Osborne’s Player Piano: The Post-Industrial Society and Kurt Vonnegut

“If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people’ said Finnerty, ‘always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.”
(Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut)

The internet (and therefore I presume the humans – or maybe algorithms – behind it) is in a furore about Osborne’s Work-for-Benefits plan. The key message of it is that those who fail to find work on the privatised back-to-work systems will be required to work in various occupations such as picking up litter, cleaning graffiti and caring for the elderly. They will do this or lose their benefits, and they will do it until they make the conscious decision not to be unemployed any more and take on one of the many jobs in this burgeoning economy of ours. If they don’t get a job, they will remain as a worker for the state. The whole thing seems a little bit Player Piano to me.

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OrgCon 2012: Be There or Be relatively disadvantaged in your knowledge of orgcon…

Snappy Title Ahoy!

Yes I shall be attending OrgCon 2012; the shindig put on by The Open Rights Group to discuss many important issues in the sphere of digital rights. If you are able to get to London with relative ease I thoroughly encourage attendance. The primary benefits involve hanging around in the general vicinity of the rather excellent Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and other well credentialed individuals. Clearly it is the Tech-and-Civil-Liberties-Nerd event of the year so get to it!

Get your tickets here
If you’ve ever paid for an academic conference you will find the prices pleasantly surprising.

Digital Economy Bill Will Enter Wash-Up

Yesterday I spent much of my afternoon and evening watching BBC Parliament. It’s not a regular pass-time I assure you, but like many people of my ilk I was there for the second reading of the Digital Economy Bill. This was the crucial moment when we would find out if the bill, which contains some rather dangerous thinking surrounding web censorship and internet disconnection, would disappear into the murky process of wash-up. Wash-up, which sounds much more quaint than it is, is where parliament attempts to pass through all the legislation that is suddenly left hanging when a new election begins. It happens behind closed doors and is debated by the party whips, leaving your elected officials out of the loop. The second reading was cleverly placed right on the day that Gordon Brown dissolved parliament, leaving the house of commons with little choice other than to pass the bill into wash-up, or abandon it until the new government was formed.

Well I shall inform you now that it will go into wash-up. Harriet Harman interrupted the commons proceedings around 4pm to announce the various bills that would be going through to wash-up. During the second reading of the digital economy bill, Conservative MP and shadow culture secretary gave the bill his approval, despite having reservations. Though not necessary for the passing of the bill, the Lib Dems also supported the bill. After these statements much of the debate seemed moot, as the proper vote to pass the bill to wash up will take place today. The debates themselves were interesting however with much consensus in the room being that it was poorly written, scandalously handled from beginning to end, and a mockery to the house… but that they would pass it anyway. Consensus of course by no means meant majority: when debates started there were perhaps 40 members present, within an hour the number had drastically plummeted to around 15. With all the camapaigning occuring to get the MPs to demand the right to debate the bill, when the opportunity for debate arose, few of them bothered. If you wrote to your MP about your concerns with the Digital economy Bill, there’s a pretty good chance that they didn’t care enough to hang around.

Your Representatives in Action... well a couple of them.

A few highlights from the evening include…

MP Austin Mitchell stating that he doesn’t understand the issues at all and that he doesn’t think anyone else in the room does either. What he does understand is that there are a lot of young people that understand better than any of them, and the young people are very worried… perhaps we should listen to them? Mitchell suggested leaving the bill till after the election where it could receive proper debate. Mitchell won a lot of internets with that.

MP Tom Watson who has been against the bill from the start, and garnered much love from open rights and pirate types. Essentially every moment he spoke was a highlight simply because he seemed to be the only person talking about the social implications where where everyone else was talking economics.

On the other end of the scale there was Sion Simon’s patronising tale of how Tom Watson was ‘Luke’, how Clay Shirky was ‘Obi-Wan’, how Peter Mandelson was ‘Darth Vader’ and that apparently this meant that Steven Spielberg was ‘Emperor Palpatine’. This is apparently how us ORG Pirate types see the world and apparently its ridiculous. Well I think I’d have to agree that it is ridiculous. Andrew Robinson of PPUK considered the possibility that Sion Simon was intoxicated; validation of that is yet to be confirmed.

