Episode Eleven: The Cult of Making, Shooting Fish In Jean Michel Jarre’s Barrel

by danhon

1. Oh Just Shut Up About Making

Fair warning: *this* one definitely is rambling.

I get quite tired of the whole ‘you’ve got to be a maker’ rhetoric sometimes. If anything because the rhetoric is frequently used in a zero-sum environment: if you’re not moving fast and making things, then you’re doing things wrong. In a surprising development, people who work in a universe derived from the binary like to think of things in binaries, with rules and heuristics.

This is what I like about the space I have here: because I’m not trolling for page views or writing a little bit on Medium that feels like it needs to attract traffic or attention (I have you guys! You guys who’ve chosen to receive this stuff!) I don’t have to be needlessly inflammatory and say something like “The Cult Of Making Things, And Why It Needs To Die” and mediumsplain to you. Or, because this isn’t Twitter, I don’t have to have the argument or advance my position in increments of 140 characters that, ultimately, need to be collected by someone else in a collection of Exquisite Tweets.

So here’s my reasonable position: yes, you need a practice in making things. It’s only by doing things and seeing the feedback that you can get better. But at some times the “if you’re not a maker, you’re roadkill” mentality is exclusionary: that the binary nature of discussion and advancement of points devalue, well, people who think about things and — you can guess where this is going — don’t code, or don’t want to.

A long time ago, I learned to code: I’ve always been a geek, and like a lot of people, spent ages laboriously typing out programme listing into a BBC. I like systems. I like seeing how things fit together and, in a kind of Unix-y way, like seeing how I can join things together. If we take *this thing* and then pipe it into *that thing*, and those two things are kind of unrelated, then, wow: we could make a *new thing*. I spent awkward teenage years poring over copies of BYTE magazine and thinking: man, Jerry Pournelle must be really lucky to get all this stuff, and his house sounds awesome[1]. I would circle those information cards that fell out of the magazines and would get mailed (To me! At my house!) brand new brochures about the NeXTStation. Of which literature I would probably scan in for Internet Points now, but for my parents throwing all the stuff out. I would spend one summer with a schoolfriend setting up all of our school’s Windows 95 computers with TCP/IP and hacking together an intranet running on IIS. Or munging a coursework submission system together in Perl. But at the same time: man, I loved writing. I still do, I think. Otherwise, probably, I wouldn’t be doing this, and I wouldn’t have started blogging way back in ’99 either.

So, code. I know enough to be dangerous. I know enough about the concepts – ish, and when I finally had some spare time, I went off and got a bit of paper that said I knew what I was talking about, and for my dissertation wrote a Mac OS X program that would generate a bit of Friend-of-a-Friend RDF for you, using another piece of hacked-together Cocoa/Java bridge, which doesn’t even exist any more. And also because, I think, I wasn’t allowed to do the thing in Objective-C, which I hadn’t even learned anyway.

All this is kind of a tangent: it may well be my own neuroses and issues, but there’s a part of me that feels on some level some sort of resentment at not being a Maker. And I can point to any number of issues about why that might not be the case – when you’re clinically depressed and see something that you Capital S Should be able to do, like order an arduino and start messing about with it, because intellectually, you’re capable of doing it, but you Just Don’t because you’re clinically depressed, well… – but part of what I’m trying to figure out is being comfortable with myself.

What I’m starting to figure out is that actually, I quite like being in the middle. I like being able to talk to and understand the people on the business end of writing the code that makes software. But I also like being removed enough from it that I feel like I can see some sort of big picture.

There’s value in making things that aren’t underpinned by code. There’s value in creating understanding, or even in manufacturing understanding, if that helps. Hell, there’s even value in making Keynote decks, especially because there’s value in making good ones – and are you saying that there’s more value in bad software than there is in bad Powerpoint? Because that feels like the kind of argument that is a waste of time. Of course no one’s saying that if all you’re doing is wanking around just reckoning things and not moving toward ‘making’ something, that’s not exactly productive. But – and I honestly don’t think this is the kind of slippery slope that moral relativism falls down where anything goes – even the right kind of provocative opinion (hat tipped to Mr. Anil Dash) can be productive in opening up an Overton window.

I guess what I’m railing against is this: if you’re the kind of person who values someone else’s worth on whether they “make” things, and you’re the kind of person who considers “making” to be something where you squirt code in one end and a Thing comes out the other end, then we’re probably not going to be friends. Because you sound like an inflexible idiot.

Because this newsletter is something I make. So there.

I still like this poster, though[2].

[1] http://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/95q1/jpreviews.html
[2] http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackbeltjones/3365682994/

2. Jean Michel Jarre Reckons How Much Your Innovation Is Worth

Yesterday, in the continuing series of artist-in-medium-disrupted-and-disintermediated-by-internet-demands-something, Jean Michel Jarre was the latest to advocate some sort of device tax, this time on smartphones, for the fact that digitisation and digital distribution fundamentally changed the landscape of recording music:

“We should never forget that in the smartphone, the smart part is us creators. If you get rid of music, images, videos, words and literature from the smartphone, you just have a simple phone that would be worth $50. Okay, let’s accept that there’s a lot of innovation in the smartphone, so let’s add $100 for this innovation – the remaining $300-$400 of the price should go to [the creators].”[1]

Now, I don’t want to go shooting fish in a barrel. And imagining Steve Jobs’ reaction to the proposition that Apple’s innovation in the iPhone is “$100” is amusing in my head. But perhaps Mr. Jarre should let us know what the rest of his reckons about the value of “innovations” are:

– The LTE patents that underpin mobile data access. Let’s make that $50.
– The Gorilla glass used on smartphones. Maybe only $2 for that. Because really, it’s only glass, but stronger.
– Wavelength division multiplexing in fiber optic backhaul networks? Oh, go on. $23.

The other blindspot (and actually, this is starting to feel rather mean) of Jarre’s position is his looking at the smartphone purely as a distribution platform for dumb content. There is no mention, as mentioned by @sir_eccles[2], of the Angry Birds, Candy Crushes, Clash of Clans, Temple Runs or Tiny Towers that are interactive media (not music, images, videos, words and literature) and making a tidy sum of money by, well, monetising the experience.

And what of the other manufacturers of every single item from this 1991 Radio Shack ad[3]? Were they not also the lifeblood of a country, deserving of compensation from the reckless disruption caused by the smartphone?

And anyway: it would’ve been nice if The Guardian had done the maths on Jarre’s claim, if only to point out how stupendously unreasonable and insane it was. Now: Wikipedia[4] reckons that on its fifth birthday, Apple had sold 250 million iPhones. That was in the middle of 2012, so we know those numbers are lowballed. It’s actually more like half a billion iPhones now. Which is insane. At Jarre’s *low end* of $300, he reckons that *One Hundred And Fifty Billion Dollars* of iPhone revenue – and that’s just iPhone revenue! Not even touching any of Samsung’s! – should have been redistributed (presumably via licensing agencies) to people who make music, images, video, words and literature.

He’s on crack. About a hundred and fifty billion dollars worth of crack.

And anyway, if we’re really checking, Wikipedia also reckons that as of Q2 2013, 1,082mm Android phones have been sold[5]. So that’s another $324 billion.

So altogether, by Jarre’s count, the tech industry owes his content creator friends at least half a trillion dollars of back-pay.

Because in comparison, Wikipedia reckons[6] that between 2005 and 2012, the global music industry’s revenue decreased by about $4bn, from $20.7bn to $16.5bn.

So someone, please, stop Jean Michel Jarre from reckoning. Because he’s reckoning recklessly in his capacity as president of CISAC – the global body of authors’ societies.

That said, I suppose we should remember that Jarre is presumably using Music Industry Mathematics – potentially related to bistromathics – where an individual song is worth over $20,000[7].

(This was also a Twitter monologue from last night, helpfully collected[8] by Paul Mison)

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/feb/05/jean-michel-jarre-smartphone-google-creators
[2] https://twitter.com/sir_eccles/status/431198474952921088
[3] http://www.trendingbuffalo.com/life/uncle-steves-buffalo/everything-from-1991-radio-shack-ad-now/
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPhone
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smartphone
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_industry#2012
[7] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/04/tenenbaum-appeal/
[8] http://www.exquisitetweets.com/collection/blech/2918

Before we finish today, first a kind-of-housekeeping note: it sounds like some of these episodes have actually provoked a response with some of you – if you do have some sort of response to anything I’ve written, please do reply or let me know where you’ve published it.

That’s it for today. I’m going to have to lie down for a bit because Jarre has made me quite annoyed. Back tomorrow, with potentially a piece about the computing architecture of the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe, because geek.