Go With the Flow

We define the machine as any system that cuts the fluxes. Thus sometimes we speak of technical machines, in the ordinary sense of the word, sometimes of social machines, sometimes of desiring machines.[1]

Napster was the culprit that let the cat out of the bag, and 'the cat' carried the plague, at least in the eyes of the established music industry. This originally independent software company (started by 19 year old Shawn Fanning) came to symbolize how new technology, new machines emerged to challenge the prevailing system in the industry. By and large the major actors in the field of culture production (record and movie companies) have responded to the challenge of rapid dissemination of copyrighted material by trying to shut down this flow (by legal as well as technical means).

Personally, I had the opportunity as an observer to spend 6 months tracking the unfolding events surrounding Napster, and I feel that recognizing the machinic properties of an entity like Napster (which embodied a software company, an internet site as well as numerous other "things") will facilitate a more somber, analytic insight into this area. And, since within this particular territory in our era of the New Media Napster was the original Mean Machine (being the first operator to offer free mp3 downloads with a certain quality in a larger scale) we can gain some insight by examining the inner workings of that machine. Since Napster is being re-launched as a 'pay-to-play' service it is interesting to take a closer look at it's 'machinic trajectory' the first time around and possibly draw some conclusions regarding the interaction of the machine with its surroundings and the ensuing control issues connected to the controversy.

First, let's make a concerted effort to dispose with the "traditional" or conservative view of what a machine represents; "we have to shed our mechanist visions of the machine and promote a conception which encompasses all of its aspects: technological, biological, social, theoretical, and aesthetic."[2] The notion put forward by Deleuze and Guattari indicates that a machine is not just an assemblage of mechanisms or digital codes, and I would argue that within a domain such as the Internet it is particularly helpful to acknowledge the non-technical characteristics of a machine. Looking beyond the mere mechanical elements that constitutes a machine will have implications for any action connected to it.

The Napster controversy offered many opportunities to question the notion of the machinic . The extensive debate concerning the Napster lawsuits understandably centered around the copyright issues and did not contribute enough to shed light on most aspects of this machine; it "moves," it "cuts the fluxes." Identifying fluxes and machines helps us to avoid seeing an entity and a story as disconnected and separated from other social/technical areas and practices which are connected to our object of interest on one level or another.

The machine produces an interruption in the flow only insofar as it is connected to another machine that supposedly produces this flow.[3]

Since a machine is a "system of interruptions or breaks" it should prove productive to identify which fluxes Napster cut into and to what other machines it connected itself. The fact that Napster could be said to be the first to offer a technologically successful system for users to download mp3 files for free certainly led to a "production of a flow, in relation to the machine connected to it."[4] Here we have been presented with an organized territory of a large, seemingly impenetrable system (a very different type of machine),that of music production and distribution, then as a "line of flight" emerges from a break (Napster) in this flow the image suddenly seems to shift quite radically.

In the logic of signs, as in the logic of symbols, objects are no longer tied to a function or a defined need. This is precisely because objects respond to something different, either a social logic, or to a logic of desire, where they serve as a fluid and unconscious field of signification.[5]

To assess the relationship between the machine and its surroundings (designer, users, markets, etc.) it is necessary to recognize how it cuts into a chain of signifiers. A successful innovator manages to attach the artifact in question to some form of social/cultural "signifying chain" by inscribing [6] a "vision" of this interaction between the object and its environment. This might be embedded in technical as well as design solutions (this might be why we have kitchen appliances that look like spiders!). Napster, then, was inscribed in such a manner it cut into the prevailing sign-system (remember: signs can be technical as well as cultural) of the CD. This operated basically in two (interconnected) ways; [A] by excluding the visuals (cover art) and [B] by diminishing the genre aspect.

The relevance of the first aspect to the future format(s) of music distribution could be summed up in two ways:

  1. "You're never going to have the relationship with a file that you have with a CD... I don't think the subscription Napster will work, as people won't pay for something so ephemeral." (my italics)
        -- Nigel Godrich, producer of Radiohead and REM.[7]
  2. "The romanticism of buying a record from your local record store has gone. Thirteen year old kids prefer to burn their own CDs with tracks downloaded from the web."
        -- Chuck D, Hip-Hop legend.[8]

Recognizing the significance of the format (and its signifying aspects) makes it difficult to agree with John Alderman, author of Sonic Boom, that in the online domain only music's "soul remains, its digital code"[9] since formats (technical issues aside) are not just vehicles for transporting specific files (a limited code) but carry a "cultural cargo" (an unlimited code) as well. A digital representation of the artifact does not sufficiently cover what constitutes the artifact's (meta/physical) body.

