“Those are the headlines. God, I wish they weren’t.”

It’s July 2001, and the big media furore of the month revolves around Chris Morris’ Brass Eye Special. The TV programme is a satire of the moral panics created by newspapers over paedophilia, and the reaction to it is nearly as savage as the comedy itself. Newspapers and politicians are falling over themselves to attack a show which, they say, pokes fun at the victims of paedophiles, ignoring the fact that it’s actually poking fun at how newspapers themselves view child abuse. The Daily Mail questions whether it’s ‘the sickest TV show ever’. The irony-free Daily Star goes one better, juxtaposing its kneejerk criticism of Morris with a photo of the then distinctly under-age Charlotte Church, and a comment on how the 15-year-old is looking ‘chest swell’.

What a difference ten years makes. It’s now July 2011, and today the Brass Eye reaction seems like knockabout slapstick farce. Chris Morris’ main target, the News of the World, died in the water this week, its increasingly barf-worthy transgressions eclipsing anything he could have made up.

It’s shocking how numbed I became to the news these past few days. I’ve seldom felt the same chill down my spine as I did at ten seconds past six on Tuesday, when that photo of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in their football shirts flashed up at the start of the news. By Thursday, the lidocaine of relentless revelation had finally taken effect: so they’ve hacked into the voicemails of dead soldiers’ parents while keeping the Royal British Legion as their campaign partner? Well yeah, pretty sick, but perfectly unsurprising.

So the News of the World promptly vanishes in a puff of business logic. It leaves little debris: 167 years of media history; scores of livid, genuinely innocent, ex-journos; thousands of distraught families wondering if they too were on the hack list; and Twitter becoming almost unbearably smug. (Incidentally: told you so). There are many, I’m sure, who want to see this as a watershed in journalism: as the time when Murdoch finally cleaned up his act, when the lower end of the newspaper market realised that it couldn’t trample over tragedies for the sake of a juicy story, and…

…nah, you don’t believe that any more than I do, do you?

Lord Northcliffe understood it best. The Murdoch of the late Victorian to early Edwardian era, he founded the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, and saved the Observer and (arguably) even The Times from financial ruin. His command to his staff? “Get me a murder a day”. It’s an exaggeration to see this week’s news as the logical end-point of his motions: there were other barons like him, and the base human desire to get a thrill from other people’s misfortune is surely as old as intelligence itself.

All the academic theorising about news values (and believe me there’s a lot of it) seems to boil down to one simple truth: short, sharp, fairly nasty stories sell papers. Not for nothing was the News of the World Britain’s most popular Sunday paper, bar none. If you need to ask why more people read The Sun on a weekday than the Mirror, Telegraph, Guardian and Times combined, you won’t go far wrong in remembering Northcliffe’s maxim.

And what of Murdoch’s empire, News Corporation? Clearly, it’s played a blinder: the cynical, cold, calculating nature of the NOTW shutdown is the proprietor at his Machiavellian best. Successfully deflecting the heat of any more revelations, and easing the way towards the grand prize of owning all of BSkyB, what actually happened today was nothing more than extreme rebranding. The Sun on Sunday seems all but a given (even Robert Peston says so), and it’s a fairly safe bet that its circulation figures will be as strong as they could possibly be.

There’s much more to say about this, and much more that we don’t know. Some of the rumours flying round a few days ago implied that phone hacking was much, much more widespread than the News of the World alone. I’d be delighted if that was a lie, but wouldn’t bat an eyelid if it wasn’t. I’m sure that everyone reading this, provided they’re familiar with the UK press, has a mental list of other likely papers who might have stooped as low as the NOTW. Time will tell.

And finally, it’s easy to blame Murdoch and his minions for all this. It’s all too easy to point the finger at those three million people a week who actually bought the paper. But the reality’s far more complex. We’re all, to a greater or lesser extent, in this together. We made it happen, and will continue to make it happen in generations to come. The future may not be quite as sordid as today, but let’s not kid ourselves that cauterising the News of the World will clean up the press – our press – forever.

