Three things that occur to me today about Lessig’s talk Thursday night

I went to the “wireside chat” Lawrence Lessig gave Thursday night, a talk mostly (but not entirely, as I’ll mention in a moment) about issues of copyright and remix on the ‘net. You can watch it all yourself now by going to this site; I certainly think it’s a worthwhile viewing experience, especially if you haven’t ever seen Lessig speaking and thinking about copyright and remix.

Three somewhat related thoughts about it all:

  • This was an interesting viewing experience for me, one that was “live” and “present,” but also “not” and removed.  Lessig was live in a lecture hall at Harvard, and I watched it with about 25 people at EMU (including Derek and a couple of students from my 516 class who made it out) in a room in the library with a large projection screen and a very nice sound system.  While Lessig talked, I also watched Twitter stream by with the #wireside hashtag. So it was like being there– actually, in some ways cooler than being there since a similar experience was going on at 40 different sites all over the world at that moment.But it was also not at all like being there.  I saw Lessig talk live at the CCCCs in San Francisco back in 2005, and I think he is the undisputed king of delivering incredible conference presentations and slide shows.  He gave the best talk I’ve ever seen at a conference that time in San Francisco, that’s for sure.  His talk last night was good (though not unproblematic, as I’ll mention in a second), but it wasn’t quite the same as being “right there” in the meat space of that room in Cambridge. Much of it was some of the wonkiness of the technology, and the split between focusing in on Lessig and on his slides.  If I was directing the shoot, I’d say keep the camera on his slides, but of course you do want to actually see the guy too.But beyond that, it was both a live but disembodied and not quite as vivid viewing experience I had quite frankly never experienced before.  it wasn’t quite being there, but it was more interactive than just watching it on TV or watching a recording.  I’ve never gambled in the “sports book” section of a casino or at an off-track betting site, but I suspect that’s a similar kind of viewing and interaction experience.
  • It was a pretty darn good speech, but it wasn’t his greatest.  He started off with a discussion of cigarettes, cell phones, wifi, and cancer, particularly this GQ article, and the possibility that we may very well be in the place with cell phones and wifi right now that we were in back in the late 50s/early 60s with cigarettes, a place where people didn’t realize the dangers.  Compelling, but he just kind of drops it after he brings it up.  And really, as I think was clear in his speech where he basically interrupts it with a fairly long section about the importance of fixing the things wrong with Congress, I don’t think Lessig’s heart is completely there with the issue of copyright reform.  He said as much a few years ago, that he was more or less “done” with this copyright stuff and he was now moving on to institutional corruption generally and fixing Congress in particular.In a way, Lessig is a victim of his success, not unlike a whole bunch of writers and artists, notably musical acts like the Rolling Stones, Ringo and Paul McCartney, the Who, and Led Zeppelin.  The Rolling Stones and the Who (well, the two remaining ones) are still out there performing, but are they even bothering to write and record new albums?  Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney are still coming out with new material, but honestly, does anyone care about hearing them do anything other than the music that made them famous in their 20s?  This is apparently why Robert Plant has refused to reunite with John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page to restart Led Zeppelin:  no one would care about anything new they do, so what’s the point?So while Lessig did his copyright and remix spiel and he patiently and carefully answered questions asked from around the world for a good 45 minutes after he talked for almost 45 minutes, I don’t think his heart was really in it.  Until the last question, actually:  someone asked something along the lines of “what is blowing your mind right now.”  Lessig lit up and spoke enthusiastically about his concern about the recent Supreme Court case for Citizens United and also for his Fix Congress First work.
  • There are some conflicts and inconsistencies with Lessig’s call for open computing and remix culture that I guess I kind of knew about before but which I thought were really visible Thursday.  Remix culture is important and ought to be fostered in all kinds of ways– by the way, I stumbled across this cool book/project that’s available as a book and as a downloadable PDF, Remix:  Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. But as Derek and one of my grad students talked about after this at The Corner, the examples of remix “art” and “culture” are always a little thin.  The example Lessig had in his talk was of a series of live “remixes” of sorts of someone’s effort to remix a Breakfast Club mashup. I was reminded of the remix after remix of the Hitler meme.  This is all interesting and such, but… well, how much of it is “art?”  Remixing is a valuable and useful creative activity, especially for amateurs and fans and academics (I am all three at times), but it’s not quite the same as “creativity” or “art” exactly, is it?And as for Apple:  on the one hand, I completely agree with all the critiques about their rigid controls over devices via the Apple Store, about their secrecy, their reluctance to “open it up” even a little, etc.  On the other hand, I think every person they showed in the crowd at Cambridge (including Lessig) had an Apple laptop of some flavor, and Lessig himself confessed his love of all devices Apple.  Me too, and at least two of the reasons why I am such an Apple devotee is the integrated “look and feel” of nearly every piece of software and hardware, and the fact that Apple stuff “just works.”  There might be better phones than the iPhone out there, but since I have an Apple computer and all I need to do to get the iPhone to work on it is plug it in, why would I possibly bother experimenting with anything else?But of course, this beautiful integration, simplicity, and reliability of the software and hardware is a result of a closed system.  Proprietary-based Windoze inconsistencies between software and hardware are bad enough; open source/”free” software for these systems are often a hit and miss proposition.  Sure, you can get it to work and you can feel virtuous and smug about running all open source software on the PC you cobbled together with parts you salvaged, but that’s a pain in the ass.  It’s a heck of a lot easier and more elegant (albeit more expensive) to embrace the warm and glowing Apple logo.

