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Doctorow and Sterling Cyber-Riffing at SXSW 140

Posted by timothy
from the free-tequila-brother dept.
Bruce Sterling is the sort of writer who invites his audience to an open house with "anyone they'd like and anything they can carry." He's also busy in his non-writing life keeping up with the resurrection and commemoration of dead media and not-dead-yet online freedoms. Fellow online agitator and decorated science fiction writer Cory Doctorow seems more of an Ernster Mensch; Doctorow points out that he's a writer second, activist first. When these two started a freewheeling discussion ("intellectual cyber riffing," as Sterling described it) on The Death of Scarcity Tuesday afternoon, the quotable quotes were everywhere. Read on for the ones I jotted down, and a link to some more.

Within five minutes Doctorow was describing the common ground that economists of all stripes might find in a world of increasingly information flow and decentralization, and Sterling was questioning conventional wisdom on Google, file sharing, and other sacred cows of the techno-elite. This public conversation in a smallish but packed meeting room in Austin's Convention Center served as an endcap on the Interactive portion of this year's
South by Southwest Interactive conference, and probably crystalized a lot of what conference attendees had on their mind between panel sessions and parties. Below are some of the thoughts that came out in the course of the Sterling & Doctorow Show. (And Sorry, but the open house is over now. Thanks, Bruce.)

The worth of Information:

Sterling: "All of this circles around the central declaration of S. Brand -- 'Information wants to be free.' Yet, Information also wants to be expensive. ... I have to wonder, what would happen if sheep actually did shit grass -- would mutton be free? ... Doesn't [widespread file trading] crowd out what was formerly a competitive menu of available choices? What if you just can't sell music any more? Nobody's going to go down to [Austin record store] Waterloo, nobody's going to hang out with them afterward. ..."

Doctorow: "Whether Kantian or Marxist, the most valuable stuff isnt the world is the stuff we want to concern ourselves with, because when stuff is really valuable, it becomes scarce. ... [by contrast], the Napster ethic is, 'Be as selfish as you possibly can -- the more crap you download, the more crap there is for everyone to download.' ... Code is a little like speech, a little like a tractor. Keynes and Marx both talked about speech [being different from] a tractor; Code is a little like speech, and a little like tractors. When you've got something that's both speech and a tractor, you've got something really interesting."

Napster, the RIAA and file trading:

Sterling: "[Napster is] a kind of profoundly undemocratic technical fait accompli. 'Look at this neat gizmo that we geeks built while you weren't working. We geeks accidentally ate your industry.' [This is a] techno-imperative market argument which I don't think really makes all that much sense in a stagnant monopoly ... where is the steamroller going, I don't see it going anywhere particular, it's just abolishing other people's money. Does Napster give anybody money for a reelection campaign? Do they have a friendly judge? Is there somebody to sue?"

"What would the music scene look like if the industry disappeared? I imagine things like the Royal family paying for the production of Handel's Water Music. "

Product Interfaces.

Doctorow: "[...] That's what why we have wrappers. If you have good stuff in a crappy interface, somebody will build a wrapper around it. ... This revolution is ongoing -- Travelocity may suck, but it's a lot better than SABRE. This process of wrapping is going on every day."

Sterling: "I think that the crappy interface is one of the reasons for the power of the computer revolution. People are trapped."

Google

Sterling: "It's a beauty contest, not a credibility contest. ... How is [google's reference-count system] different from turning on TV and seeing Dean Kamen talking on 22 channels about this revolutionary scooter? What I want to see ... the kid in Left Elbow, Kazakhstan, you give him an 802.11 Linux box, running google [and left to play]. In 4 years, I want to see him matriculate. [Laughter]

"... Now if we had an idiosyncratic version of google, that was sort of a Bruce Sterling google ... 'Well, Bruce, here are the things you're going to find really great today!" you know. There are things they they always claim on Amazon. 'So you've bought this book, ok? You might want to try this CD.' I've never bought any CDs on Amazon, they always think I have the worst possible taste in music. No luck over there at all.

"People gather together in little tidepools and trust, otherwise there would be no limits [on stagnation]. You'd simply say 'Oh, what's everybody using? Oh, Apple IIe, OK, that's it, end problem, Apple IIe, boy, that's for me ... Macintosh? Never heard of it!"

