Sunday, January 2, 2011

Prepare For The Geek Mafia

Patton Oswalt went on Wired to waft horseshit under the noses of the blogosphere, and everybody and his grandma thought it smelled like cherry pie.

Oswalt doesn't really have an argument, but I can summarize the idea he rants about the most, and which comes closest to being an argument: Pop Will Eat Itself. It's easy to summarize because it's an antique idea. Music journalist David Quantick coined the phrase during the 1980s, in the pages of the then-essential music magazine NME, writing about how the now long-forgotten band Jamie Wednesday appeared to create all its music by recycling the ideas of pop music that came before them. After the UK discovered Public Enemy and kids all over England traded in their guitars for samplers, another, much brasher band from Sheffield (northern England) took the phrase as its name to represent the apotheosis of the plunderphonic sound. Pop Will Eat Itself pioneered a sample-centric indie rock territory along with bands like the Shamen, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, EMF, and the under-rated Jesus Jones (a one-hit wonder in the States but something bigger in the UK).

Oswalt's not the only one recirculating the meme; the London newspaper The Independent brought it back to dither about how multi-millionaire musicians are making the sky fall on the music industry:

Pop will eat itself

Today's hottest musicians are too busy making movies and selling perfume. What they don't understand is that the secret of a long career is a decent back catalogue – and their indifference is killing the music industry. Paul Gambaccini reports

Oswalt expands the Pop Will Eat Itself argument from music to movies, renaming it Etewaf (Everything That Ever Was, Forever).

Here’s the danger: That creates weak otakus. Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie? The Shining can be remade into a comedy trailer. Both movie versions of the Joker can be sent to battle each another. The Dude is in The Matrix.

The coming decades—the 21st-century’s ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s—have the potential to be one long, unbroken, recut spoof in which everything in Avatar farts while Keyboard Cat plays eerily in the background.

Oswalt's pop-culture Malthusianism flies in the face of the absurd profusion of online comics, which rivals the Cambrian explosion in the suddenness of its diversity and abundance, not to mention the similar rapid proliferation of new species of otaku. Homestuck cosplay, anyone?

they're playing Vriska and Terezi. if you don't know who the fuck Vriska and Terezi are, well, that's kind of the point.

Music has seen similar developments online, and was headed that way before the Web; similar phenomena occur in video, with YouTube "celebrities" making six figures using cheap webcams despite the fact that most people have never heard of them. Pretty much everything Oswalt says in his rant can be disspelled with one of three points: 1) Malthusianism is bullshit; 2) there's lots of culture online that this guy knows nothing about; 3) the 80s are over. The only reason I'm blogging about this at all is because it made me notice something interesting.

There's an interesting and somewhat alarming correlation between culture based on recycling other culture and organized crime. For instance, hip-hop pioneered cultural recycling with its use of sampled beats, grooves, and other elements of pre-existing material. Organized crime features in a lot of hip-hop, both in its subject matter and in its key business figures. Although many in hip-hop decry this correlation or work against it, it's still there. When Jay-Z says "the year's 94 and my trunk is raw," he's not saying he forgot to cook his elephant. He's saying that before he became a multi-millionaire businessman, one of the top entrepreneurs in the world, he made his money illegally.

"I don't sell drugs. No. Hov did that" means "I don't sell drugs any more."

Another form of music which recycles itself relentlessly, rave and club music - where every successful track sees a gazillion remixes, both legal and otherwise, while staggering numbers of records sample other records with no royalties paid - also shows a strong correlation with organized crime. Again, while many in the relevant musical community decry or oppose this correlation, the correlation persists. Many ravers and clubbers use illegal drugs, and those drugs have to come from somewhere.

In Europe, they mostly came from chemistry labs in the former Soviet Union, and in 2000, when the demand for these drugs dried up after a late 90s peak in popularity, the same criminal networks which brought them into Western Europe started bringing in guns instead to make up for their lost profits. (Side note: criminalizing entertainment chemicals creates massive profit incentive for illegal smuggling networks, which makes the criminalization of arbitrary entertainment chemicals a ridiculously dangerous public policy decision in the age of potential suitcase nukes.)

Anyway, a lot of people would argue that music scenes have always had an association with organized crime in our society, going at least as far back as Sinatra's still-unproven links with the Mob, with the Rolling Stones' insanely bad decisions at the Altamont music festival being a prime example (they hired the Hell's Angels, a notorious criminal motorcycle gang, to handle security, and innocent people were killed). So let's look beyond music. For instance, let's look at a web site which hosts more mashups than any other.

