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Interregnum

Off to the US with my wife and soon-to-be one year old son – our first flight with him, and it’s going to be eight hours long. (To quote Hamlet: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!”) Still, once we get to the States we’ll get to introduce him to his great-grandparents in Kentucky, as well as catching up with friends in Nashville, Knoxville and Atlanta, and even a speaking gig in Savannah, GA. Back soon!

The nonsense resumes in March.


Dungeon and Village

Over on ihobo today, some musings about the dual dungeon-and-village structure. It begins like this:

What are the origins of the dungeon-and-village structure of computer role-playing games, and is there some equivalent parallel to be found somewhere in the design of contemporary first person shooters? In order to explore the concept of village and dungeon, it is useful to look at the kinds of activity players undertake in the fictional worlds of games, and how that relates to the spaces of play.

You can read Dungeon and Village over at ihobo.com.


Common Errors about Music Piracy

Killing Music Do pirates steal money from musicians, and make it harder for new artists to break through? Or are they simply renegade librarians using a new technology that exposes the outrageous injustice of cartel pricing in the music industry? A brief look at some of common mistakes concerning file sharing piracy.

 

1. Every Pirated Copy is Lost Revenue

The notion persists that piracy is theft, a view I have argued against (forgery being closer in tone to the actions in question). However, the ‘theft’ fiction encourages the idea that the legal rights holder loses money with every pirated copy. It is true that some pirated copies end up in the hands of people who would otherwise have purchased the material, and these are lost sales. However, the typical pirate could not afford to buy all the material they acquire, and certainly would not purchase much (if any) of it were it not for their access to technology allowing them to acquire it without paying any per-download fees.

The majority of pirates I have spoken to are either very poor or at least lacking in wealth, and in some cases this provides their direct motive – the people concerned can’t afford to get the media legally. However, many people who engage in widespread piracy have a different kind of motivation, and may in fact view what they are doing as essentially an altruistic sharing of media that they have enjoyed with others. This perspective is based entirely on the viewpoint of the consumer, and conveniently ignores the producers of the relevant media entirely. A similar situation occurs with public transport in some cities: travellers who bought a day ticket will sometimes pass it on to a stranger when they are finished with it, viewing that exchange solely from the perspective of the lucky recipient of free travel and ignoring the loss of revenue to the operators of the transport system. Whether you think this behaviour is morally acceptable depends greatly on your own moral ideals.

Compulsive hoarding of media content is comparatively common among file-sharers, and the willingness to open this personal library to others is one of the things that sustains contemporary media piracy. I have termed the collective set of media available through file sharing the black library in reference both to it’s current illegality on the one hand and to the fact that only data changes hands not money, hence considering it a black market would be misleading. The existence of the black library is a sign that money is being lost, but it is not conclusive proof that the library itself can be held wholly responsible for that loss, and certainly the scale of the losses cannot be determined by the number of copies of a file being shared multiplied by the retail price of the associated media.

The conclusions to be reached depend upon the assumption taken into the reasoning. If sale of music media as a product is presumed, the losses are the sole responsibility of the pirates who are therefore cursed by some musicians as no better than thieves. Of course, they are a lot better than thieves in one sense since the ‘victims’ do not lose anything tangible when an illegal copy is taken, and even contribute some tangible benefits such as brand awareness (although not to a degree comparable to the presumed loss of revenue if media-as-product is assumed). That music piracy is not quite theft does not mean that it is morally permissible, however, as this is a seperate issue.

The alternative perspective, the one seldom recognised by the beneficiaries of music revenue, is that the media companies are partly responsible for the loss of revenue by pugnaciously sticking to a pricing model predicated on antiquated distribution technologies. If media corporations had recognised the potential for file sharing to revolutionise the music industry they could have offered competitive services years ago and potentially raised billions of dollars from business models such as the Open Music Model or adaptations of radio airplay payment schemes. They did not. They insisted on seeing the situation in terms of the losses implied by the older, obsolete technology. Furthermore, by forcibly cracking down on the illegal activities of pirates they entrenched the issues surrounding the black library in terms of corporations-vs-individuals, an entirely self-defeating approach that galvinises pirates into a more dedicated subculture.

