Record companies are for it? Then I’m against it.

What is the biggest impediment to a digital read-write folk culture in music today? Draconian intellectual property law, of course, that resists the application of fair use, presumes bad faith, and seeks to intimidate. What accounts for the continued existence of draconian IP in music, and for the over zealous attempts to enforce it? The record companies, obviously.

So what should we say to the fact that Spotify is a darling of the recording industry? Should we rejoice that we finally have a free streaming service that’s immune from legal hassles? No. We should count it as a minus. The worst thing about the otherwise excellent Spotify is that the record companies support it.

Now you might argue that Spotify represents the capitulation of the record companies, as they have finally agreed to make their catalogues freely available under relatively minor restrictions (the free version is interrupted by a good number of ads.) I don’t buy it. The industry didn’t wake up one day and decide it hated making money. So either 1) it sees Spotify as a way to get consumers to start buying music again or 2) it thinks ad revenue is the way to go.

The problem with #1 is that there’s not really any reason why we should have to pay for music now that the cost of delivery is zero. And while I have less of an issue with #2, I’ll believe it when I see it. (See: newspapers.)

Moreover, even to the extent that the recording industry can wring money out of a Spotify model, that represents an impediment to a return to folk culture of the kind that Lessig and others have described. If the recording industry uses Spotify to endlessly advertise their “stars”, any progress they make will come at the expense of unknown artists that might otherwise thrive under the folk model.

I realize I’m working off of a number of assumptions that I’ve not previously blogged, but I just can’t see a digital folk culture for music so long as the record companies are a significant piece of the puzzle. So when you are shopping for a digital music solution, ask “do the record companies like it?” If the answer is Yes, that counts as a negative.


Nieman Lab on Journalism and Open Source

Nieman Lab – far and away the best resource for tracking the evolution of journalism – has a good post up the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, and on what lessons journalism can learn from open source. Overall it’s characteristally excellent, but I have to take issue with this:

Finding 4:
* Open-source development is collaborative, free, and flexible.
* Producing news costs money, and open source may not get to the heart of journalism’s business problems.

Open-source software development is premised on the idea of coders working together, for free, without seeking to make a profit at the expense of someone else’s intellectual property. Bit by bit, this labor is rewarded by the creation of sophisticated programming languages, better-and-better software, and the like.

But there’s a problem: Journalism can’t run on an open source model alone. Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news.

I think this ignores the rich mixture of motivations, business models, etc. that comprise the open source movement. Take the line “Producing news costs money.” Someone might say the same about software. Doesn’t producing software cost money? Well, the history of open source tells us, basically, not always in the ways you would think. The big shift for the software community has been to question very basic assumptions like “producing software costs money” or “producing software requires organization by firms.” For journalism to truly adopt the lessons of open source software, it must question those basic assumptions as well.

Well, ok, fine. But at the end of the day doesn’t producing news cost money? Sure. But even here it seems that the Nieman summary is missing an appreciation for the richness of the open source model. Specifically, the line “Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news” ignores the great number of for profit entities operating in the open source software space. Companies like IBM and Red Hat play a huge role in the development in open source software because their involvement brings strategic and financial benefits. Coders in the employ of companies like IBM are crucial to the development of open source projects like Linux; it is a mistake to ignore these contributors when thinking about open source. And Red Hat operates on a service model, making it easier for customers to successfully adopt open source software in their businesses.

Maybe these sorts of arrangements transfer into the journalism space and maybe they don’t. But to act as if open source software offers no lessons on how to make money is to ignore a significant piece of the open source landscape.

Overcoming bias means better social processes

I know I’ve already written twice about the Mercier/Sperber argumentation research, but this NYT piece brings to mind one more point to make. Mercier and Sperber argue that we evolved our capacity for reason largely to convince one another. They make the related point that reasoning is a social rather than an individual process. Regardless of whether they’re right about the evolutionary roots of reasoning, the latter point is critical to discussions of bias. The NYT piece talks about the research with regard to the peer review process:

Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)?

Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge…

…It’s salvation of a kind: our apparently irrational quirks start to make sense when we think of reasoning as serving the purpose of persuading others to accept our point of view. And by way of positive side effect, these heated social interactions, when they occur within a scientific community, can lead to the discovery of the truth.

The point I want to make here is simple and perhaps even obvious. As science illuminates various shortcomings in our ability to reason, our best hope is to design better social processes to account for them. We already do this. From the courtroom to the newsroom, we structure our intellectual processes to help overcome our own individual shortcomings. But with increasingly sophisticated research into how we think, and with the digital public sphere providing both massive amounts of data on how we communicate and the opportunity to constantly redesign our media environment, we have the chance to design better processes that allow us to overcome our individual faults and reason better.