Monthly Archives: June 2005

A few thoughts about filesharing

In light of the Grokster decision, a few thoughts about MP3 filesharing:

1. The decision seems unlikely to prevent it. As I understand it, it makes a company liable for promoting a service on the basis of its facilitating unlawful activities, but it does not make peer-to-peer technology itself unlawful. It does nothing to end offshore-based peer-to-peer services. And it has no effect on the newsgroups, where filesharing first began. Those who want to scoop up free MP3s will likely be able to continue to do so until they become undesirable or outtmoded. Therein lies the hope for copyright owners — a new technology that offers improved features while at the same time building in anti-copying provisions. But it’s hard to imagine what feature is an improvement on “free”.

2. Some argue that free digitial music means that the music industry needs to sell a better-designed physical object, something more akin to the 33 1/3 album, which more and more takes on the quality of a collector’s item for its own physical sake rather than the music contained within its grooves. LPs are fun to have for their large-scale art, for the relative rarity of it. Whereas a digitally encoded song is literallly ubiquitous; in Benjamin’s terms it has no aura whatsoever. It’s infinitely copiable; therefore possession of it has no particular value. Music — the sound of it, etc. — may be irrevocably free, and maybe that’s not a problem. What isn’t free is the image of the performer, and the profit for the industry lies in exploiting that image, via live performances and more ingenious packaging. This is one of the ways free music leads to shallower music; what will be made and promoted will be more reliant on how big of a star the singer is, its relation to marketable doo-dads bearing the performer’s image. Less promotion money will go to music that’s just good music (as opposed to being flashy or trendy or sexy or whatever) and people who aren’t devoting all of their time to sorting through what’s available (for free) will never find it.

3. Listeners expend no special effort to master complicated music when its free. When another album can be had immediately for nothing, there’s no incentive to give that compicated record another spin. For better or worse, the money investment in albums led to a time investment in giving it a shot, in attempting to come to terms with it. But in line with the fetish of convenience, one must consume as much music as is available as quickly as possible, with no heed to the impediments like complexity or sophistication that impede consumption. Goodbye Captain Beefheart, hello Anniemal. Bands making complex music will have a harder time securing an audience when their music is distributed for free, but perhaps this will be compensated for by the greater emphasis on performance. They will have to build their fan base through performance, which is the only place they’ll be able to make money anyway. But the effect on the totality of the pop-music industry is that music on the whole will become less sophisticated, seeking to have a more instantaneous effect.

4. The more effort it takes to procure something, the more effort one will put in to appreciating it. Are there exceptions to this? When music is free the getting itself because the acitivity more than the listening to it, which is time-consuming.

5. Technology will perhaps force us to see recorded music the way we see the newspapers given away on the subways. The music industry could move to distributing its own music free but with ads embedded in the files.


As I was walking to pick up my lunch I saw a hipster waiting to cross 56th Street wearing a yellow T-shirt with a faded decal that read “Supermom.” Once the point of wearing a patently inappropriate shirt like this was to signify that you didn’t care how you looked in public, that you’d throw on any old thing and go outside. It signified that you were indifferent to what other people thought. But when the shirt, despite fitting into the old threadbare genre, is obviously something that you couldn’t have had lying around, wearing it then signifies the opposite: that you care a lot about other people noticing you. It’s always hard for me to fathom, but people do respect that kind of effort, they respect someone who dresses up for their approval — perhaps it flatters them. But what this does is make every old T-shirt seem like an effort to earn attention rather than an expression of actual expediency, and suddenly those people who thought they were eluding the game by just wearing any old thing now discover that they are regarded as playing the game, and merely playing it badly. Of course, this may be true simply by virtue of consenting to appear on a Manhattan street.

But this is why the hipster is more than simply a parasite and a harmless narcissist. The hipster preys on all forms of indifference to fashion and expressions of authenticity, and inadvertently does the work of ruining them, making all signs of indifference into salvish adherence to fashion, all attempts at sincerity seem contrived. A hipster in your midst makes everyone around you, including yourself, a suspected phony. The hipster makes everyone he knows seem like they are trying to hard.

