Archives for posts with tag: dystopia

In the modern world, no one can nonchalantly claim to be “not tech savvy”. There are only those who choose to keep up, and others who don’t.

Oh no! It’s a think piece! I might have to think while reading! Someone save us from thinking! Save us all!

The issue is far more complex, of course. Many people, practically speaking, don’t have a choice. For non-disabled populations in countries with ample infrastructure, however, the choice is very real, and becoming more vividly clear every day.

Beyond Disruption

A time of technology-driven social change is nearly upon us, and it will alter the way that we see and experience our world. The word “disruption” is an antiquated cliche compared to the imminent mutation of our collective memetic DNA.

Immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR) and various “augmented reality” (AR) techniques can blend human-made interfaces with our awareness of the natural world. These new media are poised to change the cultural landscape with heavy promotion from brands like VR headset maker Oculus Rift (acquired by Facebook) and wearable AR devices like Microsoft Hololens and the inevitable Google Glass 2.0.

And then there’s Magic Leap:

Mass media (marketing, advertising, and other types of propaganda) influences our reality via journalism and social activism, or conversely, pop-culture consumerism and mass apathy.

Imagine a world where media messages literally take on a new dimension, pouring themselves from the screen into the space all around us, innocuously befriending us while seductively whispering their carefully crafted suggestions into our ears.

The urge to comply will become nearly irresistible. That world is coming, and once it penetrates our sensorium and envelopes our thoughts, there will be no turning back.

Media itself is neutral; it has no moral component. The most persuasive messages, however, connect to our deepest drives and strongest desires; they prey on the power of our values, hopes and fears.

Considering how the 2D TV shows are used to constantly pound viewers’ minds with endless advertising, you might quickly realize that televisionland imbued with artificial intelligence and 3D sex appeal may not be such a harmless place.

There’s so much exciting new territory to explore — film, media, systems design and programming, data visualization. It goes far deeper than acting in a hit movie, racking up Internet popularity points, or aspiring to be a hot Instagram model or the next big Hollywood star. Several industries may be born within the next decade surrounding these new media, from NASA Mars Rover simulations and 3D printing, to sustainable city planning and architectural design.

No one really knows what direction these technologies will take. That’s what makes it such a fascinating area of study; there are so many possibilities that we haven’t even begun to explore…

Right now, most technological innovations on the Internet depend not on building a science-fiction future, but rather old-fashioned persuasion taken to an instantaneous worldwide scale.

Mass persuasion has another name. This is the shadowy art and psychological science known as “marketing”.

Internet Marketing

Marketing is an essential, yet oft-misunderstood creature within the continuum of creativity.

Internet marketing is its own discipline, separate from any other. In related realms, acting is separate from screenwriting, screenwriting is distinct from directing, and directing is dissimilar to the role played by a film producer. Marketing, too, has its own set of rules.

As in most areas of life, you tend to get what you pay for. If you see marketing as a peripheral aspect of your work, you’ll pay for it by obtaining generally subpar results. Vice versa is also true — in some cases. Remember that a marketer’s job is to sell their services to you, not necessarily to help you succeed in marketing yourself and/or your products to the world.

When it comes to marketing, there are at least three general options:

1. Hire a pro. Pay as much as it takes to receive the best quality and highest return on investment.

2. Study and learn until you attain the skill (and most importantly, obtain the level of results) comparable to a professional marketing team. This will require about the same amount of time as learning any other skill to an undergraduate level or beyond.

3. Wait for Lady Luck (or Scooter Braun) to bless you when the right person or people happen to stumble upon your self-made marketing attempts. Unless you plan on being the next Justin Bieber-like Youtube superstar, this may not be an efficient or effective route to professional recognition.

In any of the three options, you are spending money (option 1) or time (option 2). Or, you might as well play the lottery and hope for the best like other improbable popstar phenomena who were “discovered” essentially at random (option 3).

According to Silicon Valley hype, Youtube and most social media sites seem like ideal places to spread the word about your work. After all, they’re free and easy to use. Before going all in for the free-and-easy route, one question might change your mind.

Ask yourself: what does Youtube really want?

Youtube (owned by Google), and any Internet service that pretends to be “free” or “cheap”, is almost certainly collecting your personal information and selling it. The Internet runs on real computers, and yes, this includes “The Cloud”. Someone has to pay the electricity bill for the free ride that you’re enjoying by using their machines. Likewise, Internet companies care more about their users in the aggregate rather than any individual user.

Lightning in the Cloud

As long as they can drive more eyeballs to Youtube overall, Google can gather more data, serve more advertising, and make more money. None of their profit motive has anything to do with helping you compose or promote an effective marketing campaign. This principle applies across all “free” social media giants including Facebook and Twitter. The number of “Likes” and upvotes and pageviews can be a completely misleading metric that means the social network is doing well, while signifying next to nothing about your ability to succeed while using that service.

Marketers will try to sell you on the idea that the social media numbers game translates to results in the real world. If that were true, artists wouldn’t be in up in arms about how services like Youtube and Spotify pay abysmally small fees for gargantuan amounts of playback.

Resist the social media numbers game. It’s a rigged gamble that plays on users’ narcissistic need for attention while in the meantime, the website takes the money (and by the way, they now own all of the personal data that you’ve so willingly “shared” with them).

No Bigger Picture: Society Is In Each of Us

This blog entry is part of the “big idea” of studying media’s effects on society. Society, of course, is comprised of individuals like you and me, most of whom are attached to the idea of being “special” in some way or another. Narcissism is the thumbscrew that compels people to overshare on social media sites, to buy items that they don’t need or even want, and to ignore the implications of companies like Facebook that try to make the idea of personal privacy into last season’s passe fashion accessory.

Over the past few years, an ongoing project has been underway to look at these issues. More specifically, the purpose has been to create an alternative to the small cartel of media companies that dominate nearly all of today’s social Web: Google, Facebook, and Apple, among a small number of others (Yahoo still fits, but only because they own Tumblr and a stake in Alibaba).

What if independent artists and creators could build an Internet marketing platform that was effective, ethical and profitable? What if that approach could run like a non-profit or a utility, rather than as a for-profit corporation? What if the creators could retain 100% (or at least, the lion’s share) of the profits from the exposure received while using this new service? And what if this could all be achieved without harming anyone’s human right to the privacy of their personal data?

The borderline human-rights abuses openly engaged in by companies like Apple and Amazon (with the requisite amount of impassioned CEO denials and public relations spin, of course) only make the case more urgent.

In the age of the Internet, the few who control the networks also control the messages that the rest of us are immersed in all day and night. Website and smartphone interfaces are precisely designed to show and hide information, creating an illusion of choice that carefully guides our eyes and fingertips. Using the power of the Internet and emerging technologies, though — from simple browser pop-up blockers to proxy servers and privacy-enhancing VPNs — it doesn’t have to be that way.

We don’t have to succumb to some dystopian near-future scenario, even though that’s the path down which we’re being (mis)led. The average person is expected to be a comfort-seeking, attention-starved sheep craving fifteen seconds of cheap fame at any cost to their long-term digital identity. This is one of the many moments when conforming to average or “normal” behavior is a very bad idea.

Society Is a Hologram As One Part Contains All

The Internet was originally conceived as a nuclear-proof way to connect people around the globe. As sending and receiving payments becomes easier by the day, it only makes sense that individuals can work for each other and get paid for it directly — without the lumbering, meddlesome moneychangers and middlemen who may have been a necessary evil in a previous era.

How can anyone learn to function in such a new world order? How can we cope in a mediated universe, constantly nudged and cajoled into new consumeristic behaviors by beautiful, intelligent machines and their facelessly Macchievillian corporate makers?

Merely coping may no longer be an option. Technology moves so quickly that its effects can pass from system to system like an epidemic of the seasonal flu. Our personal and professional wellbeing is increasingly at stake as we become inextricably enmeshed in the technology that enables us. There is no such thing as a “non-physical” person, but plenty of people ignore their health and eventually suffer the consequences. Immersive technologies extend the metaphors of autobiographical personhood and consciousness in ways that are invisible, and often lie outside our ability to completely control. If we decide to be “not computer savvy”, we are not only trying to live in a bygone past; we choose to abdicate the health of our digital selves to those who want to craft our stories in their image.

In this case, the outcome is holographic: the bigger picture and the smaller one are identical in detail. The only difference is the scale at which we are willing and capable of seeing it. And that scale becomes the warden of our perceptual prison, or the shimmering key to our cultural liberation. Each person shares the responsibility of learning how to design, program and continually refine our process and path to freedom. Freedom is fragile and we have no choice but to learn a little more each day in order to nurture and intelligently evolve it. The alternative is nothing short of enslavement in a world where our choices have been planned in advance and served to us by pretty, empty interfaces built and controlled by unseen hands.

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During a recent conversation, I found a directly relevant analogy that might make sense to non-creative people, just as it’s already a self-evident fact of life for you and me.

Why can artists rightfully expect to be paid for their work?

Often, the damage done by piracy is brushed aside with glib arguments like, “well, if your work is good enough, people will pay for it.” The conclusion that “if you’re not getting rich from your work, maybe your work just is just no good.” The insinuation is that anyone who isn’t making massive money from their art is some kind of “dilettante” who needs to admit their lack of skill and quit whining about their inability to get paid like the superstars do.

One part of that argument is true. The vast majority of artists aren’t at the top of their field. By definition, most people won’t be the best in any field, because the realm of the best is reserved for a small number of individuals who are better than most of the others.

The problem with that perspective is twofold:

1. In reality, most people aren’t the best at anything.

Telling artists that they need to be the “best” before they can expect to be paid is shown as false when applied to the rest of the workforce. If you work a nine-to-five, are you one of the top performers in your field? Is there even any way to quantify that distinction reliably? If not, why do you expect to be paid for your work?

If you’re not a CEO of a Fortune 50 corporation [or for that matter, if your employer doesn’t perform at that level], you should expect to give your work away for free and go compete for a “day job” in some other market sector.

Right, that sounds pretty ridiculous — and that’s exactly the logic used against artists when people want to justify stealing their work.

There’s a further technology-based implication that you’ll see further down.

2. Practically no one who is a novice in any field will be the “best” right from the start.

If you look at any high-achiever, you’ll see that they probably weren’t amazing for the first five to ten years of their time in the field. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Albert Einstein has to sink time and effort into learning, studying — and crucially, making mistakes — for years before they attained sufficient ability to be considered great.

The ‘Genius’ Fallacy

Geniuses aren’t born; they’re made. A prodigy may have higher innate aptitude than the average person, but if they don’t spend years honing that capability, they’ll get nowhere — just like the average person who gives up before manifesting any ability at all.

Roughly, ability consists of strategy and experience.

If your strategy points you in the wrong direction, no amount of experience will overcome that fundamental error — Da Vinci could build flying contraptions for decades, but without the idea of some sort of engine to power them, his ideas never left the ground to become the empirically-based science of aeronautics.

Experience is necessary to take part in the domain such that your skills improve over time. Even more important, experience enables the creation of better strategies. An expert knows how to detect patterns more quickly than a novice, and the ability to detect patterns is a process that is impossible to shortcut beyond a relatively low level.

Regardless of aptitude, everyone has to put their time in before becoming proficient at any complex skill.

What this means, then, is that if you only pay someone when you think they’re the “best”, you’re actually stifling everyone else’s ability to reach and overcome the plateaus along the path to skill. Simply put, if an artist (or scientist, or engineer) has to spend large amounts of time trying to merely survive, the amount of time and focus they can use to improve their skills will necessarily be foreshortened. This results in a general drain of ability in the domain itself. Skill-building falls prey to time-shortage, and with it comes the inability to amass the experience required to reach high levels of proficiency. If no one can make a decent living creating art, the emergence of new great artists erodes as well. And then we’re left with pop-culture icons whose music consists of over-autotuned voices and shallowly looped samples; adults who unabashedly prefer fiction written for teenagers (the young adult genre); and derivative visual media that is too inept and afraid to do anything new. Eventually, advertising is the only “artform” left standing, mainly because it sells.

Information Wants To Be Free? Your Boss Just Said The Same Thing About Your Job

The mercenary approach taken by music/movie/book pirates in regard to the arts is a mirror image of the corporate disdain for human labor. Many people are justifiably afraid of the fact that mechanization and artificial intelligence are starting to outpace the human ability to re-train and compete. At some point, machines will almost certainly be able to perform the vast majority of jobs that require repetitive cognitive or physical labor.

What we’re seeing now is that corporations are replacing people with robots or intelligent software systems. In the remaining workforce, employers are increasingly hiring only the most overqualified applicants and forcing them to work harder for stagnant wages. This is exactly the same mentality that the average piracy-loving consumer takes when using technology [i.e. the Internet] to steal works from artists with the justification that, “if your work was as good as the best artist out there, I’d gladly pay for it. You’re only ‘good’, though, so I’ll encourage you to become ‘great’ by only paying those who’ve earned that ‘best-in-class’ status.”