As a result of a new openness in the system (regarding all types of flows) the way we consider genres and relate to objects (acquisition as well as use) is challenged, something which has ramifications for every aspect of the industry, from artistic expression to consumer behavior.

Entering the record store (physically, virtually or metaphysically) we see how every item is carefully genre-categorized, whereas if, through Napster, you searched for, say The Thrill Is Gone you could choose to download Chet Baker's as well as Faith No More's version. This instantaneity in relation to locating and acquiring music was naturally a key aspect of Napster's allure, and a truly polyvocal representation of musical expression which still represents a challenge for an industry preoccupied with marketing Britney Spears.

It is important to note that inscribing is also an attempt to "configure the user,"[10] an attempt to set parameters for user actions. And the work of the innovator concerns "inscribing this vision of (or prediction about) the world in the technical content."[11] It could, however, be argued that the inscription process is far more comprehensive then "configuring the user" by way of the "technical content." When dissecting an entity like Napster or strategizing over the fate of the CD it seems advisable to simultaneously regard this process as both less of a tangible and more of an encompassing experience.

There is more to this action than strategy and technology -- other actions might occupy a space within the negotiations of disparate factors without necessarily being granted this space by agenda-pushing actors. The choice of logo, the choice of name, and even design features are potentially 'accidental' incidents which contribute substantially. The idea that the inscription is described only in the technical content and that it refers somewhat exclusively to the designer/user relationship is a vital element in this particular controversy as the music industry and the movie industry seem particularly concerned with this part of the process.

A natural consequence of this outlook is that when building a machine you're not just dealing with technical components or solely digital codes, but an intricate system of actors in which the constructor needs to strike a balance through allegiances. This is the situation no matter the environment or the strategy of the constructor/s. As for the strategy of the music (and motion picture industry) in their construction (redevelopment) of a marketing and distribution system it has lately been one of control. Trying to inscribe parameters for user behavior by encoding products (CDs, DVDs) to hinder copying.

This is a strategy that certainly involves "taking the long way around" considering the astronomical number of actors that will have to "pledge allegiance" (including recruiting codes that won't easily be hacked). The object should be to keep the number of necessary allies to a minimum while maximizing the number of crucial allies.

The industry could benefit from a strategy of "double motion"; maximizing and minimizing its number of allies. The aim is to construct a system where a maximum amount of allies are recruited, and to facilitate this one need to minimize the number of allies which have to be recruited to make the system work. This is the more constructive course of action. The problem of control is two-fold and concerns a "balance of control" and naturally originates in the alliance issue: too little or too much control.

The first problem relates to how to encode a device sufficiently to avoid "breakage." As exemplified by the "DVD-Jon case" in which the Norwegian teenager Jon Johansen was acquitted of "breaking into another person's locked property to gain access to data that no one is entitled to access."[12] The Motion Picture Association of America brought charges (through the economical crime unit in Norway) against Johansen after he was found to be instrumental in creating the 'DeCSS' program which allows the user to unscramble DVD thus facilitating use on computers, and subsequently the possibility of copying. The fact that the user is entitled, according to this ruling, to this type of control over the products illustrates how neither the legal nor the technical amount of allies necessary has, so far, been recruited for the system the industry is creating, the machine it is constructing.

It seems fairly likely these enfolding attempts to configure the user might result in a situation where the user is increasingly alienated. For instance, it is not very efficient if the music industry inscribes CDs with codes to hinder copying which simultaneously render them unplayable on certain devices. The consumer realizes there is a freedom to choose and an opportunity to interact with the machine. And, this strategy certainly goes against the grain of user needs by reducing these options. The first time around Napster instigated a virtual soft-war as numerous software companies scrambled to either ensure 'digital rights management' (protecting content before public release) while others sought to offer de-scrambling solutions to counter attempts to copy-control files.

