The other day I saw four guys playing Rock Band do a 100% perfect performance of Dani California… well, the computer had told them it was 100%. It is actually technically a difficult thing to do to play Dani California all the way through, but what they were doing was repeating a series of notes in an exact order, which isn’t quite the same thing. A few weeks earlier, at a party at a friend’s house, we played a karaoke console game, which was a lot of fun. During the evening, someone got a very good score on Me and Bobby McGee; the game was basing it on the Joplin version, and I was struck by the way the game scored you on getting the ad libs right– it rather breaks my brain to be able to figure out what it means to get an ad lib “right”, especially on a song Joplin was covering in the first place!
So what we have is a place where a very few people are the creators,and they get scored on their work, and if the rest of the world produces anything it’s scored for fidelity to the creators’ work rather than how well it builds on things.
There is a TV programme in the US called Wheel of Fortune where a woman called Vanna White puts big square letter cards on a wall. She is very famous for doing this. Samsung made a commercial based around a robot putting letters on a wall with reference to what she does; she sued them and won. It seems she’s the only person allowed to go around putting big square letter cards on a wall. One judge wrote in his dissenting opinion: “Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it. Creativity is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before. Overprotection stifles the very creative forces it’s supposed to nurture”. (I hope he won’t mind me quoting that.)
Chumbawamba released an album whose title is “The boy bands have won, and all the copyists and the tribute bands and the TV talent show producers have won, if we allow our culture to be shaped by mimicry, whether from lack of ideas or from exaggerated respect. You should never try to freeze culture. What you can do is recycle that culture. Take your older brother’s hand-me-down jacket and re-style it, re-fashion it to the point where it becomes your own. But don’t just regurgitate creative history, or hold art and music and literature as fixed, untouchable and kept under glass. The people who try to ‘guard’ any particular form of music are, like the copyists and manufactured bands, doing it the worst disservice, because the only thing that you can do to music that will damage it is not change it, not make it your own. Because then it dies, then it’s over, then it’s done, and the boy bands have won.”
It has often been the same way in the past, with a small elite of creators. But not all subcultures have been this way even in the developed world in the recent past. I’m happy that the free software world means there are more and more creators, and that the licences we use mean that people are encouraged to “restyle it, refashion it to the point where it becomes their own”, but we need to find more and more ways to encourage and spread the idea that it’s desirable or even possible to do so. Getting free software onto more desktops is an admirable goal, an important first step, but we need to help people understand they can be more than consumers.
(Disclaimer: I have never played Rock Band, and I suck mightily at Guitar Hero; I hope this isn’t sour grapes.)
And a last word on this, from XKCD.