A highlight in itself was the banding around of massive numbers whenever piracy was mentioned. These statistics regarding the cost of piracy, the likely unemployment caused by piracy, the amount of piracy and the probability that piracy caused cancer (maybe not the last one) were so erroneous that I hallucinated big ‘citation needed!’ banners floating around the room.

Finally my possibly favourite moment is when MP Michael Connarty stated that Richard Falkvinge, the leader of the Swedish Pirate Party, was actually in jail. Andrew Robinson found this confusing as at the time Skype was telling him Falkvinge was online. The low down dirty criminal soon afterwards used Twitter to express that tales of his incarceration had been greatly exaggerated, stating… “I would strongly debunk the rumor that I would be in jail..”

So where does this leave us? Well although it will pass into wash-up as many of your representatives felt no need to listen to the thousands of letters and emails sent by their constituents… all is not lost. The fuss raised by the public has made the parliament edgy, and although the Tories gave their support, it was grudgingly with the caveat that if they gained power they would rip the thing apart and do it properly. The Lib Dems also had many alterations they wanted to make during the wash-up process and beyond.

However this silver lining is still surrounding a pretty big cloud. All that fuss about the bill was made, and the disgustingly few MPs that did turn up recognised it. They also recognised that the bill had a rather shady history, and that they should be given the opportunity to debate it. They recognised it had deep flaws and dangerous wording and that they may not truly understand the implications of what they were doing. They recognised all of these things, and they still passed it.

The Third reading of the bill is tonight, with the vote scheduled for approximately 9pm. With both Tory and Lib Dem support it is unlikely that the bill will be thrown out in this final reading.

Announcement: PPUK Manifesto Released

Just a quick announcement to spread the news.

Members of the PPUK have been working very hard to produce the party manifesto in time for the coming election. I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t one of them, however whoever did has done a cracking job. It’s now available online and can be downloaded in a variety of PDF formats for printing.

It has thoroughly surpassed my expectations and I am pleased to say I agree with every aspect of it: I’m proud to be a member of PPUK.

Resistance is Futile: The Xmas No.1 and the Culture Industry

It’s Christmas time again… why I have to point this out to you I don’t know, it just seems the standard thing to say December 1st onwards. With Christmas comes the Christmas number 1 in the UK, which every year generates more political banter than any actual political event. This year of course the assumption is that Mr. Simon Cowell will be selling the country his next piece of forgettable cultural commodity and it’s probably quite a good assumption. If we go back through the last five years we will see a general trend emerging in the Xmas no.1 spot…

2005 – Shayne Ward – ‘That’s My Goal’

2006 – Leona Lewis – ‘A Moment Like This’

2007 – Leon Jackson – ‘When You Believe’

2008 – Alexandra Burke – ‘Hallelujah’

2009 – Joe McElderry – The Climb (Probably)

All the Christmas number ones of the last five years have been products of the X-Factor TV show, a brand that has become so out of control I recently saw X-Factor popcorn and X-Factor chocolate, to eat whilst watching the X-Factor I presume.

None of these songs have been written by the performers. Shayne Ward’s song ‘That’s My Goal’ was written by Jorgen Elofsson. Elofsson was also the same man that wrote the song ‘A Moment Like This’ for Kelly Clarkson’s debut single after winning the first American Idol; the same song Leona Lewis covered for her X-Factor xmas number 1 in 2006. Leon Jackson’s xmas topper was “When You Believe’ written by Stephen Schwartz for Dreamwork’s Prince of Egypt movie 9 years previously.

Then for many it got personal with the Alexandra Burke cover of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. As many of you will know this brought about a variety of resistance movements, one to get the original Cohen version to the top spot, another to get Jeff Buckley’s cover, which is widely respected as being ‘authentic’. Obviously the X-Factor endorsed version took first position but ironically the Buckley cover took second place, leaving Cohen’s original at 36th.

This year we have another resistance movement in a bid to place ‘Killing in the Name’ by well known group Rage Against the Machine above the X-Factor product of Joe McElderry’s rendition of ‘The Climb’. ‘The Climb’ was originally written by a country music duo for Miley Cyrus in her role as Hannah Montana. Hannah Montana is Disney’s odd reality bending celeb-commodity that took the fictional pop star out of the TV-show and made her an actual pop star before then marketing her simply as Miley Cyrus. The song itself was written for Hannah Montana: The Movie, another branch of the Montana franchise.

