TPB AFK: a Documentary

Today I watched TPB AFK, a film about the Swedish website The Pirate Bay. You can read some background on the website on Wikipedia: Wikipedia: The Pirate Bay.

Basically the website is a clearing house for BitTorrent file sharing offerings. BitTorrent is a protocol (a set of conventions for computer network traffic) that allows you to share files in a distributed manner. This means multiple people can facilitate both the sending and receiving of the files.

A crucial point about the way the website works, it never actually sends or receives any of the files. It only announces other people who say they will send them.

But there comes a problem: what if people share files they don’t own the temporary rights to. And the result has been a lot of legal fuss and political fuss aimed at stopping this from happening.

That is what this film is about: the ad hoc owners of some of the files, along with Swedish authorities, prosecuted the people running The Pirate Bay.

The main question is, of course, not the one being asked by authorities or the custodians of the content. The main question is what shape of custodial rights works in the digital era? Their question, instead, is how do we maintain the status quo?

And so they try what they always tried before: sue them, prosecute them, “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” them. They sue over the most minimal infringements, including cases of Fair Use (the doctrine that some unlicensed uses of temporarily held works are not infringement, due to the nature of the use).

This is a doomed effort. They freely admit this, for the temporary custodians of the world’s content have asked the governments to act by passing new laws they have drafted and treaties they have negotiated in secret.

In some ways it is akin to the foster parent that loves the child so much that they don’t want the child to return to the natural parents when they are located. But in this case the foster parent also makes quite a lot of money off of the newest children, and a few of the older children, but neglects the rest.

But The Pirate Bay has a unique culture. They take offense at the status quo, and ridicule it at every turn. Their original claim to notoriety (other than the name of the site) was the posting and mocking of barking letters (letters sent by lawyers that carry no legal authority, but are nonetheless meant to intimidate the recipient into action).

The film drives this attitude home repeatedly. At one point it recounts the creation of a website where people were encouraged to rate the dumbness of American soldiers for how they died in the United States and coalition invasion of Iraq.

This is the culture of the Darwin Awards and dead baby jokes. But it is a revolt or reaction against the poisonous reverence that drives humans to ignore vast hypocrisies in their cultures and politics.

That’s your keyword: reaction. The Pirate Bureau is created as a counterpoint to the government/industry Anti-Pirate Bureau. The widespread adoption of BitTorrent is at least partly a reaction to the establishment dismantling centralized file sharing protocols.

But the biggest reactions are yet to arrive. The prosecutor’s language you will see in the trial as filmed in the documentary tells all you need to know. The prosecutor asks a question, what if users of the website share copyrighted materials? Ah, but excepting the occasional work that has returned to the public domain, all works are copyrighted.

Not just all intentional works. All works. The way your plate looks after you finish your breakfast is your unique creation, and you hold a temporary, but legally enforceable right over that depiction. The arrangement of the refuse in your wastebasket are your copyright. If I throw something away there, assuming I have permission, I am now your collaborator in a unique work.

But instead of being clear, saying something like, “copyrighted work shared without permission and where the custodian reserves their rights,” we are left with this convenient notion that copyright serves the big man, never the little man.

Anyway, go check the film out. It is under a Creative Commons license (the main film is CC:BY-NC-ND, meaning you can share it but not profit or edit it; there is another version that allows editing). And yes, you can download it from The Pirate Bay.

This tended off on a tangent, because copyright is a mess. And the people arguing that it is immoral to download the latest pop album have yet to waste their breath to challenge the greater immoralities of copyright.

My understanding there is simply this: if you value the work, try to pay for it in some way. If it’s nothing but a way for you to pass the time, consider finding something better than the creation of people who would like to see you in jail and in debt for life for not paying for their waste of time. In the latter case you will be better off anyway.

Getting the Most Out of Your New Internet

I can remember back when CD players first began appearing in new motor vehicles, they carried over a tradition that they had started with tape decks. They would include audio media with the vehicle, supposedly explaining the capability and the indomitability of the beast you have saddled. They would also throw in a disc of elevator music to demonstrate the sound system, if the salesman lacked the dexterity to elicit a liked genre so as to engage the customer more directly from a personal library.

