Monday, 21 September 2009

Tales from Cyberia: Tape-decks, Pathe News and Damien Hirst's Skull

This is a cross-posted blog from my course 'E-learning and Digital Cultures', part of my masters at the University of Edinburgh

Who is going to control the internet? Can it be controlled? Do we want it to be controlled?

Hand's analysis [1] of the differing 'narratives' on cyberculture seems to reveal two central themes - two lenses through which to view cyberspace. Lenses which, at first glance anyway, would seem to sit in stark opposition to each other. First, the belief that cyberspace will be a liberating space for society, removing barriers to communication, reducing the cost of creating value to almost zero and moving us away from the rigid, top-down control of governments. The other, a narrative that seems to be in almost bipolar opposition, is that the web is providing government and big corporations opportunities to mount assaults on our privacy and space which would have been previously unthinkable. And I can see both sides.

A piece by Charlie Brooker in last week's Guardian would seem to illustrate this quite well. Drawing together strands from a story about how "artist" Damien Hirst has gone all legal-handbags with another artist (Cartrain, a 19-year old would-be Banksy) who had the temerity to use an image of Hirst's much-discussed diamond skull piece in a montage he did, and how this relates to broader issues of copyright and ownership, Brooker then turns to comment on the increasingly hysterical legislation being mooted by the British government in response to file-sharing technologies. In short, the 'three strikes and you're out' rule is back on the table after, we can assume, a ferocious round of lobbying by the music industry. Brooker then says:

''In its heyday, the Radio 1 Sunday evening Top 40 countdown constituted the biggest file-sharing portal in British history, with millions of users hooked up simultaneously, mercilessly downloading content to their tape decks.'

And it was. I know this because I was one of those kids.

Old school

Did I know that I was breaking the law? No. I was completely unaware of issues of copyright and ownership. I was six for God's sakes. All I knew was that there was a machine in my living room which enabled me to record songs off the radio so that I could listen to them again when I chose to. Not when or where the record company said I should, but where and when I chose.

In terms of simple affordances , the only difference between BBC's Radio 1 Sunday Chart show combined with my Dad's tape-deck and modern peer-to-peer file-sharing softwares, is the fact that the latter is happening in corporation's faces. In public. Recording a track off of Radio 1 in 1985, a music executive had no way of knowing that such illegal activity was hapenning. Or even if he had known, he had no earthly way of doing anything about it.

It would seem that at the same time as new technologies have enabled people to share media and enabled data to be 'set free', the same technologies have enabled corporations to gain a window into a social habit which has gone on for decades. And to try to do something about it. You might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the solution would be for them to go where the kids are and, you know, start working on online services that deliver quality, value-for-money products in a manner in keeping with the times, but no, you'd be mistaken. Law-suits, apparently, are the way to go.

Time for a little bit of history.

Older school

My father (80 years young this year) recently told me stories of how during the early 1950's he and his friends would gather at each other's houses to play vinyl records and share music. Was this 'filesharing'? Did it constitute illegal activity? Were they breaking the law?

Similarly, my father also told me a tale (just this weekend gone) which caught my attention: during the Second World War, Ireland (my home) was officially 'neutral', meaning it had no strategic allegiance with either Allied or Axis powers. This led to some fairly weird behaviour from the Irish state. One of their more peculiar notions was to place a ban on the broadcast and showing of all war footage - so those wonderful old Pathe New reels which British audiences crowded into cinemas to watch, were not shown in the Republic of Ireland.

But, my father told me conspiratorially, the word on the street was that should you know the right person in Dublin, access could be got to small, select private screenings of war footage which were held on the quiet in backstreet Dublin cinemas. Due to the bootleg nature of the footage, it was not the sanitised, 'good war' morale-boosting footage which London audiences saw. Instead it was raw, hideously violent rushes shot on European battlefields which showed the true carnage of battle.

So, did the censorship rules implemented by the Irish government (to stop 'filesharing' of contraband materials) actually facilitate a small number of Irish citizens actually being better informed about the realities of what combat troops were facing than the folks over in London? Perhaps.

I couldn't help but think that, occasionally, the invasion of corporatism into technologies often results in unforseen consequences - cultural and social changes that can't be predicted. And can't be controlled. That the battle for control of new technologies and the frequently absurd squabble over increasingly complicated copyright issues can lead to cracks in the spaces betewen the desires of end users and the corporations trying to protect their wares. I'm thinking this could be an interesting theme to track.

Note: it's interesting perhaps that the British Pathe News reels site which I linked to above plays a vast archive of fantastic footage, but doesn't allow for embedding. They're not still worried about reproduction rights are they?


[1] Hand, M (2008) 'Hardware to everywhere: narratives of promise and threat', chapter 1 of Making digital cultures: access, interactivity and authenticity. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp 15-42.

No comments: