Grey Days

Rapper Jay-Z released his final album, The Black Album, in 2003. Or it was supposed to be his final album, he has since released five more solo studio albums. As part of his grand exit from the music industry, amongst other types of extravagant promotions, he released an a capella version of his album to encourage people to remix the music. Artists and DJs complied, producing a profusion of mash-up albums, using music from numerous artists and genres to create new backing tracks to Jay-Z’s vocals.[1]

The most popular of these mash-ups, by far, was Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which took music from The Beatle’s White Album to back the vocals. The music label which owned The Beatle’s recordings took exception to the use and widespread sharing of the music, and EMI Group moved to protect their copyrighted material, though they were ultimately unsuccessful in suppressing the album after a campaign to download and share the music in defiance of the law.

The Grey Album’s release and popularity was a victory for freedom of artistry over restrictive corporate copyright laws, it caused a boom in mash-ups, and it was another tremor in the earthquake of technological changes to culture and commerce. Mash-ups became a fad, as many people thought it was at the time, though they have maintained some persistence, but rarely as pop-music again. Music labels were not going to give up their control over their music, however.

In a war, any front made too formidable with fortifications and forces will be bypassed in favor of a weaker point of attack, the fortification of irrepressible artist independence was too popular for it to be attacked and repressed head-on, so it was bypassed. The battle over The Grey Album is a look into the past and reveals how early responses to the revolutions of the internet economy preceded more sophisticated tactics by corporations to maintain their profits – it reveals the incredible success of their shifts in tactics as well. Rap music, because of how the tracks are produced, is a prescient example of the struggle between entrenched corporate interests and innovators.

Hip-hop music was born from the process of sampling – of taking portions of other songs to create new music – and grew from a small niche to a mainstay of pop music. Though there are still artists innovating in that medium, rap music was abducted into corporate processes for income and content-generation long ago. This happens in almost every modern entertainment and content-based subculture now. As explained in this article: innovators are followed by fans, who are followed by “sociopaths” who exploit the creations of innovators for monetary or other types of gain. A corporation is a good example of these sociopaths (a comparison others have made before) and the “geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths” pattern holds true for any potentially lucrative activity.

So when a corporation, like EMI Group, wants to protect their business model against future innovation, what do they do? They use the laws and regulations designed to protect property ownership. EMI’s particular legal tool against The Grey Album was copyright law, which is (philosophically) designed to encourage innovation by allowing creators to make money from their original productions, though the laws are sometimes used to create moats protecting corporations’ profitable domains.

Of course, copyright laws are hard to enforce if you’re confronting large portions of the population breaking the law as happened in the aftermath of the release of The Grey Album. The great victory for the common people was won in an act of civil disobedience dubbed “Grey Tuesday,” after the dissemination of the cease-and-desist letters by EMI. Here, there was a clear hero (the artists, the people!) and a clear villain.

Corporations are the enemy, the villain, for almost every public grouping in some way. In vulgar political terms, the left hates corporations because of their exploitation of labor and the environment while the right hates corporations for their faux-woke sensibilities and support for liberals. In the more fluid political terms of the moment, populists hate corporations because they own all the political power, while libertarians hate corporations because they are rentiers swelling their margins from government largesse. Corporations and our reactions toward them are close to the core of our political divisiveness.

I used to worry about the politicization of everything, but now I think the transformation has happened to society, not politics. Everything is gamified and sorted by algorithms. It is this dominance, over our dopamine and over our attention, that are driving social changes. We look at – no, we consume – content which produces strong emotions and induces chemical rewards to flood our neurons. The corporations which we hate when viewed through the lenses of our political polarization are, at the least, enabling those very processes of polarization and atomization by driving our engagement and influencing our behavior. This convoluted, self-consuming process is important for more than one reason, and the difference between corporate responses to threatening innovation in 2004 and 2021 display these reasons quite clearly.

