Working Roads

I think Metro Vancouver can improve how they are communicating about mobility pricing. I think it’s a great idea, but I also think will be a very hard sell. I think the whole campaign needs a positive frame. And when you get down to it, this isn’t about congestion or taxes. It’s about roads that get us where we’re going: it’s about Working Roads.

Mobility Pricing

We need a replacement for gas tax revenue. We rely on it for transportation and transit spending, but with fuel-efficient and electric vehicles it is eroding every year. We also face traffic that seems to be getting exponentially worse. In the past, the change was slow: traffic growth was soaked up by alternate routes and secondary roads. But there comes a point when the network is simply full. It’s like pouring water into an ice-cube tray: at first, when one cup fills up the water simply flows to another. But when all the cups are full, all the water you pour in overflows. I think we are fast approaching that point. And we simply cannot build enough new lanes to accommodate all the new cars on the roads – and do it year after year. Selling taxes is hard, but demolishing neighbourhoods to build new freeways is harder (and we would still need the taxes to pay for it).

Mobility pricing puts a price on driving, particularly at times and places when traffic is heavy. Some drivers will find alternatives, leaving road space available for those who really need it. If you need to drive to work, traffic is costing you: paying for open roads can actually save you money. This has been tried elsewhere, and it works.

Of course it won’t work unless alternatives exist. If you are driving every day to work, and transit’s not practical, that money comes straight out of your pocket. Mobility pricing cannot just be about pricing roads: it has to be about giving us choices for how to get around.

The idea is basically to charge you more to drive less. It’s a tough sell. By the time I’ve answered, “yes, less – but faster! or at least less slowly!”, I have already lost the argument. And if I focus on congestion, the obvious solution seems to be build more roads. Again, by the time I’ve explained why that’s not practical, I’ve lost the argument. So nothing happens, traffic gets worse, and everyone is angry.

The Official Line

It turns out that the official web site is already doing a pretty good job of explaining the idea:

Congestion on Metro Vancouver’s roads and bridges is a challenge many of us experience daily. Lengthy delays can leave us frustrated, stressed, and wasting time that could be spent doing things we actually like. . . . Decongestion charging is already making travel easier for people in many other major cities around the world . . . we have been paying for road use through the fuel tax and the recently removed bridge tolls. Unfortunately, the way charging has been structured in the region isn’t actually addressing congestion where it’s most needed, wasn’t always fair, and isn’t generating the revenue we need to upgrade and maintain our transportation system. . . . help us build a tailored approach for Metro Vancouver that gets people moving.

They list three key objectives:

  • ​Reduce Traffic Congestion on roads and bridges across the region, so people and goods can keep moving and businesses can thrive and be competitive.
  • Promote Fairness ​to address concerns around the previous approach to tolling some roads and bridges but not others, and to provide affordable transportation choices.​
  • Support transportation ​investment to improve the current transportation system in Metro Vancouver for all users.

This is very good. It relates to the daily experiences of residents; gives the positive reasons we want and need to get around, personal and economic; addresses fairness; emphasizes transportation choice; and talks about spending as investment.

But this is a pretty big chunk of text – and I’ve trimmed most of it. Try explaining it in 30 seconds or less. Or even naming it. The page itself is titled Metro Vancouver Independent Mobility Pricing Commission, but the url dances around the issue. The generic “it’s time” (itstimemv.ca) suggests some uncertainty or reluctance about branding. For good reason.

In Praise of Mobility

I argue that mobility should be at the centre of communicating the benefits of transit. “Mobility” isn’t the most sexy word, but lacking an alternative I don’t want to see it tainted with the negative connotations of taxes or “pricing.”

New taxes are never popular. The provincial government is only in power because they removed bridge tolls. I can’t imagine that they would risk their political lives on a new road tax. A replacement for the gas tax, on the other hand, holds promise.

Instead of selling a mobility tax, I think we should sell a mobility rebate. That’s what reducing gas tax amounts to: you keep your money, then you decide how to spend it. If you want to spend it on to drive on better-flowing roads, great! If you want to spend it on alternatives, like transit, or save it by walking or biking, that’s great too.

