Efficiency for Efficiency’s Sake?

We sometimes think technological developments are aimed at improving human life. My reading of Paul Virillo (and Jean-François Lyotard, to some extent) is that we develop technology, ultimately, so that we can develop technology. We make jokes about this idea many ways: “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy”; “We go to work today so that we can go to work tomorrow.” We make light of the circular nature of our lifestyle and our society. Some argue- and perhaps with some merit- that the story of technology today is the same sort of circular story. Faster computers with more RAM and disk space allow us to conduct the science that will allow us to build still faster computers with more RAM and disk space. I define efficiency as the ratio between a resource and an output—and we usually consider time and money our resources. However, we sometimes care about our output because it affects our pool of resources. My reading of the postmodernists leaves me at least with this question: Have we made efficiency circular (and therefore meaningless)?

I think it’s worth backing up a little bit- at least back to the part about making faster computers so that we can go on to make faster computers. It is true that we increase the capacities and efficiency of our computers (generally, “digital technology”) with each generation. (See also: Moore’s Law.) However, I think the misstep is to gloss over the other reasons we improve our technology. While better technology enables even better technology, it also serves the other purposes for which we use technology. We store our music, movies, photos, and literature on the larger storage spaces. We play our games and communicate through the faster speeds. The concern should not ignore these features of our relationship with technology. We should rephrase that concern as: “Have we lost sight of the purpose for our technology, now serving it instead of it serving us?”

Perspective And Video Games.

Art is twice-over about perspective: people have different perspectives on art, and art offers different perspectives on the world. I posit that the objective viewpoint is only the amalgamation of a variety of subjective points cobbled together. Video games offer a unique manipulation of perspective inasmuch as a player is both a character and a player simultaneously. That is to say, when I play Splinter Cell, I “am” Sam Fischer: a highly trained, top secret clandestine operative on a mission of international import… but I am also a non-spy guy just sitting in his living room, eating pizza and drinking soda and playing a video game.

I first noticed the manipulation of perspective while playing (of all games) Duke Nukem 3D. I remember that game as one of the first I played with the ability to mouse-look up and down (in contrast to Doom and Wolfenstien3D). I noticed that when I fell from a very high height (after using the jetpack), my own legs would go icy and I would feel a little as though I were falling (not to mention a tremendous rush of adrenaline, a deep tension in the pit of my stomach, etc.). The surprise was this: playing a game in which I either died a lot or was invulnerable could make me suddenly and deeply aware of my fragile mortality. This opened worlds of new ideas, experiments, and possibilities; the vastness of the possible implications still excites me.

Capitol Records, LLC v. ReDigi, Inc.: No Re-Selling Digital Material

While this case will probably never be considered a landmark case in copyright law, it typifies, for me, the kinds of new issues that arise in IP law as the world changes. It seems that an online store (“ReDigi”) attempted to sell used digital material (e.g., iTunes purchases that the purchaser no longer wanted to hear or see). A judge in the Southern District of New York ruled (last week) that this particular store, ReDigi, was a “clearinghouse for copyright infringement.”

I recently wrote about digital property, mostly with Steam’s store and service in mind. The upshot was that I worry about how much money I can invest into things I don’t “own” (in the sense that we are used to). Let me explain this further: most of the time, when we buy digital property, we actually buy a license to use the property, not the property itself. This is why it is coherent to courts to treat a physical object so differently from a digital one- the legal relationship the “owner” has with each is in a completely different category. This is what raises concerns for me- that my legal relationship with my digital property is different from my ownership over my physical property. Much of my concern is related to my assertion that more and more of our “property” will be digital in the future. As our property interests migrate to a digital world, it is deeply troubling to think that we would have a weaker grasp on our interests in the future.

Of course, the marketplace itself (independent of legal conceptions of ownership or license-ship) determines a great deal of this. After all, it is up to the record companies, development studios and distribution services to choose how to write their Terms of Use agreements. If these decision-makers become convinced that it is in their better economic interest to give a type of ownership that allows resale (and other aspects of physical property ownership) rather than the weaker licensing that many currently sell, the law need not budge on the issue of digital copyright. At least in theory, the law only identifies the correct situation, sorts it into the appropriate category, and applies the prescribed consequences. (The extent to which that is true is a subject of enormous debate, as you can imagine.) If the marketplace writes its contracts of sale in a way amicable to notions of property ownership for a world of digital property, the law need only enforce the appropriate contracts.

