Techdirt’s Masnick reveals own irrelevance.

Mike Masnick, editor and founder of Techdirt often writes like a smug frat boy, substituting scorn for ideas, and is frequently careless about fact-checking. This may be be why his mantra sounds sillier every day, as he bangs on about all that is wrong with just about anyone who believes copyright still plays a role in the digital age.  Seriously, other than die-hard myrmidons, is anyone still listening to what he’s saying?  Because he’s in danger of becoming the poster child for everything that is wrong with the very things he purports to defend.

Most recently, Masnick revealed his capacity for carelessness when he wrote this blog post about an event he did not attend, focusing on two words taken way out of context, and then making no effort to confirm the basis of his tantrum.  The subject was a recent conference hosted by the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property, which included panelist Sandra Aistars, CEO of Copyright Alliance. (I have worked with both organizations.) Masnick claims in his post that Aistars was “insisting that the efforts for copyright reform are really coming ‘from criminal elements’ and that no one in ‘any sort of innovative sector’ is actually on board with copyright reform.”  Had Mike bothered to wait for the video of that meeting, he might have hear the following, in which Aistars adds to her recap of 40 years worth of debate and discussion on copyrights thus:

And an element that goes a little bit further than what we’ve heard before and almost seeks the entire elimination of intellectual property protection, and that element I think is coming in its most aggressive form not from any sort of innovative sector in any business, but is coming more from the, I’ll call them “criminal elements,” cyberlockers, entities like that who support and benefit from cyberlockers, and they are not interested intellectual property in any way, and I think those of us who rely on intellectual property in our business lives are just collateral damage. 

So, in case any Techdirt readers (or editors) need that simplified, Aistars is making a very clear distinction between real innovators — whose voices she welcomes and has always welcomed to any discussion — and actual criminals who really don’t deserve a seat at the table.

And speaking of not deserving a seat at the table, people who are incapable of presenting ideas that challenge the imagination beyond cheap sarcasm and false reporting have clearly lost contact with the nuanced evolution of this ongoing debate.  In other words, when you just start making shit up as an excuse to keep calling everyone who supports copyright a “maximalist” (whatever the hell that means), it might be a sign you’ve run out of things to say.  By coincidence, I happen to be on my way to attend a similar event hosted by CPIP as I write this, and all of the topics for discussion are written humbly in the inquisitive and not in the conspiratorial imperative that guys like Masnick like to imply.  Experienced adults are trying to solve problems and come up with new ideas; and all the sniping from the kids’ table doesn’t speak well  for the cause of the Internet as a medium for enlightened discourse.

UPDATE:  It looks like while I was writing the above, Mike updated his own post in order to both reveal the full quote in context and then stand by his bizarre assertion.  All I can say is that perhaps what Aistars ought to have said is that the copyright debate is being skewed by a criminal element and also some really stupid people.

Posted in Copyright, Digital Culture | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Internet May Not Set You Free

One of the bedrock principles of digital-age utopianism is that the Internet, if left unfettered by pesky rules, will make people free. Encoded into the rhetoric of what I’ll call a post-progressive notion of liberty are recurring themes that reject legal systems, reject statehood, reject private property ownership; and espouse a world view based on the assumption that people interconnected by social media will naturally evolve into a freer and more enlightened existence.

Citizens living within presently authoritarian societies are expected to transcend their political, social, and even religious bonds. And as James Poulos observes in this article for The Daily Beast, the next generation in the already free United States are redefining liberty itself from an idea manifest through private property into one manifest by access without ownership. This last proposal about the future does have a disturbingly and naively Marxist aroma, but I’ll return to that because, in the present, the underlying faith in these utopian visions is what appears to fuel many defenses of permission-free behaviors online. And permission-free behavior isn’t necessarily freedom because it almost always tramples the rights of someone else.

In the physical world, of course, we still intuitively understand natural laws that define the boundaries of freedom; or at least most of us do. As I sit here in my local coffee house, I am certainly free to read what I want, to think what I want, to publish what I want on this blog; I am free to drink too much coffee even though it’s bad for me, and I am free to come go as I please. But I am certainly not free to pester the woman at the table next to me. I may not lean over her shoulder and see what she’s writing or take a bite of her sandwich or sit in her lap. In real life, freedom has rational limits, defined by the boundaries imposed by the natural rights of others. But in cyberspace, we see these boundaries breeched all the time, though the techno-utopian tells us this is good thing because the greater social order they project is one in which people ultimately do the “right thing” because they want to, not because some rule tells them to. It’s funny, though, that such altruism tends to govern behavior in physical space but not so much online. And unfortunately, online behaviors have some very real world consequences.

