III. The Inevitability of SOPA
My blog will not go dark today. It’s not because I find SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) or PIPA (Protect IP Act) anything but dangerously neanderthalic. But I’m not going to take part for three reasons.
1. I think it's much more effective to talk about it than to go dark.
2. The arguments bandied about are weirdly schizophrenic. On the one hand, these bills are supposed to be completely ineffective because the internet is so quick to adopt to any changes. On the other, these bills will completely destroy the internet. Which one is it?
2. I simply don’t think it will pass. Certainly SOPA will at least have a difficult time of it. And even if both bills do pass, President Obama indicated that he’d veto them. The White House is far too close to Google - and far too beholden to Google’s most devoted users - to alienate them by signing this bill. There may be the votes to pass, but there can’t possibly be enough votes to override his veto.
But even if SOPA and PIPA don’t pass this time, the day is surely coming when a bill like it does. A country so resolved to remain in the 20th century will stay there while the world passes it by. Hundred year old multinationals cannot simply be expected to sign their death warrants, even if they’ve long since outlived their usefulness. We reap what we sow, and like the turn of the 20th century, the turn of the 21st is an era when government is expected to kowtow to the interests of big business. Just as in the former era, there will be intermittent progressive attempts to curb big business influence - in the former case from the Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson administrations. But ultimately, the attempts to stop business from controlling our every transaction will be feeble until business itself fails. The only thing that will ultimately stops the growing influence of people with too much money is their own stupidity. From 1901 to 1921, all sorts of attempts were made to stop corporations from accumulating more power. At best, these attempts only slowed their growth and led businessmen to elect Harding and Coolidge - two presidents who basically allowed big business to run the country. And just like that period of history, the only thing that could stop the growth of big business is a complete economic disaster like the Great Depression. So please realize, the failure of these businesses often have worse consequences than their success. And during the Great Depression, a third of the country was sent to breadlines - exactly the sort of situation President Obama and Chairman Bernancke stopped from occurring during the first year of the Obama presidency... so more power to them, there are some things more important than curbing big business.
I probably take a different tack on the whole issue from others. Generally speaking, I don’t like file-sharing as an activity. Like any self-respecting hypocrite I’ve certainly done it, but I find the whole idea that we shouldn’t pay for the music and movies we love to be wretchedly ungrateful. But on the other hand, there’s a significant difference between remuneration and robbery. When the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, it cost 25,000 pounds to make. It has now sold 32 million copies and probably made EMI close to half-a-billion dollars. Not every album sells so exorbitantly (only 14 have sold more), but once an album sells past a certain point, it has reached the ultimate redundancy. There is no justification for either selling Sgt. Pepper at a high price, or for buying it. People can simply copy one another’s CD’s, or share files with one another of the album. An album so ubiquitous and well known is the ultimate defninition of the public domain. To prosecute people for unlawful distribution of something 2% as ubiquitous as Sgt. Pepper would be incredibly stupid. You’d have to indict us all. One has to remember that every CD which you buy for 16 dollars generally costs a dime to manufacture - a 3,000% markup. The initial result of this was a seventeen year long cultural dark age from which we only awakened because of the advent of file sharing. Lest that seem hyperbolic even for me, let me elaborate.
The problem is not just the executives from record companies or movie studios, the problem is their publicists, their artists, and their artists’ public - us. For the moment, let’s just focus on the example of music. The raw material from which CD’s are made cost 15 cents at most - the case and booklet together cost a whopping 30 cents. There are three small royalty fees which every CD manufacturer must pay to Philips, Thompson, and Discovision for patenting different parts of the manufacturing process, but the additional overhead is minimal. Furthermore, most of the big record companies own their own manufacturing plants, so they don’t even have to buy the CD’s wholesale. The true expenses of an album come from the need to cover marketing, promotion, artist fees, and royalties. Once those factors are tabulated into cost, there is an additional markup to however much the companies think they can charge without dissuading people from buying. In other words...if people weren’t stupid enough to buy music just because it’s heavily marketed, CD’s wouldn’t cost so much in the first place.
And if this weren’t enough, there is the additional factor that music labels know that most of their CD’s will lose money. No matter how much publicity they put into their albums, they know that at least 4 out of every 5 will not sell at the level they hope. Therefore, the albums must be still more expensive to recoup the losses of all the albums that lose money.
The result of this was fifteen years of a market in which stupid people were told what stupid movies and music to like by stupid corporations. Corporations run by people no smarter than us practically dictated our tastes to us - far more even than in the heyday of the Studio System and RIAA. You may not have liked certain genres of music or movies in the 60’s or 70’s, but at least you had a choice. In the 1980’s, we saw a new phenomenon which has yet to completely leave us - focus grouped art. Thanks in large part to the generational divisions of the 60’s, both American movies and music bifurcated into all sorts of subcultural tastes. The older generation liked big bands and Westerns, the younger generation liked rock bands and gangster movies. The Left liked folk music and Easy Rider, the Right liked country music and Dirty Harry. Blacks liked American R&B and blaxploitation, whites liked British R&B and B-movies. The American arts had lost their mass appeal, and so many corporate executives longed for a way to create art that appealed to every demographic.
