Mashups: Cultural Bricolage, Creative Consumption and ‘Information Play’

I love Mashups. The re-contextualization, the mismatching of genres, the way in which the sounds and the symbols are simultaneously both at odds and harmonic… it does something to me.

I also find them interesting as a representation of information play. Mashups deconstruct reified cultural objects. They break them down to demonstrate the underlying similarities but also to play with the cultural symbols attached to their genres and the messages in the songs. Through digitization these cultural objects can be easily manipulated, deconstructed and creatively rebuilt, creating both a new song and a new set of meanings (meanings which often will poke fun at the original symbolism).

I feel that a major part of the pleasure in Mashups is in the recognition of their component parts and seeing how they have been subverted. Recognizing the songs within the mix is fun, but seeing how they’ve been messed with is the real pleasure. This requires you to already understand the symbolism and meanings behind the songs, even if its just in a broad knowledge of the genre. Knowing that a gangster rap song is sending out signals of machismo and danger makes it all the more fun when its mixed with a cutesy tween pop song: the machismo is neutralized and the tween pop suddenly gets very very odd.

I made this video to demonstrate just how many songs can be fit into one Mashup

 

Whenever a Mashup ends up on my iPod I get this feeling that there’s more to say about them as representative of our symbol and information saturated world. They represent an attitude of irreverence for the reified products of the music industry whilst demonstrating a sophisticated intrinsic understanding of messages and symbols and how they can be manipulated. Perhaps this is the result of generations saturated by crafted branding and symbolism. They are such experts in the world of symbols that with the right tools they can claim them and reshape them as their own.

There is so much more to this topic, but I do have a day job… and unfortunately it’s not this. Back when it was my day job (PhD is a job right?) I made the Prezi (above) for a presentation to SATSU at the University of York. The ideas are a bit rough and ready, but it’s got lots of Mashup videos embedded in it and plays with some ideas if you’d like to go further.

My Book is Out Now!

Book cover: Digital Culture IndustryDigital Culture Industry:
A History of Digital Distribution

I’m very happy to announce that my book is finally out with Palgrave Macmillan.

If you’re interested in the history of peer-to-peer piracy and how it shaped digital media today this is the book for you. Covering MP3.com, Napster, GNUtella, Kazaa, Streamcast, Grokster, BitTorrent and The Pirate Bay this comprehensive history is a great read for anyone interested in the field of digital media.

….if I do say so myself.

For a more comprehensive overview of the book head over to the book page where you can see reviews and chapter summaries.

There was a lot of research that went into the book, and a lot of resources to boot. If you’d like to see some of the things I made related to the book head over to this blog post and also take a look at the resources.

Available now from…

PalgraveMacmillanwaterstonesref=sr_1_14

Unpacking My Library

Long ago when I left my parents’ home for far away shores I left behind a mountainous pile of what can be best described as ‘stuff’. This ‘stuff’ consisted primarily of media, in shiny round form in lots and lots of little plastic cases, some of which were then inside unnecessarily big cardboard boxes. When it was finalised that the family house would soon no longer be the family house we were forced to deal with my mountainous pile of stuff.

The old computer games that I whittled my childhood away with were first. Initially the cardboard had to be dealt with, as well as the reams of paper manuals that games used to require. All of that went to the recycling centre and as for the discs, they had to be chucked. The discs, so old and incompatible with the computers we have now were essentially useless to anyone not running a computer they bought 15 years ago. The games that the discs contained are readily available on services such as Steam and Good Old Games, nicely patched up and able to handle the operating environments that were inconceivable when they were first written. However unfortunately for the discs and anyone that abhors waste, the games in their original form were useless, too solidified in a particular era to be used now. They couldn’t even be recycled and it was at that point that I realised how glad I was that I buy my games as a digital download.

Next came the stacks of music CDs, all the albums I had collected since I became aware enough to have a taste in music. They weren’t necessarily useless, but they had become superfluous to my day to day life. All my music now lives on my laptop, backed up across various devices and drives. The physicality of discs is too much of a burden in both storage and inflexibility. I went through them one by one, remembering where I had bought them and if there were any poignant experiences that had them as a soundtrack. Their songs were copied onto the laptop, catalogued by various online music database systems and then the discs were sent off to Music Magpie, who paid me an average of 30p per disc. A significant devaluation from the average of £7-£12 they cost back in the height of CD dominance. Some discs survived the purge, quite what my criteria was I was unsure of even at the time of choosing. Some I knew I wanted to keep to show my children, others just seemed to exude an aura of significance in their physical form. They seemed to have developed an identity more significant to me than simple exchangeable commodity, but I still couldn’t tell you exactly why.

