Lessons from Songles

By max, Thu 29 September 2011, in category Essays

On the last page of Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto,typically where you expect some encompassing conclusion, you will receive the baffling premonition of, “I imagine a virtual saxophone-like instrument in virtual reality with which I can improvise both golden tarantulas and a bucket with all the red things. If I knew how to build it now, I would, but I don't.”

Which if you have read all the pages as well as the last one, in true order, you will find to be fitting conclusion. For the manifesto is much more a poorly meshed attempt to collect his small findings, gigs, opinions and brainstorms since his day prototyping Virtual Reality in the 80s. As if it were a magic mortar Lanier attempts to congeal and tie his non-sequential thoughts together with large claims in technology's meaning for humanity. Yet owing to it's anecdotal format what is produced can sometimes seem just a griping.

For instance it is claimed that, unlike the 60's, music today has no definitive style. To prove this he's supposedly made bets with adolescents that he's come across, played them a song and then asked them if the song was from 1998 or 2008. Jaron reports that they weren't able to tell the difference. The quality of this study is not particular solid. Remaining consistent with his unfounded speculation and exaggerated extrapolation are other claims about how contemporary User Interface design robs us of our humanity. This is evident in the supposed fact that Facebook's relationship status multiple choice decision is making us more binary, computational, and less human. I chose not to “like” this claim.

Fairhandedly though, while swinging his arms madly, every so often Lanier lands a punch. On the topic of Music Piracy he admits that as much as we might want to tell the Recording Associations and their labels that they should have adapted to new technologies long ago and are now paying the price in their downfall, there is scarce constructive criticism at how they might do that. This is a valid proposition because it is unreasonable to expect change without knowing what the change is you really want. It is not that requesting the Record Industry to adapt is burdensome, but that without giving them some direction they really are the victims they make themselves out to be. Victimisation does not excuse any scare tactics they might use or past extortion they may have committed, but we ought to be at least slightly more sympathetic to their problem if we can't propose better solutions than they are implementing. Therefore we should be frantically brainstorming suggests Lanier.

Let us join him for a moment. We don our VR goggles and boldly slip on our datagloves.

Take as a working assumption that in the future we would still like recompense as an incentive for creating music. This means there is a nearly untenable need to monetise a nearly free commodity. Owing to that difficulty only the most outlandish and novel innovations ever rear their heads from consumer-thinkers. We've seen flattr which has it's advantage in ease, but still relies on altruism. There was a poster in Berkeley's iSchool (can anyone identify this author) proposing that buying songs should also give you fractional—albeit marginally diminishing—profits in the subsequent purchases of the same song. Therefore you would have an incentive to buy as you could eventually recoup most of your money if more people bought the song. Certainly this is a novelty but it may taste too much like a ponzi scheme for many.

In the world of torrents the economics of ratios and seedboxes I once offered could become a profitable market following an analogy to that of solar energy. The seedbox bandwidth would be rented out to you for a fixed monthly price, and the higher your ratio at the end of the month the more you'd earn back. This would be scaled in such a way that the most advanced users could potentially even yield cash from the grid, but the average user would pay in. The desire to spend on music relies again on the profit incentive, and also on the fact that some community organised torrent trackers often surpass commercial libraries in selection and quality because of long-tail effects.

Lanier provides a third imagining of charging for music in the future: songles. Songles are fashionably packaged RFID dongles which play music on a remote stereo. That is you wear a digitally connected bracelet (or it could be on your keychain) which would beam the song(s) contained within to a nearby hi-fi. The idea might succeed for more reasons than what he touches in his manifesto. The idea might succeed because there is a desire to share our songs with our friends. The concept has been proved since Lanier published in 2010 with turntable.fm . The magic of turntable.fm is that everyone in a room vies to become 1 of 5 DJs who then rotate between playing songs of their choosing. Basically this allows braggadocio of taste, which is a powerful sociological force. Turntable.fm right now works through the browser, which is not very convenient as you want to physically rather than digitally bob your head. The key companion hardware for a songle answers this physicality, it is the auto-DJ console that shuffles through the songs contained within partygoers wrists, necks, and pockets. The party DJing is directly crowdsourced which makes an appealing dynamic. Similarly the same would work at a coffeeshop or pub who's public music could be selected passively from the patrons. The argument that such corporate institutions would be averse to relinquishing the power over their carefully designed atmosphere could be trumped by their own profit motives. That is, if the music that is played in a shop to induce you to buy is less effective at increasing sales than allowing people to listen to their own music, then businessmen may be on board. Music opinions are a neverending conversation amongst many today, something that could be valuably capitalised upon to save the moribund paradigm of paid music creation.

The songles have their main revenue source in the fact that they are physical and therefore you must buy them, says Lanier. Not exactly so, I see Geeky students on ebay buying RFID read/writers making a business out of slipping cheap chips from China to their friends. Additionally from the same crowd I foresee a new tsunami of Rickrolling at Starbucks. The songle ecosystem is not hacker-proof, but it for success it only need to be more hacker-resillent than CD-ripping. Therefore a glimmer of hope may yet exist.

Regardless of whether songles will triumph or not, the idea is at least emblematic of the sort of thinking that frees consumers from their current hypocrisy towards the old institutions. Importantly it is born of the same creativity that dreams psychedelic spider-conjuring eSaxophones. The lesson that can be learned here is that we must imagine what it is that we would pay for in music to allow a chance for paid music creation to survive. I imagine a virtual lounge-like club in virtual reality in which I can mingle with other listeners of the same song, and inspect artefacts related to the artist and genre. If I knew how to build it now, I would, but I don't.