There is another sort of law, besides the law of the courthouse and the law of the marketplace, that bears on this subject. That is the law of the programing language itself. Part of the reason ReDigi  was decided to be infringement was that the transfer of the digital property was really a movement of a copy, not of the file itself. More abstractly, the issue the court takes with digital ownership is that digital objects do not behave like physical objects, especially for the reasons we suppose we have based our laws of ownership upon. Yet digital objects only behave in accordance with the programing language that describes them and the actions we may perform upon them. We have control over the digital landscape in which these objects exist, and we can decide (at least to a very large degree) how they behave and how we can (and cannot) interact with them.

In summary, I posit that changes in the marketplace and in programing standard practices can help consumers have more satisfying legal relationships with their digital property. The fact that these changes are available makes it all the less likely that the law will step in and protect consumers in this area (until or unless the abuse becomes excessively wanton).

Note 1: The structure of this approach, with a law of courthouse, marketplace, and programing code, is adopted from Lawrence Lessig’s “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace” and “Code 2.0”

Note 2: The ReDigi ruling came out last week, but I was swamped with some time-consuming law school assignments and so couldn’t write this analysis sooner.

The Premise is Always Implicit- So is Every Possible Premise.

Something that makes people suspicious about soft sciences is that they are largely constructed by observing some data and then crafting a story to explain what is observed. “Why did people vote this way in the election? Why did consumers buy those products? Why does this man feel an aversion to bodies of water?” What troubles some people is that there are often multiple plausible explanations for a poorly understood, vaguely or partially observed phenomenon.

The same troubling reasoning is the same reason some writing is unclear. Good (but not great) writers often omit their premises and get straight to the interesting parts of the argument, such as the conclusion or the response to the conclusion. They often feel that their basic premises are implicit within their writing, so it is a patronizing waste of time to explicate fundamental principles which seem obvious. However, while it is true that for any valid reasoning, the premises are always implicit in the conclusion, it is also true that all possible premises are potentially implicit until the field of premises is restricted and identified.

In claiming that “Abu should not have murdered Igor,” I may well be resting on premises that murder is morally and legally wrong. If Abu provided materials for Igor’s suicide, I may be further employing a premise that Abu’s actions constituted murder. It may seem so obvious to me that Abu murdered Igor that I jump to the evaluation of that action. The premise that Abu, in fact, murdered Igor may not be so obvious to my audience.

The trouble is that there are some premises that we take as so fundamental that they do not need to be explained or discussed. However, that set of fundamental axioms is slightly different for each of us. Conveying information (say, in the business world) can be difficult when we aren’t sure how much the audience/recipient already knows.

Paul Virilio Revisited: Who Is Hurt by the Speed of Technological Advancement?

It is not the luddite who is most concerned about the speed of technology’s progress, but the devoted technogeek who hates shelfware. It’s enough to bring me to tears: I can’t play Fallout3 anymore. I played it all the way through in the first half of 2012. Eight months later, I wanted to go through it again (making some different choices this time), and it would no longer start up. I had made no changes to the computer’s hardware, nor had I changed the operating system. The disk had not been damaged. The only changes I can identify are the various (semi-involuntary) updates and patches issued by Microsoft since I had last played.

Yes, there are work-arounds. There always are, because there have to be. I’m not interested in work-arounds. I’m interested in enjoying our culture and art in our own time, rather than being done with a game before it is released.

Maybe it’s fair to treat movies with such passing speed; they only take 2 or 3 hours. Like games, some reward a second go-through more than others. A good video game may well be intricate and interesting enough to easily demand 20 or 30 hours of gameplay. (One game on my steam library indicates over 200 hours of gameplay; at least 5 others show over 24 hours of gameplay.)

Those of us who enjoy videogames face a problem of a growing library of games with increasingly amazing graphics, great stories, interesting characters, and beautiful worlds to explore. Yet our hours to explore this have not increased. Point in fact, as I’ve progressed from elementary school to law school, I have far fewer hours to enjoy videogames each year.

Each new generation of games means the death of the previous generation. I miss Warcraft 2. I’d like to be able to play it on my current computer- and I mean play it without Googling how to play it, downloading some emulator or application or patch (that may or may not be full of malware or spyware), and maybe getting it to work. The march of progress is dubious when each forward step erases the previous one. I can’t even play the original Bioshock demo on my computer. I have to think awfully hard about buying new games, because there is a very real chance that I won’t be able to play them anymore when the next O/S version comes out. And I don’t think the new operating systems and game consoles are sufficiently significant improvements to make the updates (which are foisted upon us, since companies phase out support for older systems) worth the candle.

As quaint as it seems for Riot Games to release a weekly patch for their game, they have a better chance of keeping their customers long-term because of it. I’ve heard it said that the Beatles were able to stay popular for so long because they grew and adapted their sound as the world around them changed (compare album “Hard Day’s Night” to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”). Perhaps the same strategy of continual adaptation and evolution is crucial in the videogame industry.