It’s a depressing conclusion, but inescapable: our collective schadenfreude will forever justify the screaming barons who still call for many more than seven murders per week. As a far wiser man than me once put it, what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, and there is, truly, nothing new under The Sun.

The pirate’s gospel (2)

Where were we? Oh yes, the industrial information economy becoming the networked information economy. Do throw a party in celebration.

Anyway, there are new debates of information ownership being carried out at the moment. It’s likely that these will carry on for the next couple of decades or so. Everything, including the most basic philosophy of information ownership, is being hotly contested, and it seems at times that the whole informational world is up for grabs. Questions like ‘what can/should we do with this information?’, ‘who owns it?’ and ‘how, for how long?’ are all up in the air.

It’s a caricature to say that there are only two sides to this debate, but let’s simplify it to that for now. So let’s put the incumbent information owners (Hollywood, big media, the music industry) in the blue corner, and what I’ll loosely call ‘information freedom activists’ in the red (Sweden’s Pirate Party, people like the EFF and so on). They’re not quite at loggerheads, but it’s a very close thing.

The problem with these debates is that you need to speak an arcane mixture of geek and law to understand what’s going on with them. That’s not to say you can ignore them either. Take, for instance, an apparently yawnsome consultation being done by Ofcom recently, prompted by a BBC document titled ‘Proposal to implement the Huffmann lookup tables licensing approach to ensuring content management measures are included in DVB-T2 receivers’.

Obscure? Yes. Should you care? Well, it depends whether you want to hand control of your shiny new high-definition Freeview recording box over to the BBC. It could mean that they, and they alone, decide exactly what you’re allowed to do with their HD programmes. They could stop you from recording some of them entirely, they could stop you burning them onto disc, or they could ensure that some of your other recordings self-destruct after a given number of days.

I can’t help being slightly worried about land-grabs like this. I’m even more worried that the BBC’s hand may be being forced by Hollywood’s threats to stop selling it programmes if it doesn’t comply with their wishes.

At the same time, I hold up my hand and say, yes, I have downloaded pirated copies of BBC programmes. Never a film, never anything for which I can go out and buy the DVD or CD, but yes, I have gone on BitTorrent and downloaded (mostly) recent and classic radio comedies that I can’t find anywhere else. My simplistic argument? I paid for them with my license fee (so that means they sort of belong to me anyway, right kids?) More importantly for my ethics, the BBC hasn’t given me any reasonable method to pay for those programmes the second time. If it did, I’d happily cough up the cash.

I’m aware that it’s a world of complex technical issues, and big and little fleas. I’m also aware that while on the one hand my breed of Christianity seems to give me some sort of responsibility to be vaguely counter-cultural, the religion’s big boss did make it very clear that Caesar’s should remain Caesar’s.

So with all that in mind, those first-year seminar questions, to which I never pretend to know definitive answers:

  • Should information automatically be protected (by copyright, or similar)? If it should, for how long?
  • Where do you draw the line between sharing information and stealing information?
  • Should you accept that, if you can copy a CD, a DVD or a TV broadcast with no obvious loss of quality, you should face some restrictions in doing so?
  • Are you happy to pay money to someone for a media file (from the iTunes store, say) that you know has had some restrictions put on it?
  • Does how rich you think the author is affect any of the above for you?
  • Lily Allen. Discuss.

Answers on a postcard, or in a comment…

The pirate’s gospel (1)

I’ve been delighted to see Kester Brewin blogging the talk he gave about Christian piracy at Greenbelt. For those that missed it, Kester gave a long-now account of why we’re enthralled by pirates and piracy, what pirates can teach us, and more generally how piratical philosophy can illuminate our thinking about faith. It was great. And yes, there were some appallingly bad pirate jokes.

A week or so before Greenbelt, I was reading his associated Third Way article. I was also deep in a book ostensibly about the new ways we deal with information, but which was also strangely in tune with what Kester had to say. The book is The Wealth of Networks, a weighty work currently beloved of those strange breed of people who might call themselves political economists of information. In English, those are the sorts of people who like to research the complex relationships between governments, big business, market economics, individuals, and information in its widest sense.

I like the book for many reasons. It’s properly academic, yet it wears its learning relatively lightly. It contains passages that I can read out word for word to first years, and (if they’re listening) they should then understand quite complex ideas. It contains other sections that masters students, or the sort of people that are attending Vaux’s Apple sessions, can dissect endlessly. Oh, and it’s also available for free if you want it.

One of Yochai Benkler’s key ideas in that book is that we’re going through a sea-change in how we deal with information. He talks about the old ways of what he calls the ‘industrial information economy’. In that, your DVD copy of (let’s say) Pirates of the Caribbean is given the green light by Disney, is produced by the million in a handful of factories all over the world, is shipped and distributed to places as diverse as Amazon and your local video store, and ends up in your hands once you pay for it. The information is stored in the physical object. You own your personal copy of the information, so if you lend your DVD to a neighbour then (normally) you can’t watch the same DVD at your house too.

That was the old system. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out that’s changing. Enter the networked information economy. Disney can put a single copy of Pirates… online, and it can be recoded to various forms – copied to iTunes, streamed from
a movie rental site, edited and packaged on YouTube, and ‘pirated’ on BitTorrent. The combination of ones and zeros that make up the film can be copied endlessly, remodelled, cut and pasted in the most general sense, and all without any single person being able to claim sole ownership of the information itself. The film could theoretically exist on every Internet-connected computer in the world at the same time. Want to give a copy of it to your neighbour? Depending on how you do it, and how the film company want you to do it, you could find that you don’t lose out by sharing. No more ownership of a physical object storing information. Copy, share, stream, remix – as far as the pure data’s concerned, anything’s fair game.

My generation lived – indeed, it’s still living – through this change. The dim crystal balls of the early web prophets, the ideologies of internet pioneers, and their talk of music ‘being free’, led to the Napster revolution of the late 1990s, which made millions all over the world law-breakers; renegades; yes, pirates. We realised we didn’t need to own a CD to have a copy of its music. And unlike the days of swapping worn-out cassette copies in the school yard, the digital copy could be indiscernible from the original to all but the keenest ear.

To say the least, the music industry got a bit worried about this.

A confluence of factors – the forcing of Napster onto a more industry-friendly business model, the rise of Apple and iTunes, the increasing speeds of home connections and the growing ease of streaming music – led to the original renegades becoming squashed or legitimised. Kester commented that ‘The heresy of Napster becomes the orthodoxy of Spotify.’ Or rather, the legitimacy of Spotify. It’s the free music model that (for the time being) keeps everyone happy: artists get paid, the music industry push their tunes out to millions, and music lovers don’t have to pay for their music. (Want to hear what’s been going round my head as I’m writing this? If you’ve got Spotify, you can).

It doesn’t always work that well though. There are huge bits of the networked information landscape still up for grabs. Benkler reckons that changes, such as the one we’re living through, create a time of flux for a generation or so, before things settle down. (And in Kester’s argument, a piratical critique of capitalism is usually quashed or moderated by the authorities that come to make sure things really do settle down.)

I fully realise that Kester’s argument has been developed far wider than music/film/video piracy, but I’m quite interested in exploring the questions surrounding just that. I’d quite like to know what a Christian way of thinking about such piracy actually is. I’d quite like to know whether we can even form a legitimate Christian way of thinking about Hollywood vs the individual, of Napster vs Spotify, of copy/rip/burn vs going down to HMV.

[Some specific questions surrounding just that in the next post, but it's getting rather late now, this is getting too long, and I really need to get Alela Diane out of my head...]

The long now, through the rear-view mirror

Greenbelt was rewarding, as ever, this year. Thought-provoking (if some astonishingly rude) speakers, a welcome chance to meet up with old friends, and that all-too-rare sense that thought and ideas were welcome.

And a good theme too: the long now. The shadow of eternity, the sense that our actions today may have repercussions in years if not centuries to come, and a counter-cultural shout against the sort of world where the long term means ‘a couple of years from now’.

For a few days I’ve been trying to map the links between that and the field in which I now work, and a chance conversation with one of my colleagues earlier today made this all make a bit more sense. We were discussing Marshall McLuhan. You know – McLuhan, the mad, freewheeling Canadian pop-sociologist, who told us all that the medium was the message, and many other things besides.

McLuhan’s reputation has rollercoastered over the past decades. The toast of the alternative subcultures of the 1960s, he fell very quickly out of favour as the ideals of that era died (to be fair, he also then stopped writing anything of interest whatsoever). Oddly enough for a discipline he in part prophesied, media studies largely hated the man in the 1970s. It called him simplistic when it came to his view of technology. McLuhan’s death in 1980 made very few people speak well of the man. We mocked, with some justification, his weird hippyish ideas of ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media. And then in the 1990s, something very strange happened.

That something was the Internet.

Overnight, McLuhan was rehabilitated. His 1962 idea of the ‘global village’, of everyone being able to know each others’ business instantly via media technology, made some sense when it came to the growth of television at that time. The shared event of the moon landings in 1969 showed that McLuhan needn’t have stopped with the idea of just one globe being part of a village. But when the Internet came along, a shared communication medium that connected one person directly to another without needing a central broadcaster to do it for them, people began to seriously take notice of McLuhan again. The global village was suddenly within everyone’s reach.

Media studies was still at best ambivalent about the man (for my part, he says too little about the technology have-nots for me to take him seriously). But outside the ivory tower, things changed. Wired magazine, beloved of the Web’s adopters in the early 1990s, called him its ‘patron saint’ (and in a phrase that will chime with many who read this blog, its ‘holy fool’). He was deemed to have Seen The Internet Coming twenty-five years early.

But then, his fans argue that McLuhan saw coming the fact that he would only make sense after his death. He wrote:

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.

In McLuhan’s criticism, we understand the present only as it disappears behind us. The acceleration of technology means that things move too fast for us to make any sense of them at the time. And it’s only the hindsight of now that lets us understand the changes of years past.

Which in one sense chimes with Greenbelt’s idea of the long now, and in another sense almost completely contradicts it. Illustrating this year’s theme on the Greenbelt blog, Martin Wroe quotes Danny Hillis, co-founder of The Long Now Foundation in 1996. ”Civilization is reviving itself into a pathologically short attention span.” according to Hillis. Worse still, “the trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology…”

I’m not about to argue whether ‘technology’ (whatever Hillis actually means by that in this context) decreases our attention spans. But it’s obvious to anyone who lives with new media that it’s pretty futile to resist the sort of accelerated culture that McLuhan argues it brings about.

If we can’t resist it, we might as well try to live with it.

And McLuhan’s resignation to the fact that we make sense of today’s changes only in years to come is something that more than a few Greenbelters had at the back of their mind, as they tried to put meat on the bones of ‘the long now’. I know I did in retrospect (appropriately enough).

Hence, I suspect, why I’m restarting this blog. I came back from Cheltenham with a vague commitment to ‘share more’. I shifted a year ago to a field which deals with the long now in ways it’s yet to discover. With all that in mind, I hope it’ll be ok to share some ideas again. Many of them will be half-baked, some na├»ve and some just plain wrong, but they’ll be out there. And I can look back at them, through the rear-view mirror, and boggle at just how wrong or right (yeah, right) I was, in time hence.

