Ten statues in a room, staring upwards

As part of the initial stages of our PhD research, all UWS post-graduate students are required to complete an online “postgraduate essentials” unit. It involves reading through a series of ‘modules’ explaining everything from how to use the Uni library and facilities, to how to apply for Human Research Ethics Clearance.

Before we can complete a number of these modules we are asked to post a message on the discussion forum to answer a question about the issue being addressed by that module. Module 8 instructs us to

Go to the topic Ethical Issues and post a response to one of the following questions: What are some of the ethical implications of the research design you are proposing for your confirmation of candidature? How might these implications affect how and when you apply for ethics clearance after Confirmation?

Because it’s a requirement of completing the module, the forum fills up with a string of single-post threads, and no one reads or responds to anyone else’s perfunctory postings. I think it’s sometimes useful to think about online social spaces as an imaginary geographic space, so if it were what would this one look like? One possible way to visualise this board would be to see it as a room full of people, necks all craned back while they talk to a figure above them, none of them looking at or interacting with each other. The disclosure of full personal names adds to a sense of a presence in the discussion board – ‘Benjamin Abraham’ or his representation as invoked by his full and proper name is there in the room preserved.

But the flesh-and-blood Benjamin Abraham is not always there, so it’s as if a statue or a simulacrum of him is left there in his place. Date and time information next to the message content that comes with these statuesque-textual objects gives a sense of a chronology to their appearance. At 9:43pm on the 25th of May 2009 the Benjamin Abraham statue appeared in the room and with it came the words, “One of the main ethical implications of the research I’m proposing…” etcetera, etcetera.

The people in my imagined ‘discussion board’ space are all staring up at a central figure for a reason. While most of the respondents launched straight into their answers, the beginning of their post launch straight into an answer to the question, at least one person didn’t. One user started with a salutation before beginning their answer: “Hi there. My DCA project…” and they signed off with a “Cheers” followed by their name. This changed my initial opinion of the space from one that felt like many people speaking to no one in particular (or to an empty room), to seeing the posts as speaking to some invisible or high above Other.

It demonstrates, I think, the awkwardness in this use of the discussion board for the module. Who we are writing/speaking to in answering the question is not immediately clear, and it initially nearly led me to copy and paste the question itself into the text of my post. This may have the effect of looking like I was talking to myself, but more simply it may be as if I were trying to follow the essay response technique of including a restatement of the question at the start of the answer. However this would still maintain the sense of projecting to an Other in the form of an audience, and while I opted out of this approach as a time saving device, several respondents did prepend their answers with a restating of the question.

At any rate, the imaging of this online social space as geographic space can go some ways to explaining the awkwardness I felt when formulating my answer. My initial desire to include a restatement of the question in my answer can be seen as an attempt at formalising a response – almost like reading a speech off a piece of paper to avoid meeting the gaze of the in this case spooky and invisible audience, the unknown Other. The postgraduate essentials discussion board experience was a strange one, and a rather uncomplimentary pairing of threaded discussion format to an arbitrary question & answer format.

The lack of a visible questioner/audience/reader makes answering the question without either restating it or addressing someone makes the process feel strange and arbitrary and the answerer foolish.

Fear and Loathing: The Death of the Australian Dream

First, the national treasure that is social researcher and commentator, Hugh Mackay. On the ABC’s Compass in 2004:

Hugh Mackay:
Well I think we, particularly intelligent people are extremely impatient with unintelligent people. And assume that they’re doing silly things because they’ve deliberately done silly things, yes. We just have to acknowledge that by definition half the population has average or below average intelligence. I mean these are very rubbery terms, but in broad terms I think we have to acknowledge that there is a distribution of intelligence through the community which is not equal. And a lot of people do silly things because they’re not very bright. A lot of people do silly things on the road or make irresponsible purchase decisions, or can’t manage their finances, or don’t really know much about how to raise their children, just because they’re not very bright. Now I think we’re very uncompassionate about that. And we ought to be much more generous, much more supportive, much more communitarian in our approach to that form of disadvantage.

No one talks about this, do they?

Hugh Mackay:
No, no. I think people are embarrassed to talk about this. And of course in some ways some of us should be embarrassed to talk about it because there is a real aspect of our society which values high intelligence as if it’s a sort of earned quality. As though it’s something to be admired, it’s an achievement. It’s not an achievement at all. What you do with it might be an achievement, but we do I think talk as though intelligent people are superior, and that’s a dreadful blight I think on contemporary society.

