Disrupt the mainstream

January 29, 2013 | 1 comment

Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen

“Mainstream culture,” as a concept, needs to die.

A little pre-history. The Diamond Sutra, a sacred Buddhist text and the world’s oldest surviving printed book, was produced in China in 868 AD. It took another couple of hundred years before moveable type was invented, and another four hundred years for the printing press to be invented. Almost six hundred years after the first printed book was created, it became possible to mass produce literature. Two hundred years after that, the first newspapers began to appear, but they didn’t reach large circulations for another two hundred years – a thousand years after the first book.

Because of the advances in the printing press that allowed for larger circulations, newspapers could be distributed over a much larger geographic area. Prior to that, they had mostly existed in communities, where the publishers were easily reached. An unintended side effect of wider distribution was that this feedback loop was eroded. Newspapers became a one-way medium; a trend that continued with the invention of newsreels, radio broadcasting, and the television. Almost simultaneously, manufacturing techniques improved to allow for mass-market products made out of new materials like plastics.

The separation wasn’t clean. Because of its capacity to reach large audiences quickly, both government and business had interests in the media that went well beyond (while embracing) traditional advertising. They underwrote content, leaned on the companies who produced it, censored both explicitly and implicitly, and created a media environment that sold not just products and ideas, but a way to live your life. More than ever before, there was a wrong way and a right way. There was a mainstream, and then there were niche interests. This had always been true to an extent, but the main route for lifestyle propaganda had previously been churches, who fearfully controlled the means of communication. In the modern age, the media itself began to take the place of religion. (Think about the semantics of the phrase “mass culture” for a second.) Business and government had a direct channel to get their messages to the people. At the time, this seemed like a liberation.

It wasn’t a liberation compared to what came next. The beginnings of the Internet showed up in 1969, not at all coincidentally during the peak of the counterculture movement in the sixties – the first cultural movement to challenge the mass-market status quo. Usenet showed up ten years later, allowing anyone to participate in semi-public discussions. Ten years after that, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Ten years after that, Napster was allowing anyone to trade music. A decade later, mass-market publishing was in free-fall.

For ordinary people, the utility of mass culture was coming to an end. Information was freely available without the involvement of businesses, governments or churches – both to consume and to produce. Anyone could publish, without anyone’s permission, no matter who or what they worshiped, where they had gone to school or how much money they had in their bank accounts. There were no corporate policies dictating who could be heard, and no slush piles where ideas that didn’t fit pre-defined marketing templates could languish. It was a free-for-all. Free as in speech.

In the middle ages, the church decried texts that defied its authority, often sentencing authors to death. In the 21st century we’re a little more laid back, but it’s nonetheless predictable that corners of the mass media, sensing that it’s under threat, have been arguing that Internet content is less reliable, or shady, even, contrary to the views held by the public. Meanwhile, proposed legislation like SOPA and PIPA and the Communications Decency Act were transparently aimed at neutering the new medium, and were often sponsored by the media companies themselves. (Wiser corners of both business and government have gone another way, and are simply buying these new media outlets.) Even now, opposition to SOPA is spun as a tech company triumph, while the truth is more subversive: the Internet is a grass-roots people connector, and it was the people who spoke in defense of their free speech.

Just as the media had fragmented from a few large organizations to something that every single person in the developed world could participate in, manufacturing is currently enduring the same kind of shock that publishing experienced. Sites like Kickstarter are flying in the face of traditional manufacturing processes, and allowing anyone to begin making products.

Mainstream culture was a construct. It was created partially by accident, because we were all consuming the same products and the same media, and partially on purpose, because people who conform to a set of ideals make better consumers from the manufacturers’ point of view and better citizens from government’s point of view. Once upon a time, it improved most of our lives through new manufacturing techniques and distribution models. In a world where this is no longer necessary, however, this imposed conformity is a kind of oppression. One need only look at the prevailing American ideals of strength over intellect, wealth over integrity, or the dismissal of “special interests”, to see a kind of fascism at work.

We’re all special interests. Humanity is beautiful because we’re all so different. We have dreams, ideals, values, goals and loves, and for each of us, down to a person, they’re all slightly different. That’s why democracy is so great – or at least, has the potential to be so great – and why freedom of speech is so important. We create a better society, and better lives for all of us, by embracing those differences and letting them form a patchwork, building something bigger together than the sum of all of us. Different ideas, cultural contexts, sexualities, abilities, preferences, characteristics, likes and dislikes; all of these are complementary as part of a bigger whole. The technology we build is there only to make our collective lives better; it doesn’t exist for itself, or so that we can make a profit. We’re building to progress. Technology is subversive, and always has been, because it empowers the previously unempowered. With the Internet, the time for enforced values has passed; we can all have a voice, and we can all have a media that serves us for who we really are. Ideas can and should be freely exchanged. People can and should be free to be themselves.