Variations on the value of lawlessness have been presented by managers of major social media sites, often as public responses to some activity on their sites that has provoked a call for executive intervention. On the grounds that everything online is speech and speech needs to be free, for instance, Twitter was slow to intervene when a British journalist was receiving death and rape threats; Facebook took a bipolar approach to first disallowing, then allowing, and then again reversing its decision to host a video of a beheading; and recently, Reddit applied a similarly half-baked, laissez faire logic in dragging its feet on the removal of a thread trading in the stolen, nude photos of celebrities. Reddit even issued a statement, after finally removing that thread, describing the site as a “nation” and espousing the American conservative tenet that their governance should be as limited as possible.

I mocked Reddit for the metaphor, but they weren’t necessarily speaking figuratively. This attitude that a cybernetic, borderless collective of human consciousness actually transcends systems like the rule of law as defined by a state is a very real argument made in one form or another by people as obscure as onanistic Redditors and as prominent as Google chairman Eric Schmidt. It’s an idea that has been part of the Silicon Valley ethos since its earliest days, as far as I can tell, and the sensibility itself appears to be something more profound than the accepted premise that information is a tool for democracy. The subtle but important distinction, it seems, is that while many of us see the Internet as a conduit for information or entertainment, only as good or bad as the people using it, the utopian sees the technology itself as a social panacea simply by virtue of its own existence. In a more extreme but not at all surprising manifestation (see below), there are those who view the Internet as a deity.

I was thinking about these utopian ideas while reading Sergey Kuznetsov’s article about the demise of Russians’ faith in the Internet as a catalyst for their freedom. Russia, I believe, is a cautionary tale about what a society might look like when apparent freedom is not in fact built upon the rule of law. Its “market economy” is a euphemism for universal corruption where bribery is the norm; its corporate leaders are mobsters; and its political leaders are marching inexorably back toward their Soviet roots, squelching dissent at every opportunity. Unsurprisingly, according to Kuznetsov, the Internet in Russia, not only fails to transcend these repressive forces, but it has come to resemble Russian society as it is on the streets.  To quote:

Two decades later and it’s hard to find the traces of our belief in the Russian Internet. The only thing we inherited from the nineties and the Samizdat are the torrents and e-libraries. Copyright is dead: almost any film and any book can be downloaded for free after a five minute search. The film distributors have to make arrangements with pirates about “two week vacancies” after theatre premieres, but the small publishers are just bankrupt. . . . I’m not sure it’s the great result we dreamt in early years of the Internet.

. . . the secret service spying (not only in Russia), mailbox hacking, the blocking of anti-Putin sites… the Kremlin controls the majority of online media in Russia . . .

However the worst is the old good propaganda. Surprise! – It still works! There are dozens of comments on any political post. The commentators write about the wisdom of Putin, the increasing Russian economy and the greedy and guileful United States who dreams to destroy Russia and conquest their territory before a San-Andreas earthquake or Yellowstone explosion ruins their country.

I’ve said it in other posts, but there is a world of difference between freedom and a free-for-all. Russia is what ultimately comes from a free-for-all — a society where bullies dominate and everyone else can fend for himself. It’s a society where I could pester this woman sitting nearby in the coffee shop and get away with it if I happen to be one of the card-carrying bullies. It is interesting, though, with regard to Poulos’s point about young Americans redefining liberty absent the pursuit of private property, to look at a nation where the application of that Marxist principle led first to party/government authoritarianism and then to pure corruption in a state of half-baked democratic reform.

Moreover, there is an extent to which the Internet, whose corporate owners praise its lawlessness and treat private intellectual property as an anachronism, often resembles a bully society. The laughable Nation of Reddit ceases to be a joke and becomes manifest in the form of mob rule with real social influence. The mob tells a handful of women, “No, we have the right to make a profitable spectacle out of your hacked photos,” and people debate the issue as though there are rationally two sides of the story. Or perhaps the mob rouses rabble into tangibly influencing our political process, even though the mob may actually be comprised of teenagers and half-frozen, bored Norwegians, neither of which are entitled to vote and for good reason. Lawlessness is Lord of Flies, even in cyberspace. And speaking of Lord of the Flies, I offer this quote from a recent article in The Guardian by Mark Piesing:

Burning Man, and spin offs including Burning Nest in the UK, show that digital natives under 25 now see “the online world as the real world and the real world as a reflection of the online world,” says Bard.

The article is about Alexander Bard, a Swedish musician, activist, and celebrity who recently published his book Synthesism – Creating God in the Internet Age. The premise appears to be that the aforementioned collective consciousness fostered by the Internet not only transcends notions of statehood and the rule of law, but actually becomes a new, universally binding spiritual entity.

