November 17, 2003

Copyright and Missing the Point of the Computer

by Nick Montfort · , 9:31 am

A week and a half ago I went to Copyright and the Networked Computer. Noah was there too. There were lots of lawyers.

I enjoyed and learned from the presentations and questions and from many of my conversations with lawyers, computer scientists, and others. It was nice that some people appreciated the public domain and appropriationist art (and that all art is appropriationist to some extent), but hearing from staffers on “both sides” of the issue in the House of Representatives left me feeling unwell. The framework of the discussion simply seemed wrong. So I’ll leave the trip report duties to Noah and post something polemic instead.

I gave a short talk, “Condemned to Reload It: Forgetting New Media.”

The shorter talk I should have given is “Stop Handcuffing My Mind.”

10 Responses to “Copyright and Missing the Point of the Computer”

  1. .M. Says:

    Spot on.

    >Given that we’re a society that values free >expression and the exchange of information, what >laws can we pass or what research can we fund to >further promote file sharing?

    Make it easier to fund and distribute re-mixable (and sampling friendly) art.

  2. nick Says:

    I suggest that we need the freedom to think and in reply I hear that we need easier ways to fund and distribute re-mixable art. Who cares?

    I mean, I do, but who am I? Sample-based art is not an issue native to the computer and it isn’t an issue that ordinary computer users care about. File-trading’s purpose is not to enable people to remix and appropriate different media, but to exchange information for this and hundreds of other reasons. The point of my wish-I-had-given-this speech is to try to expand the constituency opposing so-called “Digital Rights Management” to all computer users, not to narrow it once again to people working in re-mixable and re-mixed media.

    I find that sample-based art can be compelling, provocative, and aestehtically appealing; I certainly support such art myself and point others to it when I like it. But if Negativland is going to be the poster boy for this debate, we’ve already lost. We might as well go home and sort our audio and video clips while we still can, before the next, more restrictive legal regime falls into place.

  3. John Arras Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed “Stop Handcuffing My Mind”, since you’re right about people wanting to take away and cripple computers. On the other hand, they’re right on some level since computers let people copy data easily. Why don’t they care?

    It’s not nice to say this, but I don’t think that most people understand computers. They can use computers to do things that are close to something they can do in real life (read email, surf the web, write papers and fill in spreadsheets), but not go much beyond that. Computers are merely recording/playback devices or “bookkeeping” devices that make things they would do in the real world easier by taking away some of the tedious details. This is related to Chris Crawford’s idea that interactivity trumps recording/playback on computers.

    And there’s the problem. The power that lets people copy things easily is the same power that lets people use computers to create things, as well. And, the people in power can see and understand the copying part, but they don’t understand the computational part. The part that begins with humans teaching computers to do things that the computers then do in ways that the users never imagined.

    For example, mixing music is ok. But what if we instead used examples of music to teach the computer produce new music based on the rules you’ve entered into it? That’s much more compelling and interesting to me, since it’s not something I could do outside of a computer. The fact that the computer can come up with things I never entered into it in ways that will surprise me is what I think computers are about.

    I hate to say it, but this debate will probably be won by the other side, simply because most people can only use the computer to do things that they’ve been shown how to do, but they can’t imagine the possibilities of what computers can be. Therefore, the scary thing that they understand will outweigh the beautiful potential that they don’t understand.

    I also don’t see how to educate people except by making them take a lot of math and CS and forcing them to understand how computers work. It took me years to understand that computers were not recording/playback devices.


  4. john Arras Says:

    I don’t know how to talk to Congress, but I would suggest talking money. Explain to them that computers will always be able to hurt the small copyright industry, but if computers are crippled or taken away, then the entire economy suffers. Science is slowed down, things become more expensive and less efficient. I think this will be a much better argument. Unless other people are making that argument already and you’re making the artistic argument. :)


  5. nick Says:

    John, thanks for these incisive comments and for your constructive ideas. You’re right that “freedom to think” may be a better popular argument than it is an argument to Congress — freedom to think will always lose out when quantifiable corporate interests oppose it.

    But it seems to me that what is threatened is not just science and technological progress, but all sorts of innovation that rely on the comptuer as a way to communicate and extend our thought. This includes business innovation, artistic innovation, educational innovation in non-science subjects, and so on. It’s really a very general argument about the ability to think in powerful and new ways, and it affects an entrepreneur as much as an artist or computer scientist. The problem is that it’s harder to quatify than in a decrease in CD sales, so our ability to think may go to the sacrificial altar in an attempt to appease Britney (or more specifically, her corporate masters). That is, unless there’s a good argument about how these restrictions would have an economic impact, as you suggest.