The way programs and codes transmogrify and multiply like wild flowers when a rupture occurs in such a system further underscores the machinic properties of an entity instrumental in this event, and illustrates the monumental task of those intent on imposing a maximum level of control on the new environment/territory. Instead the industry could choose to "go with the flow." The "flow-cutting" incidents led to (or should lead to) questioning just about every practice within the field of music production, distribution and marketing. This should, basically, entail a rethinking of the inscription process concerning the artifact. Simplifying the system could be obtained by a strategy to re-present the machine anew. This means looking beyond the emphasis on the "patterns of use" part of the process and to recognize its "sign-function"; a sign is "an indicator of future potential and a symptom of a past."[13]

With regard to a sign/a machine/an artifact which serves the purpose of presenting music to connect itself to its "natural habitat" (from the music store, virtual or real, to listening spaces) the music industry cannot afford to continue ignoring the machinic properties of their products, and merely seeing this entity of music production as an object . In a sense, this requires putting the art into the artifact, not as some sort of high-brow strategy but as a recognition of an 'object's' interactive elements. A key factor in the relationship between artist, work and appropriator (listener) is the investment of the self (dreams, desires, aesthetic ideals etc.) in the process. Now, technology is allowing for new ways of investing; Radiohead posting loops at their web-site for fans to incorporate into new expressions and Public Enemy allowing access to original master tracks of the vocals for open remixing are just two examples of how an artistic event will not berepresented in a pure and final form. A call for re-presenting is an argument against strategies which go against the grain of the machine by attempting to shut down flows and to close off the form(at).

If the focus continues to be almost exclusively on music as an object with a linear trajectory: from the producers to the distributors to the consumers, those at 'the end of the line' (consumers) will probably keep looking for other openings into the system -- not content with their role in the hierarchy. The original Mean Machine might have crashed and burned to be reborn as a ,slightly charred, Phoenix from the ashes with questionable capacity for taking flight but there are still plenty of others out there, and the major companies now have the opportunity to inter-act with instead of re-acting to the dynamics of this territory. A strengthening of the ties between artifact and appropriator (by allowing expressions that encourage self investment) simplifies the inscription process by enrolling key allies and excluding certain legal and technical actants that could be left obsolete to said territory.

Factors like instantaneity, availability, marketing possibility are certainly elements of the "mp3 revolution" which record label executives are perfectly aware of. One strategy is to buy market information concerning download numbers at P2P operators like Kazaa. Assigning these networks/actants with a new identity-that of market analyst and A&R (artist and repertoire) entity is clever, but hardly compatible with a strategy to identify those very same "informants" as "illegals." If the industry chose to focus less on viewing music as an object under strict ownership, but more of an event ( still created and disseminated by identifiable actants, for certain.) I feel it would be easier to take advantage of the heightened awareness concerning presentation and contribution of such a beloved cultural entity ("the long-play"). The fact that software machines have been instrumental in the development of a more open territory (production, distribution, consumption) within the entertainment industry is a situation that probably will be beyond the control of a set of dominant actors, and the sooner this is acted upon the sooner it is possible to benefit from this heightened awareness.

This is the Napster lesson.

I'd like to chat some more about it, but I have some vinyl shopping to do...


[1] Gilles Deleuze, Chaosophy, Small Press Distribution, 1998, p.98

[2] Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis , Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, p.107.

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, NY: Viking Press, 1977, p.34.

[4] Deleuze and Guattari, p.34.

[5] Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, Mark Poster, ed., Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988, p.44.

[6] Madeleine Akrich and Bruno Latour, "A Convinient Vocabulary," in Shaping Technology, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992, p.259-64.

[7] Hamish Macintosh, "Working it out," the Guardian, 19/07/01.

[8] speaking at the Netsound Conference, London, 02/05/01.

[9] John Alderman, Sonic Boom, Perseus, 2001, p.4.

[10] Keith Grint and Steve Woolgar, The Machine at Work, Cambridge (UK): Polity Press, 1997, p.72.

[11] Madeleine Akrich, "the de-scription of technological objects," in Shaping Technology, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992, p.208

[12] www.dagbladet.no/download/dvd-dommen.htm.

[13] Brian Massumi, A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992, p.11

Bo Vibe is a songwriter/musician (producing music as Meerkeime and Thrystero) a kamikaze inline-skater with a Masters of Arts in Society, Science and Technology from the University of Oslo and the University of East London. Thesis: "A Tale of Two Machines? -- An Actor Network Approach to the Napster Case." Currently dividing his time between Barcelona and Oslo. Homepage: www.vibe-music.com