While Violet Towne and I were out on our bikes yesterday, our conversation turned to philosophy and politics, as it sometimes does. Specifically, I was defending the Mars Lab/Curiosity program against her assertion that it was a waste of money when there were so many much more important issues on the political plate. Well, I agree that there are numerous pressing matters that need our attention (and money) but I was most vehement that there are a lot of other things that could lose a few pounds (metaphorically speaking) before we should start carving up great and inspiring science projects.
“For instance,” I said, “Do you realise that the 2012 Olympics cost more than twice as much as Curiosity? And that the US bank bailout was more than ten times the budget of the Mars Science Lab mission?”
I don’t think she believed me.
“Show me the numbers!” she said, defiantly.
Well, Acowlytes, you all know it’s best not to challenge the Reverend when he’s on his soapbox, even if you’re the Reverend’s wife.(i) When we had pedalled homewards, I went straight to Captain Google, and plugged in my questions. You might understand, dear Cowpokes, my utter amazement when I found my figures were wrong. Wrong by an order of magnitude. But not in the direction VT had hoped. It’s FAR worse than I had even imagined. Here ya go. I made a graph:
As you can plainly see, the budget for the Curiosity/Science Lab project is not even one pixel high on this comparison scale.
So, in order to get some perspective on how much that little rover trundling around on the surface of Mars costs, let’s examine some of those figures and related issues. First of all, it’s obvious that the military budget for the US for one year (2012) and the amount of money spent on the bank bailout are each in a completely different league to the kind of expense put aside for Curiosity. It isn’t hard to see that even NASA’s entire budget for 2012 is hardly a blip on the radar for the government accountants when compared to sums like that. What’s even more gobsmacking is that each of these figures (that is, ONE SINGLE YEAR of US military spending, or the humoungous pile of money forked out to save the US economy from the destruction wrought by the excesses of greedy and morally reprehensible assholes) exceeds the budget of NASA’s entire 50 year existence.(ii) The yearly outlay for military air-conditioning alone exceeds NASA’s annual budget by 4 billion dollars.(iii)
The London Olympics cost, in fact, nearly 6 times more than Curiosity – not merely double as I’d thought – and we’re only talking about the money spent to stage the games.(iv) It’s plain that large amounts are poured into the Olympics from elsewhere as well, including every participating nation’s competition expenses, and not insubstantial amounts from all the bids made by countries attempting to secure the Games every four years. That’s a frikkin’ ginormous pile of cash for a sporting event. Even if you amortize the London expense over 4 years, the yearly figure still exceeds that of the Mars Science Lab mission. Of course if we permit that, it should be fair to amortize Curiosity’s cost over the Mars Science Lab program’s lifetime (9 years), making the contrast even greater and returning an expense to the US taxpayers of $277m per year (or, less than a dollar per person per year). For 2012/13 the Australian government has budgeted over 10 times that figure for sport.(v)
To put that per-person/per-dollar/per-year expense into perspective, Americans(vi) spent 4 times the cost of the Curiosity mission at the cinema in 2010(vii), and are spending something like $137 billion dollars a year on alcohol(viii) and somewhere in excess of 30 billion dollars a year on cigarettes. In 2011, the US government spent 313 billion dollars(ix) on ameliorating the problems caused by the abuse of all that alcohol & tobacco. And, while we’re on the subject of substance abuse, coming in at a staggering 30 billion dollars,(x) America’s so-called ‘War on Drugs’ costs the nation over 10 times the budget of Curiosity (or, nearly twice the annual NASA budget) every year and that is widely argued to be a complete waste of money.(xi)
I could, of course keep going with this – I haven’t touched on gambling, or government inefficiency, or tax breaks for religion or a half dozen other areas where large amounts of money seem to slush around without a proper degree of scrutiny. But what does all this mean, in the end?
For me, it’s simple. As humans we can, of course, choose to put our resources wherever we like. So far, I believe that choice has always leaned far too heavily towards the things at which animals are good – being the fittest, the strongest, the fastest. Or being the greediest, the most aggressive, the most dominant. It has not served us well. The result is that we have become powerful animals facing an existential crisis, and the traits that we carry as animals – the aggression, the greed, the power-mongering – are the exact opposite of what we need to get us out of this crisis. We are starting to encounter problems that we will not conquer by being fast, or strong or fit.(xii) Being better at animal things was once enough. Now it isn’t.
The things that humans alone are good at – the things that our brains enable us to do such as imagining the possibilities of the future, pondering the poetry of our existence, turning our curious gaze onto the mechanics of the very universe itself – occupy the very tiniest parts of the minds of most people (and therefore most governments). This ability that humans have to plan for the future by creating a mental vision of it is more-or-less nonexistant in all other animals.(xiii) So what do we do to the people who are very good at this kind of inspirational far-thinking? We vilify and undervalue them. When they tell us ‘There is a big problem with the climate and we should do something about it!’ the powerful apes get up on their boxes and beat their chests, so that they might remain popular and powerful, and the greedy apes use all the cunning that their superior brain has given them to make arguments that everything is OK and we should all just kick back and consume, and the fit and fast apes run around entertaining everyone. If we cannot use the leverage that nature has given us to come to terms with the world-destroying problems we now face, we are truly doomed. We have squandered the one advantage that we have over other animals. Our difference will have enabled us to wipe ourselves out, rather than allowed us to achieve that future which we alone can imagine.
So what has all this to do with a little vehicle pottering around in the dust of a cold world some 225 million kilometers from our home? Well, in my opinion, projects like Curiosity help us turn our gaze outward – out of ourselves and away from our tiny little human preocupations. Indeed, I think that this curiosity to know stuff that has no direct consequence to our animal existence is a marker that says that we may, perhaps, have a chance after all.
There are, of course, many areas where we might have directed the 2.5 billion dollars that went to Curiosity. Violet Towne considered that it would have been better spent going towards helping solve the climate change problem, for example. Well, I agree that climate change research is an area that could really use that kind of money. And there are numerous pressing compassionate issues that are desperately in need of money also. I hope my argument has convinced you (and her), though, that stealing the funds from visionary human endeavours like the Mars Science Lab is entirely the wrong tactic if you want to help address these probems. I want to make it quite clear that I’m not advocating doing away with sport, or stopping everyone from imbibing reality-altering substances, or even saying that we could conveniently curtail all our military spending, but to me it seems that all these pursuits – these profoundly ‘ape-like’ pursuits – are where we should look first for money that could be better off spent elsewhere. I’m pretty sure they could spare a little of the quite exorbitant amounts of cash that are currently rained down on them.
Violet Towne fears that I have portrayed her as a Luddite here, and as somewhat anti-science. I want to assure you that she is not, and that I respect her views, and her willingness to challenge me on my own, very much. You all know that it’s unlikely I would last long with a partner who didn’t have a vibrant and informed worldview. But I think I am right in saying that, like many people, she had formed an opinion – almost entirely concocted by irresponsible and ignorant media reporting, in my view – that NASA spends excessive amounts of money on things no-one really cares about. My intent with this post is simply to demonstrate that, in the grand scheme of things, NASA’s budget is relatively well spent. It seems to me that robbing Peter to pay Paul by redistributing NASA’s budget to areas of more pressing need is a kind of madness fanned by a perplexing and distressing anti-science sentiment creeping across the world.
The Pentagon rejects this figure, which was calculated by Brigadier General Steven Anderson, a military logician for operations in Iraq. They have, however, not put forward an alternative anywhere I could find. I’m open to correction on this. [↩]
Arguably, some of that expense is recouped in benefits of one kind of another by the British taxpayers, but not the majority of it by any means. Equally as arguably, the Mars Science Lab program has benefits of one kind or another for the human race. [↩]
I had trouble finding out how much the US government spends on sport. It’s either a well kept secret, or they don’t care to support the same ridiculous level of sports fantaticism as ours does. [↩]
Canadians are also included in this figure, but even cutting it by, say, a generous third, that’s still a shitload of money. [↩]
I couldn’t find anything more recent, but I think it’s safe to say that 2011 & 2011 will track that figure. [↩]
2002 figures, but I think we can probably assume that has trended upwards rather than down. [↩]
This is probably a conservative estimate – it’s hard to get an exact figure due to the nature of defining the field, but I’m quoting on the conservative side. Stats here and here. [↩]
Depending who you ask. It’s variously quoted at somewhere between 20 and 40 billion. It’s certainly not less than 20, but it may be more than 40. In any case, I’ve erred on the probable side of conservatism and just taken the median. [↩]
Here, here, and here, for just three examples of hundreds you can find. [↩]
When I was a kid the most coveted material possession of school life was a set of Derwent Pencils.(i) Derwents were the créme de la créme of primary school artistic tools – without Derwents, your chances of ever becoming a new Picasso or Rembrandt were vanishingly small. Derwents were, however, also quite expensive, and my family wasn’t well off, so for many years I had to make do with the much cheaper Faber Castells, and the fond hope that I could, if fate was on my side, aspire to the crazy heights of illustrating pamphlets for the ladies down at the Lilac City Festival offices.
Then, one sunny day – I don’t even think it was my birthday – my mum gave me a box of Derwents.
I was in Pencil Heaven. Just look at that chromatic spectacle of luscious luxurious pencilness! No more scratchy Fabers! Derwents spread their rich waxy hues across the paper like a rainbow rolling softly out over a coarse grey sky!
True, it was just a box of 12 Derwents – not even close to Charlie Peerbohm’s set of two million…
…but they were Derwents nonetheless, and they were mine. It goes without saying(ii) that I took them to school the very next day, nonchalantly slipping them from my satchel and making sure I used them whenever an opportunity presented itself. I fancied that I caught envious stares from the kids still using Fabers, and I reveled in my new-found Pencil Czar status. Derwents of my very own! It was a happy day.
A short-lived happy day, as it turns out. I arrived home from school, still giddy from the day’s sheer brilliance, opened my bag… and with frightening suddenness an awful realisation closed in on me that somehow, somehow, I’d left my brand new box of Derwent pencils on the bus. Dammit! I even remembered taking them out of the bag and putting them on the bus seat. Why did I do that???! I was devastated. I ran to tell mum.
She looked at me with an expression that was completely inscrutable, and then did something that was unprecedented in my young life. My mother said:
And I knew instantly that I had irretrievably lost my Derwent pencils. That, as they say, was that. They weren’t coming back. I couldn’t blame my mum, she hadn’t lost them. And I knew it was completely unreasonable to expect her to get me another expensive set. I was angry. Not with her, but with myself. My pride was hurt and I felt cheated and powerless and stupid. And it was, indisputably, all my fault.
With the full understanding that I was very upset, my parents chose (wisely, I came to realise) not to simply buy me another box, nor to coddle me, but just to let me understand that sometimes life is shit and your only option is to deal with it.
And it set me on the road to discover that a man is a fool who takes anything for granted.
Yes, things were much simpler back then. Now, apparently, kids expect to have phones and computers and all manner of other expensive concessions and treat it all like it was simply their right. “All the other kids have [insert desired item].” It’s not an argument that ever held water when I was a child. Where on earth did this overbearing and irksome sense of entitlement come from? [↩]
You know those daft motivational posters that have been well-and-truly pwned by Despair.com? Well, a guy named Douwe Osinga, who works for Google, has made a fun web time-waster called Auto Poster that allows you to make your very own inspirational pontifications to send to your friends and colleagues. Just as I am doing for you, dear Acowlytes.
The app draws from Google’s vast cataloguing of the cyberworld for its images.(i) All you need to do is provide the wisdom. Auto Poster even thoughtfully chooses appropriate text colours for you!
Go now. Waste time. Post your efforts back here and make me laugh.
Sometimes the minds of really bright people can think really dumb thoughts.
Francisco J. Ayala is an evolutionary biologist of quite some expertise, a critic of creationism and intelligent design, and an active petitioner for the advancement of stem cell research in the US and throughout the world. And yet, as he reveals in his post on the Guardian blog this week, ‘Religion has nothing to do with science – and vice versa’ his accomplishments as a scientist don’t stop him from having bewildering thought processes.
The basic thrust of his piece is that science has no business occupying itself with the domain supposedly reserved for religion (and vice versa, but as we shall see in a bit, that’s nothing more than a sop to the unthinking). That is, science should butt out of matters of good and evil, right and wrong, purpose or none. It takes him about three paragraphs to reveal that he’s playing with a marked deck.
