This week: preserving our digital heritage, and the national identity crisis caused by consumerism. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
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Intro This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter, and I'm Kai Riemer. And every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world. Okay, let's start. Let's start!
Kai Today on The Future, This Week: preserving our digital heritage, and the national identity crisis caused by consumerism.
Sandra I'm Sandra Peter. I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. So Sandra, what happened in the future this week?
Sandra There were actually lots of interesting stories this week. KFC is going to sell plant-based fried chicken.
Kai That sounds just wrong.
Sandra Well we could have a whole debate of whether a plant-based is chicken, and we've had these conversations before on the podcast about fake...
Kai Milk. Yeah.
Sandra Yep. There was a very interesting story about Kenya warming up to water hyacinth as a source of biofuel.
Kai And we decided not to do this because I can't pronounce whatever this plant is called.
Sandra And it's a really invasive species, so finding some use for it is really good news.
Kai There was also a story that Netflix has shipped five billion discs, you know, remember DVDs? Interesting aspect here is that Netflix is still doing this, which I didn't know.
Sandra Neither did I.
Kai There's still about two and a half million people, subscribers who regularly get DVD movies in the post, that of course compares to about 150 million streaming customers. But you know, that's an interesting one, because we shouldn't forget that while the world is going digital, not all of the world is going digital at the same speed.
Sandra Well speaking of going digital and Netflix, Netflix is also taking a turn towards human-driven curations. They're launching something called collections, where you will have actual people, not algorithms, curating.
Kai Anyone ask the algorithms how they feel about that, being displaced by humans?
Sandra Yeah, I think some algorithm just lost their job.
Kai And then there's stories about Uber and Facebook and the usual suspects which we've done on the podcast before.
Sandra But the stories we're going to discuss today are actually quite different. We're going to discuss MySpace, and most of our listeners probably can't even remember what that was.
Kai Apparently it is, or was, a social network.
Sandra It was a social network that had more users than Google, at that point. It was bigger than Facebook.
Kai And we're going to discuss the wonderful weird world of consumerism, and the affects consumerism has on the national identity of the US as a country, and by extension many other Western countries.
Sandra But let's start with our first story.
Kai "What MySpace lost". So this one appeared a couple of days ago in the Australian version of Gizmodo.
Sandra And it related the botched corporate server migration that recently seemed to have cost the world 50 million songs by 40 million artists that had been posted to MySpace between 2003 and 2016, which is the vast majority of its library. And diehard MySpace users, the article reports compared the loss to the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and others just rejoiced at teenage angst being cremated.
Kai So this MySpace incident was first confirmed back in March, and there's an article in The Verge which we're going to put in the shownotes, which reports that all the music and also photos and videos uploaded between 2003 and 2015 to the MySpace Web site has been lost in this so-called botched server migration.
Sandra And again, just to put this in context for our listeners, MySpace was the largest social networking site in the world from 2005 to 2008, it was acquired by NewsCorp back in 2005 for about 580 million dollars.
Kai Not a great investment in hindsight as it turned out, because they did sell it in 2012 for a meagre 35 million, you can do the math on that.
Sandra But at its height, this was around 2006, it had surpassed Google as the most visited web site in the United States. And all up it had more than a billion registered users. So why are we talking about MySpace, a defunct social network that just happened to delete a whole bunch of songs? Why care about this, what does this tell us?
Kai So first of all, it serves as a warning for all of us who have our digital lives on digital platforms, and who do not keep local backups, so this can happen basically, right. So platforms are under no obligation to keep our stuff forever, and platforms come and go.
Sandra Even big ones.
Kai Yeah, and this stuff now apparently is lost forever. So 50 million songs, most of them self-recorded, each one of them maybe not the best version of our history...
Sandra But our history nonetheless.
Kai So the article asks the question of why preserve all this stuff on the Internet? For example, who should care about old version of the in Encarta Encyclopedia, formerly a Microsoft product? And the answer to that is because they are a cultural heritage, they have value in tracing the history of how certain bits of knowledge emerged, or in the case of MySpace indeed, how certain music genres emerged, how certain bands emerged, where they have their heritage, who people used to hang out with, how local music communities evolved and how certain genres came about.
Sandra And that these artefacts such as these songs that allow us to access our history. If you think back of what we used to access medieval times, it's just the things that managed to survive fires and wars and destruction, or that people or institutions decided to keep, through which we now read our histories.