Cheat Codes, Privacy, and Disobedience: Generation Y’s Perspective.

I saw a YouTube video of some teens who had devised a most wise and useful way to spend their time. They call it “Gallon Smashing.” The idea is simple: walk through a not-too-crowded supermarket with one or two plastic gallon jugs of some liquid (milk will do). When no one is looking, smash the gallons on the floor and immediately pretend to have tripped and caused the messy spill accidentally. It’s a way to destroy property and get away with it- in fact, you come out of it looking like the hapless, innocent victim. It has all of the hallmarks of Generation Y: dastardly and unimportant destructiveness while deceiving others into letting you take on the role of the innocent victim.

My assessment of at least part of this phenomenon is that GenY has the power-fighting spirit of recent generations without the willingness to come face to face with that power. Generation X would have walked into the store, smashed the gallon of milk without any pretense, given the finger to onlookers, and walked back out or gone peacefully with the security officer (because GenX was indifferent enough to not care about getting in trouble). The protesters that preceded GenX would have entered the store with a megaphone, announced their destruction of the gallon of milk and the political motivations behind it, burned a draft card and/or bra, and would continue to make a scene until several police used tear gas and a fire hose to subdue and detain the individual.

But Generation Y? We’re used to anonymity. We feel entitled, not to fight against things or to get to have things, but to get away with things. We don’t fight the system head on, we don’t glare indifferently at the system with our middle fingers raised, but we certainly don’t support the system more than any previous generation. When our adolescents fight authority, they do it with a smile and overtly expressed support, while sneaking decisively and quietly behind authority’s back. I think this goes hand-in-hand with a generation that grew up with the anonymity of the internet. Our generation grew up with screen names and cheat codes. Previous generations saw a need to be in only one place at a time and being only one person at a time (though you could be different hour-to-hour). This generation attempts multiple existences, multiple states of mind, simultaneously. Perhaps formative years spent embracing a Cyberspace which bends previously accepted rules of time and space leads to a sense of duplicity as commonplace and identity as detachable and replaceable. Perhaps, as children, we used too many “God Mode” cheats: we became too used to invulnerability and doing whatever we wanted. (see also: Brene Brown’s TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability”)

Of course, for all their deceptive ploys and crafty planning, GenY still posts their exploits to YouTube and Facebook, so it’s hard to be too worried about them as a threat. There is a contradiction in the rising generation: a need to publicize the secretive. The dilemma for them is the paradoxical need to be underground megastars, widely known among only a select few. They might be more deceitful and dishonest than previous generations, but they also feel a need to overshare exploits.

“Everyone wants to pull off the crime of the century…. /And get away with it. Get away with it. We Americans are freedom loving people, and nothing says freedom like getting away with it. /We went from Billy the Kid to Richard Nixon, Enron, Exxon, O.J. Simpson… /We used to dream about heroes, but now it’s just how to beat the system.” – Guy Forsyth, “It’s Been A Long, Long Time”

Are Video Games a Waste of Time?

I’m not a nihilist, but let’s be clear about what we mean: what is (or is not) a” waste of time”? Our school assignments end up in trash cans at the end of the semester. Most of our work is undone or obsolete in a year or two.

What achievements really do matter in life?

As much as we want to brush off videogame accomplishments as meaningless, what really distinguishes them from accomplishments in school or work? That they are recognized by others? The subjectivity in that answer is unsatisfying because it is so dependent on others and leaves nothing intrinsic to the achievement. What about the thought that those accomplishments improve our lives? This raises questions about happiness and meaning in our lives. Accomplishments with family and friends seem to be different in kind from achieving praise at work or school. If videogames can facilitate (and not obstruct) our personal relationships, can they be more conducive to self-actualization than the tasks of employment that so often interfere with our relationships?

If videogames can be used to solve genetics puzzles or produce knowledge for humanity, are they as good as working hard in a lab? Maybe it depends on whether you think work has to be boring, and whether you think videogames are always fun. I have worked harder on some videogames than I have on some essays, sometimes enduring greater frustration and aggravation as a result. Although we think of them as mindless recreation, videogames can be demanding and challenging, as the world of e-sports shows.

Even if videogames can connect us to distant relatives and unlock genetic mysteries, I worry about a population that spends too much time sitting and staring at screens. Even if videogames can never consistently be more than accidentally helpful and mostly a waste of productive (by capitalist standards) time, I worry about a population that shuns a potentially culturally enriching medium. It seems there is room to balance productive, healthy, useful enjoyment of videogames with a sense of humanity, work ethic, self-awareness, and a sense of being-in-the-world (no, I’m not going to call it Dasein) rather than “staring-at-images-of-the-cyberworld.”