Anil Dash: The Web We Lost, an essay mentioned in numerous blogs and aggregators of late, attempts to paint a picture of the web with various insidious facts of nature undoing the best of man’s works. Facts like turf battles between the Facebook/Instagram alliance and the Twitter syndicate. Facts like the monetization of hyperlinks via reputational dependency.

The problem with that analysis: it conflates the hope of the web at the time with the web we had then. We didn’t lose that web. We never had it. The real need for a better web defends perfectly against any retrospective fondness for the early Twenty-Aughts (or where we hoped it would be today).

Yes, Microsoft Corporation wanted to be the digital passport. Google desires being pulled from your pocket and used to buy everything from Abba-Zabbas to Zoot suits. But neither wants to pay any taxes. In the latter case, we should feel small if we replace the credit card oligopoly/trust with a handful of providers from the likes of Google and other giants. But that possibility arises out of the ineptitude of our current governments, too senile to draft and ratify a digital supplement to the Uniform Commercial Code.

In the case of sign-on, that story fell flat then as it does today. A system like Mozilla Persona must supplant the idea of site sign-up, much less walled single sign-on. That system allows multiple identities, including pseudonymity. It did not exist in the web of yesteryear.

Maybe people uploaded to Flickr five years ago, but it never allowed decentralized sharing as suggested by Media Goblin. Increasingly we feel the need for federated and decentralized systems, as we continue to recognize the pain of being subject to a single provider’s whim. That’s as true for one-off game servers as for the monoliths: Google Corporation, Facebook Corporation, et alia.

The Internet we make versus the Internet today versus yesterday. We will never be given the Internet. Not by corporations, and not by governments. We must defend her. We must build the services and mores that serve us best. The governments grew from an age where monarchical decrees came from gods. The corporations arrived as successful market manipulators.

Corporations brought you those promotional discs trying to instill a post-purchase, post-hypnotic suggestion of your potency and fairness if you continue to buy their products.

The Compact Disc Digital Audio System offers the best possible sound reproduction – on a small convenient sound-carrier unit. The Compact Disc’s remarkable performance is a result of a unique combination of digital playback with laser optics. For the best results you should apply the same care in storing and handling the Compact Disc as with conventional records. No further cleaning will be necessary if the Compact Disc is always held by the edges and is replaced in its case directly after playing. Should the compact Disc become soiled by fingerprints, dust or dirt, it can be wiped always in a straight line, from center to edge) with a clean and lint free soft, dry cloth, No solvent or abrasive cleaner should ever be used on the disc. If you follow these suggestions, the Compact Disc will provide a life time of pure listening enjoyment.

— Text from early Audio CDs

Idea being that an early adopter shelled out a dear price, give them a pat on the back. Fluff their mane a bit. King of the audiophiles.

Encouragement comes from Dash’s admission that the problems will erode over time. But the interim holds a lot of discouragement. Even great projects like Wikipedia do not offer data feeds of pertinent information. Hail to the Data.gov initiative, but when you look for a specific bit of data you may be stuck with an Excel spreadsheet or worse a PDF document.

How will augmented reality become if we fail to have an augmented web first? Services like Google Search and Wolfram Alpha possess their own data banks, but, again, reliance on a single service provider regularly proves fraught with pain and subject to lawyers’ whimsy.

No, we did not picnic the Internet of yesterday. The Internet of tomorrow, we shall paint red.

Getting Past the Reflexive Response

One of the phenomena we see in discussions of changes to society is a purely reflexive response. We see this both affirmatively and negatively, depending on the way the issue is couched. A guess is that the responses tend to be more negative, that reflexive responses in general tend to be “no.”

