Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The copyright that wronged your soul

Sometimes, discussing copyright is an outright surreal experience. It would seem that the difference between copyright issues and copyright law is one of the least understandable differences since the invention of sliced bread.

Which is not only a mixed metaphor, but also the reason why so many get stuck in their underfinanced trenches. Often without knowing that they are either in a trench or underfinanced.

It tends to go something like this: someone writes a long, comprehensive argument about the need for reform in copyright law, wherein they point to such things as the consequences of the ever more draconian punishments for everyday copyright infringements. Consequences such as a diminishing lack of respect for the institutions of the law; a youth generation that grows up taking for granted that they will be viewed as criminals (because they are); a private sector that actively avoids investing in anything digital due to fear of crossing the line between innovation and criminality; a stifled creativity among artists who put ever more effort into making sure they are not sued for making something that reminds of anything copyrighted; archivists who refrain from preserving unreplaceable works of art due to fear of copyright claims eating their ever diminishing budgets - and so on and so forth.

Whereby someone responds with the question: but how shall the artists get paid?

I'm sure you immediately notice two things here. Both the surrealism and the trench. Not least in the assumed premise that it somehow would stop being a problem that everyone younger than me have committed crimes on a daily basis (and assumed the mentality that follows from an unreflexive life of crime) - if artists got paid.

Yeah, right

A tragic aspect of this is that all these tougher measure against copyright crimes doesn't lead to these artists in question getting paid. Putting young people in prison won't make them put more of their non-existent budgets into buying more culture. Neither will the threat of putting them in prison or of giving them enormous fines increase their willingness to consume. And if we ask the artists themselves if their intent is that their productions are to be enjoyed under the thread of legal violence, they will think the question absurd. Because it is.

The problems for artists is not that people pirate things. Their problem is that they sign lousy contracts, and that those organizations that could collectively bargain for better working conditions are busy lobbying for harsher measures on piracy.

This does not have to be. There's no need for this nonsense. It can change. But only if those who pay lip service to working for the artists get their act together and put their money where their mouths are. If they get to work on ending the cynical exploitation of the artists by the corporations that have the loudest mouths regarding the importance of harsher measures against piracy.

Therein lies the difference between copyright issues and copyright law. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Originally posted August 11, 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two disjointed thoughts

Reactions! Discussions! Interesting thoughts! New lines of flight! All these things have happened in response to my last post on European history. And before they escape and elude into the mists of time, I want to capture them. Two, in particular.

The first is the contrast to the American style of history writing. Or, rather, the stereotypical American style of writing history, characterized by such things as manifest destiny, military prowess and the eternal heroism of the free world. The good guy vs bad guy narrative, where John Wayne rides in on a white horse to save the day in the nick of time. The Hollywood way of viewing the world.

Now, to be sure, this is a stereotype, and an oversimplified one at that. Actual Americans don't think that simplemindedly, especially not those who think about history. But you can see the general outline of the differences from this short generalization - the difference between the "we went abroad to slay a foreign dragon, Hitler was his name" and the "and then millions died, again" narratives. It's not subtle.

There are many ways to go on about this difference. The most obvious one being the difference in mode and tone - in oh so many ways, the European outlook will resonate with the color gray. There is something dissonant in the cheerful, pragmatic, can do mentality of American individualism - the notion that everyone can get their slice of heaven on earth if they work hard enough for it. It jars. It screams of a lesson not learned: that everyone is created equal, and that everyone is equally capable of being crushed by the machinery of oppression once it gets in motion. That individual optimism is not translatable to societal optimism.

One has to mourn before moving on.

The second thought I want to capture (to slightly shift gears) is the value of history. Of learning what happened. Or, rather, the detours you will find yourself having to take while trying to learn what happened. Suddenly, you end up places where you wouldn't have ended up otherwise, and become all the wiser for it.

To take an unrelated example question: why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo? To answer this, one has to take account of the things that happened before that particular battle, and before long, one is reading up on how the revolutionary process led to France having an emperor in the first place, and from there it is a short step to thinking about the dynamics of social segmentation and stratification. Suddenly, your mind makes leaps of understanding it very likely wouldn't have done otherwise.

Knowing what happened in and of itself won't get you to this place. But knowing that things happened and that they happened for a reason - a whole host of reasons, reasoning in unison - lets your mind take flight. Suddenly, a thing is not just a thing - it is as it is for a reason, and if you put enough contextual effort to it, you can understand this reason.

It is not that you're thinking back that's important. It's that you're thinking big.