Against relaxation

One of the typical justifications for mind-numbing entertainment is that it helps people relax; indeed, I offered that defense of entertainment yesterday, suggesting it works as a placebo for removing stress, empty in and of itself but constituting a ritual that induces a relaxed state. But the pursuit of relaxation as an end in and of itself, as if relaxing could be a goal, an activity, seems just plain crazy, a living death, an admission that the actual business of living is too much trouble, always a hassle, always annoying. Part of the reason relaxing has become an activity, perhaps, is because capitalist society (or modern life generally) makes everyday life that unpleasant, removing the communal aspects that make it tolerable and replacing them with prefab entertainment, so as not to leave something that gives joy uncommmodified and unexploited. No pleasure without profit, this is the core ethos of capitalism.

The pursuit of relaxation is purely a reaction to the unjustifiable stressfulness of maintaining one’s life, of earning a living and keeping up with the shopping and gossip and spectatorship and so on one’s expected to keep up with. There’s no reason for the stress, so it generates a counteractivity defined by its having no reason as well, relaxing. Relaxing tries to salvage a purpose for all the pointless stress by making pointlessness itself a pleasure, a goal. But relaxation only refreshes you to take on more pointless stress. It doesn’t habituate us to having a purpose, to seizing upon and demanding more autonomy for our lives. It instead accepts the cycles dictated to us, to the stress of being directed and the relief of being able to do nothing. Built into relaxation is the assumption that activity in life is always being told to act by someone else, that activity is always a kind of slavery.

The exhoration to relax — often delivered by friends who mean well (“hey, you should just relax, man”), a most subtle and effecctive way for ideology to be delivered — is society’s effective means of reinforcing quietism and negating rebellion. When you get upset about something, you typically have a good reason, and when you are told to relax, you’re being told, hey, you can’t make a difference anyway, you should learn to accept what’s given to you and deal with it. Being told to relax is another way of being told to “be realistic,” that other deeply ideological dictum, which makes the status quo into the eternally given.

Monetizing the placebo effect

On the front page on section D, The Wall Street Journal has serendipitously placed an article about health insurance companies in the South charging $100 “co-pays” (note the distance from Canada) above an article about doctors trying to use placebos as medicine. It makes perfect sense: If a doctor’s patients can’t afford real medicine, she might as well prescribe sugar pills.

The placebo effect is fascinating because it shows how authorities and institutions can mobilize forces within an individual’s body that the individual cannot summon himself. Placebos seems to work because they give a patient a sense of recognition, of having been paid attention to and of having the story of their symptoms respected, acknowledged. The doctor performs a quasi-religious benediction, after hearing the patient’s crypto confession in the form of symptoms, and then works the scientific equivalent of casting out demons by prescribing magic pills — the logic by which the pills are supposed to work isn’t often explained; the implication is they work because you believe. A chart accompanying the Journal’s article shows that the placebo effect typically occurs in those nebulous conditions with no clear causes: depression, irritable bowel syndrome, impotence and migraines. That so many people suffering these conditions can have their symptoms alleviated by insitutional recognition makes them seem like they are ultimately social disorders — the suffering individual has lost their sense of their place in the society, and the doctor or similar authority figure steps in and nudges them back toward having a place, to having a rationalization for living the way they do, for why society is the way it is. Concentrated personal attention must have an effect on relieving stress, which in turn allieviates these disorders. The doctor visit is a ritual designed to induce a patient to release stress, to surrender responsibility for how they feel in some crucial way that leads to recovery.

