I wrote this back in September, as a first stab at a dissertation subject. It's big and messy, and some of it's been said before, but I think there's some interesting stuff in there. The responses from people were uniform: Wow, sounds really neat-o, but it's waaayyy too much for a dissertation. Hence, I'm in the process of assembling a prospectus that uses configurability as a concept but doesn't attempt to delineate it as thoroughly as this paper would suggest.
At first, I was loath to post this, because (a) it's much less polished than even my quals essays were, and (b) it contains the grains of some of my BIG IDEAS and heaven forfend someone should steal them. but then someone forwarded me this thing that lev manovich posted to the web in october (a month after i wrote the configurability screed) about what he calls "modularity", and i figured, hey, i may as well add my $0.02 to the mix now, so i don't seem like a total bandwagoneer. clearly, this is an idea whose time has come, and it would be silly of me to refrain from contributing just because of some proprietary urge.
so without further ado, here's my screed. hopefully, i'll post a dissertation prospectus soon, and you'll be able to see how these ideas fit into a tighter argument that reflects many of the issues discussed througout this blog.
Recent changes in media technology, including but not limited to such elements as the personal computer, Internet connectivity, accessible media editing software (e.g. GarageBand), peer-to-peer file-sharing software, time-shifting devices (e.g. TiVo), portable media devices (e.g. iPods) and writable high-capacity media (e.g. CD-Rs), have enabled a paradigmatic shift in the kinds of relationship individuals may build with one another, with media companies, and with the products of those media companies and other forms of creative expression. The social dimension of this paradigmatic change is commonly referred to as “remix culture,” after the practice of “remixing,” or re-editing media files such as songs. I prefer to use a term that embraces a broader range of behaviors, and one that highlights what I feel best characterizes this new paradigm: “the culture of configurability.”
What, if anything, is new about the culture of configurability? Arguably, culture, by definition, is something infinitely plastic and permutable. No two people express themselves or understand the world identically, and everyone changes his perspective over time, largely in response to the people and expressive materials he comes in contact with. It logically follows that everyone, in his own way, contributes to the ongoing reconfiguration of culture, whether through a calibrated cultural intervention (e.g. art, rhetoric, resource investment) or simply through the quotidian, and largely unconscious, rituals and interactions of daily life.
I believe that the new paradigm can be differentiated from previous epochs by reciprocal changes in communication technology and culture, to the point where they have developed a symbiotic relationship and can no longer be understood in the absence of one another. Put another way, the power and scope of media technology has expanded to the point where mediated expression and interaction has come to approach, and in some cases, rival, the fluidity, subtlety and power of unmediated culture. It would be extremely difficult to support such statements empirically (although much research into communications technology does precisely that, measuring such attributes as “presence” in absolute terms). However, I believe the emergent and qualitative evidence of this shift can be inferred by cataloging the unique qualities of these new, transformative technologies and the new social behaviors that make use of such technologies (and help to shape their evolution).
Like most paradigmatic shifts, the changes in the quality of media technology and the nature of mediated behavior are more gradual and emergent than sudden and immediate. Clearly, society has coevolved with communication technology from prehistory to the present day, and never in a linear or predictable way. Other scholars have comprehensively catalogued the social changes marked by the birth of language, the emergence of writing and literacy, the development of the printing press, and the mechanical and electronic storage and transmission of information, to name but a few milestones.
Similarly, many elements of the culture of configurability have existed for generations, from the photographic collage and musique concrete experiments in the art world of the early-to-mid 20th century, to the samizdat cassette tapes of pre-Perestroika Soviet culture, to the dub plates, sound systems and “versions” of 1960s Jamaican music, to the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure genre of children’s literature in the 1980s. I myself participated in a proto-remix ritual for many years; along with other fans of the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the 1980s, I would engage in an ongoing verbal dialogue with the movie screen each weekend – participating in and contributing to an ever-changing catechism between the audience and the film’s script.
The list of historical remix-culture artifacts could go on ad infinitum. However, the configurable media experiences of the present day clearly outnumber, overpower, and outpace any of these examples by orders of magnitude. And, most importantly, the ease-of-use of today’s creative technologies and networked infrastructure of today’s communications technologies ensure that the tools of media configurability are accessible to hundreds of millions of interconnected individuals. A short and far-from-comprehensive list of the features of today’s emerging configurable media landscape include (in no particular order):
Instantaneous. Electronic and digital media transmit information at light speed.