So what happened to EMI’s strategy in 2004? They pursued no legal action after the cease-and-desist letters and after they lost the Battle of Grey Tuesday. The likely explanations are that they did not want to suffer any public backlash, or they realized that the exposure was good for them. Since the currency of consumer products is attention, it makes sense that more of it, even if in violation of copyright laws, is a good thing – now even more true because of the network effects of social media.

Control of digital assets is best pursued by other means, by shifting strategy to more favorable ground. Convenience and ease are more effective at controlling the behavior of the masses than lawsuits. Making it difficult to rip tracks from an album, or download them off the internet, compiling a giant database of music and making it searchable, making individuals safe from potential legal action and downloading viruses – all are more impactful than suing people to make them stop sharing something on the internet. Spotify has done more to protect copyright for music labels than the destruction of Napster (while gathering-up income as a mediator between customers and their music libraries).

And what happened to innovation in music will happen to innovation in other areas. Legal crudeness, the use of a blunt weapon to bludgeon opponents, is ineffective against mass disobedience, but providing a service to people can pay dividends. Besides new(ish) formats for dissemination of music, territory unoptimized for corporate profit includes cryptocurrencies and NFT’s. Innovation is alive and well, side by side with risk and complexity.

Music can now go viral on TikTok, or still through Youtube or SoundCloud – with a song or artist’s popularity generated through social media engagement. Artists were able to promote themselves with the advent of social media in a way that was unfiltered and genuine, and many still are. One method from music labels to control this cyberspace is to snatch and sign artists as they’re becoming popular, gaining part of their future cash flows by providing them with the operations and convenience of huge capital-backing. Another way corporations co-opt this process of social media virality is through astroturfing (a play on the idea of “grassroots” engagement – it is buzz made to look like genuine popular engagement, but that is seeded by corporations). Astroturfing is being laundered through social media influencers for a variety of reasons now, to protect corporations or to protect corrupt governments. When someone expresses wonderment that conspiracy theories spread so easily online, someone should remind them that the viral posts from their favorite influencer, or the trending hashtags and topics, may be indistinguishable from organic narratives. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

DeFi (decentralized finance), operated through blockchains and cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, offer a bevy of financial products that were, just recently, only available through large (and hated) financial institutions. Products like loans with no credit checks, high-yield instruments, and financial rewards for supporting exchanges and programs are all at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. Cryptocurrencies and the (apparently) wild speculation associated with them will eventually get regulated and co-opted. Here again, regulation is a powerful tool, but even more powerful is the centralized convenience provided by the simplification and aggregation offered by exchanges and other centralized middlemen. DeFi profits and control of investor behavior will belong to a Spotify of cryptocurrencies.

A boon to photographers, painters, and musicians is the invention and blooming popularity of NFT’s (derivatives of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and DeFi) – another method whereby artists and creators and innovators can get paid directly for their work, bypassing centralized organizations and other corporate middlemen. NFT’s will be fully incorporated into any corporate content-producer’s digital strategies, truly independent artists will only exist on the margins while benefits from this medium will accrue to mostly large corporations. Even now, music labels all have NFT-teams to try and capitalize off of the nascent movement.

One thing to notice here: the cycle is speeding-up – the turnaround from independent art-forms and innovation to commoditization and monetization is rapid. Of course, this is offset by the pace of innovation enabled by interconnectivity. But in the war of the people vs. the corporations, the people are fighting on both sides.

The only way the corporations win is from the common assent of the masses. Maybe corporations are the villains, but they are aided and abetted by citizens in their villainy. Every examination of mass, internet-enabled phenomena must account for the fact that people are more easily herded than they are extorted – especially by entities unable to use the direct force of violence, only its subsidiaries. The State has a monopoly on violence, and the mechanism governing that use of violence is the law. Corporations can only borrow the tools of government, not wield the powers themselves, therefore corporate persuasion is much more effective than trying to use government tools without government force.