Two thoughts. Two fragments. Captured before they ran away, as these things are wont to do. -

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Remember, remember, the ninth of November

It is very possible to get post-traumatic stress disorder from reading European history. The kind where you simply break down and withdraw from the world for a while, due to the sheer despair of it all.

The utter, total and brutal despair of it all. Made all the worse for also being utterly, totally and brutally meaningless.

One point to illustrate this is the beginning of the First World War. The Great War. At the start in 1914, the militaries looked pretty much as they did in 1814 - think cavalry, brightly colored uniforms, drill formations marching into battle. The prevailing notion was that of the glorious charge - the way to go about things military was to attack, and then to attack some more until there was nothing left to attack. It was simple, it was glorious, and it was a great honor to fight and die for your country.

War was a thing of glory, where boys were turned into heroes.

And then the Great War happened. And they attacked. And they died. And attacked. And died. And attacked. And died.

Human beings have a keen sense of situational awareness. No matter how glorious it is to die for your country in a heroic charge, the glorious heroism fades away rather quickly when hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands have died in a charge against an enemy line. One enemy line, unmoving, unchanging, remaining as intact after the first five thousand casualties as it was before it all started. With the one difference that you can now hide from enemy fire behind the fresh mounds of corpses of those who came before.

Heroism died in the trenches. Only to be replaced with the bureaucratic coldness that would send millions more to their deaths, written off as the expected quota of dead maintenance necessary in order to keep the status quo going a little longer.

There was no glory or honor in it. There was only death.

In the millions.

When the war ended, it left Europe with a generation scarred from the war. Literally and figuratively. Crippled war veterans lined the city streets, and the despair from the futility of the war left many demoralized. Or radicalized, as the case might be - those who were still able to fight had the idea that a communist revolution might be just the thing to move things along.

There was no glory to be found. But no peace, either. Demoralized by despair or rallied by revolution, life agonized forward. All under the now very modern bureaucratic administrations of the new governments put in place. The old monarchies were gone - no more Kaiser, no more Czar, no more Sultan. No more of the old world. The new order painted everything grey.

Those who planned the Great War thought it would be over in a couple of months, at the most. After that, things would go back to normality - the various nations would resume their scheming and plotting and political backstabbing and all the rest of it. As they had for centuries.

Needless to say, they didn't.

Instead, something else grew out of this. Where the old monarchies relied on glory and nationalism to legitimate their doings, the new bureaucracies relied on centralization, planning and efficiency. After the madness, there were to be method to things - central planning, coordinated policies, scientific management. From the ashes of the old world, something new would be built. And it would be built on time, within budget and according to plan.

This last part is the most horrific. If there is any one part that causes the most despair, that is it. We will get to that.

The title of this post mentions the ninth of November. The date this alludes to happened in 1938, twenty years after the end of the Great War. But in order to put the Kristallnacht and what followed it into perspective, the backdrop of the First World War is necessary. The pointless war, the demoralized populace, the increased bureaucratization of state power - they all coalesce into the horrors that were the Second World War and the Holocaust.

The Holocaust had administrators. There were bureaucrats working with tireless German efficiency to work out the most efficient ways to organize everything - in detail. From compiling census data on how many Jews there were, to calculating how many Jews could be fitted into a cargo train, to organizing the trains so that they could get from where they were to the concentration camps, to formulating the most efficient guidelines for how to kill them once they were there. It was all to be made on time, within budget and according to plan.

The Holocaust had a budget. It had a plan. It was all legal.

It was all legal.

And since it was all organized, it was divided up into different parts. Any one part was not important in and of itself, but taken together, they grinded the gears forward toward the end result. The division of labor was such that everyone did what they did as if they had ordinary jobs. Because that's what they had. It was all so organized that the totality of the operation fell outside the scope of everyday activity, and it became all the more efficient for it. Those who repaired trains repaired trains, those who pushed papers pushed papers, and so on. Honest people with honest jobs, getting paid for doing a good job - not knowing what they were contributing to.

The Holocaust was not just a couple of madmen who one day got an idea to kill all the Jews. It was the result of millions of people working in organized synergy toward that end goal, each one of them doing their small part to contribute to the whole. Whatever they did. As long as they followed the laws and kept the system operating at a stable pace, they helped keep the routine execution of the plan going. The very fact that they were law-abiding, ordinary and decent citizens gave legitimacy to what was going on.

To put it brutally: you either helped the Holocaust in some way, or you were out of a job.