For context, I should remind readers that I am personally a confirmed and lifelong atheist, equally cynical about all religions and cannot actually relate to the need for such things, though I am not universally hostile toward that need. I stand by the intellectual premise that man has created God in his image, in one form or another, and this seems to be a foundation for Bard’s Synthesism — not so much that the Internet is God, but that the human need to create a holy presence is now manifesting in a new, global religion as we link together through technology. “The internet is 7 billion people connected together in real time,” says Bard, “and if that isn’t the holy spirit then I don’t know what it is.” Note: seven billion people do not presently have internet connection. Chinese citizens represent the most people online worldwide with 40% of that population of about 1.3 billion connected.

Piesing’s article states that Bard had his revelation at Burning Man “while spending the night lying next to a beautiful naked actress . . . I realised that rather than carry on writing books about the problems the internet was causing I should write about Syntheism.” Of course he did. Prophesies, naked actresses, and neo-primitive rituals notwithstanding, if Bard’s observation is right that digital natives are in fact inverting their perception of the real world and the cyber world, then it would stand to reason that the real world would come to reflect the cyber world, and that may be rather hazardous both economically and socially. As utopians seek to tear down what may be actual walls of oppression, they may blindly migrate into new castles made of unprecedented corporate power and the economy of mob rule. Because despite claims to the contrary — and as Russia proves — the Internet isn’t necessarily us so much as it can become the us its owners choose to project or even manipulate. Even Facebook’s constant reprogramming of the news feed its algorithms decide we “really want to see” is a subtle example of this paradigm.

In all likelihood, I suspect many digital natives are not quite so susceptible to the more outlandish promises of these utopian views as we sometimes imagine. Yes, across the room in my local coffee house, sit three teenagers, shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes on their devices, thumbs working; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to grow up incapable of distinguishing between real life and these information gadgets. To the contrary, there is perhaps just as much reason to expect that digital natives are so accustomed to this universe that they will be even more savvy than their Xer and Boomer parents when it comes to finding balance. It isn’t really a new challenge in the U.S. American history is lined with fissures caused by the natural tension between freedom and laws designed to protect those freedoms. And yes the Internet is a new frontier still unsettled in this regard. If, on the other hand, it turns out the Internet is going to be the new God, I am reasonably sure it would be an Old Testament, psychopathic God, so let’s try to avoid that, shall we?

Posted in Digital Culture | Tagged , , , , , | 87 Comments

Jennifer Lawrence in a Nude of Her Choosing

I had to call attention to this article by Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic about Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photo shoot for Vanity Fair.  The photo itself is brilliant as is Garber’s analysis of it. Lawrence’s calling the hacking of her private photos a “sex crime” is entirely reasonable. And I am reminded why I care about copyright, why it still matters in the digital age, and why those who say, “Forget it, you’re fighting against the future,” are at least lazily cynical and at most hopelessly corrupt.  Permission is the foundation of copyright, just as it is the foundation for respecting another person enough not to “share” photos of her that she did not choose to distribute.  Permission is fundamental to civilization, yet somehow, the principle has been given a bad rap, treated as some sort of elitist barrier we must cross if we are to be free to play with these gadgets.  And I have no qualms asserting that this idea of permissionlessness, which has been championed as a digital-age value does emanate from a sexist psyche.  Permission deserves more attention than it gets.  Permission is the difference between a regrettable one-night stand and a rape.

Lawrence is talking about ethics. She’s talking about law. She’s talking about, essentially, decency in the age of digital reproduction. And she’s also, of course, talking about the tensions that inevitably exist in a world mediated by images. The line between objectification and empowerment is a notoriously thin one, particularly for women. Is that short skirt—or that low-cut shirt, or that nude Snapchat—liberating, or something else? In an environment saturated by images and therefore expectations, where does control end, and victimhood begin? “She” versus “her,” subject versus object … images, whether sent or stolen, capture all of those things.

Read Megan Garber’s full article here.

Posted in Copyright, Digital Culture, Photography | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Permanent Record: Technology in Schools

That’s going on your permanent record is a phrase that people from my generation anyway are  likely to read as satirical.  We’d say it today in mocking reference to those anachronistic threats made by teachers or school administrators to record indelibly some transgression or truancy we committed as children. The permanent record, they said, would follow us throughout time.  College admissions boards would know the trajectory of every spitball ever fired, or future, prospective employers would read every intercepted love note ever passed.  Of course, unless a kid committed an actual crime (and sometimes even then), the proverbial permanent record was usually a monster in the closet to be ridiculed in hindsight. But today, as technology is increasingly integrated into K-12 schools around the country, the idea of the permanent record returns, not as a fictional specter, but as a very real and pervasive concern for parents and the current generation of school kids.