Then there’s mobility investment. Whether the money comes from road pricing or tolls, or from general revenue, providing alternatives (and, yes, improving the roads) must be part of the package.

Terms like these don’t just sell this policy, they also promote mobility itself: which is the ultimate goal that we all care about. Beyond the fantasy world of advertising, for most of us roads and cars are ultimately a means to an end. Congestion is just a downer, a barrier between us and our goals. The official web site talks about keeping goods moving, thriving businesses, and transportation choices. Mobility pricing is just a technical detail in a bigger positive message (and a bigger project) about using our roads for mobility: Working Roads.

Working Roads

These are good solid words with a good solid meaning. “Working” is a key word. It implies people getting to their jobs, the economy, hard work, effectiveness, honesty. “Roads,” meanwhile, embraces many ways to get around: driving, taking the bus, bicycling, even walking (congestion, in contrast, is all about cars). It also has positive connotations, such as the future (“the road ahead”) or success. Working Roads is a positive phrase: but it also quietly implies its opposite: roads that don’t work. Regardless of political or ideological leanings, I think everyone can agree that we need working roads.

Roads mean mobility. They take us to our jobs. They take us home to our families. They carry goods that we need. Right now, our roads aren’t working. When we are stuck in traffic, we are not working, we are not with people we care about, our time is not our own.

To make our roads work again, we are eliminating the gas tax. Instead of taxing gas, we will price the roads. We will give that money back to you as a mobility rebate, and use it to invest in transportation infrastructure. The aim is to give you choices for how to get around. Road pricing has been proven to reduce congestion: so that when you need to drive, the roads will work for you. New infrastructure will give you alternatives. And the mobility rebate will give you money to go places however works best for you.

Working roads is not about driving, it’s not about transit, it’s not about bicycling or walking or ride sharing. It’s about all of these things. It’s about mobility. It’s about giving you choices, and making those choices work.

That’s my first attempt. It may look short, but at 60 seconds to read aloud, it is actually too long. Here’s a 30 second version:

Roads take us to work, and they bring us home. When we are stuck in traffic, our roads aren’t working. To make them work again, we are replacing gas tax with a price on roads. We will return that money to you as a mobility rebate. We are investing in mobility: roads, buses, trains. Road pricing has proven to reduce congestion. The mobility rebate and mobility investment give you choices for how to get around. So that when you need to drive, the roads will work for you.

2017-11-04

My Research on Reader Comments

I have uploaded my recently-completed Ph.D. thesis, Comment Space, which examines reader comment discussions on online news sites. I have also written a non-academic description of some of my analysis and findings.

Comments are important. A large proportion of Internet users read and write comments in response to news stories. Comment discussions are some of the few spaces where citizens with little in common take part in fierce arguments about political issues that affect us all. And studies have found that comments can influence readers: sometimes more than the articles they respond to.

I have developed techniques and technology for analyzing reader comment discussions to discover the sometimes unexpected things that are said, and to try to assess which arguments and points of view are most popular or have the most resonance. Commenters say things—sometimes important things—that journalists seldom do. I argue that some of the most widespread views about comment discussions, such as the idea that they should be like communities, are unhelpful.

Following my thesis research, I continue to examine comment discussions about important or interesting news topics. I have posted one such analysis. I intend to add more in the future.

2016-02-29

How to respond to the niqab issue

With three weeks to go in the Canadian election campaign, the Conservatives are surfing on popular opposition to Muslim women covering their faces during the Canadian citizenship ceremony. This was entirely predictable. There is plenty of evidence that many Canadians are strongly opposed to immigration. The NDP and Liberal parties activated that opposition with their opportunistic promises to take in more refugees. It has now crystalized around the niqab. But there is still time to reframe the debate and take advantage of the passion the issue has aroused – without compromising principles.