Kai But with these platforms we have an opportunity to not just preserve individual artefacts. So in this instance, you know, individual songs, so if every artist had their songs on their local hard disks, which in this instance they don't, we might say 'okay, all the artefacts are preserved', but in case of platforms such as MySpace, they provide much more than that because they have the connections between the artists, between the music groups, they have the friendship networks, and so the value is in this collective body of knowledge. When it's been put together as a repository, as a living history where we can see when things were uploaded, when things were recorded, who recorded with whom, who was friends with whom. And the article actually reports on some of those instances where people were able to trace local music histories in Chicago, especially when it comes to certain genres such as emo, metal, crunk, trap, drill, pop-rap and psychedelic soul.
Sandra But similarly you could think about tracing fashion trends on Instagram, or culinary trends on Facebook, or the way fan fiction develops around Harry Potter, or the aesthetic of coffee shops through LatteArt hashtags.
Kai Hashtag Vanlife, that's a whole cultural movement that is documented on Instagram.
Sandra And that only exists on Instagram.
Kai Yeah so if that was to disappear, we might find some, you know, pimped up campervans, but the whole significance of this in the greater conversation of a society would be lost. So as much of our cultural life revolves around digital platforms. Questions need to be asked, what of this is actually worth preserving. And the less we individually own that data and it sits on these platforms, the less we're in charge of actually doing this ourselves.
Sandra Because let's remember, many people just keep their photos on Instagram, or on Google Photos, we stream all of our music, we don't own it anymore. The same thing with movies, with Netflix, where we no longer have copies of our music or our movies or our digital selves.
Kai And let's not forget that especially in case of smaller communities and smaller websites, people invest a lot of time and energy in curating these special interest repositories, that then serve as public goods for everyone to enjoy.
Sandra And you had a good example of a closed curation of such a repository in the music industry.
Kai Yes the example that I want to bring up is that of an underground BitTorrent repository called OiNK, the full name was OiNK Pink Palace. And it's a really odd and curious case of a membership-only platform that was run by a 21 year old named Alan Ellis at the time, and we're talking 2004 here. A website dedicated to cataloguing and collecting pretty much the complete history of music in high quality. So this guy took over a website that was previously dedicated to sharing movies and all kinds of files, and came up with a set of really tight rules around what was allowed and what wasn't on the website. So for example, in order to download music via this BitTorrent repository, one had to become a member, with real name, real email addresses, IP addresses. And in order to download, one had to commit to actually upload material. So whenever someone wanted to download something they had to also upload something, which gave an incentive to find more music that wasn't actually already available on the repository. And music had to be uploaded in really good quality. So that was the time just after Napster, there was a lot of low-quality MP3 floating around the Internet, which is what this community was not interested in. They wanted high quality MP3, properly tagged with all the artist information, or even better, better sound quality file formats such as FLAC for example, which is a lossless sound format. Long story short, over time this repository ended up being (according to many of the users involved) one of the most complete music repositories in the history of mankind, having links to files of bootleg recordings, concert recordings, underground recordings, rare collections of vinyl recordings, a lot of things that were not available in normal music stores, or indeed commercial online platforms such as iTunes, and later Amazon. And so it became a really amazing socially-curated collection of music that did not exist anywhere else. And for those of you who are interested in the Oink case, this is presented at length in the book How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt, we're going to put the link in the shownotes. A really fascinating history of recorded music, the Internet, piracy, and all the related stories around it.
Sandra So whatever happened to OiNK?
Kai Well OiNK pretty much got shut down and deleted when Alan Ellis was made a example of online piracy, and was charged by the UK government for piracy, of which he was later acquitted because he merely ran a directory server.
Sandra A whole different discussion were not going to go into.
Kai Exactly. But the long story short this amazing repository, the outcome of years and years of free labour, was pretty much destroyed in an instant at the time.
Sandra So what did we lose?
Kai We've basically lost a good part of the history of music which provides the context for how music evolved and how it recorded music in particular evolve rare recordings and also a collective understanding of the significance of music at the time.
Sandra Which reminds me of this great scene in Star Trek Beyond from 2016.
Audio EXCERPT OF MOVIE
Kai So obviously we're far in the future here and the context of recorded music has been lost, only some songs have survived.
Sandra So Beastie Boys' Sabotage now counts as classical music.
Kai Exactly, as this is probably the only genre left. So if we agree now that there is a lot of things on the Internet that are worth preserving...
Sandra And a lot of shit on the Internet as well. A lot of noise, a lot of exhaust, a lot of pollution that is not worth preserving.
Kai But at the same time, that is the point. You could argue that a lot of this music that is now lost was just noise and it was insignificant. But there's two arguments to this. What is insignificant to you and me might have had a lot of significance for individual users, and the article mentions some of those distraught users who had lost loved ones whose music was on there, and memories were on there, but also that sometimes the value is in the collection, as we said. So the noise might actually have certain value.
Sandra So then the question is how do we go about preserving this?
Kai Yeah, and whose job is it? Now we could argue that it's up to everyone, first of all, to back up their own data. But that raises certain issues. First of all...
Sandra I can certainly not buy a phone that's got enough storage for all my pictures.
Kai Yeah and some platforms such as Myspace didn't actually allow simple downloads of all your files and recordings.
Sandra And there's also all the stuff that were streaming online now.
Kai Yeah, so getting stuff off these platforms might be problematic and getting it onto your computer, but that's also the problem here. For most people using the Internet today, using platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and many other platforms, their access (and often sole access) is via a smart device, an iPad, tablet, smartphone. And so the idea of backing up data to a computer hard disk is not just beyond the life, world and knowledge of most people, it's also beyond the means of most people.
Sandra So then it could be down to institutions, for instance.
Kai And there's certainly institutions such as the Library of Congress and...
Sandra They back up Twitter.
Kai Twitter and other platforms that have official public significance. But it's limited to just a few high profile platforms and data collections. And it's then down to volunteer groups, and there is indeed quite a number of initiatives that again rely on the free labour and enthusiasms of people to preserve some of that.
Sandra A bit like Wikipedia, right?
Kai Exactly. And so one of them is called The Internet Archive, and indeed recently it uploaded 490 thousand tracks from MySpace recorded between 2008 and 2010 that was collected by an independent research project, so they were recovered because they had been stored outside of the MySpace platform. And the archive team also maintains a project called Death Watch where they maintain a list of extinct or endangered large websites, which they then make a priority to keep copies of.
Sandra So that's things like GeoCities, if anyone remembers that, or 15 years of Encyclopedia Encarta. And 115 million accounts of Friendster, and millions of rare tracks on What.CD.
Kai And while these community platforms presents some solution, they're also quite fragile because they again depend on individuals driving it. They could be bought by commercial entities, or indeed they could suffer data loss themselves. So at the moment, the preservation of our cultural digital heritage is really quite a mess.
Sandra So it could come down to you.
Kai Or me?
Sandra What are you doing to preserve our digital cultural heritage?
Kai Or as the researchers of the independent MySpace Project said.
Sandra "They...", that is the platforms, "do not care about you or your stuff. Please keep local copies of your shit." So our second story for today comes from the New York Times and it's titled "The New Spiritual Consumerism" by Amanda Hess.
Kai And Amanda takes consumerism to court, or that is a form of consumerism that in her eyes tries to find a meaning in consuming what is the right products in the right ways. And she paints a picture by launching off the television series Queer Eye which is of course a Netflix reboot of an earlier show which also aired in Australia called Queer Eye For The Straight Guy where and I quote "Five Queer experts in various aesthetic practices conspire to make over some helpless individual". So people with a background in fashion, design, food, grooming and culture help what is usually a lost male individual makeover their life by learning to purchase the right products, to dress in the right way, to eat the right food, and to be into the right cultural stuff, and so the argument goes.
Sandra And the article brings up a range of other similar shows and initiatives, things like the logic of Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow's luxury brand.
Kai Is it wrong if the word bullshit pops into my head right now?
Sandra Slightly. But let's move on to Marie Kondo, who's also become a Netflix personality after writing a best-selling book, that suggests that objects don't just make us feel good, they have feelings themselves and teaches people how to...
Kai Find joy in the things you love by getting rid of other things, and who has turned the folding of tea towels into a spiritual activity.
Sandra And even Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are now launching a celebrity church, so they're also turning towards the spiritual, and on and on the article decries the fact that materialism now also has to become meaningful, and says that all of these things are a triumph of consumer spectacle just dressed up in spirituality.