It is worth remembering that if we go back a century or two, musicians were in no way dependent upon sale of recordings since the technology did not exist to do so (gramophones did not appear until the 1870s). Musicians still made a living before audio recordings – they performed concerts and were paid by the audience, or they received money from some wealthy patron. The rise of media technology in the twentieth century – including radio and television – allowed a few succesful musicians to earn astronomical revenues and become as rich as the other beneficiaries of media technology, film stars. However, the idea that musicians are entitled to earn revenue from sale of recordings is dependent upon the technology that allowed recordings to be sold. Now that the technology has dramatically changed such that infinite reproduction and deployment of recordings is trivial, we should expect the economics of music to alter dramatically.

 

2. You Can’t Compete with Free

A common justification for music cartels turning to legal bullying rather than new business models in the wake of file sharing is that ‘you can’t compete with free’. This argument is confused about basic economics. According to the standard perspective on pricing, competitive markets tend towards selling at or near the cost price of goods (marginal price). No vendor makes a profit selling for cost, so sellers add value in order to charge above the base cost. It doesn’t matter in this scenario whether the cost of goods is thousands of dollars or zero, you make profit by finding ways to add value or to take advantage of scarcity. As Mike Masnick suggests, saying you can’t compete with free is admitting you can’t compete at all, and vendors unable or unwilling to compete deserve to go out of business.

There’s an easy way of seeing through the ‘can’t compete with free’ error when we think in terms of pizza. There’s always free pizza in a dumpster somewhere, yet we all happily pay for pizza. Our money is courted by the added value pizza vendors offer: a choice of pizza, reliably superior quality, pizza guaranteed to be free of contaminants, pizza in 30 minutes or less (generally faster than dumpster searching) and pleasant environments in which to eat pizza. No-one thinks dumpster pizza cannot be competed against, even though it is free. 

The files in the back library aren't quite as bad as dumpster pizza, but they are often lower quality and always higher risk than legally acquired music, plus what's available is only a fraction of all the media that could be offered. Commercial music downloading services could compete with the (free) black library by offering greater choice, better and more consistent quality, files free of viruses, a hassle-free download experience and a more pleasant access environment. The black library isn’t an undefeatable commercial threat, but the early adoption of a viable business model for the new technology that media cartels simply don’t want to accept. It isn’t monetized very well, but the music industry will need to introduce monetized versions of file sharing models if they want to remain competitive in the long term. If they refuse to compete with the new technology, they deserve to go under, as I argued in File sharing and the Pony Express.


3. Piracy Hurts New Artists

Back in September 2009, Lilly Allen claimed that “for new talent... file sharing is a disaster as it’s making it harder and harder for new acts to emerge.” This view – that music piracy hurts new artists more than established musicians – makes a fundamental mistake about the old music-as-product paradigm by believing it was beneficial to new and emerging talent that albums were priced expensively.

There are, crudely speaking, three grades of musicians working in the Western world. Firstly, there are the megastars like Allen who receive considerable media attention and benefit from vast marketing spends. These superstars make orders of magnitude more income than anyone else in music, and the decline in album sales since file sharing broke has narrowed their revenue slightly. They all still earn millions of dollars from touring and particularly from the licensing of their tracks in TV, film and advertising.

Secondly, there is the middle tier of artists who have a fanbase and regular income but who lie outside of the major corporate marketing spends. Artists of this kind either tour constantly in order to make money or have another source of income (e.g. their own record label). Although the current situation has cost these artists some revenue, they had always been dependent on making money from music-as-service and have not (as far as I can ascertain) lost out greatly from the new situation, even though many are feeling the pinch as retail revenues fall.

Finally, there’s a lower tier of musicians, signed or unsigned, who have too little name recognition to be earning well and who barely scrape by as artists but stick with it because they believe in their music or because they enjoy performing. Artists on this tier receive next to no promotion, media attention or marketing spend and their albums are at best merchandise they sell at their gigs that stem their losses by a small amount. To suggest that these musicians are worse off under the effects of the new technology is extremely peculiar – if anything, some have benefited from file sharing in that their music has been heard by a wider audience who would never have discovered them otherwise. Unfortunately, there are so many artists on this tier that the boost to brand recognition has been fairly trivial. These musicians would not be better off under the old music-as-product paradigm, but they would be much better off if a reasonably monetized file sharing system such as the Open Music Model were in place.

Despite Allen’s objection, it isn't likely that file sharing has made it any harder for new acts to emerge, and indeed the music-as-product model was already toxic to the fostering of new talent. Moving forward to a music-as-service model like Open Music wouldn’t necessarily solve this issue, but it wouldn’t leave new and emerging acts any worse off, and it might in fact leave them in a better situation, since the new technology encourages consumers to listen to music by many different artists, rather than just the commercial mainstream.

 

4. File Sharing is Unethical

In the first of the John Peel Lectures, Pete Townsend of The Who criticized Apple’s iTunes for providing only a fraction of the services that the recording industry used to deliver to musicians. He’s right, and the idea that it is acceptable to charge prices for music files equivalent to physical distribution without any of the marketing or talent-development contribution is absolutely shocking. The cartel-set price of albums limited the number that a typical person could afford to buy, and sustaining that pricing strategy with music downloads is a scandalous abuse of the new technologies. As ever, only the already successful artists have significantly benefitted. New artists would and will benefit from a lower cost for access to music, something that sensible monetization of file sharing would provide.

Townsend, like Allen, is irate about illegal file sharing, likening the unauthorized copying of his songs to the theft of his son’s bike, an asinine comparison that is rooted in the continued predication of the music-as-product model. He states:

...if someone... pretends that something I have created should be available to them free (because creativity has less value than an hour’s work by me as a musician in a pub) I wonder what has gone wrong with human morality and social justice.

I won’t defend the ethics of pirates when it comes music – Townshend is justifiably irritated by the disrespect of musicians implied in sharing their creative output without permission or remuneration. However, the renegade librarians are not wickedly immoral so much as they are people who object to the music cartels and are taking advantage of the new software and hardware to circumvent corporate domination of music for their own, personal gain. The musicians are merely the unseen victims of this commercial rebellion, which like most ethical issues results from a clash of ideals (in this case, capitalist traditionalism versus anti-corporate ideals). It should also be noted that people are sadly lacking in willpower when faced with new technology, and the commercial sector has typically used this to their advantage by raking in cash from consumers eager to play with new gadgets. Their failure in this case reflects as badly on industry as it does on individuals.

Conversely, when it comes to Townshend’s cries in respect of “social justice”, I tend to side with the pirates. There was no social justice in the music-as-product business model, a system that favoured the few against the many, that did increasingly little to help new artists that were not pin-up friendly, and which now refuses to accept the market circumstances implied by file sharing technology and prefers to use legal bullying in order to preserve an unjust monopolistic cartel. The price of music downloads is only fractionally reduced from that of physical product despite radically reduced overheads for distribution, the evaporation of investment in talent development that Townshend observes, and the purchaser having no option for later resale to recoup some of their investment. Music publishers are gouging consumers and abusing musicians: frankly, I can understand why pirates don't want to co-operate with them, even if I also believe the pirates aren't being much fairer to the musicians.

File sharing is not inherently unethical, but the resistance to a sensible monetization scheme makes the black library what it is: outlaw file swapping. A music-as-service approach – most likely something like the Open Music Model’s monthly service fee for unlimited, DRM free music downloads – would instantly remove the immoral dimension of piracy, and with this entirely attainable possibility in mind the music industry as a whole could be claimed to share responsibility for unethical aspects of contemporary file sharing with the pirates. It is they, not the pirates, who have refused to come to terms with the market implications of new technology. They resist because it’s hard to let go of the familiar profitability of the old music-as-product model.  But the longer they cling to the older model, the worse piracy will become and the worse the situation will be for musicians. When it comes to the ethics of file sharing, both sides of the dispute bear a proportion of the blame.


The Dinosaur Lens

Tyrannosaurus Rex Were dinosaurs really as terrible as we believe?

