Thursday, September 06, 2012

Dear Jim Wallace

Ah, Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby, when you say that "I think we're going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community's own statistics for its health - which it presents when it wants more money for health - are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years....The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn't smoke", you are comparing homosexuality to smoking, no matter how desperately you try to backpedal by insisting "I was not comparing homosexuality with smoking at all". Also, It doesn't help when, after insisting you're not comparing homosexuality with smoking, you immediately again compare homosexuality with smoking by saying "What I was saying is that on one hand we are vocal on our discouragement of people to smoke and on the other we are suppressing public dialogue about the health risks associated with homosexuality.".

So on the one hand, smoking. On the other hand, homosexuality. But you're not comparing them. Riiight.

In any case, as you say, I would be happy to see more public dialogue about the negative health effects of bigotry against homosexuality. Oh wait, that's not what you said? You said the effects were somehow inherent to the "homosexual lifestyle"? Well, that's a matter of debate, isn't it? It's one the gay community would be happy to have with you I'm sure.

Of course, if you really want to have an open debate, it would be helpful to stop attacking that giant strawman over there - you know, the imaginary gay community that is supposedly suppressing any mention of negative health data that correlates with being gay - and address the actual position of the gay community at large: that we want that data to be publicised, because we see it as evidence of what gay people suffer from due to the existence of anti-gay animus in society - you know, the anti-gay animus that you're currently stirring up with your lies about how we're "suppressing dissent" just because we dare to exercise our own free speech rights to say what we really think of you and your stupid arguments.

Have a nice day.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Google X, AI and cat recognition

So let me see if I understand this

Google's "X laboratory" (geez, secret supervillain organisation-sounding name much?) has been experimenting with AI and neural nets. They decided to hook 16,000 computer processors together and set this assemblage to examining a few million stills from Youtube videos. Without any prompting or input about what it should or should not look for, the neural net learned how to distinguish "cat" from "not a cat", and to recognise when a cat appeared in a still.

That's kind of cool. Weird, but cool.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Critical realism and scientific inquiry: natural vs social science (Part II: the role of interpretation)

An ongoing debate within the philosophy of science is the extent to which knowledge about reality that is independent of a person's subjective interpretation of it is possible. The position of critical realism is that people cannot conceive of external reality outside of frameworks of understanding that pre-exist the attempt to perceive external reality and influence what is perceived, and how it is perceived and understood. Examples of such frameworks include established scientific theories and paradigms.

Multiple frameworks of understanding can exist with regard to any given area of reality, and they can be incompatible with each other. However, unlike relativist philosophies such as postmodernism, critical realism does not take this to mean that reality is nothing more than how humans decide to perceive it. For critical realists, an independent, external reality exists, and although conceptualisations of it can be imperfect and occasionally contradictory, this is not an excuse to give up on scientific inquiry. Indeed, one of the goals of any science is to try and make existing interpretations and conceptualisations of external reality more accurate. This is what makes critical realism critical: the goal of science in critical realism is to test our understanding of reality and through better understanding of it, improve the human condition.

A key difference in natural and social sciences is the role of interpretive frameworks of understanding in their respective areas of inquiry. The natural sciences make use of interpretive frameworks, utilising them to explain findings or updating them when they do not. A classic example is the evolution of the understanding of the atom: from conceptualising them as the smallest particle that exists, to realising that atoms themselves are composed of sub-particles, in the process evolving from the "plum pudding" model of protons and electrons in an atom into the more familiar "electrons orbiting a nucleus" model that most schoolchildren still learn as the correct one, and even further into the vagaries of quantum physics (which I won't pretend to fully understand).

This use of interpretive frameworks of understanding also occurs in the social sciences. But the social scientist is studying humans. Humans make use of interpretive frameworks of understanding in every area of their lives. Therefore, scientists don't just use interpretive frameworks in their study, but study them directly. Once again, this means that social science is difficult in a way that natural science is not. For one, how do you study an interpretive framework that is very dissimilar to your own interpretive framework? Can you even make sense of it at all?

Various methods exist to try and make unfamiliar interpretive frameworks more readily accessible and understandable, not just to the social science researcher but to anyone who is actually going to read the research as well. The most famous in social science is Clifford Geertz's "thick description": studying a culture in depth and trying to describe every experience that is observed to occur in an unfamiliar culture in as much detail as possible, with as much detail to how it relates to other parts of the culture as possible. Yet even here it is difficult to touch on everything, and important details can easily left out for no other reason that the researcher doesn't know to look for them.