Kai And so the article goes, and it's quite easy to take this argument and call bullshit on a lot of what is happening in society.
Sandra Or hard for some of us who love some of these shows.
Kai But we want to point out that it is easy to be condescending and patronising and, you know, look down on consumerism, when we all live in this same society. And we want to point out that this is slightly missing the point here.
Sandra But what if this is not just old materialism getting a new look, or people finding new ways of selling you even more things, weighing them down with spiritual significance. What if this is really a pushback against consumerism, in the only way that it can happen in societies such as the American one. And here is where we want to bring in a very interesting article that we've also come across this week.
Kai Also in the New York Times, coincidentally.
Sandra Titled "The American Economy is Creating a National Identity Crisis".
Kai And so Tim Wu, a law professor from Columbia University, in this article makes the point that for many people the US has always been a great place to buy stuff, to consume. But at the same time, the American society, the American economy, has a terrible reputation as a place to work.
Sandra Indeed, in the US there is no real vacation. There's really no sensitivity to any type of work/life balance, business hours are all hours of the day and night.
Kai Workplaces are not necessarily great places to hang out, there is corporate surveillance, there's also the eroding of employment relationships in favour of the gig economy.
Sandra Under this casual observation he actually identifies something much deeper and more problematic at play, which is the way in which the US economy has been built over the last 40 years. And he makes a very interesting point in that if you look at the American economic policy since the 1980s, it has placed two things at its centre. Cheaper prices for the consumers and maximising returns for the shareholders.
Kai So shareholder value and consumerism underpin economic policy, and indeed the national economic identity in the US. Whereas previously policy might have treated people predominantly as producers, as people with an intent to manufacturer and create and build things, in the last 40 years it has markedly shifted towards understanding people as mainly consumers, and shareholders. And that has also driven of course inequality, where indeed those two groups are increasingly separate, a few people own the most. And the rest in society work for survival, and for consuming and buying things.
Sandra The article makes the point that for most of American history it would have been really strange to suggest that buying things, as opposed to making them or trading them, was in any way deserving of the highest regard in the economy, or that the availability of cheap goods should be the major focus of economic policy. If people are farmers, if people are craftsmen, if people are merchants, then their identity is quite different from the one that we put forward today, which has buying things at the centre of it, and owning things as deserving of the highest regard in the economy. So that policy shift from focussing on things like trade policy, or the protection of liberties as necessary for small farmers or craftsmen or merchants to do business, to the rise of the consumer, has only come about in the last century. And if you look at the 70s and 80s this prioritisation of consumers has also coincided with the decline of farming, and with the spread of mass production, but also with the birth of marketing and advertising.
Kai And so Tim Wu locates a number of problems in this rampant consumerism, chiefly among them the inequality, but also things like loneliness and mental health problems, which stem from a neglect of other significant identities of people such as employees, as business owners, family members or indeed citizens. But he locates good news in the fact that not only has there been an increasing pushback against shareholder value as the only economic metric for a company's success, there is now pushback from the political class against this understanding of economic policy. A lot of the Democratic candidates in the primary race run on platforms that offer alternatives in the way of dealing with societal problems like large corporations. Andrew Yang proposing universal basic income. So there's different ways to rethink what this society should be about.
Sandra And indeed it gives us a different explanation for this rise of new spiritual consumerism. Rather than this triumph of consumer spectacle and of trying to infuse now the things we have with spirituality. It is a pushback in the only space that economic policy now allows, and the prioritisation of buying things over anything else allows, in that the things we own now have to afford or create the space for more meaningful lives.
Kai So in the absence of an alternative economic model, this seems to be the only response to recover meaning from inside of consumerism, and so it will only be over time to actually come to a new understanding, and maybe to a more holistic understanding, of what a society is there for, and that the society is more than simply the economy that revolves around shareholders and consumers. And this is where the significance of the original story lies.
Sandra And in that respect this is a good news story, not a bad news story. This is actually a pushback. It's not actually digging deeper into the consumerism rabbit hole.
Kai And this is all we have time for today. See you soon.
Sandra On The Future....
Kai Next week.
Sandra This week?
Kai Yes, but next week.
Sandra On The Future, This Week. Next week. Thanks for listening.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week, made possible by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week, right here with us, our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud or wherever you got your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter, or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.