Posts tagged ‘angalossy’

6 July, 2010

Britain’s digital dilemma

Written for Angalossy, 28 May 2010

Superfast broadband for everyone in Britain. That’s one of the main long-term goals of the Digital Economy Act 2010. Sounds attractive, doesn’t it? Especially – you’d think – for people who make their living online. More people with broadband means a bigger audience and more customers, right?

Cory Doctorow, a novelist and copyright reform campaigner, confesses that his “whole life revolves around the digital economy”. So why did he attack the Digital Economy Act in the Guardian, claiming it would “cripple Britain’s internet” and establish “an unprecedented realm of web censorship”?

Jim Killock is the executive director of the Open Rights Group (ORG), a pressure group defending our online freedoms. What made him call the Act – then the Digital Economy Bill – an “attempt … to hijack our rights”?

And what made over 5,000 Twitter users declare, “I choose not to recognise the UK’s Digital Economy Bill,” all within the same 24 hours?

How about the fact that the Act is poorly worded, ethically dodgy and ultimately self-sabotaging?

Supposedly the point of it is to prepare Britain for a digital future. As well as the “superfast broadband for all” thing, it’s supposed to drag our outdated copyright law kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

In places it even succeeds. Before the Act passed, libraries could (in theory) be charged with copyright theft for lending out digital audiobooks and ebooks. The law didn’t hate libraries, it just didn’t understand ebooks. Clause 43 of the Digital Economy Act protects libraries from being unfairly prosecuted in this way. So far, so good.

But not enough of the Act is like clause 43.

As well as stopping copyright holders from attacking innocent librarians, the Act aims to help them find and prosecute the real offenders. Sounds fair. But to achieve this the Act places a new set of “obligations” on anyone providing internet access – from big providers like BT to small cafes offering free WiFi.

The obligations include disclosing certain details about their customers to inquisitive copyright holders, and disconnecting anyone accused of repeated copyright violation. Providers that don’t comply can be fined up to £250,000. Many small WiFi operators just aren’t able to comply. They don’t have the equipment. Their only option is to stop providing WiFi.

So much for improving people’s access to broadband.

Most worryingly, if a copyright holder finds out – using their new powers – that your internet connection has been used to steal their intellectual property, you can be immediately disconnected from the internet and fined up to £50,000. Someone else might have done the deed using your connection, but it’s not up to your accuser to prove your guilt – it’s up to you to prove your innocence, and appealing costs money you may not have.

So much for modernising copyright law.

“People’s rights are at stake,” said ORG’s Jim Killock. The Act, he added, “doesn’t require any test of evidence before harsh punishments are imposed … No punishment should take place without a trial.”

All of which is why the government had to play dirty to get the Act past Parliament.

Friday 9 April 2010 was a good day to pass bad law. Gordon Brown had called a general election, but the Queen hadn’t yet dissolved his Parliament, casting Whitehall into a limbo known as the wash-up. During the wash-up, everything Parliament was debating when the election was called is rushed to a vote without the usual cross-examination.

The Digital Economy Bill would never have survived a proper debate. It would have been dissected, reworded, maybe even quashed altogether. Instead, on Friday 9 April, it received Royal Assent and became the Digital Economy Act 2010.

Maybe five years ago the government would have got away with it. Now, though, it’s much harder to hide this kind of thing from us. The power to discover, investigate and fight unjust law is at our fingertips, in our phones, and pulsing invisibly through the air all around us. Internet access was essential to the fight against the Act. In fact, the fight proves that internet access is fast becoming essential to modern democracy.

In a weird way, the Act has actually justified its own existence. It aimed to give everyone equal access to digital services. It botched that pretty badly, so people used digital services to research it and campaign against it – making a strong case for equal access to digital services.

Clearly we need a Digital Economy Act – just not this Digital Economy Act.

6 July, 2010

Redefining the audience

Written for Angalossy, 27 April 2010

The audience is undergoing a redefinition.  Passively spectating and listening isn’t enough for them – for us – any more.  Not content with consuming culture, we’re eager to get involved with it ourselves – and artists, producers and content creators are increasingly willing to give us their blessing.

On television, that’s partially because our participation can be translated directly into revenue, via premium rate phone lines.  TV phone-ins aren’t exactly a recent innovation, but since Big Brother first aired in the UK a decade ago they’ve become all but ubiquitous.

No modern televised talent contest can be judged solely by a panel of experts; their judgements have to be sanctioned by the audience at home.  No matter how expertly informed their opinions are, ours are valued more highly.  Often one or more of the studio judges will be presented as a pantomime villain the audience can thwart by voting to overturn their “harsh” or “unfair” pronouncements.

The phone vote format is common on TV because it makes production companies lots of money; that’s no big secret.  But it’s such a successful money-spinner partly because it harnesses our generation’s deep-seated distrust of authority.  Years of unpopular political leadership in the UK – leadership, crucially, that’s been seen to repeatedly ignore the electorate’s will – have instilled in us a perception that we know better than those in power.

We knew better than Blair whether we should have invaded Iraq; we know better than Brown how to tackle climate change; by extension, we know better than Andrew Lloyd Webber who to cast as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Never mind that he’s one of the UK’s most successful theatre producers – we’ll show that authoritarian bastard who knows best!

Meanwhile on the silver screen, James Cameron wants audiences to immerse themselves in, rather than merely to observe, the 3D otherworld of Avatar and its inevitable sequels.  The box office figures for Avatar, and now Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, prove that 3D films make big bucks for the studios, which helps sustain this new immersive-3D trend; and that’s partly because we’re seduced by Cameron’s spiel.

There’s an element of escapism to any action film, but with Avatar Cameron promised total immersion in an alien world:  a chance to temporarily swap our economically and ecologically decaying planet for a verdant and plentiful one.  We bought into it even after realising the film was thunderingly morally ham-handed – because wouldn’t life be simpler if good and evil really were so easily distinguishable?

Neither television nor film, however, is redefining the audience’s role to the same extent as the theatre.

Thanks in part to gushing critical endorsement, immersive and participatory theatre companies like Punchdrunk – who often allow the audience to explore the venue, interact with performers and decode the story for themselves – are being embraced, cautiously but increasingly tightly, by the mainstream.  Then there are companies like Rotozaza, whose “autoteatro” works involve no rehearsed performers at all, only members of the public being fed lines and other instructions via headphones.

Autoteatro is still a fringe pursuit, but it’s gaining momentum as practitioners test the limits of the form.  It taps into the same anti-authoritarian attitude as phone-poll TV and the same escapist urge as 3D cinema:  we get to perform in the production ourselves instead of relying on supposed professionals, and to physically inhabit a character instead of merely watching one on the stage or screen.

Yet however inclusive it feels to participants, the usually tiny capacity of the performances makes autoteatro, to some extent, an exclusionist artform.  Likewise, it feels empowering to take part in the performance instead of silently observing – but your every action is dictated by instructions fed through your headphones, so that empowerment is an illusion, just like James Cameron’s sumptuous but insubstantial 3D moonscape.

This growing desire to transcend our conventional spectatorial role is born when our urge to act meets our tendency towards apathy.  It’s reassuring to know that, as a generation, we still possess that urge – to improve the world rather than merely cataloguing its many flaws – to the extent that we seek out culture capable of satisfying it; but it’s disheartening to know that we’d rather allow others to harness that urge in the service of their shareholders than harness it ourselves in the service of positive change.