The scope of science is the world of nature: the reality that is observed, directly or indirectly, by our senses. Science advances explanations about the natural world, explanations that are accepted or rejected by observation and experiment.
Outside the world of nature, however, science has no authority, no statements to make, no business whatsoever taking one position or another. Science has nothing decisive to say about values, whether economic, aesthetic or moral; nothing to say about the meaning of life or its purpose.
Did you see the card go up his sleeve? He has simultaneously put religion outside our natural world and forbidden science from that domain. In other words, science can’t know the Mind of God, because.
It’s such a breathtaking piece of religious bias that I almost stopped reading right there.
What he’s advancing is in fact the very foundation of the concept of religion: give up (for reasons that cannot be expressed in any rational manner) everything you know and can demonstrate to be true, in preference to concepts that you (or other people, usually) suppose might be. That’s called ‘Faith’ and it goes by another name too: ‘Magic’. Ayala simply cannot make a claim like that and retain any level of credibility. If you allow that as a piece of valid reasoning, you allow ANYTHING to be possible. And I’m willing to wager a large amount of cash that Ayala doesn’t believe that huge numbers of Americans are being abducted by aliens, or that Xenu is going to come to Earth and smite us all, or that a little green man lives in the peyote plant or any number of other equally preposterous ideas. Yet, by his argument he has no choice but to believe them all because they are ALL outside his allowance for the realm of science!
The above quote also carries with it the implicit endorsement that religion does have something decisive to say about economic, aesthetic or moral values, and about the meaning of life and its purpose. That’s plainly hogwash. Which religion? Says what? For every one thing that a religion says, a contradiction can be found in another. Religions can’t even make up their minds internally about what they think about many things. Religions say stuff about all these things that’s for sure, but whether what they say is valuable, or ‘decisive’, or even worth paying attention to, is a highly questionable conjecture.
Further on he takes the words of Richard Dawkins and bends them to his already-decided will:
The biologist Richard Dawkins explicitly denies design, purpose and values.
In River out of Eden, he writes:
“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Dammit – did you see that? He palmed another ace!
Firstly, Dawkins is talking here about the mechanics of the Universe, as Ayala must surely understand. Dawkins does not say that we should expect to find no purpose or evil or good or blind pitiless indifference in humans. Dawkins is saying that there is no reason to suppose that those things are inherent in the Universe, and that this is in fact exactly what we see.(i) Ayala’s argument is based on a religious misrepresentation of scientific thinking, and, as a scientist, he should jolly-well know better.
Let’s see if Ayala is dealing anything else from the bottom of the deck. He goes on to conjure the spirit of William Provine, noted evolutionist and atheist:
William Provine, a historian of science, asserts that there are no absolute principles of any sort. He believes modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society.
There is a monumental contradiction in these assertions. If its commitment to naturalism does not allow science to derive values, meaning or purposes from scientific knowledge, it surely does not allow it, either, to deny their existence.
Zip! Now that’s a hand that’d get you shot in a saloon game of poker!
Let’s just clarify things a little. Ayala is making an explicit statement here that there are two kinds of worlds in which we live: the natural world (which is defined by science) and the supernatural(ii) world which is out of the reach of science. Because science can make observations about the natural world such that there appears to be no inherent meaning, morality or purpose, it has, therefore, no right to deny the existence of such things.
What total corn syrup! Science has every right in the world to put up a case for the non-existence of these things! Let me re-write that sentence slightly to make it clear why it’s so incongruous:
‘Because science can make observations about the natural world such that there appear to be no inherent reasons to believe in pixies or unicorns or fairies, it has, therefore, no right to deny the existence of such things.’
This idea of putting such abstract concepts as ‘meaning’, ‘purpose’ or ‘morality’ outside of nature is just religious sleight of hand. Who says that should be so, and by what criteria? Ayala begins by drawing up rules that suit his argument and then criticizes science for not playing by them!
It’s a bit of a straw man, in any case. He’s attempting to distract us from a much more pertinent point: the fact that science finds no ‘natural’ morality does not imply that a social morality is not possible (it clearly is) and most importantly, it certainly does not automatically stamp an imprimatur on religion to take that role. In fact, I would argue that a great deal of our current social morality is held in place not by religion, but by the social constructs we’ve developed under cultures that hold largely scientific world-views. We don’t, for example, find mobs of atheists going around behaving amorally (as much as I’m sure a lot of religious people think that is what happens), primarily because people like me who don’t hold with religion can actually maintain good moral lives without it, believe it or not.
Religious thinkers just love to believe that it is religion that holds our morality in check and stops the world from spinning into unmitigated and wanton chaos, but if they buy into that notion they must necessarily buy into a paradoxical uber-belief: it doesn’t matter what kind of religious belief you hold, as long as it’s a religious belief.(iii) This is plainly a ridiculous and indefensible stance. For a start, there are plenty of religions that adhere to questionable morals.(iv)
I’ve attacked the versa part of Ayala’s essay first because I think by doing so it casts illumination on another piece of his prestidigitation. Let’s look at the ‘Religion has nothing to do with science’ part. Here, Ayala invokes Augustine, the emperor who rearranged Christian religion because it didn’t really suit his taste:
As he [Augustine] writes in his commentary on Genesis:
“If it happens that the authority of sacred Scripture is set in opposition to clear and certain reasoning, this must mean that the person who interprets Scripture does not understand it correctly.”
Is anyone else rolling on the floor laughing?
Again, let me clarify: If anything that makes sense appears to be in conflict with the Scripture, then that’s because the Scripture isn’t being properly interpreted. It can’t possibly be that the Scripture is nonsense!(v)
It baffles me that a smart person can even indulge in such poppycock. From the start, it makes a ridiculous presupposition that the Scripture, like Ayala’s conditions for religion itself, lies outside nature – particularly outside human nature. How can a person with scientific training possibly believe that?
Ayala now throws a bone to the wolves in allowing that religion has nothing definitive(vi) to say about the ‘precincts of science’:
Religion has nothing definitive to say about these natural processes: nothing about the causes of tsunamis or earthquakes or why volcanic eruptions occur, or why there are droughts that ruin farmers’ crops. The explanation of these processes belongs to science. It is a categorical mistake to seek their explanation in religious beliefs or sacred texts.
It’s a banal dismissal of superstitious thinking of the gross kind. Of course we know that God can’t be blamed for earthquakes and eclipses and droughts and plagues of locusts. The only people who believe that kind of thing are the same ones who believe that God sits outside the realm of nature and can accomplish miracles!
No matter how he might frame his argument, Ayala does not care about balance. He is concerned only with propaganda. Like all religious people he is scared that the truth is frightening and ugly and something he doesn’t want to hear, and that if science turns its sights on ‘matters of Scripture’ it might reveal, not that the Scripture is being interpreted incorrectly, but, as it has done time and time again, that the Scripture is wrong.
Ayala is only paying lip service to science, and to justify his already formed beliefs (Ayala is a former Dominican Priest) he seems compelled to attempt to somehow shoehorn science into the religious framework of a worldview that was formed half a millennium ago. His version of science is, for an evolutionary biologist, a puzzlingly simplistic mechanical one. It’s a science that doesn’t ask hard questions. It’s a science that obligingly looks the other way when religion walks into the room. It’s a convenient kind of science.
As we all know, though, science doesn’t care about convenience. Science doesn’t care how we think the world should be, or how we wish it was. It just shows us how it is. The way I see it is that we have two choices – we either side with science, look bravely on the Universe and be awed and humbled by our ignorance, or we cower behind our fingers with religion and make pretend everything will be OK. Either way, the world itself does not change.
Why isn’t Ayala arguing that point? Because as an evolutionary biologist, he knows he can’t win. ‘God’ – at least no kind of God that cares a hoot about us – is not apparent in the natural workings of the Universe. [↩]
I’m using the word in its most literal sense here: ‘of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural’ [↩]
Or, perhaps more accurately: ‘It doesn’t matter what kind of religious belief you hold, as long as it’s MY religious belief’. [↩]
There are so many things wrong with this reasoning that I can’t begin to enumerate them all. The Bible, for example, makes explicit statements about the natural world. By Augustine’s reasoning, if any of these statements are thrown up against convincing scientific refutation, then there must be some interpretive error – it’s NOT an error of Scripture. What an astonishing ‘get-out-of-jail-free-card’ that is! In this way, the Bible can be eternally revised to fit with the way the natural world is shown indisputably to be and always remain correct! How can the rigorous process of science even begin to compete with such absurdity? [↩]
Anyone else notice that card go to the bottom of the deck? ‘Definitive’ is a slippery term, especially in the light of Ayala’s other slipperiness. ‘Definitive’ allows that religion can have all kinds of things to say about the realm of science if it likes – just not ‘definitive’ things. [↩]
A Long Post About Art, Music and Philosophy, and Why We Shouldn’t Just All Stick Our Heads in the Oven.
It has been said by one of my regular readers that Tetherd Cow Ahead is her ‘morning espresso of blogs’; a quick and amusing, or sometimes (I like to think) thought-provoking rumination on some matter or other that she can quickly imbibe before rolling up her sleeves and getting into the nitty gritty of the day’s work. This is not that kind of post. This is a seven course meal of a post, with three kinds of wine, food you’re not familiar with and then brandy and cigars late into the night. This is a post that will take several days to digest and leave at least some of you with heartburn. I don’t do it often, so I ask you to stick with it. I’m really keen to hear what you have to say.
(If you care to read footnotes in this post, you only need click on the footnote signifier – you will be jumped to the footnote where you can click on a ‘return’ icon to get you back to where you were. Try it now.(i) There you go. Happy reading!)
None of my Australian readers can have failed to have missed the recent musical debacle featuring two of the country’s most iconic institutions: Men At Work and Larrikin Music.(ii)
For the foreigners, this is the lowdown: Larrikin Music has successfully sued Sony BMG and EMI for plagiarism, claiming that songwriters Colin Hay and Ron Strykert used a phrase from another song as part of the Men At Work mega-hit ‘Down Under’. Here, listen to it now so you can follow me:
OK. So not the most cerebral music clip ever made, nor the most illuminating lyrics ever penned,(iii) but most of the world agrees that the song has a catchy enthusiasm as a satirical paean to Australiana – enough to make it a considerable success both in locally and abroad. And it continues to earn substantial amounts of money.(iv)
The issue is the flute riff that is played near the intro and again by the chap sitting in the tree at about the 53 second mark. It includes a note sequence from a very well-known Australian kid’s song called ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’ written by a woman named Marion Sinclair in the 1930s (the rights of the song are held by Larrikin – Ms Sinclair is now dead). I’m using my words here carefully – I say ‘note sequence’ because, unlike the judge who ruled the case, I’m not at all sure that the small snippet is recognizeable to many, perhaps most, people as as a tune in its own right, hanging as it does on the end of another few notes and making a whole phrase that sounds (to my ears) considerably different to the phrase as played in ‘Kookaburra’. Indeed, in the court case, this is what the musicologist called by Men At Work‘s defence argued also. Now, I’ve heard ‘Down Under’ innumerable times in the almost 30 years since its release, and although I know ‘Kookaburra’ as well as any Australian schoolkid, I never once recognized it in the Men At Work song. More pertinent, perhaps, is that no-one else seems to have recognized it either, including Marion Sinclair herself.(v) The reason for this is a simple one of musical context: ‘Kookaburra’ is written and performed in strict time in a major key(vi) and the ‘Down Under’ has a lollopping reggae beat and is in a minor key.
Oh, of course I can hear it now – because it’s been the subject of scrutiny – and I accept as any reasonable person must, that it’s pretty likely that Greg Ham, the band member who improvised the part on the recording, was ‘quoting’ the ‘Kookaburra’ melody in his performance. Even so my musical brain needs to do a quirky mental transposition to make it ‘feel’ like the tune I’m familiar with from the children’s ditty.
But truly, this is not the point. The crux of this whole matter is, as you obviously guessed, money. And, despite anything else you might hear or read, about nothing but money; Larrikin Music claims that the addition of this phrase to the song entitles them to between 40 and 60 percent of the song’s earnings. Since the judge ruled in their favour, we have to assume that he doesn’t find that notion quite as ridiculous as everybody else does.(vii)
As I write (I swear) kookaburras are sitting in an old gum tree right near my studio, laughing maniacally. Here’s the rather wonderful Colin Hay(viii) performing Down Under in recent times (well before any of this madness was even hinted at). It’s a sombre and rather more poignant version of the song, but I don’t think anyone would dispute that it’s a fine piece of work on its own, and it certainly doesn’t depend on the ‘Kookaburra’ riff to make it any better. Definitely not 40 to 60 percent better that’s for sure.
All this brings me to the actual purpose of this post, so if you’re still with me, crack open the whisky and settle back. We’re not even half done.
Recently while I was spending my time over at Bearskin Rug, one of my favourite haunts, I read an article by the redoubtable Mr Kevin Cornell (proprietor of said haunt) called Why the Monkey Dances. Kevin was pondering the wisdom of monetizing such efforts as Bearskin Rug. Or, to be more accurate, he was wondering how the hell, or even if, he might be able to make some cash out of a pursuit which is undeniably of quite some worth, and on which he expends a large amount of time and effort. After all, isn’t it worth something? And, since it is indisputably better than most of the crap on the net, isn’t it worth a decent something?
That post catalyzed a lot of my ongoing thoughts on this topic and it lead me to think seriously about discarding many of my preconceptions about how we artists (especially musical artists because that’s my field) work, and our value in this modern world.
So now I am going to propose some ideas that are likely to be heretical to mostly every composer or songwriter who reads this.
The ‘Down Under’ affair is an example of what I see as just another pneumatic staple in the cheap pine coffin of the modern music industry. The reason that record companies, publishers, distributors and their smug legal divisions even exist – the music – seems to have completely lost its value. “Ho hum,” I hear you say, “I’ve heard that a million times from would-be rock stars and struggling songwriters. When does it get heretical?”
It gets heretical now, when I ask you to consider the value of the music in the first place. This is an expanded version of how I put it to Kevin:
Once upon a time there were no CDs or vinyl records or pianos. If you wanted to hear a song, you had to go find someone who was good at making music and pay them something and sit and listen(ix) – you weren’t paying for the ‘song’ per se, because it wasn’t actually something you could ever possess. You were paying for an experience. And then you went home. If you wanted to take the experience with you, then you had to learn the song, or the tune, and perhaps even learn an instrument to play it – the song itself didn’t cost you anything. At this time, there was no other way of having music. Today we call this ‘folk music’ and now, just as it was when it was written, no-one owns it.
After many millennia of this kind of thing, a way of printing notated music came along and you could more easily and directly bring the music into your home, admittedly with some effort (you had to learn how to read the sheet music). Also, suddenly, the song itself accrued a value – you were required to pay for the sheet music. Some of what you paid found its way, in theory, back to the person who came up with the ‘original’ song. This notion of monetary reward for ‘originality’ had not existed in any formal way prior to this time – until now music had been one great swooshing sea of influence and re-influence, as any folk musicologist will tell you.
The next big event to affect the course of music was the ability to record and ‘keep’ it; the wax cylinder came along, followed by the vinyl record. All you needed now to bring the music into your home was some more money to spend (but relatively little effort on your own part). Now you were paying for the song, a mechanical device on which to play it and also for the rights to play it on that device. But because these things were still fairly rare, the experience was special, and it felt appropriate to fork out some dollars. Note well that the margin of profit on early recordings was very small – you paid mostly for the cost of the technology, and a little to the artist, a little to the publisher of the music and perhaps a small amount to the manufacturer and distributor of the recording itself. This makes sense.
Also understand that because it now had a money value, the music acquired a legal value, and the listener acquired some legal obligations (no-one ever asked whether anyone wanted this – it just became so). At the same time opportunistic intermediaries discovered that, due to the desirability of this ‘music’ stuff, they could insert themselves into the process (which had now become quite complicated) and make a tidy sum wrangling this ephemeral blend of musical art and fashion on which everyone had become so keen. Music was becoming a business. A whole superstructure of people who had nothing to do with the creation of the music itself, needed to earn money from it. The Recording Industry was born.(x)
Pretty rapidly, the vinyl records became less rare and very popular, and then cassettes and CDs came along, and you could have music everywhere you went – even driving along in your car! It was amazing, and people happily paid for this wonderful experience. Behind the scenes, though, a very important set of changing circumstances wasn’t being revealed to you: the cost of manufacturing the recordings was diminishing at roughly the same rate as the profits of the companies who now owned them was increasing. CDs started to cost only a few cents to manufacture, but were being sold for twenty dollars or more! Most of the money you were paying to hear a recording of your favourite band was not for the CD object itself, nor indeed for the music on it, but to support a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster stitched out of studio executives and A&R people, distributors and advertisers, lawyers and lackeys. The advent of CDs also brought with it another unparalleled phenomenon: with this new digital technology, the corporations discovered that audiences were prepared to re-purchase, for a premium, music that they already possessed. This was music that was already ‘owned’ by the record companies and for which the legwork and marketing had been done years ago. It was a goldmine. Music that had mostly already paid for itself was being sold again. Instead of recognizing this as the bonus it was, the recording industry began to see this enormous incoming flood of money as the status quo.
All this while, the experience of listening to music was slowly becoming less special. The amount of music available to any individual was staggering. Music was now everywhere – in your lounge room, in your bedroom, in airports, in elevators, in buses, on planes. It played in the background of films and tv shows, and had so many ancillary uses that you didn’t even listen to it. I bet that you have music playing right now, as you read this, and you haven’t even been aware of it. Music had became so portable you could even take it with you while you were jogging. Most people in, in fact, didn’t know what a world without music was like.
Then a new revolution began: the computer came along, and with it the invention of the mp3 and the iPod and the capacity to store more songs than anyone could listen to in several years… The music was now ubiquitous and completely unencumbered. It had transcended physical form, and existed only as bits of data – intangible, tiny, transportable and eminently copiable. And, horrifyingly for the recording business, utterly uncontrollable.
And suddenly, because the specialness of the music and the mechanical difficulty of rendering it were almost non-existent, the pecuniary value of the songs per se was revealed to be way higher than listeners actually thought they were worth when it really came down to it. And these insubstantial creations were now encumbered by a host of legal obligations that we had never agreed to in any real sense, and to which we had never really expected to adhere.(xi) In quite surreal extremes, people now found themselves being sued for millions of dollars over the possession of a few tiny pieces of music! Others were forced into bankruptcy because they made it possible for audiences to swap and listen to the music for nothing – in a profound sense doing nothing technically wrong themselves. It seemed, to rational people, a system out of kilter. To the recording industry, it was the death of the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Now here’s the heresy.
I propose that the problem we are now contemplating is that the music itself is worth, in monetary terms, exactly what it was always worth – nothing. Or, to be more exact, it is worth as much as anybody in particular is willing to pay for it. I submit that we have contrived to give music a value of zillions of dollars in an arbitrary fashion and we are now reaping the costs of our greed; complicated legal problems, a dearth of spontaneity, constipated creation and yet another (as if we need it) huge cartel of lawyers and go-betweens. And MOST of the money that is feeding this bloated lumbering beast does not go to music creators. The music itself is, and has always been, both valueless and beyond value. It can’t, and shouldn’t be, labelled with a price tag.
Let me rotate it through another angle for you, so that the shock might be eased a little. Consider this: if you are a stickler for being ‘legal’ about your music and still want it without paying any money for it, it is entirely possible for you to do so. You can play Greensleeves and Blow the Man Down, Chopin and Schubert, Brahms and Bach, Beethoven and Debussy, on your piano or violin, on your synthesizer or your theremin, on your harmonica or steel guitar for absolutely nothing. We are talking about some of the most awe-inspiring music ever written and it is entirely free. And here’s the thing: you can quite legally record that music, and sell the recording to your friends. You can perform it in front of thousands and charge them $90 apiece for the privilege of hearing you play it. You can score a film with it, use it as a tv theme and play it as music-on-hold on your phone system, without incurring any cost to yourself or anyone else. Does any of that seem like a bad thing? Not at all, in my opinion. And yet you cannot do any of that with the latest song from Lady Gaga!(xii) How absurd is that? In a fundamental way, we’ve decided that the music of Lady Gaga is more valuable than the music of Beethoven. We have taken music and made it into an expensive and gaudy fashion item. It is, I say, time that we restored it to its true value.
I also ask you to think about this fact: we don’t need to have music in our lives to survive.(xiii) It cannot be equated with food, or shelter, medicine or running water, warmth or companionship. It is a privilege that, because of its sheer ubiquity, we have begun to take entirely for granted. My feeling is that these days it might even improve our lives to have a little less of it around.
The Men at Work ruling that I talked about above seems, to most people I’ve talked to, intrinsically flawed. I think that’s because we naturally feel that this idea that music can have a value that is determined in money and in ownership, is deeply and fundamentally wrong. Australians don’t like the notion that ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’belongs to anyone, because it is part of our national psyche. Just as we really don’t believe ‘Down Under’ belongs to anyone and will happily make an mp3 of it to send to our friend in Brussels, even though that is entirely ‘illegal’.(xiv)
Songwriters and composers who are reading will be champing at the bit by now, and I can feel the indignation and fury fairly fuming out of my screen. Surely it’s our right to make a living from the sweat of our labours? Well, yes and no. Not our right, by any means, any more than it is our right to make money out of motivational speaking, or balloon folding, or portraiture, or photography, or stand-up comedy. But, if we do something people find enjoyable, or moving, or profound, then certainly we should expect that they might pay us something to do it. But I don’t think the correct way to go about that is by imposing what must necessarily be an arbitrary value on the music itself.(xv)
I believe we need to revise the idea that if we pull some notes out of the air, and arrange them in some order, that they belong to us. I propose that the music itself, like information, should be free.(xvi) Aspiring songwriters are crying “But surely my new masterpiece is worth something???! Surely all the time and emotional outpouring I’ve put into this song is valuable in some way?” I say no it isn’t. It’s absolutely worthless until such times as someone decides to pay you money for it. And then it’s worth exactly what they’re willing to pay. Sure – go ahead and concoct a value for it if you like, but don’t complain when the audience doesn’t see it like you do. Where is their obligation to do that?
What’s more, I predict that we are now in an age where the outcome of all I’ve suggested above will be determined to be so no matter what we decide to do!
To step sideways into another realm of other intellectual property for a moment, that of online journalism, we see corporate media giants struggling to understand the profound change that confronts them. Rupert Murdoch has said that he wants to charge people to view his online newspapers. I predict he will fail if he tries to do that. Murdoch is “striving to fix a ”malfunctioning” business model” and says that “The current days of the internet will soon be over.”(xvii) Murdoch can’t understand why he’s lost more than a hundred million bucks on MySpace when the rest of us can see it as plain as day – the value that he and his old-world cronies are putting on these enormous social clubs is completely arbitrary. It’s as fickle as any fashion. The MySpace party got uncool and everybody left. Now they’re dancing over at FaceBook, but that will, in time, go out of fashion too. These big corporate heavy-hitters just can’t bear the thought that there are tens of millions of people out there doing stuff, and they can’t be relied on to generate any money!
So their solution is completely laughable – throttle the pipe! Dominate the net! Dam the stream! Stop the fun!
Such a solution will fail.
And now the rhetoric is becoming unsettling. Even people who should know better are clinging to a model that is fairly cracking under the weight of its own inability to cope. A few days ago on The Guardian I watched a video of Jaron Lanier telling us that Web 2.0 was a dismal failure.(xviii) Well, of course it is you nitwit. Web 2.0 is a stupid and meaningless conceptual term dreamed up by people who think they can predict the future and make money from it.(xix) In the interview Lanier looks like a deer in the headlights when he says:
Some friends and I had this thought that perhaps that the internet would be such a fountain of wealth and opportunity that it could be entirely open, that people could give away the fruits of their brains and hearts and the opportunities they would get in return would be huge.
He goes on to be amazed and appalled that a great number of people who inhabit the open prairies of the net can’t communicate sensibly, are argumentative and petty, prone to theft, operate in packs, and are conservative. He bemoans what he sees as the demise of ‘culture’ and starts to sound unpleasantly just like Rupert Murdoch when he says that people need to be corralled in their internet habits for their own good.(xx) He says categorically that nothing good has come from the open source movement, which is one of the most daft things I’ve heard anyone say about the net in a long time.(xxi)
His main criticism seems to be that the web has turned into one big mediocre mush – again, I think it’s peculiar that he finds this at all surprising. It is just mirroring how people really are. Jaron Lanier has plainly never been to a town council meeting. He seems to have, for a while at least, entertained the naive idea that enabling everyone to have a voice would somehow change the fundamental structure of the human condition. How quaint! He sees the web turning into a big, noisy, chaotic, sprawling, stinking, confusing, confronting bazaar when he wanted something more akin to a nice polite knitting circle. Ha!
