from the website of the Spanish Inoquo netlabel, which offers free non-commercial downloads of electronic music.
I am very fond of virtual gee-gaws. My latest crush is on Metronome on-line, which provides an on-line metronome which allows one to set the beats per minute for the purpose of singing or playing music.
I've been thinking lately about sustainable consumerism and the holiday season. I've also been thinking about the imprisonment offered by "the sentence of commercialization".
I am a big ideas guy. I like to think about things. I tend to like consumer items that provide "food for thought". I love a good book, a good musical release, or something interesting to watch. I like computer programs which let me do things that interest me, from process and edit a photograph to make music.
I like the way that technology helps liberate one from the constraints of a more analog society. Don't get me wrong--I love the sound of an acoustic guitar and the feel of a book in my hands. This dawntime I was listening to a recording of the African marimba-like instrument called the balaphon,and marveling at what exotic sounds can be so liberating from a simple acoustic recording. Yet I love that so many things that used ot require a studio, a film lab, a library, or a slide rule to do now can be done in record time with technology easily available to many.
I also think about ways that this technology can liberate us from traditional constructs of consumerism. The purchase of an mp3 can be a "green" event, as digital music distribution has a bit less carbon footprint than traditional CDs. The virtues of digital music distribution run beyond, that, though, into a challenge to the way in which music has been commoditized. The technology is now in place for anyone who can record an album of music to get world-wide distribution of that music through inexpensive services that get one onto all the major mp3 distribution channels. The TuneCore service, for example, can get one's album release onto the major music services with an investment easily within the reach of most middle-class people, for about the cost of two video games. This starkly contrasts with times as recent as my own 30s, when the only way to get distribution was to be contractually obligated to a large record company on a contract that amounted to extremely expensive financing with marginal royalty upside to the artist. One was imprisoned by the economics of the transaction from being able to release music. Indeed, many music acts one might think of as "classic" were actually dropped by their labels, which could not figure out how to make a profit on 250,000 units sold.
The netlabel movement takes the concept of the liberation from the prison "sentence of commercialization" one step further. Through the use of more open source distribution through Creative Commons licenses, thousands of releases of musicians in dozens of niche genres are made available to the listening public at absolutely no cost to the listener. The listener merely downloads, and voila!, there is no sales pitch or advertisement. Some artists release on netlabels to build up a following who might purchase their work.
Some artists release their work in the same spirit as software pioneers who donate freeware--out of the conviction that the culture is richer if there are free releases into the culture.
I am not one of those who believes that everything virtual must be free. I do believe, though, that certain hegemonies of distribution have been successfully interrupted by the advances of technology, to the benefit of all. Take eBay, for example. The introduction of a virtual auction marketplace helped create a situation in wihch people could by-pass inefficient distribution systems for used or discontinued merchandise, and create one-to-one small-scale-capitalist experiences as satisfying as any really cool estate sale.
In the vein, I begin to believe that when one is going to buy an actual item of merchandise rather than some form of virtual gift, then small-scale sales arenas like craft trading place Etsy.com is a way to go. This kind of small-scale craft capitalism is one way we can all liberate ourselves from the tyranny that a huge corporation manufacturing something must sell hundreds of thousands of units, assembled with cheap labot in non-worker-protective manufaturing centers.
Why not instead buy from someone who has professionally or semi-professionally created something unique and interesting?
Sometimes the virtual economy creates gift products never dreamt of before. Take the gift of money. Many of us have given a gift card worth money or cash itself to loved ones or friends. This is not at all a bad thing, though, absurdly, some gift cards have built-in expiration or debits over time which ruin their long-term value.
Yet one could give instead a gift certificate to The micro-lending charity Kiva. The recipient could choose which of dozens of admirable third world small businesses should get a 25 dollar loan. The loans are usually paid back in less than a year. Thus, one could give the gift of allowing one to be a micro-lender to a businessperson in need, to the benefit of a poor country, while also giving the right to collect the 25 dollars back at the end of the day in loan proceeds.
So many things are free in virtual life. If I'm interested in a topic and need a rough, non-academic source of information, I enter the search term in Wikipedia. In a prior time, I needed Britannica to help me, at a cost and a library space in books. I'll grant that wikipedia is "fuzzy" in the sense of its providing a pretty good approximation rather than the answer in some cases. But "fuzzy" can give a surprisingly warm and fuzzy feeling.
Some resources are so cool and obvious that they can be under-appreciated. Take Flickr.com. This service allows substantial and effective free photo-hosting or really effective expanded photo-hosting for a modest annual fee.
Yet one of the coolest things about Flickr is not its photo storage capacity, but its
image library. One can do searches for Creative Commons photos on almost any keyword, and find elegant or poignant or just plain lovely images available for free, credited use in one's weblog, in one's own photo-show; indeed, even in a youtube one creates.
If I want to see tropical birds, I enter "costa rica" and birds and see a plethora of free images.
The movement towards a more exciting global economy through virtual advances comes out in things like the Linux operating system. Tihs operating system, or one of its heirs, will eventually displace Windows. Already, computers which do quite reasonable jobs for consumers are available for which one does not have to pay the premium required by the Microsoft or Apple operating systems. Eventually, this open source competitor will drive down prices for all operating systems.
The list goes on. I can entertain myself for an hour or two at a time at Youtube or Blip.tv, watching videos ranging from the eccentric to the strikingly effective documentary.
I can read weblogs about anything from travel to any of a host of industries.
It's more than a "cool merchandise--all for free!" thing. There are ways to create new institutions and new possibilities here. I am not at all a Ron Paul supporter, though I have sympathy for some core libertarian ideas. Yet I took heart that Ron Paul supporters could in one day raise over 3 million dollars in campaign contributions using internet virtual connections to by-pass a mainstream media too bloated on its own commentator smugness to notice its campaign. This suggests to me that there is great networking power available virtually, which, if harnessed by the right cause, could move mountains.
People sometimes present "green" issues as a battle between technology and sustainability. But I believe that's a false paradigm. I believe that technology is a key ingredient in creating a potentially global sustainable world. Indeed, the kind of "sustainability" which existed in 1900 involved seriously foreshorted human life in many areas, localized suffering, and huge economic imbalances. To me, the goal is a life in which people live in dignity in a world no longer needlessly polluted by what people do. I believe that conservation and technology must go hand in hand.
I think that Americans, taken as if they were a monolithic mass, have a neurosis in which we either want everything without sacrifice, or in which we become convinced that the only solution is the harshest solution. Yet both sacrifice and use of creative solutions will be ingredients in the evolution that must come as we evolve from a "polluter/thing ownership/fuel-consumption" society to a "modest footprint/virtual merchandise/low-travel" society. Rather than being luddites trying to destroy the personal computer's "loom of technology", we canr realize that low-impact virtual goods, experienced through technology, can give us the joys of consumption without the drag on the ecology of old-style consumption. Further, the corporate hegemony on retail supply with be replaced with a new flowering of small, local businesses.
We can help this process along by buying virtual, buying from small vendors, and by
using our computer tools to build local and virtual communities.
Through virtual technology, the "sentence of commercialization' can be commuted. Perhaps this holiday season upcoming is one opportunity to begin to enjoy a new parole.