Yet in a strange antithesis to this story, the media I acquired most of over the christmas period was books in tangible wood pulp with black ink form. A format relatively unchanged for centuries and surely due for a reboot considering the relatively short life cycles of other media. Yet rather than preparing myself for the great bookshelf exodus, I’m instead eagerly buying more. Every one is significantly placed on my office shelves and to me the ownership is solidified as a lifetime relationship. The concept that I would rid myself of them is absurd, they will be with me for as long as I exist.

There was also another type of media that had incredible significance and demanded proper archival treatment. Amongst the various boxes and cases lay recordable CDs, unlabelled but clearly used. Before going to University I was in a band, and I have always considered it to be a significant part of my life. Due to the diligence and sacrifice of one of our party, we were fortunate enough to have our own studio. This gave us the opportunity to record songs when the mood took us, and these songs were usually burnt onto CDs to be taken home for review. These recordable, unlabelled and unarchived CDs had the potential to be those studio discs. This led to a night of exploration, going through them disc by disc searching to see what was contained. Many of them were nothing of significance but a few contained biographical gold, including one which essentially amounted to a definitive archive of all artwork, promotional posters, photos, management correspondence and some raw audio data. All of this was swiftly copied to the laptop, backed up and then the discs carefully noted, ready to be stored for an unknown period; perhaps until disc drives are driven to obsolesce.

So why have I bothered spending a significant amount of time that I should be working, on writing about going through my old junk? I wasn’t that sure myself when I decided to, but now I think I understand the significance. Firstly, these media though eventually disposable, had a significance to me in my life. My everyday life and the objects I surrounded myself with were intertwined. Disposing of much of the media was emotionally distressing to a degree, because it was in some way connected to a certain period of my life, which is significantly different to the one I’m in now. Although I am now glad to be rid of much of it, the process itself was difficult. This difficulty highlighted quite how much of a significance I place in even the most disposable of things.

Secondly, I got the feeling when I was disposing of those old discs, that I wouldn’t be doing it again. That I was contributing to my eventual disassociation from physically instantiated media. Moving further away from the concept of media as object, and closer to the idea of media as effervescent flux, as message in and of itself. That may be why I, like many other people, cling to the idea of the instantiated book. It is a reference point in history, an object type that gives us a stability to say where we are in time. We can conceive of a time when the CD was not here, and thus understand quite readily that a time will come where it is not here again, but books are different. Books have always and will always be, because the idea that they won’t be is frightening.

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Corey Doctorow described the significance of books better than I could at his speech to the National Reading Summit last year which I thoroughly encourage a read of.

The title of this post is a small homage to Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name. You can read excerpts here or the full piece in the collection of essays ‘Illuminations’.

Patent Trolling the Podcast

Hey you know that thing where two people walk towards each other and try to step around each other but keep stepping to the same side and it gets awkward… I own that now.

If that sounds utterly moronic please dear reader cast your eyes towards the announcement from VoloMedia (I have no idea who they are either).

VoloMedia proudly announce securing a patent for ‘podcasting’, but not just podcasting, in fact they own the concept of episodic media downloads. Note the date on the announcement is July 29th 2009, not July 29th 1998 when something like this may indeed have been a flash of insight. Years after the iPod spurred the creation of ‘podcasts’ and thus the name, VoloMedia have claimed ownership over not just the podcast but the whole idea of downloading episodic content. Quite how this has occurred baffles me, surely someone in the U.S patent office had vaguely noticed that this already exists. According to their CEO the company filed for this patent in November 2003  and it has taken this long to process.

Firstly the RSS2ipod script (Google it) was released in October 2003 to provide users with an automated way of moving downloaded radio shows in MP3 format to their iPod. This implies that there were already episodic shows being downloaded and listened to through media devices before the patent was filed.

