I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for june 2014

Is it vulgar to resource art?

2014-06-30 by Nick S., tagged as commerce

Not long after writing about the cost of feeling free last week, I happened to read that "managing money [is] a big problem for those who prefer to think of themselves above such vulgarities" in the Sydney Morning Herald's review (21 June 2014, Spectrum p. 36) of Justin Heazlewood's Funemployed: Life as an Artist in Australia (2014). A few pages later, the same paper reported on some of the artistic businesses behind this year's Vivid Sydney (Vivid breaks all records, p. 27).

Whatever the artists themselves think, I thought, there seem to be plenty of others who think artists ought to be above such vulgarities, as I've previously commented upon regarding free services supported by data collection, user-centric justification of copyright infringement, free content supported by advertising and Google's scanning of books.

Maybe I'd like to be above such vulgarities myself and, come to think of it, maybe everyone else would too except perhaps for the cynical types that Oscar Wilde described as knowing "the price of everything and the value of nothing". But I know that doing things requires resources and that many useful resources are not infinitely available. As noble as it might seem for my local fruiterer to give away apples to anyone who wanted them, for example, he won't be able to do it for long unless he obtains the resources to keep his orchard in bloom.

I think most people understand this reasonably well when it comes to physical goods like apples. Yet naïve free content advocates seem to at once think artistic goods so important as to have some sort of open access right attached to them, yet think that paying for them (that is, resourcing them) would be crass.

I think few people would doubt that commercial enterprises have contributed plenty of less-than-noble art to the world in pursuit of money. In fact, they've probably contributed plenty of less-than-noble products all of sorts. Yet nor does anyone produce great art without a significant input of time, labour and materials — and these cost money. (Sure, an artist can donate time and labour, but only so much as is left over after providing for his or her needs with some other source of money.)

Probably, both sides need to remind themselves that money is, at heart, a convenient proxy for providing and exchanging resources. Those who pursue it for its own sake (such those less-than-noble commercial enterprises) have been pilloried throughout history as superficial, greedy, and ultimately unsatisfied because money is, in itself, not particularly useful or interesting. On the other hand, those who think they (or someone else) can do without it might need to consider how much they could achieve without any resources.

"Feels free" and the data collection business

2014-06-19 by Nick S., tagged as commerce, privacy

Ashlin Lee and Peta Cook contributed another article on surveillance to The Conversation this week, this one highlighting what they see as the inadequacies of the Reset the Net campaign. They say that "while the campaign is laudable in its efforts to raise the issue of surveillance, there are some glaring oversights present", mainly because the campaign neglects the huge amount of data collection undertaken by non-government actors, including some of the campaign's own supporters.

All this drew the usual cluster of comments bemoaning the surveillance society in which we supposedly live. The trouble is, as I saw it, the targeted advertising for which this data collection is essential is what enables all the "free" services that are so popular with Internet users. Consequently, avoiding or eliminating it is not so straightforward as naïve anti-surveillance commenters (and, indeed, Reset the Net) seem to suppose.

George Burns followed up with a suggestion that early "cypherpunks" and academic free-content advocates provided the foundation for the present dominance of corporate advertising by insisting that content be provided free of charge. It's hard to say whether or not cypherpunks and academics in particular were responsible for the preponderance of advertising on the Internet, but the widespread expectation that Internet services be provided free of charge is surely a major contributor to it.

Working in copyright and technology, I occassionally heard someone suggest that music retailers could combat copyright infringement with a business model that "feels free", which I supposed to mean some sort of comes-with-music or ad-supported approach in which buyers don't pay for individual tracks. There may be some merit in such models, and "feeling free" certainly works well for Google even if its success in many other endeavours might be debatable. But "feels free" implies "ignorant of the cost", leaving Google and Facebook users acting surprised and offended whenever the data collection activities of these services are mentioned.

I've previously contemplated re-badging so-called "free content" as "ad-enabled content" to more accurately reflect the mechanism by which it is resourced. A harsher critic might suggest that "surveillance-enabled services" would make the message even balder. Either way, it's hard to see how data collection, corporate messaging and other annoyances can be addressed without confronting the business models by which the services in question are delivered.

On being replaced by technology

2014-06-08 by Nick S., tagged as artificial intelligence, employment, prediction

By way of celebrating fifty years of IEEE Spectrum, the June 2014 issue investigates some technological trends that it hopes will bring us "the future we deserve". Tekla S. Perry (pp. 40-45) describes a part of this future in which computer-generated humans become indistinguishable from actors captured on film. Explaining why we need to create fake humans when we already have seven thousand million real ones — and plenty of them out-of-work actors to boot — takes some doing. Perry makes some interesting points in this direction, but I nonetheless winced on behalf of all of those already-underemployed actors who might be wondering if Tesla's future leaves them with anything to do.

Fears that we'll all be put out of work by automation go back a long way. Contemptuous dismissals of such fears, and attendant references to Luddism, probably go back nearly as far. The really interesting thing about replacing the work of actors (if it were to happen) is that we'd be replacing something that people actually enjoy doing, not just some tedious chore that they do for the money. As much as an anti-Luddite might assure me, for example, that the growing economy will find me a new job if university teaching were to be replaced by technology, would I find the new job as inspiring as the old one?

One solution for those who enjoy now-automated tasks is to simply continue to do them as a hobby, just as I and other mediaevalists hand-make costumes, beer, embroidery, and other things even though machines can make the same with much less effort. But that does seem to doom us to spending the best eight hours of every day in uninspiring work done just for the money, fitting our passions into our spare time.

By coincidence, The Drum had Alan Kohler take on automation and unemployment in the same week that I read Spectrum. According to Kohler, "automation is suppressing employment, wages and inflation and will do so for a decade or more to come", giving headaches to central bankers attempting to set policies that increase employment while controlling inflation. This is all great for the owners of said machinery, though, who can obtain all of the revenue from their output without having to pay any workers.

Kohler's argument is too sketchy, and my knowledge of economics too weak, for me to say much about his claim. But the potential for automation to create inequality is also a recurring theme in Spectrum's examination of the possible downsides of its futures: those who control technology can use that power to create even more technology and gain even more power, while the rest languish in technological powerlessness.

The threat in Kohler's and Spectrum's dystopias isn't that automation will one day throw masses of people out of work, as the archetypal Luddites might have feared. It's that automation will slowly transfer dignity and power from the broad mass of people to an elite few who control the system. I doubt that many people miss the drudgery faced by mediaeval peasants, who have now been largely replaced by machinery in developed nations. But will we be so glad to give up the passion, autonomy and self-respect that inspires artistic and professional lifestyles?