Even such unintended misrepresentations of the conceptual understandings of others are problematic. The claim to be able to authentically represent the mental and social world of another carries a great deal of responsibility with it, and authoritative accounts that are inaccurate can  have serious negative consequences for the nature of interactions between different cultures, or even between people who share a similar culture but whose worldviews differ in some fundamental way. A particular danger here, and one that can't readily be overcome, is that a social scientist can never completely represent an external interpretive framework completely in its own terms, but will always represent it in terms of their own interpretive framework. An obvious consequence of this is that social science researchers should, in order to be able to do their job most effectively, try to cultivate for themselves as broad a range of available interpretive frameworks of understanding as possible.

And this brings up a further complication. Since social scientists are themselves social beings, any actions that they take have an effect on the society with which they are interacting. That includes the act of undertaking social research. In particular, the interpretive frameworks that a social scientist might make use of in order to explain an aspect of society that they are investigating could readily become adopted by members of that society as their own method of explanation for that aspect of their society, and potentially for other aspects of their society as well. This is known in social science as the "double hermeneutic", and it means that social scientists have a much greater ethical responsibility to practise care in their research, especially in their interpretation of their findings, than would be found in the natural sciences.

That's basically it as far as I understand the differences. I feel like I've left details out, but I think the core concepts are sound in my mind now. I don't suppose anyone else will find it particularly useful. I should get back to blogging about stuff that's more useful to other people.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Critical realism and scientific inquiry: natural vs social science (Part I: Open and Closed Systems)

Critical realism is a philosophy of social science originally pioneered by Roy Bhaskar. Originally quite useful in laying out a theoretical model of experienced reality that sought to explain why it is even possible to perform scientific research at all, his later work took things in a rather esoteric and, frankly, mystical direction. But the work on critical realism that did not take this "spiritual turn" is quite interesting, especially in how it seeks to explain why the methods of natural science and the methods of social science must be significantly different.

The premise of critical realism is realist: it presumes that there is a reality "out there" that exists independently of our knowledge of it. The means by which we learn about this reality is fallible, affected (but not determined) by our pre-existing theories about it, and different aspects of reality have different methods through which those aspects can be studied. Critical realism, as a theory about scientific inquiry, puts forward some ideas about the different nature of physical and social objects of study, and these ideas demonstrate differences in the way that scientific inquiry ought to work for the natural and social sciences.

Open vs Closed Systems

In natural sciences, the preferred method of study is the laboratory. In the terminology of critical realism, this is referred to as a closed system: a single aspect of reality is to be studied, so parts of reality that are irrelevant to that study are artificially removed so as not to affect the outcome. Even in situations where study isn't specifically in a laboratory, the goal is still much the same: close the system so as to be able to focus specifically on one aspect of external reality. In critical realist terminology, the goal off the closed system is to isolate and prove the existence of a "causal mechanism". In natural science terminology, a causal mechanism is a scientific law.

Closed systems are artificial environments. This becomes problematic when the object of study is social reality. According to critical realist philosophy, most attributes of social reality are not the result of simple, easy to isolate causal mechanisms, but stem directly from the interaction of multiple causes; each cause by itself would not produce even remotely the same effect by itself. Additionally, some effects may be actually negated by other causes, effectively removing evidence of the effect, even though the cause of the expected effect is present and salient. While isolating and testing a single cause-and-effect relationship can be done in some situations, there are a whole host of causal mechanisms that cannot be isolated for study, as the emergent effects of the interactions between those mechanisms forms a vital part of the picture of what is going on. This may not be so bad if there are only a few such interacting mechanisms, but in even the simplest social system, there are a whole host of them. And different social systems and situations can have entirely different causal mechanisms in operation.

To complicate matters even further, social reality is in part defined by its relationship to other parts of that reality, social or otherwise. Even before critical realism, an ongoing criticism of laboratory social science was that social scientific laboratory experiments don't explain what people do, but only what people do when they're in the social environment a laboratory. Trying to close off a social system for study potentially changes how that social system works, which means that any results from such a study cannot readily be generalised to social systems which have not been artificially closed off in the same way.