Ask an average person for a word to describe dinosaurs and you’re likely to hear terms like ‘savage’, ‘vicious’ or ‘deadly’. But this is very unlikely to be an accurate description of life in the Mesozoic era – the Age of Reptiles. Certainly, there were animals alive at this time who seem to us to be terrifying monsters – both in terms of their size, and their natural weaponry. Yet if dinosaurs were really as horrific as we tend to imagine them then either their descendents, the birds, would have to be equally savage and deadly, or an unprecedentedly rapid change of behaviour must have occurred.

The problem occurs in large part because of the decidedly narrow window on the past available to us. The fossil record contains some wonderfully preserved specimens of creatures past, and often offers considerable forensic data about their demise. But this creates a distorting lens effect in our appreciation for dinosaur life by skewing our knowledge heavily towards the deaths of these animals and away from their lives. It may be the case that what we can be most confident about in terms of our knowledge of these creatures relates to their deaths (or at least those whose remains survived), but any plausible account of their lives must allow more than this.

The possible complaint that to go beyond the evidence is to indulge in pure speculation is hollow when television ‘documentaries’ concerning the lives of dinosaurs almost constantly engage in imaginative fiction (often presented as if it were empirically based). The rise of CGI animation has allowed for some terrifically entertaining shows featuring dinosaurs – but the oft-used phrase “scientists believe” is merely a way of papering over speculation, and many shows don’t even bother to admit this aspect of the presentation. Since our beliefs about dinosaurs have changed wildly over the last century – and continue to change with both fresh finds and new studies of previous fossils – the suggestion that any of these alleged documentaries presents a factual face of dinosaur life is absurd. Rather, the most dramatic stories are chosen because these shows are at their heart entertainment.

If we approach the representation of the dinosaurs from a different stance we will reach different conclusions. The common lineage of dinosaurs with the birds around today was originally conceived in the 1960s, a source of controversy in the 1970s, and a point of orthodoxy by the 1990s. Although behaviour can change in animals over very short time scales, this is largely because animal behaviour is not genetically determined but rather a confluence of response to environment, learning, and natural tendencies (which are, in part, affected by genetics). It is extremely likely that the behaviour of dinosaurs lies within a landscape of possibilities bounded by reptiles on one side and birds on the other – and we would be hard pressed to find the savagery of popular dinosaur mythology supported in that space. Even the crocodiles and alligators, which are literally dinosaurs that survived the end of the Cretaceous, are not quite as vicious as their popular image suggests.

If we consider the text book figure of dino-terror, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, palaeontologists are still not agreed as to whether this was an apex predator, like a lion, or a scavenger, like a hyaena. It is quite likely that real tyrannosaurs engaged in both active predation and scavenging of kills, which only muddies the waters, but either way, feeding was only a part of tyrannosaur life. These animals had to have bred, which means they have to have mated – their lives must have involved more than killing. The shadow sides of their lives are occasionally covered by dinosaur media – T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous represents a tyrannosaur mother caring for her offspring, for instance – but it is generally downplayed in favour of their more dramatic role as a murderous monster.

What’s more, even accepting tyrannosaurs preyed upon hadrosaurs and cerotopsians doesn’t justify treating them as more vicious or savage than big cats that prey on grazing animals today. In many respects, the relationships between herbivorous dinosaurs and their carnivorous predators seems highly likely to parallel contemporary relationships between herbivorous mammals and their predators. Thus what we observe of the lion’s hunt of the zebra or the wolf pack’s hunt of a deer may well be behavioural prototypes of cretaceous hunts by tyrannosaurs and (say) velociraptors  respectively. Yet ask someone on the street which is more vicious or savage, a lion or a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and they are far more likely to choose the latter – without any empirical justification.

Predatory dinosaurs feel like monsters to us for much the same reason sharks do – a disturbing collection of teeth, a diet of meat and a worrying excess of scale that allows us to imagine ourselves as ill-fated prey. Yet in both cases, the lives of these animals were or are more rich and varied than a focus on hunting and feeding suggests. The portrayal of these animals in the popular media – both in documentaries and elsewhere – distorts our understanding of their lives with a lens effect that is every bit as slanted as our view of the world when seen through the eyes of our news services. We are often aware of this lens effect, but we are never immune to it.