Doctorow: "I think the problem is that, as a society we've consistently choose the crappier and more available thing over the more beautiful and less available thing."

The last 5 years:

Doctorow: "In the last 5 years, Linux became useable. In the last 5 years we finally got. In the last 5 years we got Tivo. In the last five years we got 802.11 widespread. I mean, my life has been changed."

Sterling: "You mean, 'that fantastic innovation we saw until about 5 years ago.' ... I think [Innovation has] slowed to a crawl, and moving in a slow reverse, you're not going to see a lot of major innovation, outside of Linux --which is in danger of being outlawed. The 802.11b [phenomenon], same thing -- there are people who sit around all day trying to demonize 802.11b users and say that they're stealing -- 'the Parasitic Grid.' It's a social hack, but because of that, they're very vulnerable to political counter-hacks. They're not the same as genuine technical innovation. That's a difficulty."

Cultural spread and cultural inertia:

Doctorow: "There's an amazing story about the day someone sent the first hotmail message with 'Get your free email account at hotmail.com' at the bottom to India. The traffic statistics the next morning, they quintupled overnight, on the strength of one email."

On Copy Protection, the RIAA/MPAA, et cetera:

Sterling: "When will the U.S. snap? What will it take to put the genie back in the bottle, how many times will the genie have to be hit on the back of the head? What if someone accidentally breaks the bottle with his baton? What are we going to be left with that commands value? What can't we copy?"

Doctorow: "By an amazing coincidence, last week Congress held hearings about [copy protection in hardware] I think it's actually possible, I think it's actually possible, but the social consequence is quite horrendous. When Turing machines are outlawed, when universal computers that can do anything are no longer allowed to exist, then that kind of thing, I think the innovation we've seen over the last 20 years [will end].


This being SXSW Interactive, quite a few people in the audience were taking notes. Krow put his on LiveJournal, and I hope others will link to theirs below.

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Doctorow and Sterling Cyber-Riffing at SXSW

Comments Filter:
  • Finally... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by crumbz (41803) <<remove_spam>jus ... > g m a i l .com> on Thursday March 14, 2002 @10:39AM (#3162533) Homepage
    .. an intelligent discussion without a lot of FUD.

    However, I do object to this constant hyping of putting a computer in front of a kid in Afganistan, Pakistan or wherever and suddenly the world has changed for him/her. There is an interesting article over at MSNBC [msnbc.com] about how truly inpoverish Pakistani schools are. If they can't even get textbooks and running water, how do you expect to support a student's school with a fiber optic line and steady power to run PCs?
    Don't get me wrong, technology has a tremendously liberating effect, but the short term impact must be realistic.
  • Interfaces (Score:2, Insightful)

    by TrollMan 5000 (454685) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @10:42AM (#3162555)
    I think that the crappy interface is one of the reasons for the power of the computer revolution. People are trapped.

    I don't think people are really trapped. If computer interfaces are so bad, then why is computer use so widespread over many OS'es? Windows, Linux, Unix, etc. have all sorts of differences which may appeal to different people. Want a GUI? Try Windows, for example. Like a command line. You've got Linux.

    And considering the complexity of the modern computer, I think the designers a doing a pretty decent job.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 14, 2002 @10:51AM (#3162597)
    The strange part is that this got modded up as funny. Folks, life is stranger than fiction...
    the purpose of sssca is to make it happen. It's not funny. It does deserve a bumper sticker.
  • by SirSlud (67381) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @10:51AM (#3162598) Homepage
    > Doesn't [widespread file trading] crowd out what was formerly a competitive menu of available choices? What if you just can't sell music any more? Nobody's going to go down to [Austin record store] Waterloo, nobody's going to hang out with them afterward. ..."

