Musing about lifestreams, subscribe-aggregation and publish-aggregation

For years I’ve been watching the way people aggregate and summarise what they do, and how they make such aggregations available to others. In the old days we used to call these chronological aggregations diaries, and we’ve had many famous diarists over the centuries.

Some part of me is deeply enmeshed in an oral tradition: as I’ve discussed earlier, maybe it’s the Calcutta in me, the extension of the adda. Addas are intimate yet open, oral yet visual, immediate yet part of a ritual. Which is why I considered the overlapping small circles that make up the blogosphere to be addas in their own right.

More recently, there have been some powerful developments in the chronological aggregation space. They appear to be driven by two factors: a re-entry of visual communications and associated traditions; and the emergence of ubiquitous mobile tools that could write back to the web, not just access it. Which is why people consider Web 2.0 to be about participative architectures.

These developments have created their own terminology. I think it may have been Jeremy Keith who first used the term “lifestream”; for sure he was the first person I saw using the term, sometime in 2006. Today lifestreaming looks like it’s going to be big business, all based around a multimedia chronological aggregation of things a person or group does.

The facebook news feed is in some respects nothing more than an aggregation of lifestreams, lifestreams belonging to your friends. Twitter brought a pub-sub feel and a brevity, a capillary compression, to the whole thing, and that spawned the FriendFeeds of this world.

Some years ago, Tantek Celik began using his Flickr account pretty much like another blog, and I began to appreciate what happens when photography meets the blogosphere. So I spoke about it to my then 14 year old son, who then pointed out that he’d been reading wonderful blogs like daily dose of imagery for some time by then.

Brittany Bohnet and Dave Morin revelled in using mobile devices to upload aspects of their lifestream into facebook, a trend accentuated if anything by the arrival of the iPhone. As Brittany’s example shows, many people preferred the tumblr approach to this aggregation, first brought to my attention by Kiyo:

Innovation is rife in this space, and it’s only going to get better. For example, take a look at this:

Yongfook is promising us something more with Sweetcron, worth watching out for. My thanks to Cindy Stanford, hci on Twitter, for bringing this to my attention.

There seems to be a sequence worth watching here. First we had RSS. Then we had first-order aggregators, but they were “subscribe” aggregators: one place where you could read many feeds you subscribed to. Now, as people publish in different contexts and media, we have “publish” aggregators, or at least that’s what a lifestream seems to be.

Subscribe aggregators are subscriber-centric. Publish aggregators are publisher-centric. Both types of aggregators, at least in their current form, are backward-looking.

I cannot help but feel that there is a VRM-related innovation to come. Both publish aggregators as well as subscribe aggregators will start dealing with intent, at which point we have digital butterfly markets. Doc, Sean, what do you think?

Then it gets really interesting. I can see so much potential for innovation once we have a meeting point for publish aggregators and subscribe aggregators, a platform that allows us to do that forward and back in time, true multimedia, true mobile.

Comments? Views?

Look what they’ve done to my song, ma

[With thanks to Ms Safka, and to Malcolm for alerting me to this story via his post here.]

[An aside: Would you believe Melanie turned 60 earlier this week? Happy belated birthday.]

In a HotNews post earlier today, Steve Jobs opened up (pun intended) with his views on DRM. Well worth a read. For me, the most telling quote was this:

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

I am aware that there have been attempts to develop DRM systems for CDs, as discussed here. But they were (thankfully!) catastrophic failures.

This whole DRM thing, when put in the context of what Steve says, now reminds me of something else tangentially Apple-related.
Soon after iPods came out, we had this flurry of activity from some information security professionals saying things like “iPods should be banned from trading floors”. My natural counter at the time was “OK, provided we check every person in and out of the building, look into their briefcases or whatever passed for briefcases, scan and analyse their cellphones and PDAs, and so on.”

I likened it then to being asked to shut the attic window while the front door was not just wide open but barn-sized. I would not ban the iPods unless they “shut the barn door”.

And I guess that’s the way DRM now feels in the context of music. Shutting attic windows while barn doors  flap forlornly open.
Critics of Jobs may argue that CD sales are eroding fast and being replaced by digital downloads, and that stopping the illegal reproduction of digital tracks was therefore imperative. My answer?  No cigar. Not even close.

The damage done by poorly implemented DRM is damage that is being done to all and sundry. Damage that affects everyday people carrying out everyday activities. Damage that affects business and leisure, creativity and pleasure. Damage that extends way beyond music. Legitimate software doesn’t run. Legitimate subscribers can’t get access to digital things they’ve paid for. There are too many examples for me to continue to cite them here.

It’s been no secret that the drive for DRM has come from “content owners”. Even Bill Gates, someone who doesn’t automatically conjure up images of being the Godfather of Open, said so here a couple of months ago.

Take a look at Steve’s penultimate paragraph:

If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies.

It’s a classic Because Effect situation. We have numerous examples of publishers saying they’ve sold more books once they opened up to Google Search or Amazon Look Inside This Book or similar; numerous examples of musicians and bands being successful selling DRM-free downloads; I could go on but won’t.

The whole concept of an e-book failed, as far as I am concerned, for three reasons:

  • The hardware was too heavy.
  • The process was too unwieldy.
  • Reading a book was no longer a pleasure.

We appear to live in very strange times. Times when people in the hardware, software, media and entertainment industries spend enormous sums of money on making their products and services more “user-friendly”, more user-centred, simpler to use, more convenient. They know all the buzzphrases, so do their consultants. And vast sums get spent.

And then what do they do? They put poorly thought out DRM all over the place. Go figure.