Whether it is rap music, the stock market, or novel types of computer coding, there are always innovators who create and teach but are then pushed out by entrepreneurs and those seeking profit. Corporations exist to make money. Their goal is not the betterment of society, it’s to act in their own interests, and if that happens in service to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, then great. If not? Too bad. There is a tension between art and problem-solving and profit which plagues our vision more than ever, giving society the veneer of falsity. Why do people flock to meme stocks, or Dogecoin, or Youtube mumble-rappers? Because they are pure expressions of something untouched by the sterile, robotic hands of big business. Novelty and authenticity are rightly prized, but too often we get the form and not the substance. There is a crisis of credibility for corporations – but they will continue to pursue profit through controlling their landscape. So next time you read about a short squeeze in the market and someone says, “it’s the 99% against the 1%,” remember that it’s true, just not in the way people think it is.

Control through co-option. Control through convenience. Bundling as a strategy of centralization. These are the weapons of corporate control. Everyone as the vindicator of their own rights is a burdensome philosophy and independence is hard. Fixing the problems of legal and technical difficulties and the diffusion and irregularity of sources in music, is a recurring-revenue business model that is popular with consumers. Fixing these difficulties is the future for much of our entertainment options, and no civil disobedience will stop it, because people will protest in one tab and stream their content from a tech giant in another.[2]


[1] My personal favorite, The Argyle Album, can be downloaded here: http://www.100dbs.com/production/argyle/

[2] This post (and most of my posts, honestly) was heavily influenced by the writing at Epsilon Theory, particularly this post: https://www.epsilontheory.com/in-praise-of-bitcoin/

Moral Relativism, Truth, and Social Breakdown

Years ago I took a philosophy class on issues in morality in college. At one point we discussed how many moral truths were universal and how many were dependent on culture. Philosophers have studied this idea and they have come up with lists of moral principles that are universal across societies because they are fundamental to the functioning and cohesiveness of basic social groupings. One of the fundamental principles is the acknowledgment of the value of truth-telling and the condemnation of lying. Society cannot function if people can never make the assumption that most people are telling the truth most of the time about most things. So what happens when groups have an interest in deliberately lying to the public and it is difficult to tell the difference between a truth  and a lie? This is what Western Democracies face when an onslaught of fake news, which may be skillfully produced and disseminated by AI in the near future, overwhelms the modern communication channels.

Advances in the near future, widely reported on, will allow the seamless spoofing of video and audio. In our “post-Truth” society, and with modern propaganda sowing doubt and mistrust, how will it be possible to believe any damaging or otherwise important revelations? Even if there are digital footprints which can reveal meddling, they can be easily dismissed by partisans. In addition, it will allow important people and politicians to deny that they made statements, saying that they are fabrications, when in fact they are true.

Free society will be turned against itself, what will be the remedy to libel and slander that is impossible to prove one way or the other? In order to cut through nonsense and partisanship, focus will have to be kept on issues and policy themselves, something which is currently proving impossible. Debate over policy cannot occur if people are debating over the true nature of reality. Solutions can only exist if people avoid reports about the conversations or videos of leaders or they are dismissed in favor of actions. The other result of this change in our social dynamic, of questioning whether or not anything is real, is nothing less than the absolute dissolution and dismemberment of society. Post-truth society eventually has to face the realization that it will eventually lead to social destruction and chaos if left fundamentally unchecked.

The Anglo-German Naval Arms Race and Edward Snowden

100 years ago the United States entered the first great modern military catastrophe. Unfortunately it would not be the last. There were many, many factors contributing to the First World War, but one of them was a naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain.

As a rising power, Germany saw a strong navy as a deterrent to Great Britain’s ambition and as a way to expand their own Imperial ambitions. As for the British, they had a policy of having a navy larger than the other two largest navies combined. Tremendous strain was placed on the British industrial capacity and government funding when the United States and Germany both put their industrial might to use on their burgeoning naval fleets. Germany never did quite catch up to Britain before the war started, but they came close, and they came close for one reason: the British switched their ships’ fuel from coal to oil.

In an instant the new classes of oil-powered warships made all other warships obsolete. The British and German navies began at the same point because they both possessed the same technologies. Germany strove to produce as many new oil-powered warships as quickly as they could. In turn, the British attempted to do the same in order to maintain their superiority. Intensifying the arms race destabilized the world. Feeling pressured, the British became increasingly prepared to use force to counter the Germans and the pressure for decisive military confrontation to defeat the other side increased.

When reviewing the Anglo-German naval arms race as a historical precedent, it is easy to see how Edward Snowden, and other leaks of the United States’ technical ability in cyberspying and cyberwarfare, have made the world less safe.

Leaks from the NSA, and now the CIA, revealed both advanced methods and means of attacking computer networks. Every other major power in the world now has the ability to do exactly what the NSA and CIA have the ability to do. This inflames a cyber arms race that was already raging. United States intelligence agencies now have increased incentive to strike other powers harder and more often preemptively than they had in the past. Other powers may now have abilities to seriously damage or infiltrate US assets that they could not in the past. A wider range of actors have the ability to do more damage than they did previously.

Snowden, and others, may have sparked a debate in the United States about how much the government should be monitoring citizens, but in the grander view, the leaks have made all citizens less safe.

The Death of Politics

In a corrupt, almost-Dystopian state, men armed with clubs, sheathed in body armor, masks covering their faces, and carrying banners with symbols representing their ideologies fought for control of city blocks. 

Distressing scenes like this are no longer found exclusively in the pages of novels or in the corrupt states of the Third World. In Greece throughout 2013, Nazi’s and Communists fought each other in the streets of Athens. 80 years earlier the two most destructive ideologies of the 20th century physically battled for supremacy across Europe – and much of Europe was eventually devastated by the fruits of those politics. Eight years after the worst moments of the American economic collapse, those politics have inched their way into the United States and embedded themselves firmly into the political discourse.

The election of Donald Trump was an indictment of the American political system and institutions. The institutions failed in their purpose and design, and the political system has been exposed as being aloof from the concerns of the American people. Decades of collusion between corporate interests, pressure groups, unions, and other special interests and the American government at the expense of populist policies have undermined American political institutions. Government and special interests have separated the political discourse from the good of society. People have become increasingly disillusioned with centrist policies that seem to benefit private interests and have turned toward the edges of the political spectrum. In our Republic this has increasingly resulted in legislative gridlock which further undermines faith in traditional and centrist politics. American politics’ weak center, with leaders lacking charisma and lacking a vision beyond maintaining the status quo, is giving way toward ideas of radical change. Wholesale changes in the economy have granted an urgency to this transformation.

In so many ways since the global catastrophe (it should never have been so meekly termed “The Great Recession”) the modern political world mirrors the upheaval of the 1930’s. Democracy is being discredited, powerful populists are emboldened in both domestic and foreign adventures, and tremendous uncertainty and economic pain are promised to be assuaged through resurgent chauvinistic nationalism. Modern anti-democratic regimes are not founded on extreme ideologies though, they are mostly run on the principles of petty theft. Disillusioned citizenries become the fertile soil for venal political structures to grow, which serve their leaders’ bank accounts well and not much else.

Anomie is a greater danger than ideology. The same vague, nihilistic lack of meaning that infects youth in the United States with pretensions of fighting grand battles against “political correctness”  or “fascism” also makes disenfranchised, disillusioned Muslim men join ISIS. The ossification of the American political system, uncertainty over the future of the planet due to global warming and technology, the slow death of religion, and the simultaneous rise and retreat of globalism all conspire to confound strong attachments of community identity and place.