New York City, a city in the US state of New York, recently enacted a law against certain food establishments selling soft drinks containing more than 16 fl. ounces (approx. 0.5 liters). Many people had a reflexive response against that move. The belief that both individuals and businesses should have the right to make that sort of decision, rather than government, fired rapidly in the mind. This was followed by the section of the brain containing the term, “nanny state,” jumping up and down, yelling, “me! me! me!”

While I think a reasonable person can disagree with the implementation of the ban, it’s harder to make a case against the idea that people should drink less fizzy sugar water. But let’s set that case aside, and just focus on the reflex.

It seems like the reflex is a combination of the brain having existing wiring for the type of argument and a tendency to take a defensive posture against change. We see the same disposition in many subcultures, including political and religious ones.

In the case of soft drinks, people have encountered dietary arguments for years from vegetarian, vegan, and similar dietary movements. The anti-smoking arguments also follow similar lines. With recent studies showing correlation between social connections and things like weight gain and diet, even the second-hand smoke arguments have a home here.

People also have received reinforcement from something like sipping on a soft drink while having positive social interactions, so much that some may be able to tell you that they enjoyed a particular flavor of drink during a particular interaction (not unlike people remembering specific times with specific types of alcohol).

The notion of giving up something that seemed to add to an experience is threatening. It usually takes several nearby nodes in the network making a change in order to encourage more nodes to change.

Not In My Back Yard, or NIMBY, is another example of a mantric argument that is conjured when a reflexive response occurs. Windmills are often opposed as a reflex.

The notion of job security has paralyzed whole sectors of the economy, as we become afraid to modernize and shift economic focuses because of large blocks of employment. That is, we place employment as a higher importance than the economic functionality that would ensure it.

There are reflexive responses when someone denigrates a prophet, or when a community perceives a travesty of justice, and so on.

How do we get past these reflexes? How do we get sane arguments that don’t run into walls of no-from-the-hip?

My hunch on this is that society, or whatever group seeks to have good arguments, assigns advocates regardless of belief. Just like high school debaters, people can advocate for causes they don’t necessarily believe in. It gives an opportunity for new ideas to prosper in a way that doesn’t stigmatize initial advocates too severely (which risks blanching future dissent, leading to further totalitarianization of a group).

Likewise, increasing opportunities for interaction and shifting of social links would enable more nodes to recognize opportunities for different behaviors. Although anecdotal (in that I haven’t looked for any research that backs this up), I find it likely that part of the positive impact of World War II on the US economy stemmed from the mixing of all those young people, along with their exposure to diverse social orders across the globe.

At any rate, reflexive responses should be seen for what they are. We shouldn’t let them kill good ideas, but should allow ourselves to entertain the idea without fear that it will consume us. Society needs to learn how to do that.

Identity and Group Conflict

First a note on the progress of my browser problems. The first problem was solved by a sweep through my profile directory, cleaning out the cruft that had accumulated over the years. The second problem, of Firebug not working, turned out to be due to a problem with the way the package was being built (an untracked upstream build change that needed to be accounted for in the package). The maintainer is aware of that now, so it should be fixed in future builds.

Today’s post is about what I consider a major problem for mankind. Who are you? Occasionally a stranger will ask you that, and it’s not like there’s a good answer. You can give your name, but that hardly gets to the heart of the matter.

Humans have a tendency to want to know who they are, mainly because it makes the whole thought process easier. In some things it is essential: it is not recommended to try to play chess if you do not know which side you are playing. Your opponent may get angry if you move her pieces.

People like having identities. They adopt a role. If you are the bully, you know how to behave. You know how people will react. You remove uncertainty.

There are group identities, which are common. People see themselves as soldiers in the fight for their group. People can do all sorts of bad and good things just because they see themselves as aiding their team.

People can commit bank fraud, taking a false loan, because they see themselves as saving their company that’s underwater. They don’t see it as fraud, because that’s not the identity they hold.