OK. Given all that stuff, where do we go from here? Why shouldn’t we, as I’ve suggested in my sub-heading, all just stick our heads in the oven and be done with it? Well, first of all let me say that I’m not going to suggest ‘solutions’. A need for a solution infers that there is a problem in the first place, and I think the main problem we’re seeing here is that a whole lot of people are unhappy that they used to make money under a system with which they were comfortable, and now they’re not. To take on that complaint is then a lot like sympathising with people who used to make their living out of harpooning whales, or shoeing horses, or sweeping chimneys. Things change, and it’s tough. And also, as I’ve said above, it’s not a God-given right that we should be compensated for something that has no pressing utility, and we need to accept that as a baseline.(xxii)
However, despite everything I’ve written above, and despite how gloomy this might all appear, I’m very optimistic about the future of creativity; about the future of music; about the future of news dissemination and journalism; about the future of fine art, digital art, poetry, movies and comedy. My optimism stems from one single fact: human beings, by their nature, are prolifically creative. This is not to say that everybody is as creative as everybody else, nor indeed that we will care for much of what gets created. But I contend that a deep desire to ‘make stuff’ runs through us, and will continue to do so no matter what.
Whether we like it or not, people will create stuff for nothing, and some of that stuff will actually be good. Despite what Lanier and Murdoch and others might believe, we don’t need their guidance to amuse and entertain ourselves. And, I suggest, we don’t need to be taught ‘culture’, nor to be taught the value of it.
Jaron Lanier made one tiny glimmer of sense in his Guardian article: he mentioned the idea of micropayments. I think this might just provide an angle on how creative people can get some small kind of monetary reward for their efforts (I say small, but in fact I don’t see any a priori reason why this would necessarily be so. It’s probably helpful for most artists to think of it like that, though). Once you abandon the idea that your music, or your art or your journalism has any inherent value, this starts to look pretty interesting.
Let’s say you visit a website – maybe The Guardian, since we’ve bandied them around a bit – and you read an article by Jaron Lanier. If you thought that article was valuable – that it informed your day, or amused you, or enlightened you – would you chip in a cent or two if you knew that money was going to the person who wrote it? I would certainly do that. If you went to a music site and you heard something that lifted your spirits, or made your heart flip, would you chip in a few cents for that experience? I would do that too. And (perhaps it’s me being naive now) I think a lot of people would do that. Technically, I don’t see there’s much of an impediment to doing this kind of thing anymore, and it will only be a short time before someone implements a viable scheme.(xxiv) It would be straightforward: you set up an account much like a bank account and deposit some money into it – maybe a baseline $100 or so. Then as you tour around the web, you’d see little icons that said, maybe, ’1c’ or ’5c’ attached to creative enterprises. You click that icon and the appropriate amount is donated to that person from your account. When your account is depleted to a certain minumum threshold, you’re informed by email that you need to top it up. The system can’t be anymore complicated than that or it won’t work.(xxv)
The more astute of you will see that this is what the Cow Collection Plate experiment is all about. It’s obviously not quite the same as what I’ve just outlined, in that it currently costs nothing at all to ‘donate’, but my feeling is that if it was, say, 5c, then it wouldn’t make that much difference if all you had to do was click. Is this article worth 5c? Yes? OK, then click the button. If not, don’t. I think this kind of idea would rapidly start to reward people who were doing great stuff.(xxvi) OK, it doesn’t take much brains to see that this is a tiny trickle of income – a few cents here, a few cents there, how is anyone going to make a living out of that? Well, my speculation is that not many will. To be more accurate, I think that a large number of people will make some pocket money, and a very small number of people, proportionately, will make a living. But here’s the thing – that’s really no different at all to the way things are now. If you are an artist of any kind you know exactly what I mean. Artists, musicians, journalists, writers – all spend the vast part of their lives scraping a living. It is only a very very small number who garner any great success out of their craft. And, if you do happen to get successful, you stand to make some reasonable money – not stupid insane money, which is what I suggest happened under the old model, but decent money.(xxvii) Let’s go back full circle and look at the Men at Work song I talked about at the beginning of all this. Now, I don’t have a clue what kind of sales that record made, but let’s say for the sake of argument it’s been played, here or there, legally or illegally, 10 million times (I don’t think that’s an unreasonable figure – probably on the low side, in fact). If that song had been awarded 5c for every play, that’s a tidy $500,000 for a song! And $500k that goes straight to the song’s makers, to boot.(xxviii) If you write ten successful songs in your career, you’re making a fair living – better than most. Plus, I’m going to suggest something else that is entirely new to the model – I propose that you don’t rely solely on your music to make you money. As well as being a songwriter, you now need to take on all the other attributes of a successful artist and be the total entrepreneur(xxix) – sell the t-shirts, sell the lyrics, sell photos of the band, sell your outtakes and your improvisations and your blog posts all for a few cents! In short, think laterally and exploit novelty. Rely on the idea that people will throw you a coin even if they won’t buy you champagne.(xxx)
So to this end, I propose that we all stop calling ourselves ‘artists’ and start thinking of ourselves as pragmartists. Because you can be sure of two things:
•Trying to impose control on the system will fail spectacularly, detrimentally and miserably. It’s already starting.
•If you think what you do is of a value $X, there will always be someone who is creating something just as good or better for $0. Those people are your competition. And they won’t go away.
Phew. There you have it – the longest post in Cow history. Who’d have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? How many of you stuck with me, I wonder?