The grand visions of the fringe left and the fringe right are particularly weak. In the ideological dictatorships of the 20th century, enormous things were promised – and done. Many people sincerely believed in the total transformation of societies. Efforts to end capitalism were pursued with vigor, as well as efforts to strengthen the will of the nation-state through complete purity. The vague and toothless goals of the current crop of ideologues are pathetic in comparison. Vague support for socialism and incoherent pleas for xenophobic nationalism squawk from so-called “thought-leaders” on the right and left.

The threats and aspirations are nowhere near as real, achievable, or present to modern societies as they were in the roiling 1930’s. The Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 was as close as anything ever seen to a pure military struggle between the ideological left and ideological right. Liberals and conservatives murdered one another on the scale of the hundreds of thousands. Fascism (in its form of extreme and holistic nationalism) transformed Spain under a repressive and rigid dictatorship while pockets of the Spanish Republicans created systems of anrcho-syndicalism. This was true, radical political change and experimentation that Spain experienced. The stakes were plain in the loss of life and destruction of property. Now, in the US, lightly armed mobs of liberals and conservatives do battle at political rallies with no chance of changing the political system and with little danger of the loss of life. Unfounded anxieties about fascist dictatorships and concerns over the elimination of white majoritarianism animate fights and debates. The internet has most certainly played its part in this. In anonymous forums, incubators of hysteria and sound-proof political echo-chambers, disillusioned youth come to terms with and attempt to reanimate dead ideologies. The sin of the political left: arrogance, and the sin of the political right: ignorance, are displayed perpetually.

Republicans’ and Democrats’ failed political parties are currently incapable of rehabilitating the political discourse in the country. They are quickly becoming the hollowed slaves of populism. Populism on the left and right has no real guidelines other than satisfying the whims of populace without a deeper understanding of the structures and priorities of the state. Republicans and Democrats are each committing different sins. Republicans are acting as appeasers of an unethical and ignorant policy while Democrats are undermining democratic principles by moving away from compromise and free speech.

The establishment Republicans are much like upper-class British appeasers in the 1930’s. If the Nazi Party hated Jews and Communists so openly, it didn’t hurt to back them, it was mutually beneficial. Of course the modern American iteration of faux-fascism is venal and not homicidal, but history will not judge the Republican leadership kindly.

So we end up, especially in the United States, with collapsed political institutions and ideas and nothing with which to replace them. America faces a British Empire moment. It must radically rethink its role in the world and the government’s responsibility domestically. If the government can follow a rational policy, instead of spending almost half of our wealth on maintaining the world order through military force, and focus on the wellbeing of private citizens, the institutions of power could reassert order. A common sense, centrist policy can take back the strength of old ideas from the fringes and focus on the problems of a new age, where so many are displaced in our society.

Ben Rhodes, Facebook, and News Manipulation

A New York Times profile of Ben Rhodes inflamed controversy on a number of fronts. First on Ben Rhodes contempt for journalists and his claim that he manipulated reporters to push the Obama Administration’s narrative on the Iran Deal, and secondly on claims of poor reporting. Aside from displaying the arrogance of Ben Rhodes, and possibly the administration, it shows that the primary manipulation of news is still done by people, not by algorithms and not for pageviews.

More traditional news media has been breaking down for some time now and another story highlights the consequences of that. A recent report by Gizmodo displayed the manipulation of trending news topics at Facebook. Facebook has become an important source of news and a primary means of information dissemination for a large part of the Western populace. And now, with the fake news scandal after the election it is obvious that people are the culprit and not merely algorithms.

Pressure to break stories, because the first person or organization to post a story online will get an enormous bump in traffic, has never been greater for journalists. This has led to the fraying of ethics and helps people like Ben Rhodes manipulate the public. So now, as prominent individuals manipulate the traditional media, and unreliable news sources overwhelm social media, the basis for public cooperation in democratic governments is eroding. The prospect of the collapse of democracies is not unthinkable as it may have once been.