In the article, the reporter describes how researchers are hoping to induce the placebo effect through Pavlovian repetition, so like dogs, patients will have certain physiological responses when the sugar pill is a dropped on their tongues. The idea is to induce a real reaction with actual medication, than replace the actual medication with a simulacrum. This is basically how much of pop culture functions: certain relaxing responses are conditioned through repetition so that the sound of a laugh track can trigger a comforting reduction of stress. Culture-industry-manufactured entertainment is another form of institutional intervention to provide the relief of placebos. Seeing a film or a TV show can be like visiting a doctor’s office; it conforms to a routine and it leverages an enormous amount of social power and collective energy and focuses it seemingly on you personally. This may be why entertainment is intentionallly vacuous, free of any real substance. It is meant to be a placebo, delivering nothing real but eliminating stress by its very form, by the very ritual of its consumption. When I’m feeling wound up and I’m trying to go to sleep, I often put on the same DVD of Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon and immediately become soothed; something in Bogart’s voice, I guess, has the same effect on me that a doctor’s has on someone with irritable bowels. I’m usually asleep before Archer gets shot.

There is no such thing as community

In anticipation of the Supreme Court’s Grokkster ruling, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial disguised as a column explaining why the premise behind the Grokkster’s legality, that it is software that permits user communities to exchange files, that it enables the formation of a “file-sharing community” is silly. Says writer Lee Gomes in a parenthetical aside that really constitutes the essence of the Journal‘s ideology, “Note how often the word ‘community,’ with its warm, fuzzy connotations of Little League and bake sales, is invoked to provide an aura of decency and respectability to a crowd that doesn’t particularly deserve it.” Communities are for little children and housewives. Men do business. And to paraphrase conservative doyenne Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as community after all. It’s a rhetorical strategy one group uses to steal from another group. That any group of unrelated people to unite to better each other, and not at each other’s expense, is simply not to be believed. Out of hand, one must reject the notion of community and begin to seek out the ways to expose any so-called community’s phoniness. This is simply because capitalist methods of doing business, espeically now, are fundamentally anticommunitarian. They rely on atomized individuals making redundant purchases and regarding their peers as competitors they must outspend to climb higher than them in the social hierarchy. In the minds of business people who share are criminals who are stealing profits from corporations. Remember that when this court ruling comes out.

Adult Child

I’ve been reading the widely discredited and lambasted anthology from the 50s called Mass Culture, edited by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White and compiling wrk by Dwight MacDonald, Ortega Y Gasset, Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, Clement Greenberg, and other early critics of popular culture. The anthology is widely dismissed today for its allegedly unenlightened elitist perspective on pop culture, and for its routine condescension toward the undifferentiated massses. The anthology is not nearly as monolithic as its detractors maintain, and actually affords an interesting picture of what immediate reactions to mass-produced culture were, before the ideology that sustains mass-produced commodity art’s existence as purely natural had really settled in. Thus there is a freshness to their iteration of the argument that still dominates cultural studies — does pop culture stultify and infantilize the “masses” or does it supply a larger number of people with material culture to improve and expand their capacities for cultural expression and self-definition? Regular readers of this blog know where I stand on the question. I think accusations of elitism are a canard, and I think the empowerment afforded by most commodity culture is already circumscribed within bounds tolerable to those in power. I think the form consumer culture takes robs as much pleasure as it gives, especially since it mimics the pleasure-hunger cycles of addiction to function.

Cultural studies, when it pursues an affirmative, celebratory course as it often did in the 1990s (as Thomas Frank documented in One Market Under God, loses its way and becomes an unwitting advertising arm for servicing niche markets. Leo Lowenthal’s outline of what theses social research ought to take is an excellent reminder of what the point of such inquiries should be, a reminder of why it is not frivolous to study pop effluvia. Conservatives love to ridicule such studies as wasteul trivia and patentently silly perhaps because they cut close to one of their most effective mechanisms of power. But practitioners of cultural studies fall into their trap when they allow such criticisms to set the terms of the debate, and try to justify pop-culture junk as inherently good, as worthy not as a means to sociological insight but as a work of art in and of itself.