This past August, California became the first state to enact a law that prohibits educational websites, apps, or cloud services used by schools from selling or disclosing personal information about students; from using collected data to market to students; and/or from compiling dossiers about students.  According to Natasha Singer writing for The New York Times, “The law is a response to growing parental concern that sensitive information about children — like data about learning disabilities, disciplinary problems or family trauma — might be disseminated and disclosed, potentially hampering college or career prospects.”

California is not the only state to begin to address the issue of privacy or to impose regulations on data collection or data use via technologies deployed in schools; but this recent law does appear to be the most comprehensive to date and may serve as a roadmap for updating federal laws to address these concerns.  Critics say the existing Family Education Rights and Privacy Act is antiquated, “written for the file-cabinet era,” writes Singer. Other states have passed some narrowly targeted laws restricting, for instance, the use of biometric data collected in schools where student fingerprints or handprints are used to pay for cafeteria lunches.  Or as Singer’s article points out:  Kansas forbids districts from collecting biometric details on minors, and from surveying them about religious, moral or sexual beliefs, without parental consent.  And that sounds okay I suppose, but I’m trying to imagine the technology that is both an educational enhancement and a collection point of information about personal data like sexual orientation.  This does beg questions regarding which technologies are being deployed to what purpose, and what kind of student data is part of the interaction?

It goes without saying that state-by-state, district-by-district, we are bound to see a broad range of adoptions or rejections of various technologies used in schools, either for educational or administrative purposes.  And it’s a safe bet that the employment of each technology will be a manifestation of the often-absurd alchemy of politics and economics that drive all decisions within schools, usually with mixed academic results.  As is the case in all other aspects of modern life, I suspect certain technologies will help students succeed and others will help students fail even faster and more stunningly than ever before.  We won’t really know for a generation, at which point analysis becomes somewhat Heisenbergian as the observers themselves will have been altered by the catalysts, and the catalysts remain in constant motion.

Considering the broad spectrum of potential uses and abuses of the data associated with education technology, it seems essential that federal law mandate the broadest possible protections for students and their families.  Marketing to kids is a concern, but it’s penny-ante poker compared to the potential hazards of over-reliance on technologies to track behaviors, trends, or strengths and weaknesses of individual kids from kindergarten through high school.

In principle, I imagine the primary benefit of technology tools in education should be to make more efficient use of limited resources in order to increase benefits for more children; but these technologies should have to prove their effectiveness and should never come at the price of mass data collection for use by either the private or the public sector.  American education is already too bureaucratic.  Politicians hobble our best teachers and reward our laziest ones with state-mandated tests and curricula that have little to do with actual learning; students apply to college now via computer and are lucky if human contact is part of the application process; and certain regions and economic sectors are still diagnosis-heavy, overeager to rely on psychotropic pharmaceuticals to address behavioral challenges that might not warrant drug therapy.  With these and other trends, we often do treat contemporary students as compilations of data, sometimes forgetting to see the children. So, if we already take too much of a bean-counter’s approach to education, and we pair that with technologies sold by companies that commoditize the counting of beans, don’t we risk fostering a generation of bean dip?

Posted in Digital Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Dawn of the Prankster

About two weeks ago, some disgruntled friends shared a story about Urban Outfitters apparently marketing a faded and blood-stained-looking Kent State college sweatshirt.  Then, in a follow-up story reported by Jordan Sargent in Gawker, an email sent by the retailer’s CEO Dick Haynes explains that the sweatshirt shown in their marketing materials was not representative of a new, purposely designed line of clothing but was a legitimately vintage item purchased at a Rose Bowl flea market and that the red stains on the shirt are not in fact blood.  The photo of the Kent State sweatshirt, according to the email, was being used to promote a new line of faded looks being offered by UO.  Assuming Mr. Haynes is telling the truth about the sweatshirt (and there is no reason to think he isn’t), the story is a pretty good example of so much that is wrong with marketing in the digital age.  In short, does the campaign reveal stupidity or ignorance?  And at what point do such distinctions cease to matter? Do the economics of the Internet expect everyone to become a prankster in order to win?