The true horror was the scale of it. The inertia of it. Take out any one part of the system, and honest people would respond by sending job applications to the new openings. Honest people would do honest work, and millions would die as a result.

There was glory in war once. It died with the First World war.

There was glory in doing a decent day's labor once. It died in the Holocaust.

Alongside this, the Second World War raged. And contrary to what Hollywood movies likes to tell you, the brunt of the raging went on on the east front. Germany and the Soviet Union sent their armies clashing, the latter more so than the former. It is famous how the Soviets sent wave after wave of barely armed people at the Germans, pointing machine guns at their backs. The thought was simple: send enough cannon fodder, and the Germans would eventually run out of cannons. It didn't matter what this cannon fodder did or how it got there - as long as it soaked up bullets, it served its purpose. It didn't even matter who they were - a common practice was to empty the mental institutions and send the inmates toward the awaiting Germans. Sanity was not required in order to die for the cause.

There was method to the madness. It was cold, ruthless method, but method nonetheless.

The Germans advanced. As they did, the Russians retreated, and scorched the earth behind them, leaving nothing to eat. Those who happened to live along the way soon found that they didn't - if the Russians didn't recruit them, the lack of food didn't starve them, or the Germans outright killed them, the oncoming winter would.

The Russians have a traditional ally, commonly called General Winter. He stopped Napoleon when he tried to take Moscow, and he slowed down the Germans when they tried to do the same. He didn't stop them, though. But when they reached Moscow they discovered something: there was no food to be had there, either. Neither for them or the non-relocated locals. And it was cold. As in minus forty centigrade cold.

Cold enough that people died along the way. At night a soldier would fall asleep, and next morning he would be a frozen corpse. Another casualty of war. Another calculated loss.

And if the terrain turned out to be uncooperative, these corpses could be used to create paths for the supply train. Smooth out the terrain, make the going easier.

Between all these cold, ruthless methods, millions died. As the saying goes, it's statistics at this point.

Eventually the war ended. But the history of Europe didn't end, and neither did the despair. As meaningless as the First World War was, nothing broke the back of optimism as much as the fact that it happened again.

Adorno said it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz. He had reason to say so.

What followed was the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and the DDR. Where the bureaucratic survivors of the war took the lessons learned to heart, and applied even more bureaucratic and administrative oversight in order to secure that the new world was built properly. On time, within budget and according to plan.

The result was the soul-crushing dystopia of applied modernity. On the east side of the Iron Curtain we got the communist version, and on the west side we got the capitalist version. Both of them equally capable and willing to trample corpses in order to achieve results. Especially when they tried to outdo each other in their respective capabilities to kill each and every human being alive.

Twice, thrice. Should it come to that.

The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union ceased, the Iron Curtain fell, the Berlin Wall did likewise. Yet the despair continues, as it is clear that the bastion of freedom in the west has taken upon itself the role of making extra sure that the modern project is built on time, within budget and according to plan. No matter how many new, noncold wars they'll have to fight to make it so.

And at home, there are those who say that the ideas that so many millions died so needlessly because of - are actually the way forward. And every year, there are ever more people that listen and nod in agreement. As if no one had learned anything.

There is no end to history. It just continues.

Call it despair. Call it post-traumatic stress. It's European.

Remember, remember, the ninth of November.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Be careful with that axe, Eugene!

Consider the accident.

The common way to think about it is to consider it something that happens despite all precautions of safety. You try to do everything right, but sometimes, out of statistical necessity, things just go wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

This is a rather backward way of going about it.

Paul Virilio proposed we see accidents happening because, not despite. Train accidents don't happen because we failed to do those things that prevent train accidents; they happen because we're running a train system.

The accidents are built in to the system.

And so it goes for all other things. We have automobile accidents because we have automobiles. We have nuclear power plant accidents because we have nuclear power plants.

We have computer accidents because we have computers.

The power of this way of looking at things lies in its shifting of focus. It's very easy to fall into the thinking that things only work in the way they're supposed to work, and everything else is the exceptions that proves the rule. A limited number of uses are identified as legitimate, and the rest are illegitimate - accidents.

Needless to say, this limits one's analysis of things. For instance, file sharing becomes piracy. Those who designed the internet didn't envision the file sharing behaviors we see today, but as accidents would have it, it happens. And it won't go away, no matter how hard one tries, as it is inherent in the very nature of things.

Another computer accident: people gathering together spontaneously become a terrorist threat. As they suddenly move too fast to keep track of.

It has been said that the best ways to prepare for an accident is to do things that are good even if it doesn't happen.

There might be something to it.