Geraldine Doogue:
Well let me put it this way. What’s your verdict now on us as a community? Are we more or less snobbish than say when you began your work?

Hugh Mackay:
Infinitely more snobbish, infinitely more stratified, with a much stronger sense of there being a wealth class who think of themselves as a sort of upper class. And now, one of the things I’ve noticed just in the last few years in research is the sense of entitlement among people who have acquired wealth. As though that has actually positioned them in a superior way. That has not been the case for very long in Australia. I mean we’ve thought of ourselves as a broadly middle-class society, living out the egalitarian dream, and I think that’s already over for us. I mean we still talk about the dream But I think on this one, this is one of the things that saddens me. On this one I think there are many people now in the top half of the economic heap who think they’re there, they’ve made it, we deserve to be here, we’ve got to look after our children, and those people well that’s just how it is. You know there are the poor, they’re always with us, but nothing to do with us. And sadly there are people in the bottom half of the economic heap who now see the gulf as unbridgeable.

Today, the coalition came out with a policy aimed at making the “workforce” more “mobile” by encouraging young people to move to find work. TheWest.com.au was the only online source to run the story, since it’s a repeat of the same policy first proposed in April, summarising the policy by saying “Young jobless Australians will be pushed to move to mining towns”. I heard about this most vexing policy through TripleJ news.

I may be reacting particularly strongly (and badly) to the policy because of my own situation, having moved out of home for the first time only a bit over a week ago. However I think it gives me a solid grounding from which to criticise this policy. Put simply, it’s my view that this (admittedly unexplained and hand-wavingly vague) policy would be horrendously destructive, primarily on a social level but also in the long term economically. This is because it would incentivise young people to move away from their existing friends and family (and therefore penalise or disadvantage to those who don’t want to move). And yet friends and family are the very things that conservatives (like the coalition) most often point to as the alternative to the socialised welfare state; people helping each other out individually. I live a mere 15 minutes drive from my parents and I shudder to think how isolating and emotionally unsettling it would be to be cast adrift a continent away from from everyone you know just to work. And then what happens when the economy takes another dip, or the mining bubble bursts? They inevitably lose their jobs and equally as inevitable end up on the dole.

Or do they?

Lastly, and perhaps the thing that leaves me the most disillusioned about the state of the Australian Dream, is the damning “You Think: Your Say report, which surveyed 1,200 young people across the country on their attitudes to government services”. Crickey.com.au take the words from one youth respondent, titling the story “They don’t give a sh-t about young people“. It’s a reasonably apt summary. Here’s something that American author, lefty liberal type, and scholar Richard Rorty said in 1998 in the US:

How do you think today’s kids compare with earlier cohorts? I would guess, based on your book, that you think that today’s students are less politically engaged than they were in the sixties.

Yeah, but in the sixties the kids I taught never dreamed they could possibly fall out of the middle class. And these kids think they could do it very easily. So they’re just much more insecure.

And this makes them more politically engaged, or less?

I think it makes them less. It’s as if they don’t have time to think about politics. They’ve got to think about their careers.

Elsewhere in the interview Rorty makes the excellent suggestion that the Left shouldn’t just throw it’s hands up in despair when faced with the kind of problems and policies I’ve been ranting about above, but should suggest and have ready alternatives. The Left shouldn’t be just about having ‘hope’ for a better future society but should have answers too.

The Australian Dream of an egalitarian society, of all people equal, is one of them. It’s one that I want to see preserved, to see the slide into selfabsorbtion and an inward focus, that Mackay notes above, reversed. We need to come up with better answers. Hugh Mackay seems like a dude who’s probably got a good idea about where to find some good ones.

Free as in ‘Pay What You Want’?

There’s a phenomenon that happens whenever someone tries a ‘pay what you want’ exercise online that’s always mystified me. People often get angry, express disappointment or even serious feelings of being ‘let down by the human race’ – all because some people want to get a ‘pay what you want product’ for free. This reaction has always confused me for a couple of reasons, predominantly since by all appearances doesn’t paying ‘what I want’ also include paying nothing?

