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Sunday
Feb102013

Online: exploitation or opportunity?

New technologies upset society. For the early adopters the rewards can be great but society in general resists change. Declamation of the rise of digital technology is a current and recurring example. The usual argument is that it will result in the demise of print and consequently have a negative impact on literacy. This perspective seems to me to be misguided: it confuses the medium with the message. Perhaps McLuhan can be held responsible but I suspect it is simply the natural human resistance to change and the consequent shift in power.

As human beings discovered writing I imagine there were significant issues around the shift from an oral tradition. It is probable that the poets and bards who were responsible for administering the oral Brehon Law in pre-Norman Ireland resisted efforts to have it recorded. Once the law was written down there would be little need for the poets who had spent their lives memorising it. As they lost power and authority new opportunities became available for those who learnt to write and became scribes.

During the Middle Ages a highly sophisticated approach to religious manuscript reproduction developed in Europe. By the mid-fifteenth century cities such as Paris already had a two-hundred year tradition of commercial trade in manuscripts in addition to the production of religious manuscripts. One can only imagine the challenge that Gutenberg and his contemporaries represented to this status quo as they developed print reproduction using movable type.

What interests me about this history is how, at each development, the world of ideas is opened up to a greater proportion of the population. Cheaper methods of reproduction resulted in wider access. Today, illiteracy is considered one of the single most debilitating afflictions in society because written/printed information is ubiquitous. Since the fifteenth century society and culture in the Western World has been altered out of all recognition and it would not be an exaggeration to claim that the discovery of printing with movable type is the fundamental cause.

When technologies change those who see themselves as the gate keepers of knowledge and information resist the loss of their power… vigorously.

Throughout early 2013 columnists at The Irish Times published opinion pieces about online publishing and social media. David Adams (Much internet Journalism at level equivalent to Stone Age) and John Waters (Venomous and toxic social media out of control) led the charge with well-worn platitudes on the calibre of print journalism versus online writing that revolved largely around process. Adams proclaims the superiority of traditional journalism in the print media by describing the methodology of fact-checking by the writer, followed by an editorial procedure resulting in the dissemination of reliable information. This was presented as being in stark contrast to the methodology ascribed to 'so-called internet journalism'. Leaving aside the hard won reputation of online titles such as the Huffington Post and the transition to a digital-only format by Newsweek, not to mention the successful online edition of the New York Times, the fundamental problem with this argument is the failure to acknowledge the possibility that the process of traditional journalistic methodology is independent of form. It can be as easily employed in on online context as it has been in print.

But, the real problem with their lack of vision is the failure to see how digital online technology has already changed journalism. That is what McLuhan identified fifty years ago: the medium has an irreversible impact on the message. It massages it, shapes it, contextualises it and ultimately forms it. Any attempt to critique media today without taking account of this understanding is, at best, misinformed.

The credibility of The Irish Times was restored somewhat when Hugh Linehan, Online Editor, (Big online issues lost amid Twitterphobia) countered their myopic viewpoints and poorly informed opinions in a later article.

Then Fintan O'Toole revealed an equally naive attitude in a piece about the music industry when he asked Streaming, stealing: what's the difference? He suggests that the streaming model employed by companies such as Pandora and Spotify is essentially exploitative. He goes on to argue that implicit in this arrangement is the thoughtlessly selfish attitude of the consumer. Just as we are happy to ignore the real human cost of the cheap clothing available in department stores dependent on sweat-shop labour O'Toole argues we demand cheap music at exploitative rates. So, what's new? From the days of Tin Pan Alley popular music promoters have been exploiting artists in collusion with consumers. The story has been told in countless Hollywood movies and through the lyrics of many pop songs. 'Come in boy, have a cigar…by the way, which one is Pink?' sang Pink Floyd on the classic album Wish You were Here. The entire contemporary popular music sector has always been based on the exploitation of ambitious artists – irrespective of the delivery platform.

Contrary to O'Toole's view I would argue that the Internet and online music distribution has given artists the opportunity to reach previously unimagined audiences. For example, sites such as Magnatune offer artists a fair return for their efforts and specialise in professional artists who are not necessarily signed to major recording labels. Artists are also establishing their own sites to distribute their music and maintain control in a way never before possible. With the broad reach of the web niche audiences are now accessible and can provide a reasonable income to minority-interest artists. 

Two recent examples demonstrate how musicians have been much more adept at exploiting new technologies while highlighting the importance of listening to the music than O'Toole imagines.

Platinum wining singer/songwriter Beck Hansen returned to the Tin Pan Alley days by releasing his most recent album Song Reader as a book of sheet music rather than a recording. In an effort to remind music fans that it is worth devoting time and attention to his work he requires them to become part of the music by performing it themselves and encourages them to post the results online for all to see and hear at Song Reader. He even challenged the traditional publishing and distribution routes by using book publisher Faber and Faber in the UK and McSweeney's online bookstore in the US.

In a coincidentally similar but unrelated development musician Pierce Turner released an Apple iOS app earlier this year. Snow is also distributed by a publishing house, Associated Editions, rather than a record company. It broadens the scope of the artist's creative ability by including a discussion with award-winning writer Eoin Colfer, scenes from the recording, live performances, original notation and images inspired by the song. The app has been downloaded globally bringing Turner to new audiences.

Such imaginative and creative responses from artists to the ubiquity of recorded music in contemporary life and the new possibilities offered by the web give us a glimpse into an exciting online future.

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