Never again to validate one's experience
by Andy Oram
Jillian, hoping that Melinda will confide in her, tells Melinda that
Jillian said nice things about her to Christoph and that Christoph
looked interested. Meanwhile, Jillian tells Christoph that Melinda has
a sexually transmitted disease, because Jillian wants Christoph to get
interested in another friend. If Christoph and Melinda compare notes,
they will discover this odd sort of "man in the middle" attack, but they can't be
absolutely sure what happened unless Jillian made the dumb mistake of writing it all
If content controls come into place on digital media, Jillian can even
write down her lies. Unless Melinda looks over Christoph's shoulder at
his computer screen, they still won't be able to share written
Wouldn't an ill-intentioned bigot find it convenient to put up a Web
site with racist hate speech at the high point of a crisis and then
make it disappear, with no one able to keep a record?
The lyrics to a hip-hop song might change without notice after someone
complains about it. Even neater, the studio could offer a complaint
button, where parents could force the lyrics to change on their
children's system while other people get to hear the original. After
all, what's the value in all the sophistication of modern mixers?
Chairman Mao would have loved copyright content controls. His writings were
edited every few years, but if somebody kept an old Little Red Book they
could find out when the feudal reactionaries turned into the beacons of the
These are all logical outcomes of the trend toward offering
copyrighted material on a limited and subscription basis. PressPlay,
for instance, lets you listen so long as you pay, but not to go back and
check what you listened once the service goes away. Good-bye to the
classic parent/child bonding ritual where the parents play the music
that used to turn them on twenty years before.
Under such conditions, culture loses a layer of its reality. It's harder to
compare what you see and hear to what others see and hear. Researchers
cannot easily point to parts of the transmission and comment on it. A
whole layer of verification and social affirmation disappears.
As we already know, the Internet is weak as an archival medium.
Outside of a few services that try to preserve the
fleeting exchanges, such as Google's sponsorship of the old like DejaNews service, one has little assurance that the posting you saw
today will be there in six months. Many people save a document to hard
disk or print to ensure later access. Content controls may disable
both the archival services and the users' own mechanisms for ensuring
Up to now, printed and recorded material has long been a major part of
cultural reality. Religious texts have been accepted by many as more
valid than the sights and sounds around them. You cannot imagine the
revolutionary American Colonies without Tom Paine's Common Sense. And
the central role played by culture in our consciousness extends even
to what appears to be trashy commercialism, like television ads and
grade B movies.
The danger is that entertainment will continue to affect people's
opinions and feelings, but that copyright owners will exempt it from
the activities of comparison and analysis that let people evaluate its
effects on them. Whether it's a sociology professor explaining the
underlying significance of a movie scene to his students or one friend
simply trying to dissuade another from taking away a negative message
from what he sees, we will lose the continuity of our cultural
(Full dislaimer dept.: I myself made two minor edits to this weblog since I first posted it. The intent was to clarify fuzzy sentences, not to change their meanings. But it shows what the medium is capable of!)
Will we lose something important to culture if content controls become widespread?
The language is a bit clunky, but the core idea in your article is absolutely brilliant.