The corporate earnings machine now uses the power of technology in order to force the average person to either be the “best” or face inevitable obsoletion (or in the interim, minimization of their prospects for earning a sustainable wage). From unpaid internships to forced overtime, we all have to contend with the idea that either you’re an elite member of your profession, or you don’t deserve to make a living. And it’s all packaged with the bright branding of “positive thinking” in which we’re tantalized by fantasies of a wonderland where we’re all winners, only we’d work just a little faster while smiling harder and desperately denying that ninety-nine percent of us are actually falling farther and farther behind.

Exceptionalism Has A Name, And Its Name Is “Machine”

It’s a sort of cold consolation, then, that when a generation of artists finds themselves unable to make a living wage, it’s only a decade or two before the same ideological axe falls on the hand of the average man and woman. The fallacy of exceptionalism doesn’t incentivize better work. It incentivizes a mercenary mentality that uses technology to increase “productivity” while enslaving and eventually discarding the humans whom that technology was originally designed to serve.

This isn’t an engineering problem of computing power, or false Social Darwinist arguments about “the natural evolution” of progress, or some alarmist propagandizing about the decline of man and the rise of machines. This is a human problem of how we decide to deal with questions about the nature of value, and how we decide to approach those questions as a society. From artist to salaryman to CEO, the “superstar mentality” that only rewards those at the top will eventually create a world where the majority are trapped at the bottom. Every time you pirate a song from an independent musician, steal a book from an self-published author, or pilfer a film produced by a small studio, take note of the fact that your mercenary mentality toward art will one day come back to haunt you — and unless we collectively change our actions, that day of reckoning may come sooner than you might think.

There’s a certain hidden document on the Web, far beyond the clutches of Google, that purports to teach us all a set of “unknown” truths about the world as it is today.

That document uses the tired-yet-reliable analogy of humans enmeshed in a “Matrix” that entraps and enslaves us all.


Note: come back later for the completed version; this is an early draft (maybe).

But there is a way out of the Matrix, they say. Escape! Be your own personal Thomas Neo Anderson! Dodge bullets! Find the world’s only sexy PVC-clad uber-hacker girl who can “hack the IRS D-Base!” Defy death, proclaim God Mode, and literally fly on the superheated power of your own transcendant super-Neo ego!

Or you could sell psychedelic drugs and sit behind your computer monitor on an encrypted IRC channel until you fall asleep every night, waiting in desperate futility for a fateful visit from the mystically nonexistent White Rabbit.

Which option is a more likely mirror for reality?

You Are The Matrix…?

There is no Matrix. At least, not the fabled territory that most try to map directly onto our “real” social world.

The Matrix is not government, or capitalism.

The Matrix is human society itself.

This is the “software” running inside our own minds, software that creates and sustains (or apathetically perpetuates) government and capitalism. Government feeds our desire to follow leaders; consumer capitalism speaks to our appetite for status, codified and symbolized through the objects we can purchase and proudly display to our peers.

Even if one society is destroyed, a more sophisticated society reboots itself from the ashes of its obsolete predecessor. The fundamental principles are as unchanged as the structure of our paleolithic brains.

Inequality is built into how humans perceive themselves and each other — it is intrinsic (coming from within our brains and minds), not extrinsic (the result of some external entity oppressing us). As long as we are driven to compete against each other, we will continue to create stratified societies where the winners take all and the losers (somewhere between fortyseven and ninetynine percent of us) will struggle merely to survive.

Easter Egg: A Hidden Gift From Smith To Morpheus, For All Of Us

This was the real purpose of Agent Smith’s speech to Morpheus: the first iteration of the Matrix was a paradise.

Humans rejected it in favor of a simulation that looks like the modern world as it is today [which is even more dystopian than the present-day of 1999, the year in which the Matrix was set].

No Mister Anderson… don’t blame capitalism

The Matrix is not capitalism. Civilization throughout history has been built on inequality. The “land of the free”, the United States of America, is built unequivocally on genocide of Native Americans, slavery of Africans, indentured servitude of Chinese, internment of Japanese, oppression of the Irish, and ostracism of Jews. The entirety of Europe stands on a legacy of world war, and before that, a succession of tyranny leading back long before the Enlightenment. Much of Asia, with its fetishized pseudo-exotic mysticism for all who live outside it, is a hive of post-feudal xenophobia that necessitates perpetual simmering conflict.

Capitalism is a product of humanity, not an evil set upon us from elsewhere. It flourishes because it appeals to greed, which is as natural to humanity as the twisted philosophies that spring from it — from Manifest Destiny to Kamikaze and all shades in between. All political religions begin with us, and are sustained by us.

Silly Neo… Mr. Smith isn’t the government, either

Corporate capitalism and the governments it owns (including American democracy and increasingly, Chinese communism) are one and the same. Greed rules all.

Escaping The Matrix: Quick, I Need An Exit…! Or Do I?

The only way to truly “escape” the Matrix is to exit from society entirely.

Live on a mountain by yourself or with as many people as will follow you there.

This is the real-world equivalent of “Zion”, the world beyond the Matrix and far from Machine City.

The average person would not want to live in “Zion”, as was depicted by the traitorous character Cypher, who wanted to be not just an average person, but “someone important… like an actor”. An actor: one of those glittering objects of envy who become famous for pretending to be other people for a living. A pretender.

In the real world of today, there are over a billion Facebook Junkies gasping for each other’s attention with every status update. Many of them not only want to be the Alpha Animal in their mass media-fueled consumerist fantasyland, they also strive to be Youtube Superstars and trending Reality Celebrities with an endless feed of self-obsessive selfies and egotistical memes.

Do You Really Want To Exit The Matrix?

The door is right here, and this is the key.

If you continue to live in a house or apartment where there is flowing water, working electricity, trash disposal and emergency medical services, the Matrix still has you. And you have… McDonalds and Starbucks.

No one “subverts the Matrix” by pretending that information is free. As we all live in a capitalist system [given that capitalism has effectively taken over the world], taking things without paying is simply called “larceny” or stealing.

A man in trenchcoat and dark sunglasses walks into a convenience store. The man takes a candybar from an open box next to the checkout counter, then turns to leave the store. The clerk overseeing the automated self-checkout line says, “hey, you have to pay for that!” The Man says, “no, can’t you see? My hand is invisible because I’ve stepped outside the Matrix!” Clerk says, “you still have to pay for that candybar!” Man retorts, “no, can’t you see? The candybar is invisible, too, because I hold it in my hand, and I’ve stepped outside the Matrix!” Clerk explains while pressing the silent alarm, “no, you’re standing in a convenience store and you just stole a candybar!” The Man mumbles to himself with a sick bemused grin, “well, you’re either one of us, or you’re one of them.”

In the Hollywood version of this story, The Man pulls out a submachine gun and shoots the clerk to death. In the real version, two mentally disturbed teenagers at Columbine high school performed a similar act of “liberation” that resulted in the deaths of thirteen people and their own suicide. Wearing t-shirts that read “Evolution” and “Wrath”, their unifying ideology seemed to be that “Getting attention by becoming notorious is better than being a failure.”

The reality of the Matrix is that Neo and his grim cohort were actually psychopathic terrorist murderers with a complete disregard for human life.

They used a primitive — in the parlance of Hollywood, “high-concept” — mentality of “us versus them” to justify murdering untold hundreds of people in the name of their righteous cause.

Matrix Convolutions

As the plot thickens, the true point is often lost.

The true “hero” of the Matrix was Morpheus. And Morpheus, both in the Matrix and in Zion, was regarded as most likely insane.

Morpheus had previously found several other “proto-Neos”, but they all failed (and presumably were killed).

Most critically, Morpheus was eventually captured by the Agents, tortured by them, and, in the real-world version of the story, would almost certainly have been imprisoned for life. He may even have been set free — only to be murdered later, quite likely by a missile shot from a drone [as machines so often do our governments’ killing for us now].

How did Morpheus learn of the Matrix’s existence in the first place? If the Matrix is all-encompassing for those within it, then the Matrix must also have been Morpheus’ source of intelligence. Maybe he first saw the Matrix in the plot a multi-million-dollar movie. But, no, that would be too silly even for Hollywood… yet oddly not too silly for the many who take the Matrix as a kind of field guide to reality.

If Morpheus had learned that the Matrix is intrinsic to the human mind rather than created by machines, would he have taken the fundamentalist zealot’s path that he did? The Columbine killers were obviously mentally ill, but without the trigger that also set fragile-minded Morpheus on a murderous crusade, would their fate have also turned out differently? To be clear, neither the movie nor the message are to blame. Truly, there is no blame to be cast, but rather, a question about the switches that can be flipped in susceptible minds.