Secondly, should it be the case that if a practice has developed fairly independently of a business before the patent is finalised that that patent should be honoured? Even if VoloMedia did come up with this idea independently, by the time they receive their patent the concept is taken for granted as public domain. Should anyone have the right to come along and say “I had the idea first so now you have to pay me”?

Large companies like Apple have already established empires on this concept with the iTunes Store. Apple has utilised the idea and made a very profitable business, but they didn’t claim dominion over the general mechanism of episodic downloads, they left it in the public domain for others to do as they would, confident that they had enough clout beyond just the concept. Granted Apple are vicious about their IP with other products but this they let go. VoloMedia are apparently in talks with Apple and hope to ‘grow the business’. If they did attempt to claim rights to a cut of the iTunes store the only scenario I can imagine is Steve Jobs trying to pretend he’s listening whilst crying with laughter into his black polo neck and releasing the hounds. This patent isn’t about extorting the established, its about playing parasite on the startup.

Their intentions become apparent with the mention of Hulu, a legal tv streaming site that is gaining massive popularity.

The episodic media download industry is still in its infancy. There will come a day when all the content on Hulu is available as an episodic download.

Such unabashed patent-trolling would impress me if it didn’t enrage me more-so. Their intentions are clearly to wait until companies begin offering downloadable episodic content and then jump on them for a cut. This is not the kind of patent that encourages innovation, its the kind that atrophies it.

Props to Thresq.com for the sources

If Mandelson is Telling the Truth…

The Digital Britain team recently posted up some rebuttals to the accusations directed at the government, one of them being that Lord Mandelson did a u-turn on policy after having a hearty meal with David Geffen. According to team DB…

No discussion took place with David Geffen about Digital Britain. Peter Mandelson has said he doesn’t even think the issue is on Geffen’s radar.

Suppose then that this is indeed true. If we do accept that the dinner with Geffen and the policy change announcement are completely coincidental, does that dissipate the issue? According to The Independent

Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, is said to be persuaded by the argument for tough laws to curb illegal file-sharing after an intensive lobbying campaign by influential people in the music and film industry.

Stating that their decision to enact some very controversial policies is based on intensive lobbying from the media industry to me is not an absolution but equally damning. Considering that the Digital Britain report was produced based on taking the opinions of many different groups and developing a middle ground. From these recent developments I can only assume that the media industry were not content with a balanced solution and instead continue to demand preferential treatment. At least the British citizenry now know where they stand.

Licensing The Pirate Bay

I was caught off guard today by the announcement that Global Gaming Factory’s shareholders voted to continue their motions to purchase The Pirate Bay. Despite the loss of investors scared away by the less than smooth months GGF has had, those that remain have decided to continue on with the venture.

Torrent Freak mentions that as of yet GGF have still not secured any licensing deals, the crucial element required for the business to even start operations. The question is will they secure them at all?

When Napster took a nose dive in court and were forced to close shop until they could operate legally one of their biggest hurdles was the fact that none of the major labels would licence to them. They distrusted not only the brand but also the executives that ran the company and eventually the original Napster liquidated. It was eventually resurrected by Roxio as a sub-par subscription site using MP3.com tech after Vivendi ruthlessly bought them out.

There are some parallels with TPB buyout in that the success of the business model is dependant on licensing, which they have yet to acquire. The brand is certainly one that has caused a lot of sleepless nights to the industry and I imagine many would love to see the venture fail just because it has ‘that’ name. Finally with the freeze placed on their stock due to an ongoing investigation, a sudden loss of key company executives and a run on the investors is it the case that the industry will trust GGF anymore than they trusted our loveable foursome?

There is perhaps a bigger question here as well that I believe has been present throughout the media industry’s relations with ‘illegal’ file-sharing: is it about the content or is it about the system? Is it the fact that their products are being shared across p2p networks that worries them, or is it the networks themselves? It’s more than likely that the industry realise that the real threat these networks pose is that they make much of their business redundant. It used to be that if you were a musician and wanted to get heard your main conduit to an audience was a label, who would promote you and distribute your work. Now for many artists the possibility of going it alone is more tangible.