The goal of social scientific study, similar to attempts in natural science to uncover scientific "laws", is to discover causal mechanisms that explain the observed behaviour of an external reality. But while the natural scientist can observe closed systems and interpret them through deduction, along with some amount of induction (i.e. to consider how generalisable the experimental findings might be), the social scientist has to observe open systems. And while the social scientist may be able to make some deductive conclusions from such observations, they must make make much greater use of inductive reasoning to try and figure out what causal mechanisms are present and salient in a particular social system.  In order to consider what causal mechanisms might even potentially be present, they must also make use of what critical realists call "retroduction": the attempt to explain an aspect of reality by positing what pre-conditions are necessary for such an aspect of reality to exist.

Both induction and retroduction are less reliable tools of inquiry than deduction, As social science must rely on these tools to a greater extent than natural science, the claims of social science tend to be less reliably true than claims made in the natural sciences. Such "laws" as can be posited from these methods of inquiry are also much harder to test across different social systems and situations. This means that the explanations provided by social science are much more tentative than in natural science, and the extent to which findings from the study of one area of social reality can be applied to a different area of social reality is much less clear than in it is in the study of reality undertaken by the natural sciences.

I actually wrote this in an attempt to clarify my own understanding of critical realism's understanding of the differences between natural and social science. It's worked (I think), but it's taken longer for me to explain the first difference between them  than I expected it to. The other main difference - the element that interpretation plays as both something that is applied to findings in all types of scientific study, and as something that is also studied by social science - will have to wait for Part II.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The insidious harm of ex-gay "therapy"

Courtesy of some people coming forward in Australia, the existence of "ex-gay therapy" in Australia is generating headlines, both in News Limited's holdings (Christian groups try to cure homosexual teens with brainwashing treatment) and in the Age (Ministries preying on gay shame). For once, it seems, the attitude of even News Ltd's holdings towards anti-gay sentiment is unabashedly negative.

The Age article actually features an interview from someone who works at an ex-gay program. Haydn Sennit, "pastoral care worker" for the Sydney ex-gay group Liberty Christian Ministries, answered a few questions, and in the process revealed something about the attitude that such ministries have to people who say they experience no change in sexual orientation. Simply put: if a person doesn't change, it's their own fault for not trying hard enough. Some sample quotes:
Some people give up, while others keep going and it’s different for every individual
Success is varied and it depends a lot on a person’s personal commitment.
And the kicker:
Some give up entirely because it’s so hard and it’s actually their disappointment with themselves that gets them undone.

Yes, they do get "undone" by disappointment in themselves. But not in the sense that they fail to experience change as a result of giving up. They get undone in the sense that their desire to give up after failing to experience change is turned into evidence of their weakness. The victim-blaming rhetoric that Sennit here is propagating prevents would-be ex-gays from acknowledging that they have tried to change as hard as they could, that they literally could not try any harder to change, and that they still wouldn't change even if they could. They are told to blame themselves for failing to do something impossible, and are told that their inability to experience change, even after monstrous effort at it, is evidence of their own weakness, not of the impossibility of the task before them.

Yes, ex-gay therapy teaches people to hate and fear their own desires for sexual intimacy. Yes, it teaches people to be ashamed of themselves, to think of themselves as "sexually broken" instead of just as gay. But the cruelest and most insidious lesson that they teach is that, no matter how much effort a person makes to change, it will never be enough. Those who admit to themselves that they will never change are made to think of themselves as weak-willed failures. No wonder so many of them become suicidal.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Julia Gillard accepts News Limited mischaracterisation of Anzac Day centenary study, tries to distance herself from it

And now Julia Gillard says she "disagrees completely" with the "findings of the report" which supposedly "said marking past military conflicts could cause tension in multicultural Australia". I doubt she even knows or cares what's in the actual report, and just wants to try and be on the "friend" side of the "friend/enemy" divide that News Limited has created. It's self-defeating of course, since her government paid for the report and can't really appear to contradict it without looking like she spent money on it for nothing. A stronger government might have fought back against the misleading spin and described what was actually in the report. Oh well.

The Anzac Day centenary study: just how huge a Murdoch beat-up is it?

It's this huge: the tiny section of the study that's getting so reported on starts like this:
There are four areas of potential concern surrounding the commemorations. None of these are definitive problems, but rather points that should be explicitly considered in order to ensure that they do not introduce unexpected negative complications

So we have frothing-at-the-mouth online commentors complaining that this "government research" (actually a government-funded study performed by an independently-owned market research company) has suggested that the Anzac Day centenary itself is a problem, when all that it's suggested is that there might be possible concerns, which are definitely not an obstacle to the actual commemoration going ahead.
And those concerns?
  1. Multiculturalism: contrary to the misleading reporting about how "multiculturalism" is somehow an inherent obstacle to the Anzac Day centenary itself, the one and only point raised as a multicultural "issue" was this: should Anzac Day be an opportunity for commemoration of non-Australian military service by people who immigrated to Australia? That is the ONLY "multicultural" issue that was raised as potentially divisive, precisely because public opinion is divided on that one narrow issue. The total other issues related to "multiculturalism" raised in this report? ZERO.

