Will You Be a Consumer or Creator?

Virtual communitarian Howard Rheingold pens an essay on the ‘Smart Mobs’ — the ad hoc networks of individuals using technology to coordinate their actions, be it by cell phone, text messaging, Internet. He correctly identifies the source of ongoing technology struggles and the conflict between people’s desire to use technology to create and build and the corporate desire for technology to facilitate consumption:

Are the populations of tomorrow going to be users, like the PC owners and website creators who turned technology to widespread innovation? Or will they be consumers, constrained from innovation and locked into the technology and business models of the most powerful entrenched interests?

This is how I’ve come to view the current struggles over copyright, intellectual property, digital rights management, Internet broadcasting and even pirate radio. The entrenched powers — primarily the entertainment/communications/culture cartel — desire to have full control over all these arenas in order to maximize their ability to profit from their use. Overwhelmingly, the interest of our representatives and regulators is to maintain and facilitate that control, rather than to question or constrain it. Indeed, their own personal power is excessively intertwined with that of cartel — they rely upon the cartel to pay attention to them, to mediate their message and thus make sure they can be elected or appointed again (and again).

I use the word cartel, but not conspiracy, because the collusions happen out of opportunity and fleeting shared interests, rather than a coherent and engineered strategy. Like OPEC, members of the entertainment/communications/culture cartel often are at odds with one another and have competing interests, such as the debate between movie studios and the electronics industry over digital TV rights management. The cartel is not strictly hostile to the idea of you and I being creators. Indeed, they’ll embrace it when it seems like it will get us to buy computers, video cameras, scanners and the like. But they’ll just as quickly slash away at it when it seems as though it erodes at their profits — like when CD burners are used to copy CDs. There’s no rhyme or reason, just knee-jerk reactions to preceived loss of control, and therefore, profit.

Control really is the primary issue, because the cartel has come to believe that it is a necessary prerequisite for maximum profits. They might profit when you use the camcorder to videotape your child’s graduation, but they profit more when you have to use their equipment to edit it, and then use their proprietary compression scheme to encode and distribute it over their server network, which will not allow it to be played on anything but their playback technology.

It seems simplistic, and the normal impulse is to hope it’s more complex. We hope that corporate executives will see the value in sharing and openness and see how there might be a path to profits if it were embraced. And yet, time and again an embrace of openness lasts only until the gravy train runs out — until the smaller fish is eaten by the bigger fish and the new CEO says openness is too much of a risk, or too unproven. The desire to control always wins.

Sadly, the deisire to control knows no end — hence the perpetual extension of copyright so that corporations can keep characters and works under their control long past the death of the original authors. It’s never satiated because there’s always something out there that slips through the cracks.

Sounds pretty fascist, doesn’t it ? (Just replace the state with the corporation) That’s because it is. But it’s also horrifically conflicted and paradoxical because the titans of the cartel don’t see themselves as fascist, and still tithe to the church of freedom and democracy. They sin on Saturday night and atone on Sunday morning. So the control they desire is never yet completed, and they’re even themselves conflicted about whether they want it (or can somehow justify it). But that doesn’t stop their efforts at attaining it every chance they get.

And that doesn’t take away from their absolute and primary logic and desire — the entertainment/communications/culture cartel fundamentally want to make stuff for you to buy, that’s what they do and everything else is secondary (an externality). They might let you create, even help you create, but once that interferes or just appears to interfere with their ability to sell you shit, then they’ll leap over mountains to rip that creative ability out of your hands. Unless, of course, they can buy the product of your efforts so that they can resell it at a major profit (this is done best when they employ you and so nothing you produce is yours to begin with).

Trying to conceive of this opposition in any other terms only needlessly complicates and blurs what’s going on. As soon as you begin to think that maybe a member of the cartel is on your side is when you actually cede control to the cartel. Sure, Sony might want to defend your home taping rights right now, but they’ll turn on you in a heartbeat if their next self-interest determines a different course (like, when you’re copying one of their CDs).

The problem with this analysis is that it’s only analysis, and I’m perfectly aware of that. But it does help us figure out our tactics and approaches. If we want to live in our own culture it’s near impossible to completely ween ourselves off the cartel’s milky teat, nor extract ourselves from its web.

I’m not advocating a pure existence, separated from the media cartel. Instead in our world I’d like to see the cartel put out of business. But until then it’s critical to recognize our own place within the conflict. We are both consumers and creators, and I’m certainly doing my damndest to hold on to my right to continue being a creator. I hope you will too.

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