Now ‘The Climb’ comes to us in the X-Factor packaging and the resistance movement that has sprouted up is equally interesting. Whereas the ‘Hallelujah’ movement could be described as a bid to supplant an inauthentic cover with a more authentic rendition, the RATM v McElderry saga appears to be more about the X-Factor coup of the xmas no. 1 itself. RATM are well known for their anti-corporate sentiments and highly politicised music and this appears to be less about the music, and more about the increasingly corporatised processes of musical production.

So what can the xmas no.1 tell us? Well if we take a critical perspective, one put forward by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, we see two processes going on here. We have the culture industry at work, a system of self referential self-perpetuating culture that is produced purely for profit. All but one of the songs on that list were written purely as commodity, either as an X-Factor product, as an American Idol product or as a film soundtrack. Back in the 1940’s when Adorno and Horkheimer became concerned that culture itself had become commodity that was used to make people subjects to the processes of capitalism, they didn’t have X-Factor, they were in fact rather prescient. In our current time period of hyper-mass-media where we are saturated with culture produced purely to make money, many people have come to similar conclusions without decades of sociological study behind them. They may not have the same language to express it, but a recognition of the inauthenticity of the culture produced by the culture industry is fairly widespread.

The resistance that is attempting to supplant the major label’s dominance of the musical landscape, even if its just at one landmark moment, can be seen as an expression of this dissatisfaction with culture’s authenticity. However it has been recognised in a lot of critical work that is concerned with the processes of capitalism, that any resistance to capitalism is always eventually subsumed into it. A great example of this is the Che Guevara T-shirt. His image has been reproduced so many times onto so many different commodities that his actual message has been lost from those commodities and he is now simply a pop art icon. There may be a relative few that wear their t-shirt with full support of the ideology Guevara represented, but there are many more who don’t.

I am sad to say that this expression of resistance is no different. Regardless of any attempt to subvert the UK charts for just a moment the major labels will win out. McElderry is now signed to Simon Cowell’s music label, SyCo, a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment. ‘Killing in the Name’ is on RATM’s self-titled album which was released under the music label, Epic. Guess who Epic are a subsidiary of…

Losing British Airwaves to Hollywood

The BBC is moving to encrypt public broadcast signals with lovely lovely DRM.

In early september the BBC submitted a petition to OFCOM to be allowed to encrypt the public airwaves. If it is allowed to go through manufacturers of receiving devices will have to apply for a licence if they want their products to be able to store or output the content it receives to another box as the content will have to be encrypted. This means that every box you have in your home media set-up will have to be compliant with the encryption or none of it will work together. Who has determined these licences? The same people that created the ‘Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator Agreement’; the US studios.

As it stands our current public airwaves are just that, public. Broadcasters are free to use them but in return we are allowed to do what we like with the content, as long as it doesn’t violate copyright laws. We can record it for later viewing, move it around to different devices or cut it up and play with it. If the content is encrypted we can’t do this and suddenly our public airwaves are just another proprietary conduit for US media that hate to see a distribution network that they don’t control.When I saw the Doctorow article that informed me of the BBC encryption it reminded me of a story from April this year.

After getting fed up with poor internet service from Time Warner Cable, the residents of Wilson in North Carolina set up a city run broadband network. It was high-speed and low cost and everyone loved it, Apart from Time Warner. Rather than improving their service and lowering their extortionate prices – like the city requested of them before they went ahead with an alternative – they instead thought the best option was to lobby for the outlaw of community ISP services; their argument being ‘we can’t make a profit’. The issue is still as yet not resolved, but the fact that it could even be considered an issue worth debating is rather unnerving.

As I have mentioned multiple times before, my firm belief is that the attacks on so-called ‘illegal pirate networks’ are not about copyright but about control of publicly produced systems of distribution. The media industries have had dominance over the conduits of media delivery and they don’t like the competition. This has become even more prominent when the industries move to close down legitimate public distribution systems as well as the supposed illegitimate.

The very awesome Open Rights Group has already set to work opposing the encryption scheme, head over and support them if you can.


Engadget – Time Warner and Embarq can’t compete with city-owned ISP

Daily Tech – Time Warner, Embarq Fight to Outlaw 100 Mbps Community Broadband

The Guardian – The BBC is encrypting its HD signal by the back door