  2. The balance of Commemoration versus Celebration: of zero interest to News Limited, this is an issue that may not have been highlighted if this study had not been done. In my original drafts for these blog posts, I often used the word "celebration", until I realised by the Anzac Centenary report's use of the word "commemoration" that I wasn't actually celebrating the contributions of my father and grandfather to the Australian army, I was commemorating them. This fundamental understanding of what Anzac Day is really about is important, and it's a good thing that the difference has now been highlighted. News Limited makes no mention of this positive contribution of the report

  3. Current events: the report makes clear that this is a minor issue, and even then only of concern to younger people:
    Though only suggested in the research groups, and mostly by younger participants, the potential impact of current events should be considered

    This is not a reference to any specific current event, but any possible future event that may or may not be happening come April 2015. It was suggested that an unpopular conflict may reduce community engagement with Anzac Day. This possibility of reduced engagement was seen as a BAD thing. At no point did News Limited mention this desire on the behalf of the study authors to improve, not detract from, Anzac Day commemorations.

  4. Veterans' standards of living: as the son of an elderly veteran, this is important to me, and I'm glad it's being raised. We can and should ensure that commemorations honouring service are backed up with actual results for veterans in the area of health especially. Again, this is something that will improve engagement with Anzac Day. Again, News Limited does not mention anything about this goal of the study authors in improving, not detracting from, Anzac Day commemorations.

Oh, and that alleged quotation about Anzac Day being supposedly "just a party for drunk yobbos?", the headline for the Daily Telegraph story on the issue? It doesn't appear to exist. What does exist are concerns expressed by the focus group participants themselves - NOT by the government, and NOT by the market research group that conducted the study - that bad behaviour on Anzac Day is becoming a problem, and that this is not what Anzac Day stands for. Those complaining about this part of the study, instead of shooting the messenger, should instead perhaps ask why this perception of some bad behaviour occurring at Anzac Day exists in the first place. Maybe, just maybe, because there is some? Or is it too "politically correct" (and therefore unmentionable) to even dare to suggest such a thing?

The full text of the report is in fact publicly available: Department of Veterans' Affairs: "A century of service" Community Research. The kicker? This study is from 2010. Why all the bluster from News Limited about an "exclusive" report on information that, as it turns out, has been in the public eye for the past 2 years?

The Anzac Day centenary study: what you won't read in the Murdoch papers

On pages 48-49 of the government report How Australia may commemorate the Anzac Centenary, a listing of the findings of the "government" study (which was not actually performed by the government but by independent market research group Colmar Brunton) that the Murdoch press has reported on with such sensationalism can be found. As I've seen many online commentors falsely claim that the $370,000 spent on this study was only spent in order to address some imagined conflict between multiculturalism and the very idea of Anzac Day itself, here are some of the facts about this study that News Limited did not mention:
  • The research was undertaken in part not because of concern that Anzac Day involvement was a problem, but that a possible LACK of involvement was a problem, and how this might be addressed:
    The research outlines community perceptions and expectations in relation to invigorating the memories of the past and identifying the mechanisms that will take them into the future

  • Anzac Day, and commemoration of military service was seen as very important by the focus group members:
    It is almost universally recognised that commemoration of our military history is important

    News Limited selectively decided to focus on a minor part of the report that outlined possible problems, while failing utterly to mention the strong support that the study gave for commemoration of military history in general, and of Anzac Day in particular

  • News Limited spent a lot of time reporting on alleged suggestions that some people didn't like the idea of being part of Anzac Day, but failed to report on those people who DID very much want to be included in Anzac Day but didn't feel that they were, namely Indigenous Australians:
    Many Indigenous Australians view Anzac Day as 'a party that we have not been invited to attend'. Indigenous service and the service of Australians in Vietnam were identified as two important areas for redressing the perceived lesser commemorative honour that the past has provided those groups