As Sargent rightly implies, the marketing team at Urban Outfitters almost certainly knew they were courting negative reactions by using the image of this sweatshirt because in the age of social media, controversy can be a great way to get campaigns to go viral. Still, it is not yet clear that “any press is good press” is a universally wise tactic for all brands.  Certainly, a brand can align itself on the side of certain issues, which can be a great link to customers whose values correspond with the brand.  But in the bizarre dynamics of social media, even a hater becomes an evangelist of sorts when he/she shares a story for the purpose of denouncing it.  If the story or campaign offends ten thousand people but appeals to one thousand customers, cha ching.  Not only does this achieve market penetration for pennies, but the people who hate your brand did your selling for you for free.  That said, this can be dangerous territory for a brand looking to build customer relationships over time. Being a shock-jock can backfire.  More importantly, brands and their marketing campaigns are themselves creators of culture and thus feed public consciousness, which is part of why I believe our reaction is so strong against this apparent trivializing of the Kent State shootings.  It becomes a form of revisionist history, which brings us to the question of ignorance in this story.

Jordan Sargent raises the possibility with regard to this sweatshirt campaign that “…various people involved in the transaction were too young to even realize the implications of selling a Kent State sweatshirt that looked like it was bloodstained”  This may be true, and if so, it is yet another unfortunate phenomenon of our times.  Despite the fact that we treated the dawn of Internet access as a great boon to education, we do seem to encounter frequent examples of digital natives achieving adulthood woefully ignorant of some rather significant cultural icons and events.  That anyone in the United States might enter the workforce, let alone in a communications role, without ever hearing of the 1970 shootings at Kent State is both extraordinary and, at this point, not the least bit surprising.  In fact, I personally wondered many years ago whether or not a glut of data (which is not necessarily information) might result in a decline in general cultural literacy.

It was the late 1990s, and I was creative director on a photo shoot in New York.  The photographer and I were joking around, making references to the Marx Brothers, and our comments were sailing over the heads of the models and assistants who were a good decade or so younger.  Who doesn’t know The Marx Brothers, I thought?  Their films were hardly contemporary when I was growing up; they were 40 years old.  Driving home from the shoot, I wondered if the volume and rate at which we were increasingly consuming sounds, words, and images might not have a deleterious effect on long-term memory of important cultural and historical items.  Add to this the ease with which information can be manipulated through the web, coincident with a general distrust of traditional news sources, along with marketers willing to gin up controversy to sell tee shirts, and you get a digital age Tower of Babel.

Perhaps one of the worst phenomena to manifest from all this is that it feeds moral absolutism, which believes the ends justify the means.  For a business owner, those ends might be selling some product, but in the world of civic affairs, this psychology produces more serious results.  We’ve occasionally seen hacktivists identifying as Anonymous meddling self-righteously in politics or in events like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and they’re free to make a mess of things once in a while because they can’t be held accountable.  It is the same psychology that produces the bottom-feeders at Reddit and 4Chan who would share stolen nude celebrity photos and produce rape and death imagery of Emma Watson in response to her speech at the UN on feminism.  But, interestingly enough, it is also the same psychology that produced a bizarre attempt to attack 4Chan.

In case you missed it, a site was created called emmawatsonyournext.com, which was purported to be the work of anonymous users at 4Chan and appeared to be hosting a countdown to the distribution of revealing photos of the actress.  But according to this story by Rich McCormick in The Verge, the countdown site was in fact a hoax and PR ploy designed to drive traffic toward a campaign to take down the 4Chan site for its exploitation of women.  Now, I personally don’t care if 4Chan disappears; it is of no value to anyone, and the only people who spend time on the site are either losers or FBI agents.  But this hoax of a campaign against the site is likewise exploitative of Miss Watson and the values of feminism, and even if it’s rather murky ends are anti-misogynist, its means are unacceptable.  Coincidentally, according to McCormick, it was Redditors who apparently identified the companies behind the hoax.

“Some Reddit users were able to sniff out the hoax before its countdown expired, and linked the company behind it to FoxWeekly, a site that plagiarizes from other news sources to solicit views and Facebook likes, and Swenzy, a company that sells followers, likes, and views.”

BUT . . .

According to other sources like The Huffington Post, the organization behind the Emma Watson leak hoax is called Rantic Marketing, except that there doesn’t appear to be any such company because, writes James Cook for Business Insider, “Rantic Marketing is a fake company run by a gang of prolific internet spammers used to quickly capitalize on internet trends for page views.”

So…

I guess what I’m driving at is that the Internet can be kind of a cesspool of idiocy, self-aggrandized hackers, and exploitative opportunists all filtered through the manipulative algorithms of social media’s walled gardens.  And I think the truth is that, even as adults, we are not innately good curators or editors of the fragments of information with which we choose to be bombarded. If nothing else, who has the time?  When I think about the digital native generation growing up in this environment, it’s hard not to wonder if the biggest hoax of all might not be credited to whichever prankster first called this “the information age.”

Posted in Digital Culture, Information, Social Media | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments