The Oatmeal's "The State of the Music Industry"

The Oatmeal, one  of the better social commentary comics on the internet, posted a comic today about the past, present, and future of the music industry.  It's funny, pithy, and broadly accurate.  And because I love sucking the humor out of things with analysis[1. For the record, I don't actually think that analyzing a joke or drawing serious conclusions from it actually damages the humor of the joke -- unless it was a bad joke, in which case it might have depended upon the biases or false beliefs of the audience, and deserves to be punctured.], I want to talk about it. Make sure you actually read the comic.  Analysis below the fold.

Panel 1:

This is definitely an accurate view of the record industry around the time of CDs.  I'm not sure it was a long enough time to justify calling it "A very long time," but that's a very long semantic argument and prior to Napster the record industry was a highly stratified, artistically stifling system.

Panel 2:

I have no objections to this one.

Panel 3:

This "Now" is very accurate, and highlights all of the major ways distributors make a profit on their platforms via artists' content.  The big institutions may make a lot less -- YouTube is popularly rumored to run at a loss[2. I hear it all the time, but I'm having a surprising amount of trouble finding any firsthand sources.  The closest I get is that Google is very tight-lipped about how their profit breaks down, so YouTube might actually be profitable now.] -- and the artists are still making almost nothing.

Panel 4:

This is the one that made me want to pick it apart.  Because this panel is a dramatic oversimplification -- and I want to unpick why, because I agree with the comic's message in almost every respect.

In this excellent Tumblr post, Mike Doughty unpacks the important role that labels play in making bands happen, using Radiohead as an example.  John Green follows it up with the same argument, for publishers.  And a lot of the people in the music economy argument want to avoid acknowledging the fact that labels add real value to the artists' work -- connecting them with producers, putting them in expensive recording studios, and giving them massive loans that allow them to build their careers through touring.

Broadly speaking, the labels aren't using these powers for good.  They control the kinds of music that the artists can make, and they use the cost of touring to create a sort of indentured servitude -- the band may be getting paid ridiculous amounts of money, but they're technically the ones paying for all the tours.  (I read an article years ago explaining all this in some detail, but am finding it very difficult to find.)

Like any other kind of work, artistic work is not an endeavor one embarks upon alone.  Extraordinary acts of musicianship require extraordinary resources, and if those resources are distributed solely on an individual artist's ability to sell themselves we're not going to get the best possible music.

It's good that the labels are dying, and it's good that individual musicians can now empower themselves on the internet.  But we need some kind of institution system, possibly collective artist-owned groups, that can give individual artists resources that have an initial cost greater than the potential profitability of their work.

Def Leppard's badass music negotiation

(via Boing Boing) The way record labels treat bands is notoriously awful, and has only gotten worse since the advent of iTunes.  At least one band, Def Leppard, has come up with a way around their horribleness.

"Our contract is such that they can't do anything with our music without our permission, not a thing. So we just sent them a letter saying, 'No matter what you want, you are going to get "no" as an answer, so don't ask.' That's the way we've left it. We'll just replace our back catalog with brand new, exact same versions of what we did." [says frontman Joe Elliott]

Unfortunately, not all bands have this sway, not all bands have the resources to re-record their back-catalogue, and not all bands have the established fanbase that would support this kind of move.  But in the cases where it's possible, it's good to see bands standing up to the labels.

A few days ago, John Green reposted on his tumblr an article about the necessity of labels -- or the particular ways in which labels encourage a diversity of music.  I like to think I'm sensitive to those arguments, and I definitely agree with John's point that books are made tangibly better by the institution of publishing that surrounds them.

I believe that can also be true for musicians, and there are a lot of ways I know it is true.  But the balance of the deal right now is seriously screwed up.  Something needs to be done about it, and however nebulous that 'something' is, stands like the one Def Leppard has taken are steps toward pushing the labels into becoming something new.

I hope, anyway.

Enchanted objects

Having been listening to John Green a lot, and re-reading the Great Gatsby a few months ago, I keep thinking about the explanation of symbolism as 'enchanted objects.' Tonight is apparently World Book Night (Thanks, SourceFed), so I'm thinking about the weird sort of fetishization we have, culturally, for books.

I don't think it's a bad thing, by any stretch.  But I do think that there are some weird qualities about it which I'd like to explore.  Like, the idea of burning a book is, for most people, inherently repulsive.  There are only a few other things like that -- burning flags, for example.  Burning food is wasteful, but it's not grotesque in the same way as burning a book.  The same, I think, with burning clothes, or furniture, or CDs.

It seems like there are a number of kinds of objects that have significance not just for their utility, but for their presence as an object.  Books are one of them.  For me, my watch is another.  I think that cell phones are also commonly treated this way.

I have to wonder, is it entirely cultural, these feelings?  Or are there qualities about the objects themselves -- are there certain types of objects that lend themselves toward feeling enchanted?  Both a cell phone and a book are windows into deep emotional experience.  Waiting for a phone call and anticipating the climax of a plot can feel quite similar, and I could see why they might lead to similar kinds of awe and respect for the objects that transmit that experience.

On the other hand, I don't often feel that way about my computer, and I personally haven't heard about that sort of attitude about e-readers or iPads.  Then again, maybe I'm just not entirely in touch with those particular subsets of technology use.  Maybe, to an owner, the Kindle does feel a little sacred.

What dictionaries do and are for

I should start keeping a record of arguments I have with people where, at some point, they look up a word in the dictionary, and on the merit of the definition there, declare themselves the winner and refuse to entertain any further conversation.  (Next time it happens, actually, I'll probably refer them to this blog post.) The thrust of the argument is generally:

ME [word] has certain subtexts, connotations or unavoidable connections which are relevant to its use in this conversation.

OTHER Nuh-uh!

ME It's hard to prove connotation, but having grown up in the same culture as me, you must have noticed it. I believe you're arguing in bad faith if you insist that connotation doesn't exist.

OTHER looks up the word in the dictionary.

OTHER Look, see? [Word] (n./v./w.e) [The definition, repeated verbatim, usually skipping over the full list to cite only the example most useful to their argument.]

ME The dictionary isn't the final say in word meaning.

OTHER presses his or her fingertips into his or her ears and hums loudly.

OTHER La-la-la! I can't hear you!

ME facepalms.*

I'm not saying dictionaries are useless.  They're a valuable resource -- we need some widely accepted touchstone for discussions about the meanings of words.

But that's exactly the point -- dictionaries are a starting point for discussions.  There's no sense in which it's acceptable to treat the dictionary definition as the final say in an argument.**

Dictionaries aren't created by the High Council of Words and their Meanings.  They're made by people, who look at the way words are already being used, and do their best to capture that in an easy and accessible way.  They do it in very small print, and in a very short space, because they're creating a general reference, not writing essays on each word's meaning.

Dictionaries change over time, and even words that haven't changed for centuries have context that isn't captured within the definition.

I remember in high school learning about Denotation and Connotation.  Words have their literal meaning, but they've also got inseparable baggage -- meaning that's there, lurking whenever the word is used, but which doesn't strictly adhere to the explicit meaning of the word.  That baggage is important.  It's often more important than the literal definition, and it's usually what sparks arguments about word meaning.

There's nowhere to look up connotation, and no one source you can point to and say, "There.  There it is."  It's the feeling you get because every time you hear a word in your life, it's surrounded by some or all of the same other words or ideas.

Connotation is the vehicle by which difficult issues, like racism, sexism or anti-intellectualism, pervade every form of communication even though they very rarely stick out in a clear way.

So, to anyone in my future with whom I argue about words:  if you try to end a conversation with a dictionary, I will hit you with it.†

*Yes, I do  feel weird about the fact that the format I chose for that exchange requires me to use the word 'me' incorrectly. **Unless the argument is, "What's the [specific publication of a dictionary] definition of [word]?" †Violence is never the answer.

The Humanism of Doctor Who

Gladstone over at Cracked posted an article today called "How Doctor Who Became My Religion," which, I feel, hit on a lot of very important points.  In my labels box, one of the self-affected titles I've put down is "Whovian." If you're not familiar with the term, it's an arguably-insulting term for fans of Doctor Who.  (Like Trekkie.) For all the weirdly religious vibe of Gladstone's article, he's right.  Doctor Who, as a story, has all the necessary equipment to be the spine of a religious faith.

The religion/fandom comparison is far from a new thing.  CollegeHumor recently did a video on it:

and Greta Christina wrote an article for Alternet about it, a while ago: "What if People Actually Treated Religion as Just a Metaphor (Like Trekkies and Secular Jews)?".

Both the video and the article make the point that there are real differences between religion and fandom -- but they have a hell of a lot in common, too.

[It's important to me to point out, right now, without any ambiguity: I think there are important differences between fandom and religious faith, and I think that fandom, even when it reaches religion-like fervor, is safe, sane and legitimate in ways that religion is not.  Just so we're absolutely, unambiguously clear.]

The thing is, there are a few different kinds of stories.  There are stories like the ones Stephen King writes, or Hemmingway, the sorts of stories that are just about a group of people.  The kinds of stories that don't really spark much fanfic.  Then, there are myths.  These kinds of stories -- Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Firefly, Twilight, the Bible, have a sort of universal quality.  The characters are just slightly so distant from real humanity that they become symbols.  There's something aspirational about them. I don't think the true-to-life, Stephen King/Hemmingway style stories  are inherently less valid than the fanfic-inspiring types.  It think they're both valuable artforms.

Bringing it back to Doctor Who, though, there are good reasons for the Whovian fandom to be as religiously devoted as they are.  And, as a sort of religion, I think there's a lot to be said for Doctor Who.  Because the Doctor is one of the very few heroic, even deific, figures in fiction who champion humanism.

If you find yourself thinking "What would the Doctor do?" when faced with a moral difficulty, you're the sort of person I want in my life.  Because if you're being honest, you know that what the Doctor would do is work as hard as he possibly can, at the cost of his own safety and wellbeing, to find a solution that makes as many people happy as possible.  You know that the Doctor will abandon blame as soon as he sees an opportunity to get everyone somewhere peaceful and safe.  You know the Doctor would only ever harm another living being if there's no choice between that and saving innocents.  You know that the Doctor would say the two most beautiful words in any language are "Everybody lives."

Add to that a love of adventure, a healthy disrespect for authority, and a sincere and passionate dedication to living this life like it's the only one you're going to get, and it amounts to a pretty good life compass.  It doesn't hurt, either, that they're up-front about it not being true, in the strictest sense.  Gotta respect the absence of unjustified metaphysical claims in any quasireligion.

And, yeah, Doctor Who usually makes me cry, too.

Just wait until I start writing about existentialism and Firefly.

Some thoughts on the morality of privacy

Privacy is a complicated issue, and  increasingly, an important one.  Technologies like Facebook and Google have, over the last ten years or so, changed the nature of privacy issues faster than they might ever have changed before. And, like many issues in pop politics, subtlety in the discussion seems to have never emerged.  The slogans -- "Right to privacy,"  "Information wants to be free."  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”*

It seems there's a polarity of views:  Either privacy is good, or privacy is bad.  Either concealing anything is a sign of dishonesty, worthy of moral scorn, or being forced to reveal anything about yourself without the right to decline is irredeemably invasive.

One of the major reasons this issue is so heated is that the key examples of privacy tend to share something in common:  They represent a high degree of personal risk, but only if the people you expose the information to behave unethically.**

I think it would be fair to characterize these sorts of identity facts as closet-issues -- that is, being public about them constitutes coming out of a closet.  The archetypal example, the trope namer, is homosexuality.  Coming out as gay can have serious implications about an individual's wellbeing.

But the more people come out as gay, the harder it is for homophobia to stick.

Whether to come out is a hard decision, and the answer isn't universal.  And the abstract reasons for which it's difficult can be applied to pretty much any identity fact that it might be convenient to leave out of your public identity.

It might be convenient not to mention that you're Muslim/Jewish/atheist/other religious-identification minority, that you're going to therapy, that you got a GED, that you're transgendered, that you have bipolar disorder, that you've attempted suicide.  Those labels can hurt your social standing or your career.  Some of them are a risk to your physical wellbeing.

But coming out helps break the stereotypes, and the sacrifices you make in coming out are sacrifices you make for everyone else who can't, yet.

Altogether, the more information is out there, available and open, the harder it is for people to get away with being wrong.  In that way, if everyone is more transparent, it could make the world a nicer, safer, more understanding and caring place.

Then again, pitfalls along that road include police states, filter bubbles, corporate takeovers of information flow, targeted attacks against minorities, and, I'm sure, plenty of problems I haven't thought of.

Like I said, it's complicated.  But overall, I'd like to propose a slightly more complicated view of privacy -- that it's a necessary evil which we can't afford to do without, but which should be diminished wherever it's safe to do so.  Especially among the people in power.†

*That quote also opens to a number of other philosophical discussions I won't be addressing in this post. **I'm taking it as read that morality has to do with harm avoidance and the wellbeing of feeling entities, rather than the taboo based morality of religion, purity-based morality, or financial success as equivalent to moral success. †I realize I didn't get into the issue of power dynamics much here, but I promise to do so soon.

Label: Transhumanist

This one starts off with a chain of definitions from Wiktionary: transhumanism

  1. a philosophy favouring the use of science and technology, especially neurotechnology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, to overcome human limitations and improve the human condition


  1. A human who recognizes and embraces the coming posthuman condition


  1. Succeeding human beings as presently defined; more than, or beyond, what is human.

I understand that there's a lot of (sometimes contradictory) cultural baggage that comes along with the title "Transhumanist," and that some more committed transhumanists may disagree with my usage.  But I want to take a minute to talk about what transhumanism means to me.

Elezer D. Yudowsky makes the case for "Transhumanism as simplified Humanism," which I agree with.

I don't necessarily believe* that we're going to develop nanotechnology that will push our brains into super-overdrive.  I don't necessarily believe that we're going to fully unpick the workings of the human mind within my lifetime.  (I do think that prosthetics are quickly reaching the point where, given specific intentions, specialized prosthetics may be better options for some individuals than their natural-born limbs, and I think that range will expand rapidly, if not necessarily ever fully overtaking natural-born human biology.)

I do think that penicillin, laser eye surgery, cell phones and cars constitute exactly the same sort of augmentation to humanity that transhumanists propose.  I think language is a clever manipulation of our innate sound-making capacity, and written language is an augmentation onto that.  Fire is false environment.  Clothes are augmented skin.

When I say I'm a transhumanist, I mean to affirm my confidence in, and acceptance of, humans' relationship to technology.  I believe, as put beautifully by Dresden Codak author Aaron Diaz, [EDIT: in the words of his character, Kaito Kusanagi]

No, never say "us" and "them."  You separate a man from his tools -- Take his clothes, his history and his language away... he becomes an animal.  The machines... They are the hands and we are the head.  Only together do we make humanity.

(Emphasis mine.)

I call myself a transhumanist, specifically, to separate myself from people who wouldn't affirm that claim.  I call myself a transhumanist to separate myself from that particular kind of hypocrisy, from the false nostalgia for some sort of platonic humanity that convinces people that they're not intimately, existentially dependent upon technology, not just to enjoy the comfort of their life as it exists, but to be human in the way they understand it.  Humanity, as a philosophical concept, is largely taken to mean something other than an arbitrary sequence of genetic code.  That philosophical concept falls apart in absence of technology, and it's hypocritical to affirm all of that technology right up until around when you turned 15, after which point everything is an unnatural aberration.

I also want to make it clear that when I call myself a transhumanist, I don't mean singularitarian.  I don't believe that we're on our way to a technological singularity.  I don't believe we aren't, either -- I hold a position of strong agnosticism on the year 2030** and the rapture of the geeks.  That is to say, I don't know.  There's a huge body of analysis and argument both in favor of and against the singularity, and I'm simply not qualified to pick through it.  I find both arguments in favor of it and against it compelling, which speaks mostly to the skill of the writers.  I don't know how to tell true from false in that context, so I will remain singularity-agnostic either until the singularity hits, until it is comprehensibly, empirically falsified, or until my death.


*In this article, I want to emphasize as much as possible that when I say 'I don't believe,' I do not mean 'I believe the opposite of,'.  When I say I don't believe something, unless otherwise specified, I mean to imply that I'm unconvinced.  Not that I'm convinced against. **or 2045 if you ask Ray Kurzweil.

Label: Apatheist

I've decided to continue with a series of explanations of my labels -- eventually hyperlinking all of them to explanations. I identify openly as an atheist, because I don't believe that there's a god or gods operating in any capacity of control over the universe, and because 'atheist' is the most maligned manifestation of nontheism, so calling oneself an atheist is the most out-of-the-closet one can be, if the term applies.

But the most accurate label for me, with regard to my impressions of the supernatural, is 'Apatheism,' defined by Wiktionary as:

  1. (religion) Apathy towards the existence of a god; belief that the question of the existence of a god is unimportant.

I hold this position for several reasons, and I addressed one of them in a recent comic.  Basically, I believe that even if there is a god, such an entity would still have no excuse to think it's got power over us, in a moral sense, and individuals bending to its moral guidance are still responsible for their subsequent immoral decisions.  (The nature of morality is a discussion for another day.  Or the comments, if you prefer.)

I want to be very clear, here, that this does not mean that I am apathetic about the existence of religion, or the actions of human beings in service of their presumed deity.  Quite the opposite, in fact:  what I mean when I say I'm apatheistic is that I don't think religious people have any right to special protection from accountability for their decisions on the basis of faith.  I don't think they're any more moral for following divine instruction or some proxy thereof.  I think that's morally irresponsible -- and, ultimately, cowardly.

I think that the use of religion to auto-generate confidence in one's moral standing and hide from  ambiguity is a morally cowardly position, and I think that's something for which religious people can be held accountable, close to universally.

In short:  I don't care whether there's a god, people are responsible for their own morality.

Label: Citizen

I'm adding a new label to my sidebar: "Citizen." I was inspired by a TED talk by James J Kunstler, in which he discusses the problems with suburban planning.  At the end, he calls for a cultural shift:

One final thing -- I've been very disturbed about this for years, but I think it's particularly important for this audience. Please, please, stop referring to yourselves as "consumers." OK? Consumers are different than citizens. Consumers do not have obligations, responsibilities and duties to their fellow human beings. And as long as you're using that word consumer in the public discussion, you will be degrading the quality of the discussion we're having. And we're gonna continue being clueless going into this very difficult future that we face. So thank you very much Please go out and do what you can to make this a land full of places that are worth caring about, and a nation that will be worth defending.

Note that I didn't add to my sidebar, "New Hampshire citizen," "United States citizen," or any other such nationalistic delineation.  I'm a citizen of my community, and a citizen of the world, and a citizen of the universe.  I think it's important to affirm: I consider myself a citizen.  I consider myself to have responsibilities within my community, and I consider myself to be accountable for the well-being of the world in which I live.

On Labels

This will be far from the last time I write on this subject. I've added a new sidebar to the side of my page, titled "My Labels."  It says,

Writer, blogger, atheist, apatheist, transhumanist, humanist, geek, nerd, philosophy major, journalism major, gender neutral, bisexual, steampunk, Whovian, existentialist

I'll probably add more in the future.  I'll be adding a link to this post when I've finished it.

I've had this conversation dozens of times, and I'm sure I'll have it hundreds more.  I think labels are a good thing.  Or, more precisely, I think labels serve an extremely valuable role, and are not intrinsically bad.  Even when you apply them to people.

Søren Kierkegaard is frequently quoted as having said, "Once you label me, you negate me."  I get that line quoted at me a lot.  I recall being told that he wanted his gravestone to read, "That individual."  Nothing else.  Just that.  (I can't find a source at the moment.  I'll look into that more later; if you know a reliable source, feel free to post in the comments.)

I know few people who are prepared to go quite that far.  (I'm pretty sure I don't know any, but I don't make a policy of asking so I don't want to assume.)  Most people just object to the use of words to describe, well, what they are.

There is a very good reason to make this objection, and I want to be clear here about what I'm supporting and what I'm not.  The very good reason to prefer not being labeled is when the label represents a cultural bias or bigotry.  Attempting to reduce a person to a single label, or insisting that the label you're using carries more information than the bald descriptive fact of it, is wrong.  I do not support it.  I'd love to go into it more another time, but I want to wrap this post up at some point today, so I promise I'll come back to that.

On the other hand, there's simple descriptive labeling.  I may be offended if you draw the conclusion that, for example, because I say I'm a transhumanist that means you can draw conclusions about my dietary decisions (I don't eat food pills or take a steroid regimen), my heroes (I'm not actually a big fan of Ray Kurzweil), my beliefs about the future (I'm not strictly convinced of the technological singularity), or anything else -- apart from assuming that I believe it's a legitimate goal to improve oneself in whatever way you prefer, by whatever means you like.

But I'd also be annoyed if you tried to insist that it's not appropriate for me to admit to being a transhumanist.

The popular aversion to labels strikes me as a knee-jerk reaction to the very legitimate aversion to prejudice.  The latter deserves to be stamped out.  It should be consciously avoided and assiduously fought.  The former is a basic necessary function of a working society.

More later.