  • Finally - and ONLY after these positive and important messages from the study in question are presented, do we get concerns about "the potential for both unity and division in commmemorating our military history in a modern multicultural Australia". This dual consideration of cultural concerns is a far cry from the one-sided slant presented in the Murdoch press that "multiculturalism" is somehow an obstacle to the very existence of Anzac Day. In particular, it raises the concern about how celebrating military action in foreign countries may look to people whose cultural heritage includes that country. This is NOT a statement that such people object to any Anzac Day commemorations, only that we don't actually know how they feel. This is called "risk assessment", and is a perfectly logical thing to do in any area of endeavour

After going through the "How Australia may commemorate the Anzac centenary report", the Executive Summary of the Colmar Brunton study reported on by News Limited is included as Appendix 7. It will be interesting to see how the News Limited quotations match up with what's actually in there.

The News Limited Anzac centenary "multiculturalism" beat-up

Nearly every newspaper owned by the Australian arm of the Murdoch empire appears to have published a story about a "government" study that has committed the unpardonable sin of being less than 100% supportive of every single thing that anyone might ever do on the centenary of Anzac Day. Worse these "bureaucrats" have supposedly "attacked" this Australian cultural icon in the name of "multiculturalism".

The Daily Telegraph: Anzac centenary commemorations should be culturally sensitive, government research claims
FEDERAL government-commissioned research claims commemorating the centenary of Anzac Day is a "double-edged sword" and a "potential area of divisiveness" because of multiculturalism.

The Herald Sun: Gallipoli anniversary could divide Australia, Federal Government warned
THE Federal Government has been warned that celebrating the centenary of Anzac Day could provoke division in multicultural Australia - and told there were "risks" in honouring our fallen soldiers.

The Herald Sun is also running a poll with the question "Will celebrating the centenary of Anzac Day cause racial disharmony?"

The central online presence for News Limited Anzac Day 'just a party for drunk yobbos' - Aussie attitude study.
FEARS Anzac Day is nothing more than a bogan day of work-free drinking have been revealed in an intensive study of Aussie attitudes.

A study for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to determine community attitudes ahead of Anzac days 100th centenary used 36 focus groups of eight people totalling 288 participants from all age brackets 18 and over at a cost of $370,000.

These stories have been reprinted by other News Ltd outlets including Perth Now, the Courier Mail, and Adelaide Now.

The online outrage has already started, about how "government bureaucrats", in the name of "political correctness", are somehow trying to prevent any commemoration of the Anzac Day centenary from taking place at all. The omissions and distortions in the News Limited "news" reporting certainly help give that impression. But in trying to look into the actual facts instead of News Limited's invitation to unthinking outrage, a few things become interesting:

  1. Nowhere in these "news" articles do we discover the name of the study, or any details about how to find it on our own. In fact all we are told is that it is "government-funded" by the Department of Veterans Affairs to the tune of about $370,000, that it consisted of 36 focus groups, and of course that it said all these horrible things about the Anzac Day centenary apparently being a "potential area of divisiveness", with the addition by the journalist (NOT the study) that this is because of "multiculturalism".

    I believe that the research study in question is a study mentioned on pages 48-49 of the How Australia may commemorate the ANZAC CENTENARY report, released today. It was NOT "bureaucrats" that did this study, but a private company who got paid by the DVA to do it. Thia private company, Colmar Brunton, describes itself as "the largest independent Australian owned market research agency". Any fulmination about "politically correct government bureaucrats" supposedly writing things in this study should check their facts: no "government bureaucrat" wrote anything in it at all.

  2. From what I can tell from News Limited's highly selective quoting of the study in question, at no point does the study suggest that Anzac Day centenary commemorations should not be held at all. True, as the News Limited "reporting" occasionally bothers to note, there is some concern about the way in which Anzac Day might be commemorated. Despite the angry rantings of more than a few online commenters, this is an entirely fair concern. Or are we just supposed to accept that there is no wrong way to think about Anzac Day, so that we should support disgusting things like Jim Wallace using Anzac Day to attack Muslim and gay Australians as not entitled to consider themselves included in what Anzac Day stands for? Is it "political correctness" to object to something like that? Or just basic Australian decency?

    So it is quite deceitful of News Limited, in particular the Herald Sun, to run their poll saying "Will celebrating the centenary of Anzac Day cause racial disharmony?", as if anyone has even suggested that it's the mere existence of the centenary commemorations that is concerning. The News Limited "reporting" admits that the report expects the commemoration to continue, noting guidelines for how celebrations ought to be conducted, not whether it should be conducted at all:
    Commemorations should be "culturally sensitive and inclusive", the paper states.

