May 28, 2010

Setting Up to Fail

I just love TED. It stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and its site has online 20-minute talks by thinkers in all fields that talk about ideas. It is phenomenal. So much of what you get on TV and the internet nowdays is about celebrity; this site is about thinking.

Yesterday, I watched this amazing talk given by Larry Lessig, who is a lawyer and professor whose passion is copyright and the internet. His talk on laws that choke creativity here gave me so much to think about it’ll be on my mind for days. Let me try to explain.

Larry began with three stories leading to a point:
1) In the early 1900s, musician and composer John Philip Sousa traveled to D.C. to protest the phonograph because he was afraid that it would replace the actual singing by actual people ~ in other words, change our culture from a read-write one to a read-only one. Larry points out that that is exactly what has happened. We are a society of consumers of art and culture, not creators. Culture has become top-down and professionalized and the vocal cords of millions have been lost.
2) It used to be, when you owned property, you owned it from way deep in the ground on way up into the sky, but that changed when planes began to criss-cross the country. Judge Blackstone ruled that it did not make common sense because a transcontinental flight would trespass on millions of people’s land.
3) In the early 1900s, the organization ASCAP controlled the rights to all the most popular music, and then an upstart BMI came along and set up a service that took the music that was a little less popular and made it available more freely. In that battle, BMI won.

What Larry advocates for is the revival of a read-write culture, for people taking their voices back on internet platforms that support user-generated content (or usg). Specifically, places online where content can be used freely for amateur use but must be licensed for business use. What these platforms do, he says, is celebrate amateur culture. This does not mean “amateurish”; it means people being creative for the love of it, not for the money. He showed three great examples: 1) serious vampire anime set to the muppet song “Ma Na Ma Na,” 2) Jesus singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” through the streets of NYC, and 3) cleverly arranged clips of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair dubbed to the duet “Endless Love.”

The techniques of creativity have been democratized, Larry says. All you need is a home computer, and you can create whatever type of content you’d like. He called it “remix.” I love this: He said that it is “the literacy of this generation.” He ended by saying that our kids really are growing up in a different world. Where we are consumers of culture, they are creators. We listened to music, they create it. We watched movies, they create them. We read, they write.

However, the legal system as it is set up creates the presumption that what our kids are doing is illegal, that using content in this way is piracy. The internet is not like previous forms because each use creates a copy. Pre-internet, copies were piracy, but now, just to use something you create a copy, and that should not be considered piracy.

His final point was that we are creating a prohibition society, where in order to live we have to live against the law. Our kids are growing up with the presumption that they must be pirates in order to live.

Without making this post too much longer, I wanted to point out a few things as it relates to writing: 1) The internet has enabled writers to put their stuff out to audiences without a middleman ("disintermediation"), which means both that we are overwhelmed with content and that there are no gatekeepers ~ in both the good and the bad sense. We have control of our own voice. 2) This is exactly what is causing so many challenges in the publishing industry. 3) Remix, or mash-ups as they are called in the lit world, is not just a passing fad; they are a fact of our culture (though I would argue that they have always been around). 4) It both thrills me and scares the daylights out of me to think about how this affects my son and my daughter.

What I’m Reading Today: Started Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie for book club. Oh, how I wish I could’ve read this when I was 12! It reminds me, so far, of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, although the spunky voice reminds me of Charles Portis's True Grit.

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