Before I continue, I should say that I believe Canada should take in far more refugees, I am not concerned that immigration levels are too high, and I have no problem with women wearing niqabs during citizenship ceremonies.1 I disagree with the nativist and frankly xenophobic views of many Canadians. But these are not my top issues. I want to see evidence-based policy, reinforced democracy, and action to address climate change and inequality. I am not willing to sacrifice these things to debates about niqabs.

Do Canadians really welcome refugees?

The first place the opposition parties went wrong was in their interpretation of polls. Following devastating photographs of the bodies of Aylan and Galib Kurdi, washed up drowned on a Turkish beach came reports that the family wanted to come to Canada. Polls taken during the following week found most Canadians in favor of taking in more refugees. In the emotional aftermath of a front-page tragedy, a majority (54% in one poll) said Canada should take in more refugees.

Fifty-four percent is not a large majority. Would that support translate into votes six weeks later? Is the support soft? Is the opposition strong? The poll on its own gives a valuable indication about how Canadians were thinking at that moment, but more data is needed interpret its significance.

I study reader comments on news stories. Researchers have found that comments are one of the popular online means for citizens to comment on news stories, beating out social media and Twitter. According to CBC, about three quarters of their readers read comments, while a third have commented at some point. Of course I cannot know who these commenters are. They are presumably not representative of the population at large. But they are not cozy communities of like-minded folk: they often feature bitter disagreement. They may represent those who are more passionate rather than those who are less. In the context of an election, commenters on a given issue are probably more likely to vote based on it than are non-commenters. Taken over time and across sites, comments may reveal patterns and narratives.

I have been reading comments regularly for years. On Canadian news stories, particularly on the CBC (but also elsewhere), the strongest pattern I have observed is nativism and xenophobia. On any story about immigration, no matter how sympathetic, no matter how much red tape is damaging marriages or excluding children, the response is almost always unsympathetic: get in line, you have no right to be here, we don’t need more people. I recall only two exceptions. One was a child who had lived in Canada for years with his family and was faced with expulsion. The other was Aylan Kurdi, where empathy briefly emerged.

Here are excerpts from the top five comments on the CBC story about Kurdi coming to Canada

The images evoke an emotional response, but we can’t just throw open our borders to just anyone.

We simply cannot grant asylum every person on the planet that is being marginalized by events in their own region.

Why isn’t anyone screaming for Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or other middle eastern countries to take in some refugees?

Canada lets in more refugees proportionate to our population than any country on Earth. Canada has NOTHING to be ashamed of or apologize for.2

While this is a horribly tragic incident, policy cannot be driven by one incident. Knee jerk promises . . . may not be in the best interest of Canada.

These just aren’t any comments. Of the 2,000 on this article, these are the five that attracted the most Likes. Of the twenty comments with the most Likes, only one calls for more refugees. It is the very first comment, the comment with the opportunity to attract the most votes: yet six later comments rate higher than it.

These comments are the best indicators we have of the views of commenters at the moment when the story broke and emotions were highest. Perhaps there is a silent majority who disagree, but they do not appear to be passionate enough to comment, or even to Like those they agree with. Nor is CBC a Conservative site. Comments criticizing the Conservative government are consistently voted up. I would say that the views of most commenters are populist rather than ideologically left- or right-wing. In general, this is the pattern I have seen on other sites and on other issues. At the time, I thought it was a tragic error when Trudeau and Mulcair promised to bring in more refugees (even though I would like them to do that). They may have made momentary gains, but they are now paying the price.

The niqab

Anti-immigrant sentiment has long been latent, with no politician to latch on to. I have long hoped that no political party would seize on it. Now they are: the Conservatives, in their hour of need, perhaps with the advice of Lynton Crosby.

The niqab debate, I believe, is not only about citizenship ceremonies or fear of Islam (though again judging by comments there is plenty of Islamophobia to go around). Rather the niqab stands in for a whole raft of nativist opinion. It is a socially acceptable way to signal a hard line, concealed behind concerns about sexism and security.

