Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Off the Shelf: Darknet

Yes, I know the title sounds like a third rate syndicated TV show (the kind you only see on after midnight, featuring cheesy special effects). In actuality, Darknet (by JD Lasica), subtitled "Hollywood's war against the Digital Generation" is about the ongoing battle between entrenched media giants and the digital pioneers who make information malleable and easy to use. (read the reviews from readers or see the promotional webpage with blog and other resources)

The thrust is this -- new technology makes image, text, film, and sound easily accessible and easy to manipulate. This means that anyone with a computer and a little software can become their own media producer. This also means that they have the capacity to use existing material to make their own montage.

According to the book, the big media conglomerates hate that concept -- they want to keep control of media creation and distribution. Accordingly, they want to establish laws and protocols that will prevent end users from mixing or even appropriating existing material.

Consider the story of Chris Strompolos, who as a middle schooler was so enthralled by Raiders of the Lost Ark, that he decided to recruit his friends to re-shoot the film. They went all out, and the project took them seven years. They built elaborate sets in their basement, they asked for special effects pieces for Christmas and Birthday presents. And after 7 years, they had created a faithful re-creation. It was a labor of love. Spielberg got hold of a copy and he loved it. But you'll never be able to see it, because the studios hold extensive copyright control, and they'd never let you see it. (Lasica tells the story much better than I can -- Read his retelling, quoted straight from the book)

Lasica makes a strong case for "open access" to all kinds of media as a way of encouraging ongoing creativity (it also adds value to the existing work -- anytime someone references my intellectual work -- it further spreads my ideas -- as Mae West once said "i don't care whether what you write about me is good or bad, just don't misspell my name". Seth Godin (marketing guru) constantly emphasizes that the point behind blogging (and much of the new media) is to spread your ideas -- not to make a sale. That's where the Hollywood types don't get it -- they're more concerned about the bottom line and keeping their captive audiences than they are about producing quality products. Is it any wonder that labors of love that The Lord of the Rings, The Passion of the Christ, and Farenheit 9/11 were major successes? They were works with heart (whether you liked them or not -- their directors did them primarily as expressions of passion).

The thesis behind Darknet is that the regular person also has this artistic impulse and would really like to have access to lots of digital material to indulge said impulse. If the major corporations will block that impulse (see what they did with Napster), then people will still get the digital information from hidden parts of the internet -- called the Darknet. The latter half of the book traces the careers and techniques of the digital freebooters and pixel privateers who pirate movies and make pristeen copies available via invite only secret lairs on the web -- kind of like a movie buff's batcave on the net.

All said, the book is worth a read for people of faith (one story is about a pastor who shows movie clips in his sermons -- this is kosher under the fair use of copyright law. However, he breaks the law because he copies the clips from his DVD to his laptop -- that act of copying is a violation. And the interview explores the ethical concerns involved). This will be an interesting field of ethics in the coming years -- Big media are quick to cry "theft" for any appropriation of intellectual material. And there is a lot of theft going on. There is also a lot of sampling that is the digital equivalent of quotation or allusion -- which has been within ethical bounds of fair use for centuries. Again, I don't suggest a purchase -- this isn't a classic you'll refer to again and again. Check it out from the library and give it a good detailed skim.

Soli Deo Gloria