Multi-sensory. Standard media technology delivers video, spatialized audio, and text. Experimental technology also provides olfactory and kinesthetic/haptic information.
Archival. Old media elements may be stored and retrieved at virtually zero incremental cost.
Transmissible. Media elements can be easily transmitted between two individuals, or multicast from one individual to many. Greater distances no longer introduce significant noise into signals, nor do they represent significant cost increases. Along with archivability, this feature helps produce the “time-space distanciation” Giddens (1990) discusses.
Permutable. Media elements (such as songs, articles, photos, etc.) may be accessed in any order, or used in conjunction with other media elements.
Editable. Media elements can be easily broken down into smaller components (such as samples or quotes), which in turn can be re-assembled, permuted, or broken down further. The Planck-length equivalent for media elements (e.g. the smallest possible irreducible kernel) is far below the range of human perception.
Networked. New communications technologies allow networked communications, permitting 1-to-1, 1-to-few, or 1-to-many communication between any connected individuals. This infrastructure is crucial to what Castells (2000) calls “network society” and “the space of flows.”
Digital. Unlike the prior era of media infrastructure, in which separate functions were served by separate technologies (e.g. electromagnetic broadcasts for TV/radio, film for video editing, copper wires for phone calls, etc.), all functions are now converging on the same digital platform. This means that, for the first time, millions of people can create, retrieve, edit and share audio, video, images and text using a single tool (an Internet-connected computer).
Database-driven. Database software introduces a degree of automation and personalization to configurability. This means that individuals have the freedom to customize their media experiences, but also allows third-parties, such as marketers, to target messages to individual recipients.
Hackable. Every technology is hackable (e.g. can be reverse-engineered, or used for purposes other than those it was created for), but new media technologies, by virtue of being built on a common digital platform, require fewer skills and tools to be hacked. This fact is further compounded by the networked communications infrastructure, allowing hacks (many of them malicious, such as trojans, worms, and viruses) to travel autonomously throughout the network.
However, as social shaping of technology research has argued (Williams & Edge, 1996), the features of technologies do not require specific uses. Rather, society finds uses for technologies, and helps shape the future direction of technological innovation by doing so. A short and far-from-comprehensive list of artifacts and behaviors that I feel are reflective of the culture of configurability includes:
DJ music. Although the notion of using music playback technology as a creative instrument dates back at least to Pierre Schaeffer’s invention of musique concrete in 1950, and was popularized in the vinyl record-based tradition of early hip-hop, the remix aesthetic has, with the aid of recent digital technologies (e.g. Acid, ProTools) become increasingly central to both hegemonic aesthetics (e.g. “super-producers” such as the Neptunes) and resistant aesthetics (e.g. mash-ups).
Videogame modification. Videogames, one of the fastest-growing “entertainment” categories, are frequently modified to one degree or another by people other than developers. At the most basic level, many developers embed “cheat codes” or “Easter eggs” within a game’s code, allowing users to “unlock” hidden features. These cheat codes and Easter eggs are typically leaked onto the Internet. I would argue, in fact, that for several new games, cheating is not only a fun bonus, but is nearly essential to successful completion of the game – that is to say, programmed in advance as part of the game-play experience. On a more complex level, some videogame fans also “mod” games, often making drastic changes to the way a game looks and then re-releasing it, via the Internet. Completing the cycle, some mods are so good that they become the genesis for new commercial games. This is the origin, for instance, of Counterstrike, one of the most popular games in videogame history. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether modifications were intended by the developer or not – one example would be the pornographic “hot coffee” modification to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that recently stirred up controversy.
Non-theatrical film editions. Hollywood has recently discovered that, by releasing several different versions of a popular film on DVD, it can increase its sales figures, and provide a greater impression of freedom and choice to filmmakers and audiences. One recent example is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was a phenomenal sales success in both its “theatrical” and “extended” DVD editions. Along slightly different lines, the BBC recently announced it would open its entire video archive to remixers. However, Hollywood has not been so sanguine about consumer-driven film re-edits. One classic example is the Phantom Edit, a version of Star Wars: Episode 1 that omitted several unpopular scenes, and excised the unpopular character Jar Jar Binks entirely. Another example is ClearPlay, a company that manufactures DVD players specially tailored to skip or mute scenes that some may find objectionable. After a three-year lawsuit against the company by major film studios, a district court judge recently ruled that ClearPlay’s system does not violate copyright.
Slash/Fanfic. Jenkins (1992; 1996) and Penley (1997) have written extensively about slash and fan fiction, genres of literature in which fans of TV shows or other media properties write their own fiction (erotic and otherwise) about their favorite characters, often mixing and matching characters from several different series or media properties. While this tradition has existed for decades, Jenkins and Penley acknowledge that the Internet has drastically increased the audience and participant base for slash and fanfic, due to the ease of distribution and aggregation that was impossible in the days of photocopies and snail mail. As Jenkins and Penley have observed, fanfic can be a springboard for aspiring authors, many of whom hone their skills this way before becoming professional scriptwriters.
Karaoke. This Japanese practice, in which music fans can publicly sing their favorite songs over instrumental tracks, has become very popular in America in recent years. I haven’t yet read any academic research on the subject, but I feel it perfectly demonstrates both the increasing desire and ability of consumers to participate in the re-production and interpretation of popular culture and the new commercial viability of old archived content (“back catalog” in music industry terms)
Digital music playlists. The availability, portability and flexibility of digital music files (especially MP3s), as well as the customizability of Internet radio, have enabled a major shift in music-listening paradigms. The standard singles/albums dichotomy has yielded to a “playlist” mentality, in which music fans pick and choose a subset of the entire universe of recorded music, often listening to that subset in random order (Apple, savvily recognizing this trend, recently released the iPod Shuffle, a portable MP3 player that is tailored to randomly-ordered playlists). I have written and spoken about this shift ad nauseum elsewhere in my capacity as an industry analyst, so I’ll leave it here for now.
Remixable touchstones. Periodically, trends emerge in which a large community of individuals converge on a single media element, each remixing it to give it their own characteristic spin. One classic example is “All Your Base Are Belong To Us,” named for a poorly-translated line of dialogue from the game Zero Wing, produced for the Sega Genesis home video game system in the late 1980s. In the last four years, thousands of individuals have produced altered images of common cultural artifacts, ranging from the Hollywood sign to O.J. Simpson’s mugshot, each of them featuring this snippet of “Engrish.” These images, in turn, have been aggregated online and viewed by millions of Web users. Another similar touchstone is the “Star Wars Kid” video, in which a hapless high school nerd accidentally left a videotape of himself pretending to fight with a Star Wars light saber in his school’s A/V club camera. The video was found by other students and released online, whereupon hundreds of remixes, many of them featuring dazzling visual and sound effects, soon followed. Beyond these massive and long-term remix trends, it has also become standard for people to remix and re-release images, sound or video clips hours or days after they emerge in the public sphere. Recent examples include a remix of Kanye West’s claim that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” (turned into a dance number within days), and various remixes of Howard Dean’s candidacy-killing yelp.
Distributed software development. As scholars such as Lessig (2004) and Himanen (2001) have discussed, the dominant paradigm for software development has shifted in recent years, from a traditional, hierarchical, firm-based model to a distributed “open source” model (of course, this shift is only partial – software firms such as Microsoft continue to exert a significant amount of power over the software development community). In the open source model, software is continually being re-edited by everyone with the skills and interests to do so, and these re-edits are incorporated into working versions of the software through various consensus mechanisms. Illegal re-edits of proprietary software are not uncommon, either: file-sharing software Kazaa was re-edited to remove spyware and ad-ware applications, and re-released by hackers as “Kazaa Lite.” Similarly, Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system has been “remixed” dozens of times by hackers and re-released online. What is interesting about these cases is that, similar to the role of mods and cheats in the videogame industry, software developers seem to expect and even welcome a degree of illegal hacking, for both R&D purposes and for the purposes of platform dominance. Microsoft, for instance, appears to allow illegal copies of its Office suite to circulate, with the understanding that (a) broader circulation means continuing dominance of its file formats, and (b) illegal users will not have access to crucial upgrades, which may help convert them to paying customers.
Physical product modification. Himanen (2001) argues that the “hacker ethic” has extended beyond computer coders. Although I will address the relationship between “hacking” and “remixing” later in this braindump, I feel that the observation applies to the culture of configurability as well: greater power and freedom of recombination in relation to virtual goods (e.g. media files) has arguably led to a revival of interest in configuring physical goods as well. Obviously, there has always been an aspect of the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic in American culture. However, Harvey (1989) would argue it has been somewhat eclipsed in recent decades by a “disposable culture” ethic, which holds that it is cheaper and preferable to replace a broken or obsolete item than to fix or upgrade it. I believe this ethic is giving way to a new DIY ethic focused on the configurability of physical goods. This is evident in the popularity of TV shows such as “Pimp My Ride,” and a burgeoning hacker-themed DIY publishing market (e.g. Make and ReadyMade magazines).
Logo hacks. This category is a subcategory of both physical product modification and remixable touchstones, yet I feel it bears consideration on its own as well. Baudrillard (1998) suggests that the consumption of commercially branded products often has more to do with the system of meanings that a brand represents than with the functional aspect of the branded object. This situation, he argues, has led to a “carnival of signs” in which we are steeped in a miasma of meaningless symbols. This “carnival of signs,” I would argue, becomes both fodder for play and a target for critique when corporate logos are hacked in some way. One form of logo hacking involves the transplanting of one company’s logo onto another company’s product. Such “franken-branded” products (to coin a phrase) as Adidas sneakers with the Nike “swoosh” sewn onto them have in recent years achieved a high degree of cultural capital (perhaps for their implied cultural connoisseurship?) and have fetched prices of well over $1,000 per pair at elite (and often unadvertised) clothing boutiques in New York and other major cities. A more common form of logo-hacking occurs when an artist, company or political organization appropriates a well-known corporate logo for its own purposes. The instances of this are far too many to enumerate, but one well-known example is the Fresh Jive t-shirt company, which riffs on the logos of Tide detergent and even rival clothing manufacturer Stussy.
At this point I have enumerated the defining qualities of the culture of configurability, and identified many of the enabling technologies and characteristic behaviors that produce this culture. But the question remains: so what?
There are a few different angles I’d like to aim at here. I think they’re all related.
First, one of the patterns that emerges from reviewing the examples of configurable cultural practices I cited above is the push-pull dynamic between individuals and organizations, or between centralized and decentralized organizational ethics. DJ music is both hegemonic and resistant. Video game cheats seem to be intentionally programmed by developers, but video game mods are often less welcome (Sony recently upgraded its PSP firmware to prevent users from exploiting access to a web browser embedded within the game Wipeout). Hollywood studios are only too happy to sell several different versions of a single film to consumers, but are loath to let consumers edit their own copies. In other words, most of these new behaviors seem to “cut both ways.”
This observation flies in the face of much popular and academic discussion of remix culture. There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought about the effects of these new technologies and practices on business and society. The first, which I’ll call the “revolutionary” school, holds that the center cannot hold in the face of the intrinsically anarchic power of these new developments. Adherents believe that, in the words of Bruce Sterling, “information wants to be free,” and that the technology of configurability holds the keys to its liberation. The other, more cynical “control” school (Galloway, 2004) holds that remix culture is simply the newest “flavor of the month” in marketing circles, and that media and communications companies have already appropriated whatever was initially revolutionary in the ethic/aesthetic and turned it into a meaningless marketing ploy, offering only enough configurability to ensure the illusion of choice among consumers.
Vaidhyanathan (2004) encompasses both views, positing that “information anarchy” and “techno-fundamentalist” oligarchy are two perpetually embattled ethics, currently dueling over the future shape of information flows in our society. He exploits this polarized description to forward his own agenda, proposing a middle path that embraces a compromise between individual freedoms and institutional powers. While he is to be commended for moving beyond the monochromatic absolutism of the revolutionary school and the control school, I still feel that his Manichean portrait lacks a necessary degree of subtlety.
In my opinion, we can understand the relationship between individuals and institutions within the culture of configurability as more of an ongoing negotiation than an outright revolution, wholesale appropriation, or battle between polar opposites. The limits of individual freedoms and institutional powers have always been set by complex processes (including market forces, regulation, and aesthetic innovation), and these processes are always thrown off-kilter when the playing field changes due to new technological, political or economic realities.
Frank (1997) makes an analogous argument about the 1960s counterculture. Far from being either a socialist revolution or a cleverly-packaged marketing ploy aimed at capturing teenage spending allowances, he argues, the counterculture represented a new organizational, aesthetic and ethical paradigm that corporations embraced wholeheartedly (perhaps to a greater degree than their own customers) for their own good. Without such a corporate embrace, which both mainstreamed and amplified its message, Frank argues, the counterculture as a social phenomenon may never have existed.
I hope to unabashedly echo (dare I say “remix”?) the structure of this argument in my own dissertation, applying it to the culture of configurability. I hope to show that the intersection of remix culture and mainstream culture – much like the specific examples of configurable practices i cited above – cuts both other ways. As my prospective title suggests, neither ethic is left unscathed: the remix may become mainstreamed, but the mainstream will also be remixed.
What does this mean, exactly, and how can I demonstrate such a process through data and analysis? First, I'll lay out the process as I understand it a bit more thoroughly, then discuss some methodological possibilities.
First, I think it is necessary to sketch out the idea of the borderline between individual freedoms and institutional powers. I would argue that, although most individuals (and perhaps many corporate executives) probably do not think of it in these terms, the laws and technologies governing media and communications function precisely to place limits on both forms of power, often sacrificing one for the other. For instance, the doctrine of “fair use,” ensconsed within the body of intellectual property law, acknowledges that consumers maintain a certain degree of power over the media they “own” despite the copyright claims of the companies that manufactured the media. Although legislation has never spelled out exactly where these boundaries lay, courts have traditionally taken this concept into account when deciding intellectual property cases.
One good example of fair use and its shifting application lies in the music industry. It has been commonly accepted in the past that consumers have the right to make copies of the music they own, for the purposes of prolonging the life of media (e.g. backup cassettes) and extending its portability (e.g. cassettes for the car). However, music labels, always concerned that such rights undermined their potential volume of sales, have traditionally lobbied to limit such rights. As we have moved from cassettes to CDs to digital files, labels have been increasingly successful in convinging the courts that such fair use rights no longer apply, given the unprecedented ease of redistribution and quality of duplication represented by digital technologies.
Thus, to summarize, individual freedoms over the use of communications technology often clash with institutional powers. In my dissertation, I will argue that these contrary forces comprise the poles of a spectrum, and that this spectrum always embraces a shifting “gray area” where the limits of power are unclear or have yet to be tested. And I would also argue that, when the playing field shifts, opening up new possibilities (such as the shift from cassettes to MP3s), this gray area becomes much wider than it is during periods of relative stability.
Given the role of technology in defining the spectrum of possible relationships (detentes?) between individual freedoms and institutional powers, I would also posit that another spectrum shares an isometric relationship to this one: namely, the spectrum of technological configurability. Let me clarify, before this starts sounding too highfalutin'. For any given communications technology, there are several technological “levels” or “layers” which may be configurable to an end-user. At the “top” of these levels are the most rudimentary, or public-facing. At the “bottom” are the most complex, fundamental, and invisible.
In videogames, for instance, there are several layers of configurability. At the top, there are the configurable features of the games themselves. These may include choosing characters, outfitting them with tools, weapons or clothing, or tailoring the way they look and the skills they possess. The next level of configurability is the level of cheats. Enterprising players can easily find codes online (or buy aftermarket hardware devices) that allow them to “game the game,” increasing their characters' power, money, points, or whatever variable applies without performing the requisite in-game tasks. As I have argued above, I believe that cheats have become, for many games, part of the programmed experience, a way of incorporating game-gaming into the game, if you will.
The next level of configurability is modding. This somewhat challenging process involves changing the way the game itself looks and operates to an extent. For instance, if the game is about dinosaurs fighting each other, a modder may alter it to make it look like ninjas fighting each other. Or, slightly differently, but on the same level of configurability, an enterprising modder may add a new “level” -- new geographical terrain – to an existing game. Modding requires skill, but is still accessible via special modding software; no programming skills are necessary. Modding is often encouraged by game developers, but often discouraged as well. In many ways, it falls into the “gray area” I discussed above.
The next layer of configurability involves the game's code itself. A hacker may access a game's code and change it entirely, or circumvent copy protection, or “port” the game to an operating system it wasn't written for. This is, in almost all cases, illegal. Beyond code hacking, there are even deeper levels of configurability, but it would be difficult at this point for me to assess their relative “depth” or difficulty. For all software, there is a level of configurabilility beyond code called “machine language” -- essentially, the 1s and 0s that encounter the digital switches on a microchip. Also, for videogames, there is the possibility of hacking the platform itself – that is to say, the game console rather than any given game.
To return to the point I began a few paragraphs back, I believe one can draw a parallel between the power spectrum (individual/institutional) and the configurability spectrum (top/bottom). As we move from the higher levels of configurability to the lower, the power to configure tends to shift from the individual end-user to the institutional creator. And, as I have suggested in my description of video game configurability layers, I believe that the “gray area” in these two isometrically related spectrums overlaps.
This is why technology changes have such an impact on the width of the gray area on the power spectrum: as one widens, the other must, too, and it is never clear exactly how.
Yet, somehow our society is able to encompass the changes that new technological paradigms (and their social applications) introduce. How does this happen? Ultimately, this is the question I am most interested in addressing, specifically in regard to the culture of configurability (yes, I realize it took me 9 single-spaced pages to get here).
Above, in discussing fair use, I described how the individual/instituional power dynamic was thrown into confusion by the shift from cassettes to MP3s, and how the courts have helped to restabilize this dynamic by ruling on the application of fair use principles to the new technologies. However, many people involved in the music field (myself included) believe that the courts have not done an adequate job of re-drawing these lines, most likely for lack of a nuanced understanding of new technologies and a reflexively conservative desire to err on the side of status quo and corporate security. Consequently, we have found many methods beyond the courts to make our opinions heard, and to continue to press the issue.
I mention this not as a prelude to a diatribe, but rather to demonstrate one of my key points: namely, that there are several interrelated mechanisms by which the renegotiation of individual and institutional power is accomplished. Right now, I am thinking of it in terms of six key spheres of action (although this is very open to reconsideration):
Legal. This includes lobbying for legislative change, as well as legal challenges to and defenses of new practices posed by corporations, consumers, and other interested parties. As regards the culture of configurability, this includes court decisions over fair use, and the ratification of laws and treaties such as WIPO and the DMCA.
Ethical. Generally speaking, I think that the laws of a democracy are considered to represent some consensus based on the aggregate ethical beliefs of its populace. However, there are times when ethical consensus appears to diverge strongly from the letter of the law, for a variety of reasons. Controlled substances are one good example. Digital music (specifially file sharing) is another. (As you may know, I have developed a riff on the parallels between controlled substances and music throughout social history. I wonder whether I could find room for that in my dissertation..?)
Cultural. This category simply describes what people do – voting with their feet. The sphere of cultural practice is perhaps the most powerful, both for its precedential impact in determining laws and ethics, and for its influence over the shape of the market. By definition, the culture of configurability continges on the innovation, adoption and diffusion of new cultural practices regarding media.
Market. A great deal of rhetoric (especially from neoliberals) is devoted to letting the “invisible hand of the market” determine the direction of social evolution (although neoliberals seem to be the first on board to lobby for regulation paring down individual rights with regard to corporations – that's probably not something I should address in this dissertation). There is a certain degree of truth in this; in addition to “voting with their feet,” individuals in capitalist societies also tend to “vote with their wallets,” encouraging the development of new technologies and services that meet their needs and discouraging those that don't. Organizations also express their needs through the marketplace, introducing products that define the limits of power they are willing to cede to their customers. The debate over the bowdlerizing ClearPlay DVD players (mentioned above) is a good example of how the market (combined with the courts) negotiated a very specific power struggle between Hollywood studios and culturally conservative filmgoers.
Creative. Art has often served a vital role in reflecting, amplifying, and organizing new social movements, and this is all the more true when the social movement in question concerns modes of communication and expression. Artists have been addressing the culture of configurability for longer than anyone – since it was merely a glimmer in society's eye. As I mentioned above, aesthetic practices like photographic collage, dub reggae, and literary “cut-ups” presaged (and influenced) the development of PhotoShop, ProTools and Microsoft Word decades in advance.
Organizational. Frank (1997) describes the ways in which corporations in the 1960s internalized the ethic of the counterculture, leading to “creative revolutions” at advertising agencies, for example. In his well-turned phrase, “co-optation is something much more complex than the struggle back and forth between capital and youth revolution.” Similarly, in my days as a music industry analyst, I argued that the introduction of digital music technologies required that the entire distribution chain for the industry – and thus the corporate infrastructure – be “remixed” to accommodate the new paradigm (Sinnreich, 2001). In my dissertation, I hope to show that this organizational realignment is indeed taking place, not just in the music industry, but in many sectors influenced by the culture of configurability.
Methodologically, I think the approach that makes the most sense is the case study. Specifically, I hope to address six different case studies, each corresponding to one of the dimensions of negotiation I outline above. I am very open to suggestions, but I think my line of attach will look something like this:
Legal: Review of a single court case involving the introduction of a new configurable cultural practice, and its progress from legal limbo to definite legal (or illegal) status. Analysis of the relevant case law and legislation, as well as the strategic tactics of litigants.
Ethical. Survey research-based, ideally longitudinally. The best approach would probably be a unique cut of year-over-year survey data from a large consumer research firm. The next best thing would be my own online survey, focusing on whether people's perceived ethical guidelines about specific practices has changed, and why or why not.
Cultural. This one's a toughie. Also potential for survey research (Do you do this? Do you do that?). Another possibility is ethnographic research into a specific community of practice.
Market. Case study of an innovative product's metamorphosis from idea to execution to refined/relaunched 2nd generation and beyond, ideally focusing on its eventual unpredictable uses. Focus on pressures from every side (e.g. if the product is a technology product, focus on IP pressures from media companies as well as pressure and hacks by consumers)
Creative. Focus on one artist or artistic practice. Potential to use and augment (remix?) my research on music mash-ups here.
Organization: Work with executives or human resources agents at a large media firm and outline the shifts in organizational strategy that have emerged in recent years, in response to the challenges of remix culture.
Finally, one additional approach I have been considering is to create an intervention myself – that is, to produce an artifact of remix culture and introduce it into the public sphere, collecting data about its users and charting the process whereby individuals and institutions negotiate its uses and limitations, legalities and illegalities.
[specifics redacted because the project is still in process]
Finally, there are a couple of points I have not found an elegant way to incorporate into the pages above that still bear mentioning, so I'll just lay them out, laundry list style. First, there are a number of ethics, movements and behaviors that bear a close family resemblance to the culture of configurabilty and will have to be addressed more thoroughly in the course of my dissertation. The most important of these is the hacker ethic (Himanen, 2001; Thomas, 2002), which I mentioned briefly above. The hacker ethic is very similar to the culture of configurability, in that it elevates tinkering to the level of philosophy. It is also similar in that what began as a small, hermetic culture among a small coterie of experts has expanded to the point where it comes into conflict with, is changed by, and helps to change, the mainstream culture. Whether the two overlap, one precedes the other, or they are simply the same phenomenon by a different name is beyond the scope of this document, but must be addressed thoroughly in my dissertation. Other subjects that must be addressed include the free culture movement, the DIY movement, the open source movement, etc.
Another issue I
must face is the broad range of theoretical platforms I must address
in researching this topic. Throughout my time at Annenberg, I've
danced between dogmas, never willing to locate myself within any of
the canon-sanctioned categories of scholarship. While this has
benefitted me somewhat in allowing me to address questions of
interest to me on my own terms, I am always at risk of dilletantism,
and never more so than when I attempt to address such a large issue
in such depth. Clearly, in addition to the short list of authors I
have cited herein, I will have to grapple with bodies of research
including network society, globalization, cultural studies,
organizational communication, and aesthetic theory. I have no idea
how to do this without either biting off more than I can chew, or
giving short shrift to theorists who deserve their shrift in longer
Baudrillard, J. (1998). The Consumer Society. London: Sage.
Castells, M. (2000). The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.
Frank, T. (1997). The Conquest of Cool. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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