Likewise, as we see with the “hidden” version of this document, a perversion of the idea of “free” flourishes among those who are dazzled by Hollywood and seduced by overcomplicated pseudo-egalitarian ideologies.

Information created by humans is no more free than water or electricity.

Scientific knowledge is more valuable when all can access it. Still, the scientist needs some sort of wage in order to be able to live while pushing the envelope of human knowledge, skill and ability.

The products of other types of knowledge [music, film, visual arts, etc.] are the same way.

“I torrented this movie a couple of months ago. I watch it at least twice a week because the special effects are cool, but it totally isn’t Oscar quality and the script could be better, so why should I pay for it? By not paying now, I’m actually telling the movie people to do better next time. Then everything will be Oscar quality. Yay!”

“I downloaded this music album just recently, but I wouldn’t call it one of my all-time favorites, so why pay for it? The artist gets more exposure this way, too, so it’s kind of like I’m doing them a favor!”

The essence of both science and creativity is experimentation. Scientific progress and creative exploration are iterative, evolutionary processes that far more often result in failure than success. If we punish failure by cutting off scientists’ and artists’ ability to continue their work by devaluing it to become a mere hobby, we cripple the creative process of science and art itself.

Most computer programmers create free software in order to build their reputation — so that they can eventually land a paying job writing software. The philosophy of free software, then, was never designed to be applied to movies, books or music. And that is largely why it fails, instead exposing the ones who parrot its corrupted version as a cover-up for their desire to take all while giving back nothing.

Side note: the film “the Matrix” itself would never have been made, and another film of its quality has not been made since, without the crucial support of the (deeply flawed as it is) Hollywood system.

Until we have working alternatives to the existing system, destruction in the name of freedom is simply obliteration without the counterbalance of creation to save us from suicide.

Ending At The Beginning

The true meaning of revolution is that the cycle ends where it began

How do you truly “unplug” from the Matrix? A few suggestions:

  • Recognize that society is the “Matrix” and that the average person is the one sustaining it (including those who steal while regurgitating the pirates’ propaganda that information should be “free”)
  • Recognize that the government is not the problem
  • Recognize that capitalism is not the problem
  • Recognize that if you believe that either government or capitalism are the problem, your only solution is to exit the nation-state and/or leave the financial system entirely
  • Recognize that if you choose to reap the benefits of living in the “Matrix”, your denial of its fundamental attributes [i.e. the exchange of money for goods and services] is only hurting other people who are also trying to survive, advance science and push forward creatively in this system
  • Recognize that if you remain inside the Matrix, you are one of Us Humans (not “Agents” or “Them”). Our only viable option is to work together to change the Matrix, not turn guns on each other (or figuratively do the same by stealing from each other) or commit random-yet-premeditated acts of larceny — leading even to murder.

The Matrix is not outside us. The Matrix is within us. The only way to destroy the Matrix is to change ourselves and create a better Matrix. At the best, we create an alternative that eventually supercedes the existing system. At worst, we continue down the existing path to oblivion and hasten our collective demise. “Freedom fighters” who indulge the Morpheus/Neo Delusion turn a blind eye to economic, political and social totalitarianism that strips us of our desire for privacy while selling our digital identities to the highest bidder. Such isolating “freedom” turns us on each other with false doctrines like “if you have nothing to hide, you have no need for privacy” and equally false reactionary mantras like “information wants to be free”.

There is, has never, and never will be, anything gotten for free in this world. The sooner we all realize that “free” is yet another scam that steals time and energy (therefore, life) from all of us, the more quickly we’ll create a system that can help us all live better lives in the real world rather than construct psychotic fantasies like the Matrix. Leave the Matrix where it belongs — in film, in video games and in cautionary science fiction stories. Sometimes a metaphor is just a metaphor, and sometimes a great movie is just a great movie. Eschew the Polyanna Positive Thinker’s helium-brained need to blame the creators of entertainingly instructive make-believe dystopias. Columbine wasn’t the Wachowski siblings’ fault, any more than rock-n-roll is to blame for hippies selling out their values in exchange for a spot in the corner office. It’s time to finally wake up from “the Matrix”, and at long last, rejoin the real world before it’s too late. We simply can’t afford a cynical “cyberpunk” version of the Age of Aquarius.

The Power Of The Matrix Is Within You. The Question Is How You Use It.