The opposition parties are going about this entirely the wrong way. Mr Mulcair says that we cannot force women to be independent by telling them what they can and cannot wear. I agree with him. But his argument does not matter. If I say the niqab should be banned in order to empower women, I am demonstrating that I care about equality between the sexes. I am saying that I a decent sort, not a bigot. From that perspective, it does not matter if I am mistaken: I have still established my integrity.

This makes for a perfect issue for the Conservatives. It motivates their base (who, according to the polls, are less interested in letting in refugees). It grows their coalition, splitting off some voters from their opponents. They don’t need most Canadians to agree with them, they only need a fraction to get that extra 10% support to give them 40% of the vote and a majority government. For opponents, the niqab is a no-win issue.

Hitting back on TFWs

I’m sure the opposition parties know this. That’s what political framing is all about. But I think that the niqab opens up an opportunity to strike back, to return the debate to issues where the Conservatives are weak.

When the government ratified the FIPA trade agreement with China, commenters were just as upset as terms that allow Chinese investors to sue Canadian governments over laws that threaten their profits. The Conservatives are on track to do the same thing with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I wish the opposition parties would jump on this, but they won’t. Powerful businesses, the U.S. government and Canadian news media are pushing hard for TPP. Canadians are generally in favor of trade. Explaining why this particular trade agreement is bad is probably too complex for an election campaign.

Instead, the opposition should find a way to go after the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. It brings in workers who compete directly for Canadian jobs, without integrating them into our communities, often paying them less and subjecting them to abuse by employers. This expedient treatment is bad for the workers and for ordinary Canadians. This is a more important, more legitimate issue that niqabs. It activates the same people who are upset about immigration: only against the Conservatives, rather than for them.

The TFW issue also brings the debate back to economics, where the Conservatives have been weak. This must be dealt with carefully, as the evidence is equivocal: apparently many Canadians do feel better off than in the past. But a party that wins on the economy will win in the election. It is better to frame the debate than hope it will go away. Polls have made clear that Canadians are open to seeing the Conservatives as poor managers of the economy. Competing with under-paid TFWs underlines that message, draws on existing passions, potentially fracturing the Conservative base and remind everyone about their failings.

Right now, niqabs are in the news and TFWs are not. Why? Because of the court case, but also because the Conservatives, who basically refuse to comment on any issue, have decided to talk about this one. Their silence allows them to make news when they want to. The opposition parties need to put TFWs in the news. Interrogating the government on its record is their job.

Notes

1 Many Canadians are confused on the issue. The women in question have previously removed their face coverings for positive identification. Wearing a niqab during the ceremony cannot be used to conceal who they are.

2 This is untrue. Canada does not have the most immigrants per capita

2015-09-28

Audience Creation

I have made a video about the contribution of audiences to the value and meaning of creative works, contrasting with the myth that the romantic author is solely responsible.

Here is a transcript (added 2012-06-17):

Audiences make an essential contribution to the value and even the meaning of artistic works.

In a previous video, I explained the idea of the romantic author which shapes our understanding of creativity, and in fact has served as a guideline for copyright and patent law. According to this view the author is a genius who expresses something unique and personal when he or she creates a work of art. But that’s not the end of the creative process. What I’m going to talk about now is the contribution that the audience makes.

Consider artistic talent. Talent as a human characteristic, so like height or I.Q. it follows a bell curve or a normal distribution. That means that a few people have very little talent, say for drawing, a few people have exceptional talent, but most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Now if talent were the main factor affecting the success of artworks, then we would expect that artworks would follow the same pattern. In other words, say for films, we would expect that there would be a few films that were ignored, that were not popular at all, say most cat videos on YouTube; a few were exceptionally successful, say Star Wars; but most of them would achieve some degree of success without being exceptional.

In fact, what we have are lots and lots of movies that are not very popular, and a few that are exceptionally popular. We’re not talking five or ten times more popular than your average movie: we’re talking hundreds or hundreds of thousands of times more popular.

This can be represented not by normal curve but by a power law distribution. Most movies, as I say, are not very popular, and that’s represented by them being on the left of this curve. A few are somewhat successful. And an exceedingly small number are tremendously successful: way off the scale. And sometimes that includes cat videos.