Lowenthal points out that social research should not begin with market data, should not accept consumer choices as votes of assent. Consumer choices are already circumscribed by what is produced and what is publicized. Similarly, consumer choices are not the expression of an individual psychology, but are indicative of broader systems of social control. They are not reflections of a personal taste, but instead a reflection of the degre to which culture-industry profit motives are adhering and social control mechanisms are working. Tastes are shaped by the means of cultural production much more than the means are dictated by popular taste. Writes Lowenthal, “While it is true that people today behave as if there were a large free area of selection according to taste and while they tend to vote fanatically for or against a specific representation of popular culture, the question remains as to how such behavior is compatible with the actual elimination of free choice and the institutionalized repetition characteristic of all media.” In other words, how do we think the choice between McDonalds or Burger King is an expression of our total freedom and a example of our having the freedom to do and be what we want? And Lowenthal also raises what seems to be the most important question ( and most offensive to the affirmative pop-culture folks): “We wish to know whether the consummation of popular culture really presupposes a human being with preadult traits or whether modern man has a spilt personality: half mutilated child and half standardized adult. We want to know the mechanisms of interdependence between the pressures of professional life and the freedom from intellectual and aesthetic tension in which popular culture seems to induulge.” That’s what I want to know.

Price customization

Tom Colligan sent me a copy of an article from the June 19, 2005 Washington Post describing how Internet retailers offer customers different prices depending on their online history. The author of the piece, Joseph Turow, writes “It seems to have become an article of faith that the unseen moguls behind all sorts of Web sites are cherry-picking consumers, customizing ads, manipulating prices and changing product offers based on what they’ve learned about individual users without the users’ knowledge.” Turow’s reaction seems initally to be not one of outrage but of a reactionary blame-the-victim defensiveness: “I’m disturbed by what this reflects about our general retail environment — the evolution of what I would call a culture of suspicion. From airlines to supermarkets, from banks to Web sites, American consumers increasingly believe they are being spied on and manipulated. But they continue to trade in the marketplace because they feel powerless to do anything about it.” Turow seems to think it’s wrong to be suspoicious of commercial operators and marketeres. Whereas it seems to me that one should never be anything but suspicious of them — they have too much incentive to screw you over if you are content to be naive, with the incentive mounting in strength the more obvious your naivete becomes. Turow writes, “My point is, precisely because he’s Internet – savvy, he’s automatically suspicious that information may be used against him without his knowing it.” This is a good thing; paranoia is a heightened form of awareness when it comes to the market. If you read The Wall Street Journal for any stretch of time, you’ll realize just how true this is.

But Turow is also actually troubled at the market’s power to ride roughshod over customers wishes. Customers, slavishly dependent on the market, must put up with however it chooses to configure itself in various sectors for maximum profitability. I learned this when I had to buy a mattress and was subject to some of the sleaziest salesmanship I’ve ever encountered.. (A reminder: NEVER BUY FROM SLEEPY’S, unless of course you like being treated like a simpleton, or a criminal when you try to hold them to their warranty guarantees.) Turow writes, ” Frankly, it’s hard for any dispassionate observer to believe there’s no ‘price customization’ when associates from the influential McKinsey consulting firm write in a 2004 Harvard Business Review article that online companies are missing out on a “big opportunity” if they are not tracking customers and adjusting prices accordingly — either to attract new buyers or
get more of their money.” He details how companies will profile an ideal customer — the biggest dupe — and target them appropriately with rice breaks while weeding out the more demanding and discriminating customers. If you care about quality, you’ll be discouraged out of the market in a variety of subtle ways — meaner customer service, no price breaks, etc. And the pressure to connform to a personality type faashioned by marketers maximizing profit will increase to an even greater level than what currently exists. We’ll have incentives to strive to become a perfect shopper for the corporations who feed us our palaver.

He forecasts an ominous future: “The mysteries surrounding database marketing will increasingly make us not so much competitive as wary: Are our neighbors getting a better deal not because they shopped harder or bargained smarter, but because of some database demographic we don’t know about and can’t fight?”