In 2007, the notoriously hit-or-miss tech blogger Jeff Atwood wrote that

Virtually everything of interest on YouTube is copyrighted content.

[YouTube's copyright policy] is perhaps the ultimate case of cognitive dissonance: by YouTube's own rules, YouTube cannot exist. And yet it does.

I disagreed with some elements of Jeff's post, but he certainly had a point. Copyright violation played a huge role in YouTube's early days, establishing its popularity; Clay Shirky even claims in Cognitive Surplus that YouTube leapt ahead of the pack of contemporaneous video-hosting startups almost entirely because of the viral video "Lazy Sunday," no longer available legally without a laugh track, due to a combination of NBC lawyers doing their jobs very effectively, and some other group of people at NBC not having the good sense to realize how much better it was without a laugh track.

Sorry, that's just a huge pet peeve for me. It was so much better without the laugh track. Moving on, the point here is that YouTube is another place where you see a strong correlation between remix culture and organized crime. I dig YouTube, no doubt about it, but hosting all that copyrighted content wasn't legal, and it took organization to do it. It is therefore reasonable to wonder if Pop Eating Itself or Everything That Ever Was being available Forever in "geek" culture (Oswalt uses the term to refer to what a programming geek like myself might call otaku culture instead) might correlate with an increase in "geek" (otaku) organized crime.

I'd say the increase in otaku organized crime is already well underway.

Here's an unlicensed, trademark-diluting graffiti Boba Fett t-shirt graphic from a guy who (as I understand it) gets paid for the shirt even though George Lucas doesn't:

Here's MS Paint Adventures dancing on the provocative edge of fair use:

Technically, this unlicensed, fan-made Batman movie is organized crime:

It took organization to put it together, and if it's not licensed, it's not legal. Every single poster Tyler Stout creates for the Alamo Drafthouse theater in Austin, TX might fall into this category too - I'm not sure. I read somewhere that his Scott Pilgrim poster was legal, but I don't know about this Iron Man one.

I have one of the limited edition prints of this, by the way - the rarest one, printed on metal. It's three or four feet tall.

Obviously, the type of organized crime you find in otaku scenes is less alarming than hip-hop, where you have Snoop Dogg bragging about his gang affiliation and his AK-47 and Suge Knight dangling Vanilla Ice by his feet out of a hotel window, or dance music, where the incredibly unreliable safety standards in the black market for drugs results occasionally in people selling stuff that makes your eyes bleed and calling it "Ecstasy."

(Health note: Ecstasy is pure MDMA; pure MDMA does not make your eyes bleed; while I am not advocating illegal behavior, if you make choices of that nature, please remember to avoid buying anything that makes your eyes bleed. Political note: I believe pure MDMA should be legal, and calling stuff that makes your eyes bleed "Ecstasy" should be illegal.)

I talked to some kids in New Mexico who got "bad X" one time at a party and they told me everybody was running around with their eyes bleeding. I decided not to go to any raves in New Mexico, but that's another story, and apparently everything turned out okay anyway, because these were small-town kids and they didn't seem that phased. Either way, it's a whole lot more intense than George Lucas not getting royalties on a $20 t-shirt that isn't even around any more and probably only sold in a very short run (I had to go on Google Cache just to track down the image). By "advertizing" Star Wars, and recontexualizing it as something graffiti kids can consider cool, this shirt in a sense is free advertizing for Lucas, adapting his material for a sub-sub-demographic, so the insidious aspect you might expect to hear with something like "organized crime" isn't really there. There's a fascinating tension between innovators and the law whenever society changes faster than the law can keep pace, and it's covered in fantastic detail in a great book called The Pirate's Dilemma. It's a great read and I totally recommend it.

I have a theory about all this, but I can't prove it. My theory is that the massively multiplayer tribalism in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is happening, and remix culture plays a significant role in that, as it establishes multiple communities around multiple interpretations of the same shared cultural history. In practical terms, you might hear wildly variant versions of the same song at your gym or in a warehouse rave; the context becomes part of the cultural product. In the late 90s, tons of kids never heard "Jungle Brother" until Aphrodite remixed it.

Long story short, if Patton Oswalt looks at all this and sees nothing but Keyboard Cat, the man is missing something.