Sony and Microsoft's Controller Crisis

Over on ihobo today, my thoughts about the PS4 and 720’s difficult decision about control schemes:

Nintendo has already put its cards on the table – now gamers are waiting to see how Sony and Microsoft can trump them. But what controllers will the PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720 ship with? To answer this question, we need to look at the economic challenges facing the two console manufacturers who are fighting fiercely for the loyalty of the diehard gamers.

Read The Controller Crisis Facing Sony and Microsoft over on ihobo.com today.


Life Amidst Moral Chaos

Black Chaos Can there only be a meaningful ethics if there is just one true moral law? Or might there be value in embracing moral chaos?

For centuries, discussion of ethics has focussed upon the idea of the moral law – a set of rules or criteria that dictate what is permissible or required. This debate has been substantially focussed on two battlefronts: firstly, the long and pointless dispute between advocates of a duty approach (deontology or Kantian ethics) and an outcome-focussed approach (Consequentialism). Secondly, the more recent conflict between all ethical beliefs and the deep suspicion that there is no moral law (Nihilism). The former disagreement has been fruitful but misguided, while the latter has become deeply counter productive.

As I have argued previously, disputes between different moral approaches fall down when they presume that morality must be (or ideally must be) dictated by one system. Just as a mathematical formula can be expressed in many different forms and still be equivalent, moral statements are largely transformable between different views. The oldest form of morality, virtue ethics, expresses ethical thought from the perspective of the person acting, while Kant's duty ethics express the same concepts in terms of rules or rights affecting the actions that can be taken. Both can also be expressed in terms of outcomes in what is termed Consequentialist ethics. Each perspective has advantages and disadvantages. For instance, outcome ethics comes closest to a mathematical expression, duty ethics is the easiest to render as verbal laws, and virtue ethics is the most intuitive and easiest to teach. Conversely, virtue ethics is difficult to formalize, duty ethics can be inflexible, and outcome ethics risk a dehumanizing obsession with numbers.

The tiff between different approaches (which boils down to 'my ethics are closer to the good than yours') is a sideshow, however. The main event of the last century has been the challenge foreshadowed by Nietzsche: can any kind of ethics be sustained in the wake of the collapse of our horizons. We now recognise that different cultural circumstances lead to different ways of life, and different conclusions about moral concerns – and this seems to catastrophically undermine the concept of a viable moral law. The resulting crisis can be expressed in a simple question: if there is no single, true ethical system, can there be ethics at all? Terrified by this possibility, even secular ethicists like Derek Parfit have felt a powerful need to defend the idea of a moral law, and have mounted impressive arguments in it's defence.

Yet this rally to the cause of moral law, while admirable, has been misguided. Nihilism is not a plausible scenario, since it cannot be the case that an absence of absolutes disproves morality absolutely. The oxymoronic confidence of the Nihilist mirrors the premature certainty of the law ethicist: morality, it has been presumed, must be like logic: some things are true and others false. However, even logic is dependent upon premises, and we are not bound to accept the presuppositions of either moral law or its nihilistic mirror image. Morality could be more like fractal mathematics – a variegated moral landscape in which not everything is possible or permissible, but which supports a diversity of ethical possibilities.

We live amidst a moral chaos, and it is perhaps time to accept the merits of chaos ethics. Moral law has been valuable – our human rights agreements descend from Kant's duty ethics, and could not have come about otherwise. But just as a non-foundationalist stance in epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) has provided a valuable new perspective on our understanding of the world, a non-foundationalist approach to ethics can take us into new and interesting moral spaces.

Moral chaos is not a monster to be slain, but a possibility to be explored. Neither is this a new occurrence: the competing claims of alternative moral laws were already a clue that the ethical endeavour might not be resolved in unity. Moral law is invaluable – we have enough common ground to allow for substantial agreement. But moral chaos is also valuable – it protects us from what Feyerabend called 'the Tyranny of Truth', and allows for a freedom that can be threatened by narrow conceptions of truth and value. To truly benefit from the potential for good our imagination grants us, we must learn to strike a balance between moral law and moral chaos. This is not a new way of life, but an ancient wisdom we somehow came to forget.

This year I'll be working towards my first book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics. I hope you'll join in the discussions here in the Game as I explore the issues.

The opening image is Black Chaos by Marilyn Myrlrea, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement was intended and I will take the image down if asked.