  3. Of course, there will be those who insist that "culturally sensitive and inclusive" means "not allowed to engage in Anzac Day traditions". Unsurprisingly, the News Limited "reporting" says nothing about what the study itself actually means by that. I suspect it means that you don't denigrate the culture of the people you have fought against. But absent a first-hand examination of the report, it's impossible to know for sure.

It's only a matter of time before other news outlets pick up on this. Unfortunately it's unlikely that this story is attracting attention because of important and salient facts, but because it has been reported in such a way as to cause maximum outrage. And just as unfortunately, the study which is being selectively quoted in this New Limited outrage manufacturing campaign is not readily available to the public. I will try to look for it, but I don't expect much success.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bob Katter's anti-gay ad: the "gay couple" portrayed

I think the most offensive thing about this ad is the image used to portray gay people. Because the chests were pixelated out, I thought the two men were naked, and this was some sort of sexualisation of the issue. That's not the case as it turns out, and I'm now unsure if the original ad aired with the pixelation effect or not, or if later people added that because they thought was actually being depicted could be considered offensive.

What was actually depicted was imagery that I found on a website that provides stock photos for the depiction of homosexual couples. The pictures in this case are from a series entitled Portrait of a Homosexual Pregnant Couple Expecting a Baby. The part that was pixelated out shows the younger man of the portrayed couple with what looks like a white sculpted set of breasts and a distended belly, obviously not real but intended to evoke the appearance of a pregnant woman. Both partners are bare-chested, and both are wearing jeans.

So, two questions: (1) Why intentionally censor this? (2) Why use these images? The sculpted belly and breasts may be a tad racy, but both chests were censored in the ad, so I really don't know what's going on. The use of the images seems a bit more clear to me, as a means to demonstrate that what same-sex couples are really doing is pathetically aping "genuine" (heterosexual) relationships i.e. ones where one of the partners actually can get pregnant. By neglecting to mention that this is an artistic photoset, the ad dishonestly implies that gay men do this kind of dress-up as a serious activity. The pixelation kind of spoils that message, though.

Was the ad pixelated in this way when it was originally shown on television?

Friday, March 09, 2012

Kony, Invisible Children, what News Limited thinks is most important

In the face of, you know, this, some people have raised concerns about how useful or timely the online presentation about Kony actually is. Club Troppo provides a useful summary of the concerns and critiques.

But then there's this headline from
KONY 2012? You'd rather watch cricket, in March, as Channel 10 special flounders.

News limited headline writers, if not necessarily their actual journalists, seem to have a tendency to demean and denigrate new media activism. But is this really the headline they want to go with on this issue?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Big Content, systemic control and cultural consumption

The vast majority of popular entertainment content - movies, tv shows, music, games - is owned and legally controlled by media conglomerates. They co-operate, via organisations like the RIAA and the MPAA, in ensuring that the system of ownership and control by which they can generate content and make a profit from it gets maintained, legitimised and extended. This is done via lawsuits, anti-piracy advertising, lobbying for greater legal ability to control distribution channels, and what have you. This system - let's call it "Big Content" - depends not just on the existence and aggressive enforcement of laws restricting the distribution of intellectual property, but upon the popularity of the content distributed within the boundaries of the restricted system. It also depends on the near or total lack of popularity of content outside of this system.

This describes the current situation. Sure, content is created and circulated outside of this system - copyleft, Creative Commons licensing - but in terms of popularity, these efforts are small potatoes compared to Big Content. The most popular media content is Big Content's content.

A quick clarification: "popular" as I'm using it here can refer to both content that is widely consumed, and content that is widely known. So Justin Bieber's music may not be popular to everyone in the first sense, but it is definitely popular to everyone in the second sense: people at least know who he is, even if they hate him and don't ever listen to his music. My belief is that the popularity of Big Media content in the second sense - the shared knowledge of it - is what makes finding a viable alternative to Big Content's system so difficult.

Why is Big Content's content popular? This is where people start getting it wrong. Supporters of the Big Content system interpret "popular" in the first sense, and say that content generated and distributed within the Big Content system is popular because it's good, and it's good because the system works: content creators get paid for good stuff, and the better the stuff they create, the more they get paid, and the more incentive they have to create stuff that's good. But "good" is a relative term. While the label "good" can perhaps objectively be applied to things like technical polish (and even then there's the existence of things like "garage rock"), it becomes much mushier when it comes down to matters of aesthetic taste. One person's "good" is another person's "low-brow trash" is another person's "pretentious twaddle". Saying that popular content is popular because it's "good" is simply saying that it's popular because a lot of people subjectively agree that it's good. Popular content is popular because it's...popular.....