I say iconic because of Larrikin’s awesome status in our music history, but that hides a multitude of omissions. Larrikin Records, formerly the brainchild of the inimitable Warren Fahey, is not the company it once was, having been split and sold many years back. The publishing arm and the label are now controlled by big companies. No surprise there. [↩]
I’m still not entirely sure what the song is supposed to be about, but over the years I’ve inferred that it’s a caricature of the way Australians present themselves overseas, and a burlesque of the Crocodile Dundee-like aura that the country seems to have acquired in the minds of foreigners [↩]
Of course. If it had disappeared into obscurity, I think we can agree that Larrikin would not have been remotely interested in correcting a ‘point of order’. [↩]
The similarity was pointed out on a popular tv music programme late last year, and Larrikin Music immediately started seeing dollar signs. In a rather disingenuous attempt at justifying his position, director of Larrikin Music Publishing, Norm Lurie (and some of members of the media, it has to be said), tried to evoke a miserable picture of the aged Marion Sinclair sitting penniless and alone in a nursing home while the Men At Work songwriters lived high on the hog. This is a fairly pathetic tactic. [↩]
The actual monetary award has yet to be decided. We shall see how that goes. [↩]
In the interests of full disclosure I will say that I have worked with Colin in the past and found him to be a masterful performer and excellent songwriter. He is also that most rare of beings – a scholarly and gentlemanly musician. [↩]
Or perhaps, someone else was paying them to perform for you, in which case it cost you nothing [↩]
I don’t want to imply that nothing good came out of this system – it obviously did. But in the last decade or so the landscape has become embarrassingly barren, and the record companies increasingly desperate to justify their existences. [↩]
How quickly we forget about the compilation tapes we used to make on cassettes, and swap with our friends. It was entirely inevitable that, once music was freed from technical bondage, it would be swapped and reinvented prolifically and carelessly. It’s the nature of music! [↩]
Aside, obviously, from playing it for your personal enjoyment in private. [↩]
Clearly, music, like art, is an important part of what it is to be human, so it fulfils an essential purpose in respect to our wellbeing, just as art and literature do. My point here is that if you take music away, you can still live a good life, if a much less profound one. [↩]
I hope you can see my point here – we may or may not decide to award the song some monetary worth according to any number of criteria, but we quite arbitrarily decide its value. I could give many examples of this: for example let’s say I own the song on a CD, but I feel it is OK to make a copy for my Dad, because he’d never buy it anyway. Or, I don’t own it, but I want to send it someone so they can hear the ‘Kookaburra’ riff that I’m talking about. Or, I own an audio-only version of it, but I think it’s OK to disseminate a couple of YouTube clips through my blog even though I don’t know where the legality of this stands. I submit that everyone reading this has done something of this nature. In other words, the value you have determined the song is worth has nothing at all to do with the record company’s, or the band’s, estimation of it. [↩]
How much is a song worth? Some years ago I was involved in a commercial where the advertising agency wanted to buy the rights to use 60 seconds of a Pet Shop Boys track for their ad. The Boys’ publisher wouldn’t sign away the rights for anything less than $400k Australian dollars. I hold two opposing thoughts in my mind regarding this: $400k is a fucking HUGE amount of money for a song. And yet, really, it’s the Pet Shop Boys’ total right to value it how they like, especially if it’s being used to give cachet to dog food or something. My point is that in some kind of bizarre Shrodinger’s Cat-like parody of quantum simultaneity, the song is at once worth precisely nothing (if they don’t sell it) and $400k (if they do). And really, they didn’t care either way. In the end, the advertisers wouldn’t fork out, so in this case it was worth nothing. The Pet Shop Boys probably didn’t even notice. This seems entirely wrong to me. [↩]
In both senses of the word: ‘free’ as in costing nothing, and ‘free’ as in unfettered to go where it will. [↩]
The business model is only malfunctioning according to his rules, ie, that he’s not raking in the billions he used to. He doesn’t understand that his time has passed – his infallible business sense has come up against an inexorable assault on the zeitgeist. [↩]
Lanier, in the article accompanying the interview clip, also says of the web in general: “Oh, I think the web has been a massive success. The web gave us the first empirical evidence that vast numbers of people really are creative, really do have things to offer, and really will do it – really will get their acts together.” He seems to be able to split the web experience into pieces in his head, somehow labelling things he doesn’t like as ‘Web 2.0′. He really is confusing for someone who is supposed to be some kind of digital guru. [↩]
The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, quite rightly called the term ‘Web 2.0′ ‘a piece of jargon’, since his original concept of the web already embodied the ideas it hijacked. [↩]
I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s definitely the gist of the Guardian interview [↩]
Just in case it needs to be clarified, Lanier is saying that there is no ‘good’ in things like Wikipedia, Facebook, blogging, open source software such as Firefox or WordPress, contributive open concepts like YouTube, Flickr and Make, and what I would call ‘Capitalist’ open-market concepts like Etsy and Zazzle. And they are just a few of a host of marvellous working ideas. Now, this makes one really wonder about his meaning of the word ‘good’… [↩]
Believe me, this is difficult concept for an artist to swallow. It’s taken me an awful long time to get to this point, but now I’m here, everything seems a darn sight clearer. Once you cross this Rubicon, the view is spectacular! [↩]
I’m not claiming this as an original idea, by the way, but it is rather novel and strange if you’re accustomed to seeing your income from CD sales, or song royalties. [↩]
One such pending scheme is Flattr, which, although interesting, has a fatal flaw in my view. Perhaps I’ll go into that another time… [↩]
This is exactly the way that my electronic road toll account works, so this kind of system is nothing new. [↩]
Of course there is going to be the explosion of exploitation that comes with this idea – it’s entirely inevitable. You can’t stop human nature, and unlike Jaron Lanier, I’m not going to kid myself or anyone else that we won’t get huge troughs of pig swill. [↩]
I predict that the people who complain the longest and the loudest about my ideas will be those who were the most successful under the old paradigm. Those of us for whom that paradigm really didn’t work that well are likely to be more receptive to change. [↩]
Yes, yes, I can hear someone saying that Colin Hay and Ron Strykert probably made much more out of ‘Down Under’ than that, but they’re not listening – that model IS DEAD! FORGET IT! NOT HAPPENING ANY MORE! [↩]
You could, of course, pay someone else to do this – no reason not to, except that you dilute your earning capacity. The great thing you have going for you with the web is that your potential audience is vast and the legwork required to reach that audience is comparatively small. [↩]
Of course, none of this is really new to anyone who has been paying attention in recent years. It’s pretty much where a great number of people are headed in the music world, at least. Like I said before – I believe that these solutions will impose themselves upon us, no matter what we think or do. [↩]