I got into a semantic discussion the other day with Travis Megill of The Autumnal City about the Humble Indie Bundle. At that time I was seeing a lot of re-tweets and general bemoaning of the fact that the humble indie bundle was being pirated on torrent sites. Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker is apparently commenting on the same situation in a post about the Bundle, indirectly referencing those torrenters, when he says, “You might today be feeling a little sad for one reason or another. Perhaps you are feeling ill toward particular fellow humans.” I remarked on twitter that I didn’t see what the fuss was about – the sellers of the bundle are letting people pay what they want for these games already, clearly some people are just choosing to pay nothing implied by the ‘pay what you want’ slogan. Or so I thought.

Travis informed me that you couldn’t actually input $0 and still get the humble indie bundle, instead you get shown a picture of a ‘starving indie game dev’ with a puppy-dog look on his face. Joe Tortuga informed me that the least you could pay for the bundle was 1c. For people paying via a credit card in a foreign denomination (i.e. non USD currency) they will also get charged a conversion fee, possibly on top of a credit card surcharge, making the minimum purchase price somewhere around a dollar or so.

Cost breakdowns aside, I had assumed that “pay what you want” comprised being able to choose to pay nothing. Yet this is clearly not the case, the next question being why? Is this an ambiguity in the ‘pay what you want’ phrase itself? Clearly it’s an issue as even John Walker in the same Rock Paper Shotgun article jubilantly notes that “people…needn’t have paid anything.” Even Walker seems to be under the misapprehension that people don’t have to pay something, which is not quite the case.

It’s possible that he were simply commenting on the fact that people needn’t have bought the bundle outright, but it would be odd to make a big deal out of that issue since that’s a possibility with any product. You can always choose to not buy something. Alternatively, perhaps he’s mentally conflating paying ‘almost nothing’ with the technical definition of ‘nothing’. The trouble with this is that it implies a shared standard of what is a ‘nothing’ amount of money, which may or may not be the case.

One possible explanation for the confusion around ‘pay what you want’ could be that it’s picked up a particular perception from political positioning of proceeding sales of the same type. The first and still most notable of this type of exercise was Radiohead’s In Rainbows album launch, with its ‘pay what you want’ ethos that was also an attempt at ‘sticking it to the man’. Thom Yorke and the band were making a statement about the music industry and music labels in general – namely that you don’t need a label to distribute your album anymore, that you can get the internet to do it for you, and that you don’t have to sell at the same old ‘price points’. (Obviously, there are always going to be limits to this approach since it’s not going to be viable for every band or indie game developer. Not everyone can attract press attention like Radiohead but their point stands – the internet is here today and the structures of the 20th Century are being challenged, even undermined by it.)

One of the first ‘pay what you want’ sales by an indie game developer was 2D-Boy’s experiment at selling their game World of Goo at a ‘pay what you want’ price point. Incidentally, 2D Boy also made paying ‘nothing’ off limits, and placed a similar restriction of a minimum price of 1c (which I didn’t realise at the time). Regardless, once you set your price that low you might as well be giving it away for free as I’m certain it begins to costs the seller more in bandwidth than is recouped off a 1c sale. The seller is obviously aware of this potentiality and is counting on consumer’s own goodwill and sense of fairness in pricing. In the long run it seems to works out at a net benefit, as the numbers clearly show.

But according to the stats in the above-linked RPS piece, over 16,000 consumers paid 1c for World of Goo. If they all downloaded the game, with the World of Goo client even a paltry 67mb, multiply that by 16,000 and you get over one terabyte of bandwidth that 2DBoy now have to pay for with 16,000 cents. With this in mind, I think 2DBoy are less disadvantaged by P2P torrenters since they don’t incur a bandwidth cost.

The Humble Indie Bundle adds another layer on top of the World of Goo sale approach, however, in that it has also opted to split your choice of the amount with a pair of charities. Since both amount and split ratio is now left to the purchaser to determine (with a suggested split of 50/50) it makes the issue of what one should pay for the package an even murkier affair.

Furthermore, I also wonder what effect it has on the overall bundle that it’s a mixed charity and commercial venture. ‘Cause-related marketing’, as its known in marketing circles, is hardly a new tactic and apparently quite an effective one. The stats have indicated that from the money brought in from sale of the bundle about 1/3rd of the money is going to a charity, indicating that not everyone is following the advised 50:50 split. Certainly the end result is much more beneficial for the charities involved than the veritable con-job of “1c from every dollar goes to X charity” often employed by commercial type products, and the organisers of the bundle are to be commended for that.