The question is not “can you escape?” The challenge is “what can you create?”

If you believe that the answer to the challenge of “what can you create?” is “nothing”, then do us all a favor: turn off your television, press “pause” on the movies and learn, learn, learn until you can bring a skill to the table that Humanity truly needs (and if you still feel the unstoppable urge to pick up a submachine gun to prove your allegiance to Zion and independence from the Matrix, put on your sunglasses and trenchcoat and try “flying” from the ledge of a tall building instead).

We need all the help we can get to repair the damage some of us have already done, to prevent more destruction, and to bring us all to a better future. We can’t last much longer with primitive tribalistic “us versus them” pathological ideologies and apathetic acquiescence that amounts not to rebellion, but to “more of the same”. Morpheus was wrong. In the real world, none of us can dodge bullets. But then, Morpheus was also right: the Matrix truly is inside your own mind. And your mind is the place where the battle is fought. From there, the choice is yours.

Lively conversation ensued following the previous entry (“A Network, Not A Market: If the Internet is now the mother of all information, has she begun to eat her children?”). A few people asked questions like the following:

Why is science included along with music and art? No one can illegally download science like they can pirate a film, song or book.

At the moment, I was stumped. Why did I write that bit about science? It was odd because clearly science was included for a reason. A moment ago, the long-simmering answer to that question popped back into mind and demanded that I write this entry. Here’s the answer:

First of all, science can be “pirated”. One example is hacker/activist Aaron Swartz, who was legally hounded until he committed suicide in 2013. It’s a case worth reading to see how the criminal justice system can be used to serve the egos of those who operate from within it, and the destructive power that can be wreaked against those who oppose it.

Second, someone mentioned that as science becomes more complex, there have been no independent scientists of merit science Einstein. Collaboration is necessary, so the line of thinking goes, and therefore, questions of information ownership are moot. Individual access to scientific data doesn’t matter because individuals can’t do anything particularly interesting with the data, anyway.

That’s also wrong. Two recent examples are J. Craig Venter, whose team sequenced the human genome. The other example is named Elon Musk, whose cars you might have heard about (a hint as to his “outsider” status in the auto industry is evident by the company name “Tesla Motors”). I’m sure there are innumerable other examples of individual inventors who do great things outside the scientific mainstream (like the fifteen-year-old inventor who invented a possible test for pancreatic cancer).

More and more private corporations are locking the results of their research away under patents — for example, the patenting of individual genes. This has the potential to cripple the work of individual scientists, force others to spend exorbitant amounts to access scientific information (at least thirty dollars per article to access many journals), and prevent many others from even entering their fields by “monetizing” curiosity in ways that no sane person would pay for.

In the case of science, then, stealing data (a la Swartz) is still wrong. The problem, much like it is in the other creative industries (if there’s such thing as a creative industry, science and engineering must be counted among them) is that taking the wrong action against a wrongly-designed system doesn’t justify the action. To create a better outcome, we need to work to create viable alternatives to the existing system itself. The dystopian worlds that science fiction writers (including myself) envision can be averted if we decide to take a different path, and decide to walk that path rather than wait around to read about it.

The Internet was designed as a robust communication network — not as a commercial medium. “Data” can be anything passed between two computers. It just so happens that music, books and movies can be digitally encoded as “data”.

Since the Internet is merely a network (not a market), and can transport any data via its networking protocols, is the Internet also cannibalizing all forms of data, including music, books and movies?

All future generations will potentially be able to download any accessible data for the price of an Internet connection.

Life is short. The creation of anything valuable requires time-intensive work. This effectively shortens your lifespan by the number of hours it takes to finish a project.

Many children now learn to use file-sharing apps and networks before they learn the scarcity and value of time. Time, energy and effort are never free, but many people who are not “creative” seem not to recognize the potential value of time unless it has an hourly wage attached. If they did recognize time’s value, how would anyone seriously claim that someone else’s creative work could be free?

Given the scarcity and value of time, the mantra that “information is free” is immediately shown as false. Massive corporations can afford to use major marketing and PR to their advantage; hence, they will survive and get bigger. Individuals and independent artists/scientists who are working after-hours from their garage simply cannot compete with companies that can pay to have their upcoming products spammed across millions of screens, billboards, radio channels, and Internet advertising platforms (including paid ads on social networks).

More importantly, the farther a company’s reach, in terms of marketing, the smaller percentage they have to earn in order to turn a profit.