    It says much about the misunderstanding of market principals when people equate circumvention of 'unfair prices' (as determined by the market) as the death of a market. The music industry is a monopoly. People dont feel the value/price ratio is fair. Given paying an unfair price and free, people choose free. What the music industry is trying to convince legislators is that between 0.1 cent per song and 0 cents, most people choose 0 cents. This is so untrue, its not even funny. People pay _fair_ prices, even whenfree alternatives are available. There is a host of research showing that humans dont like being or living with freeloaders, and that humans do expect to give something in exchange for something of value, provided they feel the price they pay is fair. There is no death of an industry here, only (potentially), the death of a monopoly. And not a moment too soon, if you ask me. Millions of napster users have every right to illustrate that an elite few are profiteering the fundamental human need for art and culture. Once the music industry realizes that they are spending too much on packaging and promotion, they will be able to offer things at a fair price. Until then, the music industry situation is like if only one auto maker existed, and they only sold cars with gold rims (which isn't to say that quality is high, but production values are through the roof.) While everyone needs a car, people dont want the gold rims. The monopoly is holding the market hostage by not offering cars without gold rims (ie, the extra production values that people think they want, but can't afford at the end of the day.)
  • by Fixer (35500) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @10:57AM (#3162621) Homepage Journal
    Sterling: "[Napster is] a kind of profoundly undemocratic technical fait accompli. 'Look at this neat gizmo that we geeks built while you weren't working. We geeks accidentally ate your industry. [This is a] techno-imperative market argument which I don't think really makes all that much sense in a stagnant monopoly ... where is the steamroller going, I don't see it going anywhere particular, it's just abolishing other people's money. Does Napster give anybody money for a reelection campaign? Do they have a friendly judge? Is there somebody to sue?"

    "What would the music scene look like if the industry disappeared? I imagine things like the Royal family paying for the production of Handel's Water Music. "

    Live performance, that's what would happen to the music industry. Rates for shows would rise to what the market will support.

    You make this sound like a bad thing.

  • Re:Finally... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Detritus (11846) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @10:59AM (#3162632) Homepage
    Although it is currently in the realm of science fiction, what if the Pakistani kid had a cheap notepad computer with enough internal storage for a large library of books. When I say cheap, think of four-function calculator cheap. It would run off a solar cell embedded in the case. It would have a built-in RF modem to receive data broadcasts.
  • by K. (10774) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @10:59AM (#3162635) Homepage Journal
    Nobody tell Congress about lambda-calculus!

    The problem with these kinds of people is that
    they're a cross between cargo-cultists and priests
    trying to read the future in entrails. They're
    randomly recombining ideas and making vague
    statements, and occasionally this turns up
    something useful, but usually it's just offal.

    K.
    -
  • Re:Interfaces (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dasmegabyte (267018) <das@OHNOWHATSTHISdasmegabyte.org> on Thursday March 14, 2002 @11:29AM (#3162766) Homepage Journal
    It's not, really. Something like 95% of the visitors of google, a fairly cool search engine that attracts all sorts of people, use windows. About 2.5 use a MacOS, and half of that use Linux.

    Doesn't sound like use is so "widespread" when less than 5% of the net community use alternative OSs. It sounds like people are trapped. And can you blame them? Windows OSs are different looks of the same idea, MacOS shoots itself in its foot and Linux has such a huge menu of choices it's impossible for a newbie to pick the right one.

    And don't blame complexity for the shittiness of computer operating systems. If you make a simple interface, you can add what you need to it. That was the whole idea of the Linux kernel -- at least, until everybody & their mother decided to force feature x or feature y into the most common releases.
  • by tshoppa (513863) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @11:49AM (#3162867)
    I have to say that I find many of Bruce Sterling's projects and thoughts fascinating. That said, the groups that form around him tend to be the folk who are much more interested in talking about the problems, rather than doing anything about it.

    Case in point (and very close to my heart): The Dead Media Project [deadmedia.org]. I'm in the business of recovering data from old media, and work with the media, its users, and associated machines every day. Bruce's group, however, seems much more interested in talking about the issues rather than doing anything about them.

    It's my impression that many Slashdotters are do-ers rather than talk-ers, and I'm just warning them that there's very little "do-ing" hapenning in Bruce Sterling's circle. That said, maybe there should be more talking going on - but it really doesn't fit my personal style, and either frustrates or infuriates me depending on the issue.

  • by Fjord (99230) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @12:42PM (#3163186) Homepage Journal
    "What would the music scene look like if the industry disappeared? I imagine things like the Royal family paying for the production of Handel's Water Music."

    This is one possibility, but this is the carrier path I see for a future musician.