10 thoughts on “Three things that occur to me today about Lessig’s talk Thursday night”

  1. On the remix, he could have chosen better examples. I think Lim’s work provides the best examples of what vidding can be. “Us” is the vid that gets all the attention, but “In Exchange for Your Tomorrows” and “My Brilliant Idea” may be a bit more accessible. Another good example is “Buffy vs. Edward” by

  2. I feel the same way about much of the remixed artifacts out there. Most of it just seems to repeat someone else’s remix or emulate advertising and Hollywood formats (and ideologies) without any actual distinct voice (the ‘art’ part of it you wrote about). Then again, I guess that the true voice of contemporary life so maybe it has more relevance than we give it credit for.

    There also seems to be a lot of confusion in the videomaking realm about the difference between remixing content to create new content and using a pop song as a soundtrack for a slideshow.

    Thanks, Tara, for some links to some other projects to check out!

  3. Don’t get me wrong– I think remixes, mashups, swedes, whatever you want to call them are often very interesting and creative and thoughtful. But I also think that they are more “writerly” in that they are most interesting to the people(s) who create them, typically.

    The other thing is Lessig was talking about what I thought was interesting, a sort of remix of a remix. Interesting, but it isn’t near as good as the examples you mention here, Tara.

  4. Steve wrote, “But I also think that they are more “writerly” in that they are most interesting to the people(s) who create them, typically.”

    I think you’re close with this statement. Vids are generally created for a specific audience: fans of John Hughes movies, fans of Stargate: Atlantis, fans of Harry Potter, and so on. People who aren’t fans of the source material that went into the vid are going to look at it and shrug in confusion, trying to understand why all the sound and fury. Or, if they watch Lim’s “Us,” they’ll start analyzing the hell out of it to try to get to the deeper meaning she’s embedded in the various ways she’s altered the source video (and also try to identify the source of each clip without looking at her attribution list).

  5. Free Culture

    I read Lessig’s book Free Culture, I believe for one of your classes, and was really impressed by him. I don’t believe that remixing adds as much value as he seems to believe but I do strongly agree with his stance on public domain and fair use. I believe that his arguments concerning public domain and fair use are far more compelling than his arguments on, as I like to say, value-added art (Perhaps, that should be art with value-added?).

    As far as remixing goes, if he used rap music as his example, I have no doubt that there would be fewer critics of his arguments for repackaged art. Rap is a music genre entirely, and unabashedly, created from remixing.

    Here is an interview of Lessig on the Colbert report. The best part of the interview is when Colbert adds value to Lessig’s new book by signing it! This is the best part so watch from 4:45 to 5:30.

  6. I thought Lessig was on the fence regarding his feelings on the YouTube examples he presented in his wireside chat. At one point he talked about this kind of remixing as a “sandbox” for creativity and he gave the example of how creative writers work by cutting up texts and recombining them to create new work. I think what Lessig mean was that writer or any creative artist needs to have material to work and grow with before they achieve their own “masterpieces”.

    I think you’re right on when you say that a lot of these remixes are “writerly” and I think this is the kind of experimentation that a young artist needs to work with in order to discover their unique approach. In a way, it’s something along the lines of the argument that style and mimicry are, out of fashion as they might be, are still good practice techniques.

    What I think Lessig was arguing for in his wireside was for companies to acknowledge that this is what a lot of these YoutTube remixes are, experiments. At one point he mentioned that these remixes have no market so companies shouldn’t be worried about copyright. However, I think his point isn’t totally accurate, there is a kind of market for these things. People will look for funny/amusing remixes and will go to sites just to see these; and, in turn these sites can market to them either directly, with their own product, or indirectly, by posting ads from other places.

  7. Brian, financial analysts estimate that Google may be loosing up to $1.65M a day on YouTube. Now much of that cost is probably the maintenance for keeping such a massive site up and running, but that also shows how much of the content has no real market value. Sure remixes may be popular but how many people would pay for such content. Most content on YouTube is amateurish at best. I think of fan videos for StarWars and StarTrek that have resulted in lawsuits against the fans by the copyright owners. In fact, it is a good way to get people caring about what it is your trying to sell. Popularity doesn’t necessarily translate into market value. A business model is required and a way monetizing the product, whatever that happens to be, has to be developed, and that simply doesn’t yet exist for this type of content. So I think there is some paranoia and a lot of greed on the part of commercial content providers to protect their market. For example, back when FM was invented, the AM stations tried to do everything possible to crush it including persuading the FCC to change regulations that temporarily took FM off the market, which set FM back decades. As consumers of content, we are the losers when restrictions are placed on creativity.

  8. The guy who owns the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, once said of YouTube (before Google bought them) is that the only reason they haven’t been sued out of existence is because there’s no money there to get. I don’t know if Google is losing money off of that site or not– I highly suspect that the losses you’re talking about are more about operating costs as opposed to net losses versus gains, Kevin– but I think you’re partially right that the vast majority of things on YouTube have little or no commercial value.

    Having said that, I do think there are two interesting ways that people (including Google via ad revenue) can “make money” or at least gain cultural capital via YouTube. One is that it is an obvious ad platform for lots of movies, television shows, and other stuff. Just opening up my YouTube account gets me an ad for the 2012 DVD and music videos from Johnny Cash and Gorillaz, and both have new albums out.

    The other way that people make money or cultural capital is the way that stuff on YouTube has moved beyond that site. Michael Wesch talks about this with something we’ll be watching on English 516 next week or so. I’m not entirely sure what this is “worth” exactly or not; I mean, is the numa-numa guy making a living doing this stuff? I don’t know. But I’ll bet he made something out of it.

    BTW, I just stumbled across this pretty funny South Park video that kind of captures what I’m talking about:

  9. I’m all for people having the freedom to remix whatever they like. In fact, when it comes to that I’m probably on the radical side. I wanted to bring up the potential for amateur re/mixes to drive a little business because that seems to be one of the key concerns “business” has with re/mix culture.

    I think the rhetoric arguing for people to be able to use and re/mix copyrighted material as they wish needs to meet the business element of this thing more “head on,” because there is a business interest here, whether we pro-re/mix people like it or not. Now, I’m not sure what the pro re/mix argument will eventually be or what sort of new business model will actually end up working, but I think a more productive rhetoric at this point is to suggest business models such as Lessig did in the Q&A portion of his speech with his example regarding Amazon. Basically, if the argument for the internet as a creative space is going to continue to be productive, I see the future of it in a platform that, instead of ignoring the financial concern, skillfully positions it within a social/creative frame.

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