  6. noah Says:

    Extremely well put, Nick.

    It seems to me that something like The Hollings Bill can get people riled up about the importance of preserving the general-purpose computer. But the slow death by DRM — rather than by dramatic, draconian, coordinated industry/government mandate — doesn’t set off the alarm bells. It feels optional. Its proponents have many other stated reasons for pushing it.

    Eloquent statements like yours can help us begin to understand why we can’t slow our efforts to educate and organize resistance to the closing of our computers just because no Hollings-like spectre currently poses an easily-explained threat.

  7. .M. Says:

    nick, you’ve misconstrued my re-mixable art remark by taking it in the context of already sampled material.

    >The point of my wish-I-had-given-this speech is >to try to expand the constituency opposing so->called “Digital Rights Management” to all >computer users, not to narrow it once again to >people working in re-mixable and re-mixed media.

    I was thinking about media specifically created around your point, not flag-waving for sampling artists. We liked your posting because it was original. If you want to widen the audience for your idea than I think you need to encourage more vehicles for reflecting the countless malleable facets of the subject matter. From where I sit, not enough is being done to encourage this on a simple level. Only the story matters.

    I think more stories like this should encompass more overt use of digitally malleable (not re-mixed) expression in the telling. Not to necessarily promote sampling culture as it currently stands but to help level the playing field for social justice.

    Artistry in the telling improves the chance that diverse groups will seize the opportunity to iteratively develop the message for their local audiences. How better to communicate the computer to a mass audience than through media you can re-compile?

    What you have articulated, an awareness of the trend towards stifling thought, is largely incomprehensible to so many people. It needs more than a push from you CS lot. It needs to be communicated simply, powerfully, artistically.

    Your freedom to think is unhampered by the confusion and overwhelming unfamiliarity that other people face when dealing with even the thought of computers. Forget Negativland, how about more

    You asked a broad question. Feel free to think about my suggestion. Not everyone is going to read your speech, however eloquent. Some will wait for the movie.

    You have a job to do to explain the gift of computing freedom in a way that doesn’t require math, CS, or a war budget. I see it only succeeding as a distributed process. Story-telling as an arcane iteratively developed re-mixable artform is evolving away from the US, away from Hollywood and I passionately believe that exposure to re-mixable interactive art is an education in itself.

    I think it’s time that computer scientists used every trick in the book to communicate. How about tapping into the mechanisms that allows this debate to spark and freeing the idea from academia? Create linear passive audiovisual media as re-mixable (not re-mixed) art and leave it for open-ended play. Allow the majority to access passively as they always do but let the minority fiddle, in the hope of unlocking those handcuffs.

    John writes “I also don’t see how to educate people except by making them take a lot of math and CS and forcing them to understand how computers work.”

    Hence my point. People who understand technology can’t always see the wood for the trees. It’s still there. We need to try harder to reveal the DRM mindset to more people in the hope that this reality is not wanted by the majority. And yes, I guess that means no more glib one-liners from me!

  8. nick Says:

    Ah, I see your point now – that we should express this message about computers using their full capabilties, and that we should find more ways to allow people to use them as thinking tools and as mixing devices in the process of making this point about their use.

    Yes, I certainly agree. I don’t think it’s a discussion that should be restricted to a conference in D.C., a text Web page, and postings on a blog. It’s only because I’m most comfortable in these sorts of forms and media that I rely on them.

    I do think that a large range of people – not just those in computer science – use the computer to think, and mix, in many ways already. In many cases, it’s more a matter of highlighting these uses (computer science and such not required!) and not letting them get swept under the rug by the recording industry. In terms of engaging people about the topic, a multi-media campaign, and one that employed the computer as a creative, communicative system, would certainly do better than a few articles by various people on the Web.

    And yes, I guess that means no more glib one-liners from me!

    You are welcome to post as many lines as you like (including one), I may just glibly misunderstand at times…

  9. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum Says:
    Condemned to Forgetting My Mind
    Via GrandTextAuto: Two blistering short essays by Nick Montfort, “Condemnend to Reload It: Forgetting New Media” and “Stop Handcuffing My Mind.” The one is about preservation and the other is about copyright, but they’re really both about both and both

  10. .M. Says:
    Copyright and Missing the Point of the Computer
    I’ve been getting stuck into arguing the case for more re-mixable art in a thread on grandtextauto.

Powered by WordPress