2013 – The year the conversation changed.

Yes, I have a hangover, but not from drink, just from imbibing all that was the year 2013.  It was a rough one on a lot of levels both for me and for many of my friends.  I don’t know why the year seemed to bring so much bad news, but I did see a lot of folks comment on Facebook that they are only too eager to bid ’13 good riddance.

With regard to the issues covered on this blog, though, my sense is that 2013 was a good year inasmuch as I would characterize it as a time when the conversation seemed to reflect broader contemplation into what the future might look like as we come to terms with our digitally enhanced selves.  Translation:  people don’t seem to be willing to buy Silicon Valley’s world view without asking some tough questions.  I hate doing chronological recaps.  It’s a patience thing.  Once I know exactly what needs to be written, I’m already bored with the process.  So rather than walk though a top-ten highlights from the year, I’ll point to what I believe has been the most dramatic shift, and that’s an observation that the populist facade of big internet companies has started to crack and reveal the typical corporate self-interest we’ve come to know and wisely scrutinize.

One of the challenges with digital life is that as our gadgets become more appendage-like and the data-in/data-out flow becomes more like the functioning of a vital organ, the more we perceive this constant exchange as an extension of our identities.  At least one potential hazard in this ontological fog is that it’s easy to forget that the very big computers making it all work are owned by very big corporations making very big money. And when those very big corporations want to influence public policy, I would argue that no industry in history has ever enjoyed the privilege of promoting its own interests as so intrinsically and viscerally aligned with the interests of billions of its customers.  It’s just too damn easy for Google & Co. to say, “don’t let them break, hurt, weaken, control, limit, balkanize, censor….your internet.”  And while we certainly don’t want them to break our internet, it looks to me like 2013 woke a lot of people up to the fact that we ain’t exactly all in this together.

In April, Bill Moyers reported on the growing homeless population in otherwise you’ll-never-be-this-wealthy Silicon Valley, and as the year came to a close, we saw San Franciscans attacking Google shuttle buses in protest of that industry’s effect on the local real estate market.  The shuttles themselves — Facebook has its own — have become a symbol of the ivory-tower lifestyle enjoyed by the privileged minority who work for these companies and exist in a world separate from the middle class communities around them.  This portrait of alienation was central to the article Joel Kotkin wrote in May for The Daily Beast that speculated as to why these “new oligarchs” still enjoy popularity among progressives even as they contribute relatively little to the economy in terms of jobs and community involvement.  Combine these stories with questions about those secretive Google barges, Mississippi Attorney General Hood’s ongoing investigation into that company’s continued role in illegal drug trafficking, and the early December report that Google is backing some far right-wing organizations, and I think the progressive bona fides have been more than a little dented this year.  Additionally, even as the leaks by Edward Snowden spawned debate over the responsibilities of the intelligence community, it is encouraging to see that the counterpoint is not lost on people that we volunteer more information to social media giants every day than is collected by the NSA or any other federal agency.

With regard to creator rights in the digital age, I’d say it’s been a very good year; and I’m not looking at cases, lawsuits, takedowns, or arrests related to infringement.  We could keep score that way — 5 points for a takedown, 10 points for an arrest — and that certainly seems to be the way many self-proclaimed defenders of the internet like to view this “battle.”  But none of that matters unless we as a society still believe creator rights are worth protecting in the digital age, and by my reckoning, we still do.  Whether we watched the hearings in the House Judiciary Committee on copyright review or simply paid attention to trends among people on social media, my general sense is that most of us still fundamentally support creator rights as a social and economic good. At a time when economic prospects are uncertain, even Americans who don’t give a damn about copyright can understand the report released in November by the IIPA indicating these industries account for nearly 6.5% of GDP. And just in time for Christmas, came GoldieBlox, a toy company with a good message that did a bad thing with some artists’ work, and public sentiment instinctively seemed to favor the artists.

2013 also saw more well-known creators speak out about rights and royalties.  David Byrne and Thom Yorke, raised issues regarding the royalties paid to artists by streaming services like Spotify, and while other musicians have disagreed with them, the important thing is that creators are speaking out, not just the technologists. In June, the members of Pink Floyd warned fellow musicians not to trust Pandora’s efforts to push legislation that would lower royalties for streaming, and in November, Pandora abandoned its legislative efforts.  At the same time, other creative workers wrote a variety of editorials, including this very popular one by author/cartoonist Tim Kreider examining how the digital age has normalized an expectation in the market that creative people should want to work for free.  It’s become common practice even in B2B negotiations to suggest to a creative contributor that he might work for “exposure” rather than compensation, and we can hear the echoes of arguments for piracy (illegal file sharing) in this logic. Creative workers are responding with sharp, witty  blogs and OpEds, and the message is getting through that this work-for-free attitude, left unchecked, can apply to anyone, not just artists.  Moreover, with every reaction against new privacy and data-use policies by social media companies, everyday users are beginning to see the relationship between misappropriation of a professional’s work and misappropriation of their family snapshots.

The past year also saw more rigorous scrutiny of the underlying premise that the internet is a magical prosperity machine presently being sabotaged by Hollywood’s enforcement of its copyrights.  The premise didn’t hold up particularly well in hearings on copyright review on Capitol Hill, and the public message gets muddier every day as those who keep repeating this dogeared talking point are forced to define innovation and provide solid examples of the untapped potential being stifled.  In fact, in the August hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, the technology innovators called to testify in favor of copyright reform were all heads of companies that have thrived without copyright reform, and not one could produce a single statement as to how copyright was holding them back. Not that specific review and revision of these laws isn’t reasonable at this time, but 2013 was the year tech-utopian whimsy had to contend with a dose of reality.

I don’t have data on these observations regarding a shift in public perception; they’re anecdotal based on the volume and tone of commentary that was produced last year and the kind of sharing and secondary comments I’ve read. And if I’m right, why does it matter?  Because in January of 2012, a relatively small group of internet professionals and self-appointed amateur defenders of all things web successfully killed two congressional bills by convincing millions of people that public interest and this industry’s interests are one and the same.  What mattered then was not the bills themselves, but the process.  It frankly scared the hell out of me that the industry which owns the tools, writes the code, and wields extraordinary consolidated wealth could use its power not simply to control a story but to overwhelm the debate. I wondered then whether or not the industry had used up all of its populist credibility in one campaign, and I suspect it might have. As we move forward and continue the conversation about the future, it’s entirely possible that people will decide that notions of fairness, accountability, and respect for individual rights as reflected in our legal systems are not incompatible with digital life — that the internet changes many things, but does not change everything.

Here’s to a happy and legitimately prosperous New Year!

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