However even if the motivation behind the use of ‘cause-related marketing’ was a genuinely altruistic desire to benefit charity while running a sale, it does leave open the possibility to read it as though the Humble Indie Bundle is trying to double down on the social guilt and stigma that is being employed in place of a DRM system. In any ‘pay what you want’ situation the seller is deliberately opening themselves to potential abuse and relying on social pressure offset the downside. By adding in an element of donating to charity it adds further compulsion to enforce behaviour through social expectations, and clearly it’s working incredibly well for them.

Viewed like this, the hand-wringing and moral outrage that inspired my initial comments over twitter as well as this subsequent post can be read as complicity in a free and distributed form of social DRM. And I’m not entirely convinced that I want to be a part of that – or at the very least, I don’t want to be an unwitting part of that. According to Travis Megill, torrenting the humble indie bundle makes you an ‘asshole’. PC Gamer in a blog post call downloading the game for free, paying nothing (not even one cent) “a little bit dickish.” Both fine and valid points of view, especially since these people aren’t even donating to charity. But given that most people weren’t donating to charity (or not in amounts to equal the amount directed to the developers) why isn’t there more of a cry going up about those people?

I guess I’m less willing to quickly condemn the ‘pirates’. Is it even really piracy if they’re giving it away for almost free anyway? Are there other benefits the sellers get from that 1c sale? And if the pirates are torrenting, at least they’re not taking up bandwidth. There’s also a big expectation with the internet, and perhaps this is changing in select pockets like amongst indie game supporters/purchasers, that stuff is supposed to be free. It’s extremely unlikely, but some of the piracy could even be a kind of protest against the 1c requirement, since it’s been remarked (I forget where) that the gulf between “free” and “1c” on the internet is a huge span that many people are not willing to cross. Clearly, when it comes to indie games, that’s not quite so simply the case but the idea ought to be kept in mind.

As I think I’ve shown above, the phrase ‘pay what you want’ is hardly clear and unambiguous – even when the actual payment mechanism is less ambiguous, preventing the purchasing of a game for zero dollars and zero cents. The bundle is ultimately a very unique and appropriate product of the internet – exhibiting something some important aspects of its nature: it’s both technical and social; expectation and implementation; and it’s got the inherent push/pull aspect of information wanting to be free and simultaneously expensive. I’m reminded by it of Alex Galloway’s concept of ‘protocol’ as described in his book of the same name. Built to appeal to the techno-utopian ideologue who speaks out about ‘free as in freedom’ but who then furrows his brow at ‘free as in beer’. So where do we position ‘free as in pay what you want’? Capitalism has never been ‘free’ except in the manner of being ‘free to buy or to not buy’. The ‘pay what you want’ movement merely extends the ‘freedom to choose between’ to the amount you pay.

Here’s a torrent for the Humble Indie Bundle if you must pirate the game. I won’t judge you. There may be nothing ultimately wrong with social DRM, but politically speaking I’m much less enamoured with the ‘pay what you want’ approach than I was before I took the time to critically examine it, finding it now much less revolutionary than I first thought.

The bottom line though is that I’m really glad a bunch of indie’s got paid.

A Couple of Interviews

So I should mention I was interviewed by Mark Johnson of the Game Taco podcast a couple weeks back, and it’s just now made its way to the world-wide-winterwebs. In the interview (my part starts about 1hr 7mins into the cast) I talk/complain about the techno-social ordering of the internet, the games blogging community and its cyclical ebb and flow, a whole lot of stuff about Permanent Death (always a popular topic), Critical Distance and then some! Afterwards the other cast members have a bit of a discussion of some of the content of the interview, in which the following gem is uttered:

“I like his shit… but his copy editing is just not professional.” – Mark Johnson

If my blog ever had, or needed to have a boxquote, this would be what I put on it. He’s totally right, by the way. I’m a poor, poor editor of my own work but until someone volunteers to do it for free, it’s all you’re getting – straight from my brain to the page to your screen. There’s just something about reading back over your own work that makes the distance necessary for good copy editing nigh on impossible to maintain. All I see when I read over it is what I wanted to say, not what’s actually on the page. Anyway, Mark deserves props for asking some rather good questions, which is always harder than it looks.

One person who always makes it look way too easy, however, is Michael Abbott. While I haven’t actually had the chance to listen to it yet, his latest Brainy Gamer podcast features the dynamic duo of Jamin Brophy-Warren and Chris Dahlen, founders of the excellent Kill Screen magazine. Having had the pleasure of meeting them both, I feel safe in saying they’re both worth listening to. Go have a listen when you get sick of the metallic sound of my voice.