This is true of many social phenomena. It is true of the success of music; of books; of computer operating systems – there are only a few operating systems that people even know about, although there are many others out there; websites – Google and Facebook have many, many, many more hits than you average blog. It’s also true of personal wealth.

Why? One might naively suggest that this has to do with advertising: that companies advertise and that makes the difference. Yet advertising often fails, and sleeper hits often succeed. One might also suggest it’s because producers choose to only produce or publish the good stuff. But that doesn’t explain the huge disparity in success between the hits and the average.

Audiences are the key factor, and they do two things. The first thing they do is they communicate and spread the word. If I watch a movie that I enjoy, I am likely to tell my friends – and they’re likely to tell more people, and so on: so the success of a film compounds. Even if I don’t talk to people I can see what’s getting attention, and that means that I notice it. There many more films out there than I can see, many more songs than I can listen to – and the mere fact of being aware of something makes a big difference.

This is something like the expression that says it takes money to make money. It takes success to make success.

This was demonstrated in an experiment by Salganik, Dodds and Watts. What they did was they took fourteen hundred something volunteers and forty-eight little-known songs. They wanted to see how these
volunteers would rate these songs. The study participants didn’t have time to listen to everything, so they had to pick some of the songs to listen to. They were divided into several groups. Members of the first group saw a random list of all the songs. They could click on some of them, and after they listened to a song they could rate it on a scale of one to five.

Members of the other study groups, however, saw something a little bit
different. They still saw the list of songs, but now the next each song was a download count showing how many other people in the same group as them had downloaded the song. The songs were sorted from most downloaded to least downloaded.

The results were stunning. The group whose members could not see download counts rated a particular song – Lockdown by the group 52metro – around the middle of the pack, about twenty four out of forty eight. One of the other groups, whose members could see download counts however, ranked it number one: and a third group, whose members could also see download counts, ranked it forty.

In other words, the assessment of this song’s quality was determined not by something intrinsic in the song, but simply by its popularity: not even by its assessment of quality by other people, but just the fact that other people were listening to it.

The other thing that audiences do is they make meetings, which I will illustrate with the song Happy Birthday to You. I’m not going to show you the lyrics because Happy Birthday to You is under copyright, and I don’t think that copyright expires until 2032 in the U.S. I don’t want to get my video taken down. Happy Birthday to You actually takes its tune, however, from an earlier song called Good Morning to You composed by school teacher in 1893.

Happy Birthday has become an institution. It is sung at every child’s birthday party that I can remember when the cake comes out. The thing is, the copyright is owned by Warner Music, and Warner makes two million dollars a year licensing and for use in movies. This is why restaurants usually won’t sing it: they want to pay the licensing fee, and they want to get sued.

I can guarantee to you that Happy Birthday to You was not worth two million dollars a year when it was first composed. That two million dollars is the result of the meanings that the audience has created around the song: not only the popularity that they’ve built up, but the association with children’s birthday parties.

It’s not only true of that, it’s true of art in general: that we associate art with feelings that we have, we build up our own personal meanings for it. This has been studied extensively in
academia.

For example, when I fell in love the first time perhaps I heard a piece of music. So I care about that piece of music: it means something special to me. Or maybe when I was a child and I saw Star Wars the first time it made me feel a sense of wonder, and so I watch the movie again: not because I’m so impressed, but because I want to recover the sense of wonder I had when I was a child.

Take the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was not a great success when it was first released. But it later turned into a cult favorite, and movie-goers now go to the theater dressed up, throwing toilet paper rolls and playing cards at certain times in the movie.

This is true in general about art. The meanings that people give to it, the reason they care about it is always something that they construct themselves.

All of this poses a problem for media companies. What are they to do They’re notoriously bad at predicting what will succeed. By now it should be clear why: ultimately it’s the audience that decides that. Not only success: the audience also determines quality. Whether we consider the mass audience or the audience of critics, the same principles apply.

