Friday, February 25, 2005

Marshall McLuhan and the Fine Art of Peer to Peer Sharing

"As the unity of the modern world becomes increasingly a technological rather than a social affair, the techniques of the arts provide the most valuable means of insight into the real direction of our own collective purposes." - M. McLuhan

I know I'm not the first person to have thought about this... but I can't beleive how little about it there is on the vast Inter-Web. Of all places... it's the perfect place for such an idea to germinate...

McLuhan is almost absurdly hailed across the information landscape for his ideas. He was totally brilliant, it's too bad he missed out on this development. (He died in 1980.) He would have been having SO much fun. I only say 'absurd' because of the nigh pop-cult figure that he has become... he has, practically speaking, had his legend fall victim to the very ideas he explored. Which is something he would be fascinated to explore, I have no doubt.
Peer to Peer is one of the most publicly discussed sub-aspects of the internet (now that the web itself has become so big that it has deflated from techno-cultural phenom, to everyday tool.) We even ignore that much of the literature about P2P (including this musing) is disseminated via the internet... which is somehow ironic. We take the internet THAT much for granted that we have practically divorced the idea that P2P is a direct descendant of the original idea.

But I digress from my take off point to tangential thoughts. Back to ones... Googleing (McLuhan would also be all over that!) the Phrases "Marshall McLuhan" and "Peer to Peer" garners less than 800 hits - and while I haven't sifted through them all I expect there's a significant number of duplicate hits and a certain percentage of garbage hits. Of the genuine ones - yoiks! - is there ever a lot of intractible verbiage. You don't have to be a media-philosopher to grasp it all, but I have no doubt that if I were more versed in such thought I'd have less trouble untangling it.

(A McLuhan primer.)

Extending McLuhan-esque thought to the internet is close to a no-brainer... the caveat being that having even a moderately functional handle on McLuhan's philosphy (which is no less than I claim to have) does require a certain level of brain power. Why has there been no great insight into how it applies to Peer to Peer sharing? It ought to be decisive in my mind.

This past week Garry Trudeau has finally been exploring the same thoughts I've had (albeit tongue in cheek) in his daily Doonesbury cartoon.
Yay, Garry. That pretty much says it all.

"I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it. " - M. McLuhan

Artists are going to lose the battle if they adhere to the increasingly antiquated idea that they are going to make money through the sale of their work. Let me rephrase that. The battle is over - for some reason they are still wasting effort in fighting it. I suppose there is still money to be made in the old ways, but the reality is that a new way must be found.

"A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding." - M. McLuhan

Musicians are coming off looking pretty bad. I was told by a musician that I was "going to go to Hell" for file sharing. This was a musician who's career amounts to... diddly squat. He has released nothing on any label - independently or otherwise. He is personally losing NOTHING by having files shared. Which by extension means that he has the most to gain by embracing a new way ahead of the pack. The obtuseness fucking boggles my mind.

"The winner is one who knows when to drop out in order to get in touch." - M. McLuhan

I myself work in an industry that is impacted by P2P - currently less than music, but the slide has long since begun - the film industry. I, akin to my cranky musician friend, have made very little money in this field. But my first two movies are in various stages of production (my first is currently being edited; the second goes to camera in two weeks (which begs the question what am I doing wasting my time blogging)). I haven't found the answer as to how to best capitalize on film-making in a world where films are made more and more easily by anyone (myself included) and distributed basically for free by the viewers.

Now, there is a significant thought - "distributed free by the viewers." Distribution costs... next to nothing. Income, sadly, next to nothing. Gawd... does that mean having to rely on product placment for income? Yes. It most likely does. I hate that. Sorry Naomi Klein, I probably have to do a bad thing...

So, what about the musicians... product placement in a song? Obviously not. (Please tell me I'm not speaking too soon.)

"Art is anything you can get away with." - M. McLuhan

Doonesbury has it right. It's a reversal of the paradigm.

Once upon a time, music was all about the live performance. Then the recording industry came along and essentially changed all that. Touring and concerts became promotional tools for selling records (those are those big black CDs with two sides). (Yeah, yeah there were exceptions like the Rolling Stones retirement fund tour #3, but you need to be the Rolling Stones in order to have that work in your favour.) But P2P changes that. With sales going in the toilet, the focus changes again. The concert becomes the special thing. It becomes where the musician makes their money. It also most likely reduces their sphere of influence. More and more people will be downloading the music of the artists that they are most able to go and see at local venues. That doesn't mean that U2 will now only play in Dublin - there will always be international acts. But the focus will shift to those that get out to the 'people' and the 'people' will generally shift their focus to who they are most able to see.

Speaking of U2... they know it. The entire "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" was stolen thing... I've been a U2 fan for long enough that I come off sounding like one of those "I was there first" boasting assholes. I didn't try particularly hard, but I couldn't find a copy of Vertigo to save my life. The best I could do was get a copy of a Bono sound alike doing a passable job and getting a bit of mis-managed self-promotion in. Mis-managed? You bet. I haven't got a clue who it was. I'm betting that that song (which was reasonably good) was downloaded a lot. It could have sparked a career if it had been better planned out.

"Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century." - M. McLuhan

Have you seen the price of a U2 concert ticket this year? The price for THE CHEAPEST TICKETS IN THE GM PLACE are close to THREE TIMES what I paid for SCALPERS TICKETS in 1992. And in 1992 the scalpers tickets were going for what we then considered outrageous prices. Tell me now where U2 is making their money? The obvious answer is "ticket sales." The correct answer is "P2P."

"I don't necessarily agree with everything I say. " - M. McLuhan... although I wish I'd said it myself.

In celebration of these thoughts, go and download "The Ballad of Marshall McLuhan" by "The Vestibules" and have a laugh at the irony, if not the song.

No comments: