Coins to Tunes

Mom found one just like Grandpa's bank!As a six year old, one of my favorite things about visiting my grandparents in their small, southern Illinois town was the thrill of splitting the pile of change from my grandfather’s piggy bank with my brother.  It wasn’t a piggy, actually, but a portly, tonsured monk, complete with fake fur for hair. The classic Friar Tuck, really.  I’m not sure if it was supposed to be an image of frugality or a critical commentary on medieval monks. But either way, we were glad that my grandfather was frugal so that we could feel a 6 year old’s version of gluttonousness.

We don’t have a piggy bank these days, but the change abounds.  Which is why I loved seeing Kelly Hodgkins short piece at TUAW.

You are probably familiar with the coin-counting service Coinstar, which offers cash in exchange for your loose coins. Instead of receiving a cash voucher next time you turn in change, select an iTunes gift certificate and you will receive a receipt with an iTunes redemption code.

The funds will be added to your Apple ID and you can use it to buy iOS Apps, OS X apps, music, movies and books. Coinstar waives the coin-counting fee with these gift certificates, so you will walk away with your full balance. The coin-counting service occasionally offers an iTunes promotion thatll give you an extra $10 when you redeem a minimum amount usually $40. You can find promotions on Coinstars Special Offers webpage or be alerted via email when you sign up for a Coinstar account.

I’ve never used Coinstar machines because they charge that fee. But this looks like a great way to put that change to good use while bringing back the thrill of the coin pile.

Putting the Horse Before the Cart: Music Technology and John Hampton Edition

I’m a big fan of the recording magazine Tape Op. It has been around about a decade and is all about DIY music. They were maker before maker was cool. (Plus, the physical mag is beautiful and U.S. subscriptions are free!)

A couple of months ago, they ran an interview with John Hampton, Grammy winning engineer and producer of folks like Alex Chilton, the Gin Blossoms, The White Stripes, Travis Tritt, and Jimmy Vaughn. Musing on his experience of working as an engineer vs. a producer, he remarked:

I was driving home one day from work and heard “Honky Tonk Women” on the radio for the very first time. I heard that cowbell and then Charlie [Watts] come in – I pulled over and rocked out to the whole thing. When I started working here I got engineer ears; I started nitpicking everything. Slowly, but surely, the nitpicking became the captain of that ship. After working in the studio for a while I heard “Honky Tonk Women” again and I thought, “That sounds like crap.” I had engineer ears now. Then it hit me one day that I used to love that song and now I don’t like it. Has the song changed? I’ve changed, not the song. So I slowly started what turned into a ten-year venture. I turned that boat around, falling back in love with music instead of in love with technology and how it gets put together. The only way that I’ve been able to do that is by making what I do, the engineering part of it, so easy that I can do it with my eyes shut. Its all in the background.

That should be the goal, right? Do what you do, not what the gadgets let you do.

Focus on life, not on the tools you use to live it.

Techno Music and the Cat Piano: Everything New is Old Again

Cat Piano, 1883.

Cat Piano, 1883.

I love tech, and with each day it seems that we see something cool and totally new. But then, sometimes I run across things that remind me that some things we think are new started a long time ago.

This time around, the reminder comes courtesy of John Glassie in A Man of Misconceptions: The Life Of An Eccentric In An Age of Change. The book is a biography of Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest and scholar who lived and worked throughout Europe in the turbulent 17th century. Kircher is a fascinating and eccentric guy. He was a linguist and natural philosopher (what we now call a scientist) working in the turbulent dawn of the scientific revolution. He was on board with the notion of measurement and observation-based science, yet so steeped in traditional explanations of physical and medical phenomena that he never really committed to either one fully. He did some genius stuff, but also got many things completely wrong.

What surprised me, though, were two things that he developed in the 1640’s: a technological music composition system and the cat piano. And here I thought these were both invented to be used for today’s top 40 radio…


Christmas, Family, Media, and Music: 2012 and 1904

Just a quick interlude on this Christmas night. I hope that all of you have had a couple of nice days with your families (whether or not you celebrate the religious aspects of the day). We had a touch of snow last night on our way into Mass that made the evening as picturesque as could be.  Today was quiet, spent with family and friends.

Apparently, Netflix was down last night and this morning. As they put it at PhysOrg,

Families across the United States will have to rely on other sources of entertainment after Netflix’s video streaming service was hit by a Christmas Eve outage.