Group identities are especially problematic. In interactions with other groups result in anxiety, and adopting a harmful situational role is possible:

In the case of stereotype threat, the individual may adopt a very restricted behavior, trying to avoid confirming group stereotypes. Or they may, in the face of such stress, adopt a facade of apparent strength (eg, bullying) in order to protect their true identity. In the latter case, they need not worry about reputation or identity damage, because they can write off any bad reactions to the fact they were adopting a role, playing a part.

Stereotype threat is a factor of intergroup anxiety. One can see some of the difficulties in group interactions in situations where a lone member of one group interacts with a second, only later to be joined by more members of their group of origin. Their demeanor changes when comrades arrive. If conflict had already been suggested, it may be escalated.

One large problem, setting aside the direct conflicts and harms caused by the adopted identities, is that the adoption becomes ingrained by conflict. It’s the age-old investment trap. If you’ve taken blows for being of some identity, you have all the more reason to hold to it; you’ve paid for it, might as well wear it.

But the larger problem is the inability for people to cooperate in the face of these identities. They are overly focused on preexisting identities, unable to make decisions that benefit themselves the most because they are too worried over group dynamics. If your team is winning, it’s less likely you’ll agree to postpone or cancel the game due to inclement weather.

You often see splintered groups insulate themselves in various ways, including jargon/accent/language changes. These changes are natural reactions to the separation from a larger group: let’s stop using the inherited terminology and adopt our own as part of our group identity. You also see this in couples showing affection for one another, people showing affection for their children, and even showing affection for their pets.

More importantly, the splinter group often adopts the same kinds of tactics they splintered away from, such as stereotypes and epithets for the other group’s membership.

The worst case is where we as society have created group identities of whole cloth and then are unhappy with the results. The major examples of this are the so-called ruling class of politicians, the identity of police and prison guards, the other side of that coin in the prison populations, and other similar groups with authority or power.

When we go out of our way to create these groups of people, we mustn’t be surprised at the results. They are indeed a detriment.

Solving these issues is a different matter entirely, and it remains an open problem for further thought.

The Nature of Unbelieved Change

It’s short posts November, so I probably won’t ramble as long this month.

One thing we’ve probably all seen in making changes big and small is that there’s an adjustment period during which we refine. Depending on the change, that period may be short or long.

But one of the things that makes it longer is when the initial change was thought too hard or was neglected in some way. The result is that once the foundation has actually been laid, those affected suddenly give comment to an issue they didn’t expect (ie, how to refine it) and haven’t had ample time to consider.

The 2008 Obama campaign used the slogan, “Change you can believe in.” I think it works for this phenomena to call it “Unbelieved Change,” meaning change that people didn’t see coming because they didn’t believe it had a chance.

Health reform is a good example. The lack of meaningful reform had entrenched itself as a fact for the USA, and now that something’s been done to move the stone, a lot of people want to refine it (even before many provisions take effect). Some want to simply revert the change, others want to continue on the path laid or go an entirely different way.

The other problem, related, is that the early proposals are often ruled out as blocking the initial change. The Obama administration basically scrapped notions of a public option or single payer system as being too difficult to garner agreement. And yet, they didn’t go for a credit-based system either.

Another area where this phenomena has shown itself is the Arab Spring. Prior to its beginning, most thought that the status quo was to stay as it was. When change finally came, the world’s leaders didn’t have a good idea what the outcome would be, and even today there are some in the West that think it might have been a bad change.

I think the real root of the problem is that many look at the world and see a pinball machine instead of a canvas. They see the world as a mostly-fixed system in which they must hit the bumpers and make the lights blink and sing. There are others that realize the world can be much more flexible, and that deciding what to paint isn’t an unreasonable activity.

The world is a canvas, and the populist movements like Occupy Wall Street recognize that fact, where the politicians often do not. But it’s more complicated; for some issues any given person may think it’s part of the pinball machine or canvas. Most will admit the Constitution is more pinball than paint, but still some seek to amend it. Pretty much everyone admits that defying gravity is equivalent to a TILT event, but some still believed in putting humans in space, even if it merely meant overpowering gravity rather than breaking it.

But we should still consider the impossible at every turn, it builds character.