It’s not necessarily the case that the industry has failed to distinguish between the technology of file-sharing – which is perfectly legal – and the distribution of copyrighted content – which we have to admit is technically not – due to ignorance. They hark back to the old days where they controlled the entire supply chain and the profit margins were great. Now they have pesky middlemen from the computer industry disrupting their perfectly tuned ecosystem. The more they can convince people that the ‘networks’ are illegal, the safer their dominance.

So, will the Pirate Bay MKII receive their licensing? It’ll be interesting to find out.

Thank the Media for Information Freedom

Perhaps one of the most prominent patterns I’ve seen in my research is increasing decentralisation in information transfer primarily driven by media. Services such as MP3.com and Napster who wanted to work alongside the music industry were incredibly centralised. MP3.com worked off the classic server/client system of information distribution, whilst Napster was centralised by its index servers that co-ordinated the finding and transfer of information. These made the services vulnerable to take-downs, but they never built those systems with the aim of defending themselves, they wanted to work with the industry.

When the industry reacted as they did (read as ‘rather badly’) it spurred on certain software developers to work towards making their networks as decentralised as they could and the politics changed. Justin Frankel, founder of Nullsoft the company responsible for Winamp and the original Gnutella protocol wasn’t the corporate type and his system was designed not to work with the industry. Despite the sale of Nullsoft to AOL his perception of the buyout quickly changed when he realised how much his personal perspectives jarred with those of AOL. When Frankel saw what Napster was doing his first thoughts were how it could be done without being sued. His fairly autonomous Nullsoft staff worked away at Gnutella and released it for free on the net. Gnutella worked as a completely decentralised network, no matter how many computers were taken offline, the network persisted. It was no longer a case of ‘can we work with the industry’ but ‘can we get past the industry’. Proof of success lies in the fact that the Gnutella protocol still persists, its most popular client software being Limewire.

Other systems such as Kazaa, Grokster and WinMX all worked on similar variations of the Gnutella system. The next shift in data transfer came with BitTorrent. Strangely BitTorrent was never designed with piracy in mind, Bram Cohen (the original protocol coder) once said

“Distributing stuff that is clearly illegal with BitTorrent is a really dumb idea. BitTorrent doesn’t have any anonymity features. There are things about it that make it very incompatible with anonymity”

BitTorrent was designed for fast reliable media distribution, but on a legal footing. That’s why if you go to BitTorrent.com you’ll see endorsements from Fox, Warner Bros and Paramount Studios. BitTorrent became the piracy powerhouse it is today because it was released open source and the privacy aspects were built in later, including the ability to decentralise. Usually BitTorrent requires a tracker to co-ordinate the sharing of information, a big ol’ centralised server just screaming for a takedown notice. This wasn’t a problem to Cohen but the community worked their way around this by introducing DHT and peer exchange which make BitTorrent function more like Gnutella than Napster by making every client a tracker (quite how they do this technically is still beyond me).

This is the level of decentralisation we’re at now. However what we’ve also seen with The Pirate Bay lawsuits and raids is that BitTorrent is vulnerable, because of the technical centralisation, but also interestingly the social centralisation. The suit against the pirate bay was possible because there was a degree of centralisation in the apparent responsibility for it, that being the four plucky chaps that ran it. Similar cases have arisen for other trackers where the administrators have been targeted. The servers frequently get shifted around or backups are hidden in various countries ready to kick in if one set go down but the people are a different matter.

This is one of the reasons I believe the pirate bay admin have decided to sell it off. I don’t think they truly believe anyone will turn it into a pay service and I don’t think they care either. The pirate bay became too centralised as an icon. The hope is that the next stage of P2P will be decentralised to the point where no index site is needed to find content, no tracker to co-ordinate the transfers and no administrators to run anything. Simply client software all running as index, tracker and admin all at once. We can already see this in certain clients such as Vuze who are attempting a similar shift in being both content platform and torrent client. Torrent files, the small files that direct a software client to connect to a certain tracker and look for certain content will be considered less as a requirement for content sharing, and more as a browser based shareable link to a network that is always on.

What is interesting about this drive towards decentralisation is the necessary role that the media industries have played in it. Both as the reason to create the systems themselves by providing the profit motive (Napster and BitTorrent) and as the impetus to make them faster, stronger and more open by consistently attempting to shut them down. Perhaps one day we will salute the media industry as the greatest driver for information freedom.