A more technical-minded person might interpret "popular" more broadly, and might identify the reason for popularity as the control over the system of mass distribution by which Big Content had monopolised the content accessible to people. Big Content's content became "popular", in both senses described above, because it was foisted on consumers through narrow broadcast media like radio and TV. Consumers had little choice about what content they actually could consume. Fortunately, with the Internet and the proliferation of other distribution channels, it's now only a matter of time before the popularity of Big Content's content, dependent on narrow and controlled distribution as it is, stops being popular. Right? Well, no, that doesn't seem to be happening.

While as much control as possible over the system of distribution is very important to Big Content (the basic reason why proposed legislation like SOPA/PIPA even exists is to increase this control), it is not the sole thing buttressing the popularity of Big Content's content. The popularity isn't just tied to mass distribution, but to mass consumption. Or more specifically, to mass cultural consumption.

The content created through the system of Big Content is a specific type. I have previously described interaction with content as a cultural act. By this I mean that it forms ongoing relationships between the content and the people who interact with it. Here's a rough draft of how I see the different types of possible relationship formations being categorised: (1) individual relationship formation: a relationship is formed between 1 person and some content ("This album changed my life!") (2) communal relationship formation: people known to each other seek to form similar individual relationships with some content ("You should totally listen to this album!", "Let's go see a movie!") (3) mass relationship formation: people not known to each form personal relationships with each other by comparing the individual relationships with content that they have ("So what kind of music do you like?"). Interaction with content includes both consumption of content (watching movies, listening to music, etc) and production (writing fanfics based on a tv show, imagining yourself in the world of the movie, even humming).

Interaction with Big Content's content is primarily cultural consumption. But the more important characteristic of interaction with Big Content's content is that it, to date, is the content that by far the most readily facilitates cultural acts of mass relationship formation: forming new relationships with others via their share relationships with content. In our complex society where almost everyone is a stranger to everyone else, this is incredibly useful. Without it, feeling connected to others in society becomes much, much harder. It may not make sense to say that Big Content's content is popular because it's popular, as supporters of the system of Big Content do. But it may be possible to say that Big Content remains popular because its popularity is advantageous: it allows a mass society of strangers to feel like they're at least a little bit connected to each other, because they share the same culture. People are accustomed to this, and don't look like they're going to give it up any time soon.

Diversifying the channels of distribution and production - the most commonly imagined solution to the monopoly of Big Content - doesn't address this mass cultural function. In fact it directly contradicts it by breaking down the commonality of cultural experience through diversifying of the experience of content, and consequently increasing the dissimilarity of shared experiences of content between individuals.

It is this cultural issue, not a better technical platform, which needs to be addressed before any serious attempt to replace the system of Big Content can ever gain significant popularity. There is currently no alternative to the system of Big Content that can reliably generate content which facilitates mass relationship formation through the shared experience of it. Either such an alternative system needs to be created, or the system of shared cultural experience which so greatly facilitates the smooth running of mass society must be given up by that society's members. Until then, Big Content's content will remain the most popular content.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The "Mega Conspiracy" indictment

The indictment for those involved with Megaupload, Megavideo, etc, etc, (the people and companies referred to in the indictment as the members of the "Mega Conspiracy") makes for interesting reading. Broadly, it seems that the argument in favour of treating the whole "Mega" enteprise as a criminal conspiracy to make money from stolen goods rests on three main sets of claims (1) that the people involved repeatedly demonstrated awareness of the existence of movies and television programs that they knew were copyrighted being distributed through Mega sites, and did nothing about it; (2) that the Mega sites were trying to give the appearance of complying with the Safe Harbor provisions of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), but actually weren't; and (3) the Mega enterprise only made a profit by engaging in illegal acts.

To the first one, the indictment repeatedly highlights e-mails from the highest-level owners and operators of the Mega sites instructing their clients on how to access popular TV shows, movies and music that were the product of big-name studios. For example, item 25 of the indictment lists an e-mail in which one high-level staffer e-mailed another complaining that the copies of TV show the Sopranos that he'd found was in French, and whether there was another version available.