Imagine that you can realistically hope for 5% of people to buy your work after they hear about it.

At $7 per copy, an indie film made for $100,000 would need 14,285 viewers to recoup their budget. You would have to reach approximately 285,700 people in order to break even if 5% of them paid for your film. To make a $100,000 profit would require over half a million people to know about your film. And that’s only if you could reliably identify a target group of people who might plausibly be interested in your particular work; otherwise, you might not even get 5% to care.

Even in the age of the Internet, a half-million is a lot of people. And the $100,000 covers only the production costs — not the years spent crafting the concept, bringing together a group of skilled people, and then managing the project.

Enter the Internet. You’ve sunk years of effort and $100,000 of funds into the film. Within days, someone buys your film, rips it, and posts it online. People who would otherwise have paid for it can now download for free because they’ve convinced themselves that accessibility is equal to morality. People who wouldn’t have needed a “moral” stance before doing the right thing (i.e. paying for a creative work) can now say that “information wants to be free” and thereby ignore the human cost entirely.

This is like a clerk leaving a jewelry store unattended, and as people crowd in to clean off the shelves, they get caught — then complain that “diamonds want to be free” or “I own the diamonds because this ring weighs practically nothing” or “this diamond ring sucks. I wouldn’t have bought it anyway, so now that I have it, I should be allowed to keep it”, or “it’s not fair. The jeweler didn’t make all these diamonds. He didn’t dig them from the Earth or cut and polish them. He’s trying to make a profit by selling them for more than he bought them. Diamonds want to be free. So beyond an arbitrary amount, he shouldn’t be able to make any more money from them. He should give them away for free to anyone who wants them.”

Making copies of data is “free”. Creating information — the meaningful shape of data that gives you science, films, music and songs — is never free.

A major studio can afford to buy exposure to millions of people and absorb massive losses in revenue in order to get five (or six, or ten) percent of potential customers to buy. So even in the Internet era, big players can make a tidy profit on blockbusters and superstars. And then the big players aim for the lowest common denominator in creating mediocre “safe bets” like yet another Transformers movie or another string of comic-book franchises rather than anything more risky or artistically viable than “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

Meanwhile, indie artists and scientists don’t have the luxury of such a wide loss-margin. The trick is in the percentages: five percent of everyone who looks at a screen that you can reach — that’s a far bigger pie if you can reach most of the screens. It’s practically nothing if all you’ve got is e-begging on Kickstarter and panhandling for “Likes” on Facebook.

Not every work is amenable to the “value add” that many are desperately trying to use to entice people to buy. “Buy my new album and you’ll also get to have a drink with me, only if you pledge [x] amount” is a ludicrous way to try to substitute for lost revenues over the span of a career. These are all strange ways to compensating for the fact that your fans are simply stealing from you, and refuse to even acknowledge it unless you sell them an “experience” that’s not so easy to download.

And that’s why I don’t get the idea that the Internet “should” make everything free, as if this were some kind of “natural” evolution. There’s nothing “natural” about telling people that** they shouldn’t be able to earn a living because their work can be made into a stream of data, and data “wants to be free”.

** …unless they work for a massive corporation that can carpet-bomb the planet with a marketing blitz, that is…

Life is short and nothing is free, unless you steal it. The definition of stealing is that someone suffers while another person gains from that person’s misfortune. The World Wide Web is over fifteen years old now. The lack of alternatives means that access to art and science is now, more than ever, the exclusive domain of large corporations that can thereby exert even more control over what is and isn’t produced, promoted and sold.

This is the larger issue that very few people seem to even see, much less care about.

It’s also hardly the outcome that anyone could tout as a benefit from stealing someone else’s work under the banner of “freedom”, but that’s exactly what’s happening. The problem isn’t only that information is “free” — the problem is that it still isn’t free (and never was, and never will be). Artists lose a livelihood, scientists lose funding, and corporations make a killing based on the greed of the average person’s desire to get something for nothing, while being conned into using fake moral arguments that also make them accomplices in the crime.

Sounds like business as usual? It may be. Only now thievery is instant, worldwide, and even has a convenient pseudo-moral ideology to rationalize it away, rather than inspire people to work toward a better approach that would give artists and scientists a way to make a living. You may say “screw the corporations” or not, but at the very least, don’t screw the little guy. Or maybe at the very, very least, don’t give him the short end while pretending to do the world a favor.