Media companies want to make money, so they need to predict. In fact, what they want to do is they want to capture the work that the audience does – popularizing works and making meanings around them – and they want to transfer those to subsequent works that they produce.

The star system is one way of doing that. If I watch Humphrey Bogart in
Casablanca and I love the movie, then I think perhaps I’d like to see him also in Key Largo. So I transfer some of the feelings i have about Casablanca to Key Largo.

Another technique is to just take the same characters and the same settings and make other stories with them; and so we end up with a lot of sequels.

We also have what Star Wars innovated, or what George Lucas innovated with Star Wars, which is taking the brand and applying it to other kinds of goods like TV shows, action figures, novelizations, knick-knacks, and so on. If a kid goes and sees Star Wars and is enthusiastic about it, his imagination of what happens in the movie can then be projected into the toys as well.

The result has been that companies are focusing less and less on individual artworks and more and more on what in some industries have been called “IPs” or intellectual properties: not just a single movie, but the whole thing that surrounds it; not just Star Wars the film, but all the films, and the TV shows, and the toys, and so forth.

Now we’re a long way from the idea of the romantic author. Because IPs are owned by corporations. If you want to work on an IP as an artist, you’re going to have to work under the conditions that the corporation sets. Corporations often sell IPs or transfer them. They may decide that a different artist should be working on Batman this year, and the audience goes with the IP, not with the artist.

So the value of this is quite detached from the unique vision or genius of individuals at this point. And that genius is mediated through what companies want to do in order to maximize their profits. Meanwhile, we the audience are producing much of that value.

But there’s a downside to that, which i’m going to talk about in another video.

2011-08-05

MA Thesis: A Community-Based Model for the Production of Ideas

I have uploaded my thesis for my Master of Communication degree, A Community-Based Model for the Production of Ideas. I argue that treating ideas as the products of communities, rather than the exclusive property of individuals, resolves a number of significant flaws with copyright. More importantly, community-based production promotes communities and aids the self-development of individuals. Since community and self-development are desirable in and of themselves, they provide both a motivation for community production and a moral argument in favor of it.

2008-04-06

Improving Government On-Line

I am part of a research team studying the access of Canadians to government web sites. We are interested in the prerequisites for people to communicate with government over the Internet, whether in order to retrieve information, make use of services, or participate democratically. Our final report to policy makers will make recommendations about how they might improve access to and the quality of government online in Canada.

Part of our research involves investigating the experiences and opinions of Canadians with regard to their use of government web sites. We have set up a Web survey to this end. The more respondents who complete the survey, the better our study can reflect the needs and wants of Canadians – so if you fit the profile (you live in Canada or represent a Canadian non-governmental organization), I urge you to take a look at the survey. You may help improve the state of Canadian government online.

2006-10-04

Canadian Telecoms Deregulation

A recent Canadian government commission concluded that we need telecommunications deregulation in order to maximize the role of the market. This is supposed to increase competition for consumers and result in increased innovation in Canada. There are some real problems with these claims. The coverage in the Globe & Mail has been particularly uncritical.

A cursory examination of the experiences of other countries makes it clear that deregulation is no substitute for good regulation. For example, Telecoms regulation in the United States is much weaker. According to the logic of deregulation, we should expect to see greater competition, lower prices, and wider availability of services such as broadband Internet, mobile telephone, cable TV, and local and long-distance telephone. In fact, the situtation is quite the opposite: broadband Internet is cheaper and more widely available in Canada.

The situation with regards to cell phones is even more dramatic. North America is years behind Europe and Japan in terms of cell phone technology, pricing, and access. Customers here a stuck with phones that are locked to a specific provider, phone numbers that they lose when they change providers (at least in Canada – US regulators took swifter action on this issue), and standard multi-year contracts creating vendor lock-in. Sure, there’s competition up to the point when you buy a phone. After that, the costs of switching destroy any semblance of a free market. So much for deregulation.

Perhaps most dangerous of all is the notion that deregulation will produce more money for telecoms providers to spend on innovation. I think it should be clear by now that telecoms is the wrong place to look for innovation. Quite the opposite: these companies have fought tooth & nail to prevent innovation from threatening their favorable dominant positions.