    A musician forms a band, they practice and eventually come up with some of their own songs. They play local functions/high schools/clubs, etc from which they make enough money to rent a recording studio for a day to record some of their songs. Then they put the songs out on their webpage and send them to local and nonlocal clubs in an attempt to get gigs. They send them to more famous bands to get a chance at opening for them. The clubs/tours that hire them for a night put the MP3s on their website so that customers can know what the band-they've-never-heard-of sounds like. The band works on their stage performance so that it is bigger and better than just listening to the MP3s. Maybe they have lasers, maybe they have choreography, maybe they have a giant inflatible pig. Who knows. Just something that makes going to the show worth it. Eventually the good entertainers will build up a reputation and they will now be the more famous band looking for opening acts. As more people come to the shows, the band can afford more effects, they'll play at larger venues, and their files will be traded more. Eventually a music video may be made, and it will be put on MTV and their website as a way of marketing a tour and the band in general.

    Without owning the copyright to their works, the band could never do this. They would have to wait for their label to promote them. The clubs won't get as many people in since only people who have heard the band will know if they want to go.

    Eventually, there will be companies that aide in the promotion of bands by finding them clubs, maintaining their websites, and getting them in contact with choreographers/lazer manufacuters/giant pig balloon makers. I imagine these companies already exist, since bands do all this already. These companies will not own the copyright to the band's work.

    Also, they'll sell their CDs at their gigs and most of the money will go to them. People will buy them for the glossy liner notes and as a momento of the concert (much like a shirt purchase). This allows them to upgrade their recordings and make new ones. I also evision kiosks that burn CDs for people without a computer, paying back some of the take to the band. Once the band is large enough Walmart will start carrying the CDs.

    Note that this follows pretty much the career of a musician now. It has the potential to make a band even richer than the present system because they retain their copyright the whole time. They make money directly off their CDs and they can sell the rights for commerical use. Since no one had to pay for their music, people who really like them can more easily recruit their friends. At the very least, they can share the music with them to convince them to go to the concert.

    File sharing has made the RIAA redundant. The RIAA was important for distribution of works that acted as advertising for tours. Broadband has made distribution a nonissue. Home recording technology has made distribution a nonissue. A band doesn't have to convince thousands of stores to take the risk on carrying their CD in inventory, they just have to put their works out for free and submit their MP3s to the kiosk networks.

    So, you see, there are business models for musical artists in a personal file sharing world.
  • Bottled Water? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by lyphorm (209309) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @01:40PM (#3163503)
    Hooey!!! Given paying any price and free, people choose free.

    Just about anyone in the U.S. can get it for free from their kitchen tap, and yet it is a thriving industry. In other words, people are willing to pay a reasonable price for a product that they feel is worth the cost, even if a free alternative is available.

    This is why people like me go out and purchase a CD for some artist even though we have the entire CD sitting on our hard drive in the form of MP3s that were ripped by someone else and given to us for free.
  • by SirSlud (67381) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @02:58PM (#3163951) Homepage
    "Just a note, economies aren't meant to serve the interests of society; they simply evolve under a set of rules/regulations imposed on them by the participants. The exception to this is when economies are designed by Man (in the form of some kind of powerful government) to accomplish some outside goal - equality, Socialism, absolute State power, etc. And historically, these kind of structured economies fail miserably."

    Duly noted. Although its worth noting that state-enforced property rights (contended to be the only purpose of government in a purely capitalist society, although its phrased "protect people from fraud and theft .. same thing") fall under this category. You need a centralized power to enforce property rights that a population would naturally consider 'unfair'. (Imagine if the police couldn't protect Bill Gates' house .. how many people do you think honestly believe he deserves the house? Many under neoclassical economics conditioning (that he deserves to have that big house, because if he didn't, people might actually consider not growing in wealth), but fundemantally in a pre-capitalist society, I would say few.) So free market eceonomics are also 'enforced' by the government in so far as to place a higher priority on the need for people to grow in wealth for capitalism to work than the overall social climate of a society. So while the markets are not 'planned', the system still is. I see your point tho. I guess you're saying that this eceonomy grew as a result of the rights we placed on private property, but the 'economy' is left to its own devices instead of centrally planned in communism.

    Okay, I gotcha, but I think these are subjects so intertwined that it is unwise to discuss what are 'rights', and what economy serves and protects those rights 'naturally' as seperate issues.

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