Garrett (garote) wrote,

More ramblings from the ivory tower

A contractor in Iraq has written a series of essays about his experiences with the locals and with the troops. I found his observations eye-opening. He's also posted a series of pictures he took while touring Saddam's palace - including the "Flintstone Park" that he built exclusively for his two sons. Note that, even as the extravagant and feared dictator of an oil-rich country, he could still only afford cut-rate and dangerous construction.

Here's an essay about modeling, written by a model, describing the mechanics of the industry from start to finish, and some of the social aspects. It's kind of a dry read: Modeling is not the exciting profession it may appear to be. The following quote is amusing, though:

"When you consider how much advertising is blatantly heterosexually-minded in the sense you see a guy and a girl eating together, holding hands, driving somewhere . . . whatever. When you're gay and see this--not only the end product of it but the production of the ads in detail--it does present to you how important harmonious, happy, hetero relationships must be to middle America. And it's damn funny to see a guy holding a beautiful girl tight in his arms during the shoot and then to be making out with him later that same night after the club."
Some essayist with an axe to grind has written the "2005 Asshole Of The Year Awards". The list is just the usual finger-pointing and trash-talking, but one of the winners caught my eye: the Sony corporation. In 2005 they quietly began selling audio CDs that contained a devious software payload, designed to badly compromise the security of any computer trying to import the music from the CD. The scandal was huge among computer geeks.
"... this will hopefully be the scandal that makes mainstream America aware that (at least according to the corporate world,) you don't own anything."
I think this is a lot closer to the truth than even the author knows.

In a world where content is becoming completely separated from containers, a huge market force has emerged, consisting of every media company that sells containers of content: Boxes of software, CDs of music, DVDs of movies, or CDROMs of photographs and words. They are all together trying very hard to keep containers and content chained together, because it's the only way they can shore up a monetary value for their content. When their product is not fettered to a physical source, they have no good way to draw money from its exchange or duplication. The tried-and-true market process breaks down.

So now they're working to create a two-teired system: You purchase the container in order to get at the content, but your "right" to manipulate the content is now separated from your ownership of the container. Your money has also bought you permission to use that content in a very well-defined and strict set of ways, which can be revoked, and if abused, may land you in court or in jail. This process of "rights management", and all the mechanical tweaks that it involves, is a process of making technology safe for commerce, and has no counterbalance, except a legal precedent of right-to-privacy laws and property rights. These market forces will take it as far as they can possibly go - to the point where you truly don't own anything media-related. You can only lease it, and are always liable for misusing it.

Now, making technology "safe for commerce" is not unilaterally evil. There are very good reasons for protecting the security of electronic money transfers, for example. Or restricting the flow of information from a customer database. Even though they are essentially just signals over wire and bits on some hard drive -- smoke-and-mirrors -- they are hugely important from an economic standpoint. An even bigger example is the restriction of who can manufacture our physical money -- paper bills and coins. If it was legal to buy and use a printing press to churn out stacks of $100 bills, our whole economy would collapse in a couple of months. So this process of paving the way for commerce is not inherently bad, and it has happened before.

The difference here is what's at stake ... what we stand to lose. Separating containers from content, and making that content transferable over thin air, routable from any source to any destination, and infinitely copyable with no loss of quality, is a stunning, unique ability of our digital age. If market forces compel us to hamstring every electronic device we manufacture, embedding an artificial "rights management" process, the market will indeed have accomplished its goal: insuring a means to turn a profit in this new frontier. But it will be the old means to turn a profit, hammered into a new environment whose primary strengths are almost the opposite of what that old means is based on and driven by: physical scarcity. The digital network has defeated physical scarcity. That's practically what it's for. Now we are scrambling to artificially create it?

That means may be desirable by the current purveyors of containers and content, but is it desirable by anyone else? Customers? Individuals? Society as a whole?

So far the middle ground has been defined by entities acting as "gatekeepers", who facilitate the mechanics of the digital transfer itself. Their profit tends to be derived less from the specifics of the content they purvey, than from the quality of the underlying infrastructure they serve it with. For example, the iTunes music store isn't popular because it provides access to certain music, it's popular because it provides reliable, searchable, well-integrated access to that music. So there is still money to be made as a "gatekeeper" -- good and legitimate money -- even without "rights management", or in the case of iTunes, the loosest form of "rights management" you're allowed to get away with. That money is made by playing to, and enhancing, the strengths of the digital universe -- not trying to prune it back until it's no different from a local drugstore.

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