I suspect it’ll all be a lot of fun too. Well, for me anyway…

Terminus

Apart from The Peter Serafinowicz Show and late entrant, the endearingly bonkers Space Pirates, the BBC output that gave me the most pleasure this year was a TV programme all about email.

It was called At the End of the Line, and its opening shots showed a man who worked in San Francisco striding down a street in London. He wanted to keep in touch with his office. How was this possible, questioned the voiceover? Well, he simply connected his computer to his phone line, picked up his electronic mail, and acted on it.

So far, so pedestrian, but what made At the End of the Line such an astonishing watch was its transmission date: Monday 14th March, 1983. The computer in question was a pre-Macintosh Apple II, and it was attached to the phone via two sucky cups and a box described by the voiceover as a ‘modulator-demodulator’. It was all very slow. You could see the electronic mail appearing block by block on the screen. But it worked.

I first watched that programme’s series, Making the Most of the Micro, at the age of nine, when I was the proud owner of a Sinclair ZX81. (I’m still the proud owner of one, but it doesn’t see much use these days). The programme’s description of bulletin boards, worldwide libraries searchable from your home computer, and personal electronic mail must have seemed inevitable to me. Computers would all be connected together one day, wouldn’t they. Wouldn’t they?

Almost ten years to the day later, I managed to send my first inter-city email. It’s fair to say I never looked back from there. Fourteen more years down the line, I sat watching At the End of the Line again, for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. Only this time, I was watching it via a link to a trial service on the BBC’s computers, on a connection running ten thousand times faster than the one shown in the programme. And taking all the computer wizardry for granted.

Predicting future technology’s a tough job. Futurologists such as Ian Pearson and Peter Cochrane are paid well because they appear to have very finely tuned crystal balls. If you want to join their success, just hit on the right, rich seam of technology and extrapolate it into the future.

It sounds easy, but only as long as you know where to look for the right seam to start with.

We Built This Village on a Trad. Arr. Tune

The Imagined Village is one of those ideas that sounds so good on paper, you suspect it’ll be a complete failure in practice. The concept: take musicians as diverse as Billy Bragg (good stuff), half of Waterson:Carthy (good stuff), Transglobal Underground (good st… hey, why isn’t Temple Head on YouTube?), Benjamin Zephaniah, and some bloke called Paul Weller. Get the Afro-Celt Sound System to glue them all together. Shake well in a rehearsal studio for a few weeks. Record album. Tour. And you end up with one English folk-rock supergroup. In theory.

So does it work? It shouldn’t, of course. Adding gifted solo artists to existing line-ups often ends in very bad musical collisions. It should be a sludgy, cumbersome mess.

Except, as you’ve probably guessed, it isn’t. As evidence, Cal enjoyed them so much I’m turning green at the gills. And as further evidence, here’s what they’ve managed to do to Hard Times of Old England:

click

The Countryside Alliance expects, I suppose,
My support, when they’re marching to bloody Blair’s nose,
But they said not a word when our Post Office closed…

What I really like about their reworking (seriously, have a look at it) of the traditional song is that it’s pretending to be a song about England, when in reality it isn’t just about that country. It’s a song that I’d file in the same category as Capercaillie’s Waiting for the Wheel to Turn, June Tabor’s rendering of Maggie Holland’s A Place Called England, and Steve Eaves’ Afrikaners y Gymru Newydd. It’s a song about a small nation battling against the double-edged sword of globalisation. And it’s all the more powerful for it.

More music tomorrow, probably…

Being religious, again again

The leader article in this month’s Third Way (‘that necessity for all thinking Christians with money to waste’, as its reviews editor once put it) is, lo and behold, the beginning of Rowan Williams’ Swansea University lecture.

And nestling at the bottom of the editorial is the footnote that the lecture transcript is now available on archbishopofcanterbury.org, which sure enough, it is, here. So given that you can now actually read what the man said, and given how close I’ve been to becoming a Low Anglican version of BBC Four recently, I faithfully promise this’ll be my last post about all this.