Depending upon how you look at it, the results were either a badly needed remergence of mass appeal, or a kind of synthetic tyranny. It can’t be argued that much of this new mass art, particularly in the early years, was done with enormous intelligence. Surely a movement that includes Star Wars, ET, Back to the Future, the Indiana Jones Movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the early movies of the Disney revival, Bruce Springsteen, U2, MJ, Madonna, Prince, and Billy Joel (yes, Billy Joel), can’t be all bad. Just because you can’t run the risk of offending a certain demographic doesn’t mean that you have to divest yourself of all intelligence.
But the problem remains, what happens to artists who can’t fit in with what’s asked of them? Good craftsmen with no identifiable style of their own flourished during this period. There were all sorts of intelligent artisans with no distinctive traits of their own like R.E.M. and movie director, Ridley Scott, who found these limitations enabling rather than restricting - their very lack of style became a style in itself. Furthermore, there were all sorts of emotionally distant artists like David Bowie and Brian de Palma who could simply reinvent themselves to suit the tastes of the period. But what about artists like Bob Dylan and Francis Ford Coppola whose entire identity, philosophy, creative process was completely at odds with the limitations of the period? During this decade and a half, most truly individual artists seemed hopelessly adrift. Any artist who values challenge, truth telling, and emotional openness over entertainment value would find 80’s America to be an arid, barren era for creativity, as would their public. It should come as no surprise that the most important artistic innovation of the 80’s America - hip-hop - came from the South Bronx. In the poorest of America’s poor areas, no one even has enough money to be a consumer, and therefore they have to develop an art that has nothing to do with what the rest of the country consumes.
I was born in March 1982, five months before the production of the first CD - “The Visitors” by ABBA in case anyone wonders. Awaiting me a few years later was the first age in which sound recording evolved to the level that one could hear a virtual reproduction of exactly what you hear in a concert. I remember the first CD my parents ever bought (Sir Georg Solti conducting Brahms 2nd symphony) and I equally remember wondering where the tape hiss was. I was both lucky and unlucky enough to grow up in a cultural world of my own - classical music, Shakespeare plays, art museums...and if that wasn’t enough to make me weird, when I reached adolescence older I moved onto foreign films and classic literature. All those scary highbrow things which kids are not supposed to be interested in are precisely what I took to like a fish to water. But in this regard, I was almost completely on my own, and there was hardly anybody my age who understood those madcap passions of mine. Particularly as an otherwise learning disabled kid who had little to do with honors students, I learned to appreciated all these things in a state of almost complete isolation. Whatever I liked on my own time, I had better be ready to talk about the Orioles or Green Day if I didn’t want bullies to smell blood.
But something in the air began to change around the time I arrived at my second high school (a boarding school) in 1998. Rather than play chamber music with older kids as I had with my violin from the time I was six, I began to fiddle with various peers of mine who played the guitar. They didn’t necessarily seem more curious about different kinds of music than anyone else I’d known before them, but they did know more of it. How did they know more? Well, there were probably all sorts of reasons...but by my second year, file sharing was one of them. We weren’t allowed to download music at school, but when we went home, we certainly downloaded en masse and brought the results back with us. I’d go back and forth between the aspiring metal guitarist, the hippie jam-band guitarist, the southern roots guitarist, and they’d all want to learn each other’s songs, sometimes they already knew one another’s songs - sometimes very obscure ones.. In its way, it’s hard not to see it as a microcosm of precisely what happened all across American music in the early 00’s.
Thanks to the movies and music industries, the country developed a synthetic sense of cultural unity. We can all quote Star Wars and sing Thriller, but we were in fact more divided than ever because whenever we wanted to pursue any passion outside the cultural mainstream, we were made to think ourselves freaks who had to do so in isolation. Tastes that were meant to unite people divided us more than ever. It is only when people became free to openly pursue their passions for Italian Horror or Swedish Gothic Metal and allowed freely to share the things close to our hearts with others without fear of humiliation that music truly became a social activity again rather than a social obbligation. We may not share each other’s tastes, but at least we feel entitled to disagree as equals.
But all good things must come to an end, usually sooner rather than later. To human history, the presence of the Internet is so far the length of an eyeblink. It is inevitable that its explosive potential will be tamed and bridled, used for all sorts of evil purposes which we can’t yet even imagine. If corporations like Polygram and the NBA don’t manage to harness the internet for nefarious purposes, it’s entirely possible that Google and Facebook will, and to far more evil ends than the old giants ever thought of. And by the time we wrest ourselves free from them, the internet might be considered as stodgy and wasteful as automobiles are today. Some new invention will come into the public eye that revolutionizes human potential, and powerful people will always try to control it.
So this reckoning is coming, and one of the surest signs that we are headed toward a country-changing disaster is when bills to allow big business to control Internet content finally pass. As happens in all periods of history, an old guard on artificial life support tries to prevent the spread of anything new. The more these bloated giants succeed in stifling progress, the more destructive the disaster which occurs when they fall.