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by Jason Gross

6 Jan 2009

Barring the appearance of Apple overlord Steve Jobs, who had to assure the market that he’s just got a hormone problem (which kept the company’s stock buoyant), the big announcement at Macworld was not about any new gizmo to rival or update the iPhone but some changes in iTunes as their big attention getter at their last appearance at the fest.  In their battle with the big labels, Apple finally decided to cave in and offer ‘flexible’ pricing, which means that hot new hits will cost more than 99 cents/song while less sought-after olders may be priced lower.  The labels figured that the laws of supply and demand would work in their favor this way rather than the easy one-size-fits-all model that Apple’s touted since it started their music service. 

For Apple, it will likely change very little since they were making tiny profits actually selling songs- their dough comes from sales of their sleak little gadgets (iPhone, iPod, etc..).  For the labels, it’ll be interesting to see how much this change effects their bottom line, if it does at all.  You can maybe assume that most iTunes users won’t jump ship unless the pricing gets too high for the songs but since iTunes is the biggest online music seller now, the change will definitely help the labels rake in more money.  But will it be enough to keep them afloat?

The other big news about changes in the iTunes model is that the songs offered there won’t have DRM anymore.  That means that they can get transferred freely and without any restrictions from one device to another to any computer to anywhere else.  That would be great news for the people who are gonna start buying now but what about all the chumps that already bought iTunes songs with the DRM on them?  Are they gonna be able to automatically get the same songs from iTunes without the DRM now?  Doubtful.  That might lead some resentful users to find their songs from other sources, especially ones that the labels don’t approve of.  As such, maybe Macworld will miss Apple at their conferences but some of their users might not.

UPDATE: Apple is offering uses the chance to convert their old DRM-tagged songs that they’ve bought from iTunes to be stripped of the copy protection for 30 cents a song.  Jobs and friends really should know better than to fleece consumers like that.

by Rob Horning

6 Jan 2009

Via 3QD comes a link to a Guardian article by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, lamenting the lost art of kindness. The gist is that the rise of rational self-interest under capitalism has made the inherent impulse to be kind seem suspect. Of course, this is hardly a new question; it was a dilemma that greatly exercised 18th century moral philosophers. The authors cite Hume (somewhat misleadingly) and attribute to him this rather maudlin commonsense view: “Any person foolish enough to deny the existence of human kindness had simply lost touch with emotional reality, Hume insisted: ‘He has forgotten the movements of his heart.’ ” But the question of whether we have a moral sense that compels us to varying degrees to be benevolent stretches through much of the English philosophical tradition, most notably in Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, an influence on Adam Smith, whose Theory of Moral Sentiments has a great deal to say about human motive and instinctual sympathy.

The moral sense was a kind of mental organ that conveyed the rightness or wrongness of a deed without our having to make recourse to logic or reasoning or upbringing. People of better quality were presumed to have a more strongly developed moral sense as a given, though it could be sharpened through exercise—this is one of the early excuses for sentimental fiction; it trained readers when to cry as if on cue. Thanks in large part to sentimental fiction—one of the first forms of entertainment to reach a broad audience—the issue of the moral sense became the crux of the sensibility fad, one of the earliest examples of a commercially manufactured zeitgeist. Typically sentimental heroes and heroines are depicted as emotional sounding boards, passively responding to tragic events and modeling the reaction readers are supposed to have. Meanwhile, rational calculators pursing their interest are demonized as heartless and cruel, eradicating kindness of altruism and the rest of it. Luckily, God generally steps in to resolve the impracticalities of ignoring the realities of incipient capitalism. (Outside of fiction, we don’t have that leisure.) The appeal to innate kindness was invariably a method for building up class distinction, whether to preserve aristocratic prestige from vulgar upstarts or to give the vulgar upstarts a way to compete with aristocrats on a level playing field. The moral sense, which anyone can claim, supplants the bloodline as the preferred mode of innate justification for class privilege. Sensibility also serves as a way of redeeming the cruelty of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation”—the various methods of dispossession and immiseration and proletarianization necessary to launch capitalism in earnest. If you assert the durability of the human heart under siege, and furthermore imply that the heart’s glory is revealed only under duress, you do much to justify that siege and embrace that duress as a necessary if not fortunate evil.

Also, by associating kindness with extraordinary heroism, it makes it into a kind of abnormality, as the authors of the Guardian piece point out. “Kindness is seen either as a cover story or as a failure of nerve. Popular icons of kindness - Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa - are either worshipped as saints or gleefully unmasked as self-serving hypocrites. Prioritising the needs of others may be praiseworthy, we think, but it is certainly not normal.” But I don’t think it follows that kindness is now universally regarded “with suspicion” as the authors assert—that seems like a purely polemical proposition intended to evoke the possibility of some revolution in friendliness after which everyone will smile on everyone, no polite nicety will go unperformed, we’ll all ride on unicorns, sing and dance with peace and love, and anger will be an altogether forgotten emotion, a distant memory, like racism and sexism and all those other forms of discrimination we have defeated. Maybe if we solved some of society’s obvious injustices, kindness would take care of itself. The authors assert that “Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” That is wrong; I think that they openly know that it is the condescension of the entitled.

There’s a good chance that I am precisely the curmudgeonly sort of independence-loving troll the authors would like to gulag, but I found this utterly false:

There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

Is there really such a deficit of kindness? I live in a reputedly unkind place, New York City, but I experience quotidian kindness from strangers on a near daily basis, whether it’s someone reminding me that I’ve dropped my scarf, or someone slowing down in a revolving door so I don’t get smashed, or someone exchanging a look with me about something odd going on, or what have you. It’s hardly the “forbidden pleasure” the authors make it out to be. I get the sense of humdrum human solidarity so routinely that I only realize how much I take it for granted when I experience the false pleasantry in the suburbs from salespeople, who are virtually the only strangers I have occasion to interact with. Usually I have no need to be preoccupied by it and am not afflicted with the absence of opportunities to express it. That doesn’t mean there are not also routine expressions of callousness either—every time someone stops at the top of the subway steps to continue their cell-phone conversation, I am reminded of how easy it is to slip into a private world of blithe inconsiderateness. And when I am approached for spare change and fail to break my stride, my own callousness is brought home to me. But I’m hardly preoccupied by it and rarely complain of it.

I wanted to sympathize with the authors’ concern with the dearth of kindness, which seems closely related to my cardinal complaint about society, its celebration of convenience as an end in itself. But the authors’ nannyish tone about the subject, I must admit, made me increasingly annoyed. Probably because I am desperately rationalizing my meanness:

Kindness - that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself - has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality). No one yet says parents should stop being kind to their children. None the less, we have become phobic of kindness in our societies, avoiding obvious acts of kindness and producing, as we do with phobias, endless rationalizations to justify our avoidance.

But a concern with kindness seems like a fundamental evasion of more substantial problems; kindness itself is the rationalization, the way to short-circuit arguments about the institutional change we should be seeking. Alas, I am one of those “radicals and socialists determined to replace charity with justice, elite kindness with universal rights.” I should recognize that instead, we just ought to worry about being nicer and less competitive. The authors recognize the “bullying” of kindness welded to power, but seemingly fail to recognize that they are inseparable. Kindness only becomes salient, becomes worthy of note, as a dimension of power. Outside of power, it’s just an expression of the species’ inherent activity (as the authors’ reference to Darwin supports). It’s nice to be nice, but something is not nice about noticing it and advertising it. At that point, kindness is being offered as justification for something unkind we are doing elsewhere.

A theory: When kindness is performed out of social necessity by those without the privilege of inward-looking selfishness and individualist isolation, it doesn’t register as “kindness.”  When one finds they must make a conscious effort to be kind and must trumpet their efforts to have it recognized as such, it’s probably already too late for them to be worrying about kindness—they have already become the beneficiary of an unequal society to the degree that they are conscious of being or not being kind. If you think, “how kind of me,” how kind have you really been? Being kind has already become an expression of class privilege, not human fellow feeling.

by PopMatters Staff

6 Jan 2009

School of Seven Bells
Half Asleep [MP3]
     

Connjur [MP3]
     

Chain [MP3]
     

Buy at iTunes Music Store

Cause Co-Motion!
Songs from It’s Time - Singles and EPs 2005-08 (Slumberland)
Baby Don’t Do It [MP3]
     

Which Way Is Up? [MP3]
     

I Lie Awake [MP3]
     

Buy at Rhapsody

Au Revoir Simone
Here Is the News [MP3]
     

Headlights
Making Plans for Nigel [MP3]
     

Bruce Springsteen
Life Itself [MP3]

Arcade Fire
Burning Bridges [MP3]

by L.B. Jeffries

5 Jan 2009

To kick off the year 2009, I thought we’d start by looking at the business and culture of video games as it stands to develop now. What are the current trends and possible outcomes? How is the medium evolving due to technology and economic demands? There are some new video game genres developing, some new trends with distribution, and the smoke settling from the console war to gauge. To start, I was stuck at a Christmas Party this year where I met a guy who runs a beverage distribution business. He’s the person who supplies vending machines, stores, and gas stations with soda and beer, in other words. We got to talking shop and he told me that the major trend going on in the beverage industry is what he called functionality. People, particularly people in their twenties and younger, no longer purchase by brand. We’re instead attracted to drinks that perform a service like energy, vitamins, or some other perceived benefit. We don’t care if it’s a Budweiser, instead we ask what is it going to do that makes it better than other beers? This coincidentally sums up the exact same direction video games are headed in. Looking back over 2008, function was one of the major advantages the Wii had with its user-friendly games and Wii Fit. The idea of a console and fitness machine proved more than enough to move units for Nintendo. How will this growing concept play out in 2009?

 

The idea of gauging a video game console by its function isn’t anything new, one of the biggest selling points of the PS2 back when it came out was that it played DVDs. Making your console do something besides just play video games adds enormous value in the consumer’s eye. The trick is that you have to improve on that additional function, not just repeat it. A strong example would be the PS3’s Blu-Ray, because even though the technology is clearly of superior quality, it lacks any major improvement in terms of the DVD’s ability to play movies. I hate to use the dreaded comparison to Betamax, but that’s another case of quality not being a decisive advantage. The DVD was an improvement over VHS tapes because you didn’t have to rewind or risk degradation of visual quality from repeated use. DVDs, in turn, suffer from potential scratching and the ever-present issue of not having access to one when you want to watch a program. The Xbox 360, with its inclusion of Netflix and a downloadable movie service, has upped the convenience of the initial functionality of playing movies on your console. No scratching of discs and instant access to films means the Xbox 360 is the more convenient media center. Blu Ray may be superior, but it’s also still suffering from all the issues of a DVD. There’s still room for improvement in this new media, Netflix’s visual quality leaves something to be desired when watched on High-Def. Yet with Netflix’s growing line-up of digital shows and movies, particularly a superb selection of independent films, it’s hard to argue with the edge that the Xbox 360 has established.

 

Even the act of paying for something is technically a form of functionality when it comes to media. Piracy and the second-hand market for music, movies, and games are a testament to this. As an old essay by Ray Kurzweil on Copy Protection in the Music Industry outlines, the eventual alternative music has already had to accept is going to start applying to other media. In order to beat digital pirates, you have to beat them at functionality. You have to make it so it’s easier and more beneficial to get media your way than their way. An example is the iPod, which made itself an essential mp3 player that led to people buying mp3s for it. Netflix going online is also a good start to this, but its catalog of popular films is still somewhat lacking. Kurzweil noted in his book The Singularity that the new digital distribution method would be characterized by an unholy intellectual property bidding war and you can already see the symptoms. The other problem is establishing a pricing model that still generates enough revenue to make the whole thing worthwhile. Subscription services like emusic, which has now passed 100 million users, are paving the way for this new distribution model. A media service like Netflix will eventually offer a similar tiered subscription service, although regulating the number of videos one can download is creating an unnecessary weakness. Downloading an entire movie and watching it is inane when I can just click and watch it streaming. The best model for profitability while sustaining function would be to use anticipation and time delay depending on which subscription the person has paid for. Gold members get instant access to a film the day it goes online, Silver has to wait, Bronze even longer, and so on as companies find ways to continue to keep the business profitable.

 

Which leaves the question of games themselves and the new market of downloadable games. The perk is that you have no pawn shop losses, no contending for shelf space, and can allow a game to continually make money without an expensive PR campaign. The downside, as Soren Johnson explains, is that you lose perceived market value and potential customers. Not everybody has sixty bucks to drop on a game, so the secondhand market allows these people to participate in gaming where they otherwise would spend the money on something cheaper. There is also the bonus of knowing that when you’re done with a sixty-dollar game, you’re going to get some of that money back. Functionality is, once again, the way they’re going to maintain the profits. Presuming developers have begun to acknowledge that sixty dollars can no longer be the only pricing model for new releases, there are a couple of alternative. The first is the The Force Unleashed experiment, which involved selling an individual level to the player, an approach that has already proven successful for Telltale Games. Since games have already begun to mimic television episodes in their pacing, it stands to reason they’ll just start copying the way episodes are sold. You can buy the entire game for sixty bucks, or you can buy individual episodes and eventually play the whole game that way. Buying the entire game gets you bonus content, buying each individual episode means paying more money in the long run.

Downloadable content is particularly significant in the multiplayer aspects of a game. Adjusting distribution and pricing models is probably not going to come about anytime soon, but there are still ways to maintain profitability by keeping the player from selling the game back in the first place. The trick to multiplayer longevity is to maintain a constant stream of new content while tweaking gameplay so that new players are never discouraged. An excellent article at The Escapist by Tom Endo outlines the downfall of the multiplayer game ARC. The more you allow your game to remain static, the more people become proficient at it and dominate new players in a way that discourages playing online. As a consequence, they’re more likely to sell the game back. Players memorize maps, master unbeatable moves, and generally make the learning curve much steeper than it should be. It also accounts for the fact that no amount of play testing can handle millions of people playing your game and looking for an edge. The gold standard for this is Blizzard, whose games made over ten years ago are still played today because of the constant tweaking. Once you factor in that new maps and guns not only sustain the game, they also earn you money, then it’s easy to see how this will continue as a trend in gaming. Johnson, in the essay above, also noted that DLC ensures sales for both pirated and second-hand games by making sure purchasers still must download the additional content, thus in turn ensuring an extra sale from even these games.

 

Finally, the genre to keep an eye on for 2009 is that of the forum game. Greg Costikyan has recently released a Myspace and Facebook Vampire RPG, and the satirical ForumWarz has demonstrated how easily an RPG game design can be applied to social networks. The two basic systems are to either let people do a few things each day or to incorporate the game’s use into the actual website itself with unrestricted moves. Either design aesthetic has the same goal—find a way for people to play while cruising Facebook or MySpace—but I’m not sure anyone has mastered the formula of how to make money off it yet.  That isn’t a sign of weakness in the market, as you’ve already got people sitting on the websites mindlessly clicking around, it’s just finding a way to coordinate this in a productive manner. The most probable change will be an adjustment in design aesthetic that adjusts its purpose towards generating traffic to the hosting website rather than being a game for its own sake. The most sophisticated website I’ve seen incorporate game design into the actual participation with the site is The Escapist, but others have their own methods that are similar. Forum badges, notification when someone quotes you, and ranks based on number of posts demonstrate a website that has designed the very fundamentals of socializing into a game of its own. Attempts to shoehorn micro-transactions or induce extraneous conduct are a bit misguided here. Functionality and using the game design to improve the actual goals of the website itself is going to be the trait of whoever finds the decisive model. As with all successful innovation, by the time someone is getting rich off of it, it’s too late to copy the idea.

by Jason Gross

5 Jan 2009

An excellent article in the City Arts Seattle describes what readers and artists lose when a publication gets rid of an experienced arts writer and replaces them with empty space (which is sadly happening more and more these days).  Not only does the experience of the writer disappear but also a chance for nuanced context as well as exposure for artists.  As the writer notes, the blogosphere might be filling in gaps with quantity but not necessarily quality yet.

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