West is (still) best

At best, I’m agnostic when it comes to rugby. Yes, I know that doesn’t fit with me being raised in the Gwendraeth Valley, the secret location of Wales’ national fly-half factory as immortalised by Max Boyce. To the despair of my late father (a life-long Llanelli supporter, a lifetime debenture holder at the old Cardiff Arms Park) I showed neither the inclination, nor particularly the aptitude, to excel at the sport. At school, my father was briefly in the same First XV as Carwyn James, famed Scarlets and British Lions coach. In his teens and twenties, my dad played for Cefneithin RFC, a fearsome and respected local team. It’s fair to say that his rugby-playing genes passed me by. Suffice it to say you’re lucky if I can even catch a ball, ovoid or spherical, and asking me to run with it is really pushing your chances.

But even rugby-ambivalent me can’t escape paying tribute to Ray Gravell, who was buried today. He was more than merely one of the best centres Wales is ever likely to see. He was more than a double Grand Slam winner, or legendary member of that Llanelli side that beat the All Blacks in 1972 (a whole year before my birth, but still something that resonated through my childhood). He was a gentleman in the literal sense of the word, and as fine a broadcaster and communicator as he was a rugby player.

Most people who met Grav have a story to tell, so here’s mine: a long-suffering school friend and myself had taken it on ourselves to create a radio programme for a competition in the Urdd Eisteddfod. As part of that (and I’ll admit, the main reason we wanted to do it) I managed to wangle us a visit to the BBC studios on Alexandra Road in Swansea. It was a Wednesday in a 1991 half-term. We were there to interview Sulwyn Thomas, then a Radio Cymru equivalent to today’s Jeremy Vine. Over weekday lunchtimes, Sulwyn hosted a phone-in show and endured highly opinionated callers. Grav was in the Radio Cymru office, preparing for his next request show, having finished that week’s live broadcast a few hours previously.

It was coming up to the midday news, and Sulwyn had to end his spiel at precisely 11:59 and 54 seconds in order to leave a clear gap between him finishing and the time signal pips starting. His task was not to crash the pips. Crashing the pips, in radio, is regarded as something of a mortal sin. You should at all costs avoid it on live broadcasts but it’s sometimes inevitable (listen to the end of most Today programmes if you want proof). And sure enough, at 11:59 and 55 seconds, Sulwyn crashed the pips.

12:00 and 4 seconds it was, the news was coming from Cardiff, and the imposing presence of Grav had rushed into the control room. Sulwyn’s producer rolled his eyes. We hurriedly switched our microphone on and hit Record on our cassette deck. Grav crescendoed:

“He crashed the pips! Sulwyn crashed the pips! GRAV NEVER CRASHES THE PIPS – GRAV SHATTERS THE PIPS TO SMITHEREENS! HE SAYS – ‘LOOK HERE PIPS, I’LL GIVE YOU PIPS! I’LL PIP YOU TO THE LEFT, I’LL PIP YOU TO THE RIGHT, AND IT’LL BE PIP PIP HOORAY TO THE LOT OF YOU!’

And then, he switched out of broadcast mode, had a genial chat with us both, wished us all the best for the Urdd competition, and was gone to madly career about Sulwyn’s studio for the rest of the 3-minute bulletin.

And that’s how I’ll remember Grav, because that’s what he was to me – receptive to people’s needs, a clown when called for, serious when not. I could go on and say how he lent his name to an accent, or how my mum still swears blind that we’re distantly related – our family were Grevilles from the same area as Grav, so she may well have a point. The rest of Wales may remember him differently, but I’ll remember him as the guy whose stream of time-signal-related consciousness helped us win that competition sixteen years ago, and I’ll appreciate him for that.

Without descending into soggy untheological cliché, here’s hoping that Grav is now somewhere where no-one ever crashes any pips. If they do, though, I’m sure he’ll be on hand for the entertainment.