Rebecca Greenfield at  The Atlantic likely echoed the sentiment of many people when she wrote:

The service went down…during arguably one of the worst possible times ever, when many people stuck at home with their families would hope to seek a little refuge in some streaming movies.

So, wait, families don’t want to talk to one another?


Sounds and Selfhood

It is perhaps an understatement to say that music is important to a lot of people. Some of the best times of my life were spent playing, and some of the best conversations I have with students are about bands that they love. Like other art forms, music provides a way for artists to express themselves and listeners to experience another world, the world of the artist.  But it has an immediacy and power that can make even the most formal music feel intimate—and make a live rock show into a raw emotional experience for performer and audience alike.  It’s no wonder that some of the longest running battles in the digital world are about downloading music.

Even outside the live experience, music shapes our emotional lives. In their 1981 book The Meaning of Things, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton talked about the way in which recorded music is used modulate our emotions.  Sometimes, we do it to ourselves, as when we put on upbeat music before we go out in the evening.  Other times, other people try to get us in the mood, for instance in restaurants and shopping malls. But, for the most part, I think of these as innocuous—if at times tacky—uses.


ACTA, RIAA and Doctorow on “The Internet’s Original Sin”: Discourse Matters

A confluence of stories over the past few days has me thinking about the commerce, politics, and ethics of our current digital landscape. More specifically, why we spend so much time arguing about music piracy and ignoring other pressing concerns like privacy and digital divide issues. I think it has a lot to do with modes of moral discourse.

1) So, I’m gearing up to teach my “Technology Ethics” course again this fall. I haven’t taught it in a few years, so I am spending a lot of time updating case studies for the class. Tech changes fast, so cases become irrelevant pretty quickly.

One case, though, has stayed relevant since I started teaching courses on tech ethics ten years ago: music piracy. By 2002, Napster had already come and gone (at least legally speaking), and there was a general sense that something immoral—even if legal—had happened: culture had lost to commerce. So, while legally resolved, the question of music piracy did not die. Yesterday, Cory Doctorow wrote a really evocative piece at Locus Online about why it won’t die. He astutely describes music’s multi-level integration in human life, and in doing so, shows why it won’t go away anytime soon. As he puts it “Music exists in a sweet spot between commerce and culture, individual and collective effort, identity and industry, and digital and analog – it is the perfect art-form to create an infinite Internet controversy.” (The only thing I’d add to his great descriptive work would be the pervasiveness of music in religious ritual.)

2) Yesterday, the European Parliament rejected the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) by a vote of 478 to 39. ACTA, proposed in 2007 by the US and Japan, was aimed at coming to international agreement about how to reduce copyright infringement and counterfeiting. For years, it was negotiated in secret and was able to gain quite a bit of momentum within closed circles. But as the details were leaked over the last year, popular, hacker, political, and scholarly opposition mounted. Like the ill-fated SOPA/PIPA legislation in the US, while it had provisions that might actually reduce criminal activity, it also included provisions that would criminalize many common activities and fair uses. Opponents were—both within Parliaments and the public sphere—successfully made the case that the legislation did not fit the social and legal realities. (A lot of those links are to ArsTechnica. As far as I know, they were the only tech news source paying attention to ACTA in 2007.)

3) July 1 marked the possible start date for the new “Copyright Alert System” here in the United States. The CAI is a system of copyright oversight and education being implemented by internet service providers. It was developed as a part of the 2011 “Memorandum of Understanding” agreement between content creator organizations like the RIAA and MPAA and major IPS like Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, and Cablevision. This was a “voluntary agreement” by the participating bodies, but its presence shunted broader existing movements to offer legislation requiring law enforcement and ISPs to police copyright oversight. The July 1 date follows a previous implementation delay, and may not hold.

The most controversial part of the program requires ISPs to track suspicious peer-to-peer filesharing by their users. When suspected infringement has occurred, users will be notified, and if repeated, may be barred from internet connection. Many refer to this as “six strikes, you’re out” policy. The program’s oversight organization, The Center for Copyright Information, emphasizes the role of ISPs in raising awareness of copyright law, referring to it with the “big brother” sounding phrase “progressive educational system”. They have an advisory board that has some influential “internet civil liberties” folks, although the board may have little actual power. Despite the educational angle, their still remains a punitive edge to the whole system. (It reminds me a lot of the Hollywood’s “voluntary” adoption of the “Hayes Code” of self-censorship to avoid state-by-state legislation.)