Folks, this is not sustainable. We need new ways of paying for creative value. So go read Terry Fisher, go watch Larry Lessig, go surf Cory Doctorow, go pore over Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, go study the opensource movement. Go write to your local DJ. Go burn a disk.
Go do something.

Because the walls are coming down. They’re coming down.

Musing about Digital McCarthyism and Digital Nonviolence

While researching aspects of the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, I was reminded of the works of Richard B Gregg. While I had come across Gregg while reading Economics, I hadn’t appreciated quite how influential he’d been on King, or for that matter just how dedicated he’d been in seeking to understand Gandhi. If you don’t know about Gregg, do take a look at his Wikipedia entry.

I’m currently reading a 1938 Gregg pamphlet titled What is The Matter With Money? It’s a reprint from the Modern Review for May and June 1938. In it, Gregg spends a lot of time looking at trust, and some of the things he says jell with me.
I quote from Gregg:

…A money economy makes security depend on individual selfish acquisitiveness instead of on trust. Trust grows when men serve first and foremost the community and the common purpose. There has sometimes been an element of service and community purpose in the making of private fortunes, but it has not often been predominant. Money splits up community security and plays upon men’s fears, — fears of the future and of each other’s motives, fears that compel them to compete with one another to a harmful degree.

Gregg concludes the paragraph with an interesting assertion:

Money has worked on us so long that it is now hampering the further development of science, art and technology.

At reboot last year I spoke about the things that had to die before we can regain some of the things we’ve lost, in keeping with the conference theme of renaissance and rebirth. [Hey Thomas, what’s happening with reboot this year?]
Gregg’s words have served to remind me that concepts like identity and trust are fundamental parts of community and not individuality; culture too is a community concept, be it about arts or sciences or even forms of expression; community itself is a construct of relationships at multiple levels. Maybe the reason why much of what is now termed IPR (and its cater-cousin DRM) is abhorrent to me is that these things focus on the individual and not the community.

I am all for making sure that creativity is rewarded, in fact I believe that any form of real value generation should be rewarded; but not at the price of stifling the growth of culture and of community. This, I believe, is at the heart of what Larry Lessig speaks of, what Rishab Aiyer Ghosh speaks of, what Jerry Garcia believed in, what opensource communities believe in, what democratised innovation is about.

Culture and community before cash.

I recently bought a book by Gregg called The Power Of Nonviolence. When describing the book, the bookseller noted that it [the particular copy I was buying] was signed by Gregg; unusually, the recipient’s name had been erased and carefully at that; the bookseller surmised that it may have had to do with fears about McCarthyism.

You know something? At the rate we’re going, the battles about IPR and DRM are going to get uglier, to a point where we’re going to see something none of us wants. Digital McCarthyism. What we’re seeing in the software and music and film spaces already begins to feel like that.

We need to find a better way to work it out. And it makes me wonder. What’s the digital equivalent of Gandhian Nonviolence?

Alienated by Hollywood

I’m still trying to settle into a rhythm of doing as little as possible, something I’m not quite used to. I’m getting better at it, though.

One of the things I’ve decided to do is “desk research” into a murky area. That dark and gloomy space where copyright meets “content” and chains the strangest bedfellows together.

I want to do this by researching an event I know very little about. When I was around ten years old, one of the more esoteric topics in “cocktail party” conversations in Calcutta was a particular Satyajit Ray Hollywood episode. Definitely not something a schoolboy would get deeply into, but it stuck somewhere in my head anyway.
Apparently he went to Hollywood in 1967 on a mission, to sell a particular project. He wanted to direct a film called The Alien, based on a script he’d written. By the time he got to Hollywood, he found that his script had already (a) done the rounds (b) been copyrighted by someone else and (c) already been acquired by the studio he was dealing with.

a saga of calamity
and hard luck
He found all this hard to believe. He left Hollywood, naturally, in very high dudgeon. That particular Calcuttan’s first experience of creativity meeting copyright was, shall we say, less than good.

Here’s an extract from his wikipedia entry, touching on this subject:

In 1967, Ray wrote a script for a movie to be entitled The Alien, based on his short story Bankubabur Bandhu (‘Banku Babu’s Friend’) which he wrote in 1962 for Sandesh, the Ray family magazine. The Alien had Columbia Pictures as producer for this planned US-India co-production, and Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando as the leading actors. However Ray was surprised to find that the script he had written had already been copyrighted and the fee appropriated. Marlon Brando later dropped out of the project and though an attempt was made to bring James Coburn in his place, Ray became disillusioned and returned to Kolkata.[27] [28] Columbia expressed interest in reviving the project several times in the 70s and 80s but nothing came of it. When E.T. was released in 1982, many saw striking similarities in the movie to Ray’s earlier script – Ray discussed the collapse of the project in a 1980 Sight & Sound feature, with further details revealed by Ray’s biographer Andrew Robinson (in The Inner Eye, 1989). Ray believed that Spielberg‘s movie would not have been possible without his script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.

If he were alive today, his views on Hollywood and copyright may have been interesting to hear. Who knows, he may even have made a film about it. Opensource.

Notwithstanding his experiences of Hollywood, he may have had more positive views about the digital world we live in. The state of the Satyajit Ray film archives seems deplorable despite the best efforts of a bunch of people, a saga of calamity and happenstance and hard luck. Just stuff that I found while digging around for the Alien script story.

The World Is FlatSuch tales of person A claiming person B’s copyright, and being paid for it in good faith by person C, still continue. The most recent I can remember is that of the cover illustration for Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. The publishers did their bit, found the copyright holder and paid their dues. Wrong copyright holder, apparently. So the books were recalled and new covers issued.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere for all of us. When we finally figure out who gains from all this DRM guff. It’s not the creative guys. It’s not the consumers.

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