There is talk about deregulated telecoms increasing bandwidth and eliminating network neutrality. The fact is, there was a tremendous build-out of bandwidth (“dark fiber”) during the dotcom era which is going unused today because there isn’t sufficient demand from users of the technology. That demand will be created by innovative applications and services, which are not about to be provided by the cable companies and telcos. One of the big areas right now is voice over IP. The telecoms would dearly love to shut down this competition with their business; reportedly some Canadian ISPs are already charging premium fees for Internet users who use Internet telephones.

The other eternal dream of the telecoms is television on demand, whose promise, they claim, justifies eliminating the network neutrality upon which the existing success (and free market) of the Internet depends. Even if this lives up to expectations, can convenient television compare to the impact of the truly revolutionary uses of the Internet, from auctions to online reviews, email, personal blogs, and instant messaging? As it is, several companies are beginning to provide such services – Apple, Google, and Yahoo for example, companies which have developed truly useful and interactive online services. Yet these are also the companies who support the continuing application of network neutrality.

The fact is, free markets and regulation are not opposites. Free markets depend on regulation. Without it, they tend towards oligopoly and monopoly – regimes which are hardly regulation-free, only then the most powerful companies create rules according to their own self-interest. Placing regulation and the market in opposition, as does the Globe, reveals either a failure of understanding or an ideological motivation.

2006-03-24

Audience Labor

I have added Audience Labor: The Asymmetric Production of Culture to the research area of the site. I argue that much of the value in cultural works is produced by the audience, who both promote and construct new meanings from works. This is a challenge to strong copyright, which by inhibiting audience activity may actually limit the value of works (both the cultural value to the audience and the monetary value realized by culture industries).

Research into music listening preferences confirms that popularity compounds: our preference for music is strongly influenced by the preferences of others. The article points to the same two causal factors: promotion – in this case helping other people filter the good from the bad when there are too many choices, and meaning-making:

. . . a desire for compatibility with others could drive the choice, since much of the pleasure from listening to music and reading books stems from discussing them with friends.

Chris Anderson also wrote recently about the declining profitability of music and cinema blockbusters. I wonder if it relates to a pattern suggested by Sinha & Raghavendra. They suggest that adults are more influenced by advertising, while in the case of children it is the opinions of friends that matter more. Hopefully the power of advertising is weakening as people find more ways to communicate and share with each other (see Doc Searls’ post on the topic).

2006-02-09

The Abundance of Talent

Is talent scarce or abundant? Jon Udell suggests that the question is fundamental to the argument over DRM: if talent is scarce, if it will always express itself, then we must protect what we have rather than encouraging creativity. I will explain why I believe, as does Jon, that talent is more abundant than it appears.

Jon excerpts a (to my mind) incendiary passage from Barry Diller:

There’s not that much talent in the world, and talent almost always outs. There’s very few people, in very few closets, that are really talented and can’t find their way out. Somehow they get out.

Jon is willing to allow that this might be the case. I am not. For a start, the very definition of talent depends on the society: talent in one society may be considered eccentricity or irrelevance in another. A given society will recognize one talent and ignore others.

Furthermore, there are numerous examples of variation in the recognition of talent between different societies, suggesting that some are or were more open to producing or recognizing certain kinds of talents:

  • America produces lots of movie stars, and most of those are from the United States – a country with only 5% of the world’s population. How come there aren’t more stars from China, India, or Africa? Are Americans more talented?
  • Nineteenth century America was not a great producer of culture (e.g. of literature, painting, poetry, or philosophy), despite a fair sized population. Ireland, on the other hand, has produced more than its fair share of writers and poets.
  • Women have been and continue to be under-represented in many fields, from software to A-list bloggers. Are men inherently more talented at blogging?
  • Ancient Athens had a small population, yet produced a tremendous number of talented people in just a couple of generations.
  • Through history there have been places in which talent was concentrated, from theater in Weimar Berlin and Shakespeare’s London to art in Paris and renaissance Florence1. Some of this can be explained through the migration of talented people, but this isn’t sufficient in the case of Florence or London.

Obviously, different people have different opportunities in life – e.g. in terms of education, socialization, and wealth2. But how do we draw the line between the production of talent and its recognition? If we can, is it likely that societies with unequal access to such resources (which is to say all societies) would provide equal opportunities for recognition? Will talent always out?

No. Talent is a product of both nature and nurture. Societies encourage some talents and suppress others; they recognize some people and ignore others. There is no reason whatever to think that contemporary societies in general, or America (which I assume is Diller’s object) are special. To do otherwise is to suggest that talent and its recognition are natural phenomena beyond human control.

Is talent scarce? No, not as much as it appears. Is it abundant? I don’t know, but the examples above – Athens, London, Paris, Florence – suggest that it is. These are places in which extraordinary talents made themselves known. Even if talent is defined more broadly, to encompass more artists and creators, the argument remains the same. Nor does it matter if talent is defined differently by a society with different tastes and values from our own.

Jon has made an insightful connection between talent scarcity and arguments for DRM. But I don’t think it addresses the real reasons for DRM. This restrictive technology isn’t about economic efficiency (the maximization of creativity and culture), but about power. False arguments, like the scarcity and inevitable expression of talent, need to be stripped away to expose the real agenda of those who would rule culture.

Notes

1 I drew these example cities from Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization, which examines the context of cities which experience golden ages of creativity or innovation.

2 I am not claiming that there is a direct relationship between wealth (or education etc.) and talent. Peter Hall’s theory of cultural golden ages connects them to conflicts within society, and suggests that creative geniuses are often outsiders on the edge of society. Too much wealth could be counter-productive, but no less a factor for that.

2006-01-15

There's too much copyright when it threatens democracy

I attended a discussion entitled When is there too much copyright? at the Vancouver Public Library tonight. The room was quite full – there were probably about 80 people in attendance. The copyfighters were by far the majority: I only recall one person arguing for strong copyright from the floor; much of the discussion was criticism aimed at the lone proponent on the three-person panel.

On the one hand, this is unfortunate: there’s not much to be gained by discussing with the converted. This also suggests the degree to which self-selection in the audience limited attendance by those not already acquainted with the issues. On the other hand, the large attendance shows that this is an issue whose time has come.

Democracy

Cindy pointed out afterwards that I was the only person who drew an explicit connection between copyright and democracy. This is because I have a problem with a debate framed as a negotiation between creators, publishers, and consumers. We are not just consumers; we are co-creators of cultural works. Audiences add value: we both publicize culture (it is the audience that creates the bankable value of a blockbuster) and add meaning to it (e.g. the ritual of the Rocky Horry Picture Show).

But there’s more to it than this: we and our society are the subject of our cultural expression, and that is inherently political. Take the PBS civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. The news footage in that series depicts the people – politicians, police, protesters, victims – who made history in the struggle for civil rights in the United states. But their contribution goes unacknowledged. The copyright holders of the footage are treated as owners; they set the price we must pay to see our history1. As a result, PBS can no longer show or distribute the series because its licenses to the news footage have lapsed, and PBS can’t afford the half-million dollars it would take to renew.

Eyes isn’t alone – art has often been a medium for political expression, from Murphy Brown to Rock & Roll, and it is often the audience that adds the politics2. Democracy is participation: in a very real sense, culture is the realm of democracy between elections. I oppose strong copyright not because I want free music and free movies, but because music, movies, books, newspapers – the lot – are the medium of democracy. Strong copyright tries to enforce the fiction that we are observers, not participants, in our own society.

Notes

1 My being Canadian hardly separates me from the joint history of our two countries, or indeed the connections that bind us to the rest of the world. There is no sense in a taxonomy that says the settlement of New France is “our” history but the struggle for racial equality is not.

2 And the value. Although they don’t supply them, meanings like this often pay off for artists or holders of copyright.

2005-10-27
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