So how does this all fit together? From the ashes of the Napster lawsuit rose a free culture movement that has worked to influence internet policy and social mores in the direction of pulling back on copyright protection in the name of spreading creativity and culture. The aforementioned Corey Doctorow is one of the movement’s most articulate proponents. Over the last few months, we’ve seen some high profile wins for the “free culture” movement, most notably the SOPA/PIPA defeat here in the US and the ACTA defeat in Europe.

Yet, despite these wins, the issue of copyright enforcement is not going away. While this version of ACTA is finished, many believe it is not last we’ll hear on the subject. The same goes for SOPA. If the Copyright Alert System is any indication, the arena for copyright enforcement will be the private sector, not legislation. Free culture on the net is great, but if you can’t get an internet connection, what good will it do you? The RIAA and MPAA lost the ACTA/SOPA/PIPA battles, but they may have won the war. (Anti-trust concerns notwithstanding.)

The key in this victory seems to me to be about moral discourse. In 1988, James Gustafson published a great little book entitled Varieties of Moral Discourse. (Out of print, but reprinted in the book Seeking Understanding.) Originally delivered as a series of talks, Gustafson suggests that sometimes we talk past one another, and sometimes our moral argumentation fails to achieve its goals, because we are speaking in different ways. Some people engage in prophetic discourse that is aimed at pointing out evils and rallying people to confront them in society. Others engage in narrative discourse that tells stories in order to reveal values and inspire commitment. Both of these seek to move people to action. But there is also the ever important policy discourse, which focuses on finding actual solutions to problems in real political and social situations. Finally, there is the important ethical discourse, which is technical analysis of the conceptual backing of moral claims done in order to clarify positions and unveil inconsistencies and implications.

Of course, people shift between these different types of discourse. We may tell stories sometimes, consider policy options at other times, and rage against the machine at others. Gustafson’s categories can help us think more deeply about who we are and how we relate to the world.

More importantly, the categories of moral discourse are particularly useful, I think, to help us see the contours of public debate and social change. So often, it seems that we are speaking past each other. Our discourse on music piracy is a great example. Some people tell the stories of the RIAA lawsuits as a way to show the injustice of a system that would impose more than a million dollars in damages against a single mother who shared less than 30 songs. Others—like Doctorow and Ari Emmanuel—issue prophetic diatribes against a system that they see as alternately destroying culture for all in the name of the greed of a few or destroying the American intellectual property industry. Still others try to work out policies that will ensure the continued functioning of society, yet don’t presume that any solution will live up to everyone’s expectations.

It seems to me, though, that given the legal and bureaucratic context in contemporary America, it is likely that those who know how to craft policy discourse and deploy it within the power structure end up shaping law more successfully than the prophets. That’s because society runs on policy. Policies are the software for the hardware of a culture. They govern how things are processed through the various structures and industries. No matter how right they are, the prophets will remain marginal unless they know how to talk to policy makers in ways that easily translate to policies that can be accepted by governing bodies. That means incremental change—the bane of the prophet’s existence!

Case in point: the Copyright Alert System. Protesters were vociferous enough with their prophetic discourse to make the ACTA, SOPA, and PIPA policy proposals look untenable. Some people cited problems with specifics of the legislation, but it seems to me (at least with SOPA and PIPA) that the biggest problems were political: policy makers saw their continued ability to effect policy endangered—a.k.a. they might lose an election—if they voted for the laws. But when political calculation is out of the picture, policy gets made. Such was the case when the content industry, the ISPs, and the FBI got together and brokered the “Memorandum of Understanding.”

When the SOPA legislation went down, various other proposals were offered in its place, mostly by those in the tech industry. The problem such efforts is often twofold: their authors either have no place in legal or governmental policy-making bodies or they are written in a style that is prophetic, and so not operationalizable in a contested policy space. No matter how right it the free culture perspective is, it will be a long time before the US government or big business adopts a “free culture” perspective. That discourse is so foreign to them that I don’t think they even really hear it.

So, the question becomes: what can proponents of free culture do to move society in the direction of a free culture through articulating policies that would be easy to implement by governments and industry, and thus have a real possibility of being adopted? And even more important, how can free culture advocates become a part of the policy making machine?

Tip of the hat to Dr. Nadia Delicata, whose talk on Theology and rhetoric at a recent conference has me thinking about discourse and policy making.

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