The concept of mainstream culture needs to become obsolete. That’s not to say that all the things in it can’t live on, enjoyed by audiences, or that the people who make their livings creating it can’t apply their skills to make new things for different kinds of people. That’s the point: it takes all sorts.

Photo: Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen by Frédéric Bisson, released under a Creative Commons license.

The future of publishing

April 18, 2010 | 1 comment

Intersection: PublishingThanks to everyone who came to Intersection: Publishing yesterday. Our fascinating round-table discussion was cut off far too soon: I think we could have gone on for days and only barely covered the issues. It’s clear that an open conversation that treated publishers, authors, readers, technologists and lawyers as equals was long overdue. (Missed it? Watch this space.)

I thought I’d write down some of my takeaways while they’re fresh in my mind:

DRM is misunderstood from both sides.

From some publishers, support was shown for Apple’s locked-down App Store business model, with the assumption that it would prevent piracy. Of course, this isn’t the case. I think Sven Edge put it best to me during the post-debate drinks: “any technological system only becomes less secure over time.” In other words, you cannot assume that any technology is unbreakable; someone will do it. Trusting your business model to DRM is therefore a very bad strategy.

Publisher advocacy of locked-down Digital Rights Management technologies apparently occurs because authors need to be reassured that their work won’t be stolen when it becomes available online. A few authors present disputed this point of view. Regardless of this, more work needs to be done to educate non-technical people around the issues, in a calm way that takes in all points of view and doesn’t attempt to reform the fundamentals of copyright law or rights agreements in the same breath.

The market for electronic publishing is still too fragmented.

Many publishers present were worried about the variety of devices and platforms present on the market, as well as their quality. They simply can’t afford to target all of them, and many are either choosing to wait or work with third-party companies to develop solutions for them. All agreed that a single, open platform that allowed publishers to create content using something approaching their existing skill-sets is desperately required.

There also needs to be an open equivalent for apps, to give publishers a choice, and to allow them to deliver to multiple platforms at once. During the debate, I suggested encapsulating HTML5 (which has all manner of app-friendly capabilities) in the ePub format (which produces stand-alone bundles of content that can be sold and transferred between devices). I intend to write more about this another time.

The publishing industry is following the patterns laid out by the music industry.

On the future of publishingPublishers are signing authors rather than books, and are beginning to gather extra revenue through talks and activities surrounding books, just as – for example – musical artists like Madonna are beginning to sign to concert promoters rather than traditional record labels. Together with the DRM arguments above, I think there’s a real danger that the publishing industry could go down exactly the same road. (On the topic of DRM, note that iTunes is now DRM-free – don’t count that any restrictions on iBooks or App Store items will last forever.)

The knowledge gap goes both ways.

The assumptions that geeks take as being gospel are not gospel. The assumptions that publishers take as being gospel are not gospel. Each side needs to listen to the other and contribute to a productive conversation, without demeaning anyone’s expertise or experience. There needs to be both give and take.

To put it another way: the models that govern software do not govern publishing and the models that govern publishing do not govern software. These remain two different businesses, and must be treated as such.

There was some very heated debate yesterday, but also a great deal of very constructive argument. I’m really looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Intersection: Publishing is today!

April 17, 2010 | Leave a comment

Just a quick note that Intersection: Publishing is today:

This afternoon, professionals from the fields off publishing, technology and IP law will gather together to discuss the future of publishing. We’re excited about meeting the attendees, having some interesting conversations and helping to forge productive ongoing collaborations. This is an important time for the industry, and our culture.

We’d love for you to join us. It’s free.

No need to book; just turn up at 1pm. Venue directions are on the website.

Intersection: Publishing

March 18, 2010 | Leave a comment

Intersection: Publishing 2010 is a BarCamp which aims to discuss the future of publishing. There are a bunch of problems with the current models (for example, Amazon’s attempts at digital lock-in), and we want to get people from different backgrounds – publishers, authors, geeks, lawyers, marketers, academics – in a room to try and solve some of them organically and create some new ideas. It will be an informal, creative day.

You should come too.

It’s on April 17th in London, and is completely free. All we’d like you to do is either add your name to the wiki or let us know you’d like to come. (Even if you don’t do either of those things, you can still turn up on the day, but it helps us estimate overall attendance.)

I’m a technologist / lawyer / author / publisher / marketer / academic, but I don’t know anything about electronic publishing!

Doesn’t matter. In fact, so much the better. This is an emerging space, which needs new blood and fresh ideas. Your experience will help – and you’ll meet plenty of new contacts, with the opportunity for future business.

This is a great idea. How can I help?

Intersection: Publishing is already sponsored by the Stirling Centre for Publishing and Communication, but there are still some vacancies for other sponsors. Check out our sponsor page, or get in touch directly at info@intersectionpublishing.com or +44 7773 385 490. We’re also interested in volunteers on the day.

I can’t attend, but these issues interest me.

We’ve started an ongoing blog that will cover related stories and discussion. We’ll be posting there regularly, and are on the lookout for both guests and further contributors. If you think this could be you, get in touch.

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