Sunday, February 18, 2007

Free (and Stolen)

I've been meaning to get around to some rhetorical analysis of the recent "Thoughts on Music" by Steve Jobs. Despite its ostensible subject, it's not actually a philosophical reflection about the aesthetics of melody and harmony, and it should more rightly be titled "Thoughts on DRM."

In Jobs' statement on DRM or "digital rights management," he argues that music publishers should give up on the invariably failing project of crippling digital content with proprietary tags designed to disable supposedly illegal play. Unfortunately for consumers, DRM creates all kinds of problems with interoperability and ties customers to a particular brand in ways totally unprecedented in the analog world. Open source critics have answered Jobs pointedly by saying that Apple should make the code of its own player software more transparent, if the company is really serious about principles of freer culture.

As a close reader, I noticed his clever use of parenthetical phrases in which he attempts to position himself on both sides of the fence in the IP culture wars. Check out this sentence:

No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

Or this one:

The problem, of course, is that there are many smart people in the world, some with a lot of time on their hands, who love to discover such secrets and publish a way for everyone to get free (and stolen) music.

By placing words like "stolen" or "illegal" in parentheses, he is both inserting and ironizing the discourse of the recording industry.

In my second example, Jobs also implicitly praises the traditional figure of the hacker-as-hero in cyber culture by identifying them as "smart people," while also suggesting that their labor is both needlessly time-intensive and an option only for a particular kind of leisure class in that they have "a lot of time on their hands."

Although this statement has been read as an open critique of the recording industry, I thought the agents of media consolidation got off pretty easy. Jobs' technique seems to be to treat them with quotation marks, using scare quotes to make his sometimes not so subtle point, as he does here:

Since Apple does not own or control any music itself, it must license the rights to distribute music from others, primarily the “big four” music companies: Universal, Sony BMG, Warner and EMI.

He also uses punctuational sarcasm earlier:

To begin, it is useful to remember that all iPods play music that is free of any DRM and encoded in “open” licensable formats such as MP3 and AAC.

In fact, the word "open" is set off as a mediated adjective in Jobs' essay from the very first sentence:

With the stunning global success of Apple’s iPod music player and iTunes online music store, some have called for Apple to “open” the digital rights management (DRM) system

Of course, the whole concept of "openness" and "secrecy" gets an ironic spin in his piece, as another scare quote around the word "hide" demonstrates.

In other words, even if one uses the most sophisticated cryptographic locks to protect the actual music, one must still “hide” the keys which unlock the music on the user’s computer or portable music player.

Jobs' meta-commentary also extends to the position of his competitors, for whom "open" and "closed" have become equally meaningless signifiers.

Perhaps this same conclusion contributed to Microsoft’s recent decision to switch their emphasis from an “open” model of licensing their DRM to others to a “closed” model of offering a proprietary music store, proprietary jukebox software and proprietary players.

For advocates of a digital public sphere, this excessive cuteness about meaning might be counterproductive. Some of us believe that there are real ways that politics, participation, and dialogue can be more open and certain forms of obstruction that are genuinely injurious.

Furthermore, as a writing program administrator, I'm not sure what to make of Jobs' compositional strategy, particularly when sticklers for style in the classroom justifiably try to get their students away from such gimmicky punctuation. While Jobs is a culture hero to many undergraduates, I don't want them imitating this prose, particularly when Jobs is indulging in a certain amount of (post)modern European style parenthesizing while also deploying traditional "American" scare tactics with quotation marks.

It's interesting to compare Jobs' comments on DRM with the previous remarks of Microsoft's Bill Gates, who proposed merely buying and "ripping" CDs as the easiest solution to the DRM dilemma. I don't think he made any quotation marks in the air while talking to technology reporters and bloggers about the subject.


I think my UCI colleague Peter Krapp also picked up on some of the deconstructionist irony of Jobs' work, since he described it as an "(anti-) DRM memo" on his blog distraction economy.

At least Jobs didn't use the traditional blogging cross-out ironically in his open letter, as popular mega-blogs like BoingBoing often do. This recent snippet shows the technique: "Voting machine scammers vendors say that their machines are totally secure, but also say that they can't tell anyone how they work."

There's also some good rhetorical analysis of Jobs' statement at Freedom to Tinker.

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