggests that YouTube, as a commercial venture, may never become the platform it promises to be:

The objective is data-driven control: the channeling of users’ own activity to further a goal arrived at neither through shared participation not conscious deliberation: that of increasingly accelerated consumption. … That the offer of a platform for ‘non-estranged’ production might threaten this goal constitutes the contradiction at the heart of YouTube’s marketing plan, and helps explain the ambivalence and even hostility of commercial content providers toward ‘amateur’ content. They want the user-generated data without the user-generated content. If sites like Hulu start to gain large and loyal followings, they may well succeed, and in so doing demonstrate that the more appropriate infrastructure for a site like YouTube may not be commercial, but collectively owned and operated.

It’s been all too easy to let corporate enterprise host our collective culture. We didn’t know some of these things were possible, and we didn’t necessarily have the critical capital to bring such things into being. But this is a devil’s bargain we’re making. Certainly we can do better. The network effects of critical mass constitutes a great proportion of the value that we bring to these sites (user-generated data, as opposed to user-generated content, pace Andrejevic). But when will our critical mass become a truly critical mass?

At least in the near term, one way, among many, to address the issue of control (and hence stability/sustainability) is what some have called “virtual rights management” (and hence, activism, architecture, self-determination). Along these lines, see, e.g., the Berkman-related Project VRM (and Doc Searls’s emphasis on internet geology), as well as the Mine! Project (about), or the badly-named but well-meaning Diaspora, or the fledgling Poyozo. If any of these gain serious steam, they can create a serious opening.

While we’re at it, as Kevin Driscoll asked many months ago, who wants to start a broadband collective?

To return to the words of Jace Clayton, let us commence our grand retreat —

NO SURRENDER, NO DELETE

Or, as he put it elsewhere and with regard to something else:

The key is openness. Together we can make everything last.

17 comments

December 8th, 2010

Berkman Lunch Talky

Sorry for the silence here, dear readers. Been a busy month of literal and figurative heavy-lifting. I hope to strike things up again very soon, especially after next Tuesday, my final presentation of the semester, about which I’m very excited. I’ll be appearing in the Berkman Center’s Tuesday lunch series to talk about the “unstable platforms” and “uneasy peers” of brave new world music, which means I’ll have the privilege of a local & global audience of very sharp thinkers about internet architectures & practices. Also, since this is the Berkman Center, who’ve pioneered the webcast thing, you’ll be able to tune-in in realtime. As usual, it’ll be a short talk (15 min) followed by Q&A, please feel free to join us. Details below–

[TUESDAY] BERKMAN LUNCHEON SERIES on THE UNSTABLE PLATFORMS AND UNEASY PEERS OF BRAVE NEW WORLD MUSIC
=================================================================
12/14/10, 12:30pm ET, Berkman Center Conference Room @ 23 Everett St., Cambridge, MA
RSVP is required for those attending in person to Amar Ashar (ashar@cyber.law.harvard.edu)
This event will be webcast live

Topic: “The Unstable Platforms and Uneasy Peers of Brave New World Music”
Guests: Wayne Marshall, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT

Driven by the proliferation of accessible music and video-production software and the connective possibilities of the social web, public culture is being remade in the wake of user-generated content, including the ever curious category of world music. So-called platforms such as YouTube or Jamglue play host to new genres, dance steps, and remixes from around the world, incubating local scenes and circulating aspiring artists’ productions to peers near and far. In contrast to its creation by a consortium of British music-industry players in the 1980s, a multinational network of grassroots producers, DJs, and bloggers are renegotiating and redefining the freighted but inclusive term. But while this bottom-up revision of world music can be seen as a valuable development, queasy connections with its earlier incarnation, and the power relations and ideas about difference it embodied, also persist.

About Wayne

Wayne Marshall is an ethnomusicologist focusing on the musical and cultural production of the Caribbean and the Americas, and their circulation in the wider world, with particular attention to digital technologies. While a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT, he’s writing a book on music, networked media, and transnational youth culture. He recently co-edited and contributed to Reggaeton (Duke University Press 2009) and has published in journals such as Popular Music and Callaloo while writing for popular outlets like The Wire and the Boston Phoenix. He holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has taught courses at Brandeis, Brown, University of Chicago, and Harvard Extension School. He is also an active DJ and maintains and runs the blog and website, www.wayneandwax.com.

This event will be webcast live; for more information and a complete description, see the event web page: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/events/luncheon/2010/12/marshall

2 comments

Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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