Basically the prosecution is trying to attack the claims to ignorance of actual content that the defendants are most likely to make. It's relying in part on the actual claims of the higher-ups (example from item 69 (kk), a chat log in which one higher-up wrote "we're not pirates, we just provide shipping services to pirates"), but also in part on the assumption that much copyrighted and restricted content should be instantly recognisable as such: if it's a popular TV show, movie or song, then someone or something, most likely a media company, must own it, and must have restricted its distribution. The sad thing is that this seems to me to be basically true:popular media is so dominated by corporate-owned, highly restricted content that a reasonable person would assume that distributing it must be illegal unless explicitly told otherwise. So if someone becomes aware that, say, an episode of the Sopranos is online, then surely they know that they're violating copyright by distributing it, right? It should be interesting if the Mega site operators try to argue that the answer to that question is no.

To the second set of claims, the indictment points out an interesting technical quirk of the various Mega sites: if a file to be uploaded was identified as already present on the relevant Mega site, then there would be no duplication of the file on the Mega server, merely provision of a new URL that the "uploader" could distribute to share the content that they wanted to share. Multiple access URLs could thereby be generated for the one file. This is relevant because, according to the indictment, when a Mega site received a takedown notice, they did not remove the file, merely the access URL. The actual content remained on the Mega site servers, and could still readily be accessed by anyone who had an alternative URL for it. Further, the DMCA requires that a site have some sort of procedure in place to deal with repeat offenders if the site is to qualify for the Safe Harbor provisions. The indictment claims that the Mega sites made no effort to put any such procedure in place.

The situation here is somewhat more complex due to the technical issues at play. I don't think the DMCA is precisely worded enough to give a clear answer on the Mega sites' responsibilities. The relevant section of the DMCA keeps referring to how a site must "remove or disable access to" content that is the subject of DMCA takedown notice. There is some evidence of a cavalier attitude towards the DMCA, but also an attempt to abide by precise letter of the law: disabling access to content when a means of access is pointed out but not assuming that this means they have to hunt down and disable other ways of accessing the same content. I fully expect the defendants to argue that they were in full compliance with the DMCA at all times. I also fully expect that if the defendants are successful in such an argument, copyright owners will point to such a result as proving that the DMCA is deficient.

To the the third and final set of claims, there's a bit of insistent terminology going on in part I think. In item 7, a "cyberlocker" is characterised as exclusively being for private storage only, and the Mega sites are contrasted with this on the basis that they derive their profits from downloads and uploads (through advertising and through selling subscriptions that allow for greater capacity to download and upload) rather than from file storage. I'm not sure if the definition of a cyberlocker is so clear-cut: many storage sites (for example, Microsoft's Skydrive) provide facilities to easily share files with others, and many people only use "cyberlockers" for sharing, preferring to keep their private data, you know, private. This alone is not proof of nefariousness.

But in this set of claims, there's also a highly revealing sentence in item 5: "In contrast to legitimate Internet distributors of copyrighted content, does not make any significant payments to the copyright owners of the many thousands of works that are willfully reproduced and distributed on the Mega Sites each and every day". There seems to be no alternative concept of copyright to the one in which content must be bought from a content owner - no copyleft, no Creative Commons licensing. There is also no concept of volunatary sharing: content is distributed once, by the "legitimate" distributor, and that's it.

Combined with the implicit assumption above that any popular content must be owned and restricted by a media company, and you start to get a picture of the world according to the people who most likely pressed for this indictment, i.e. media companies. In this world, power over the distribution of content is exclusively in the hands of those who own it. This power exists solely so that a profit can be made from it. Distribution of content must be restricted so that profit can be maximised. Content that is not so restricted is not popular, and is therefore not profitable. It is also, therefore, irrelevant. The cultural value of content - the emotional attachment of an individual to it, the desire to share this attachment with others, the bonds formed through shared experience of it - is secondary to its value in turning out a profit. Alternatives to this arrangement simply do not exist.

To be honest I expect the "Mega Conspiracy" to lose most if not all of their case, including the charges of money laundering. They thought that they could monetise culture by charging for facilitating the cultural act of sharing. Unfortunately it is impossible to make such a business model work when the most culturally salient content is owned and restricted by entities who are more interested in turning a profit than in developing actual cultural involvement among people.

That problematic control over popular content is what must be addressed. I hope to write more on it tomorrow, hopefully in a shorter and less meandering post. Blogging certainly seems harder to do than I remember it.