Open Rights Shites

This evening, Coxall, Levine and I attended an open meeting of the Open Rights Group, a new UK organisation set in the mould of the EFF. I wasn’t expecting the earth to move for me: we’ve attended too many of these little geek/numeeja run yack-shacks to hope for anything particularly productive to emerge. This evening did its least to confound me.

It was held in a basement in Soho named Zero-One. I say basement, but, naturally, one is encouraged to term it a “creative space”. Said “creative space” was filled with geeks and numeedjas, as well as a scattering of lawyer-types and Earnest Young Men. Overwhelmingly men, of course, the few women who were there either freaks, sociologists or serving the free cheese and wine. Hey – don’t shoot the messenger. A few chairs encircled the basement, but the main floor was bare, to encourage crouching and cross-legged encampment. Oh dear. This was all going to be “inclusive and discursive”, wasn’t it?

Oh dear, indeed: the manageress of the “creative space” started proceedings. Her introduction was little more than an ad for her basement. She then brought on an ex hack, who spouted some trivial nonsense or other, and was excited by the prospect of setting up ever more “wikis” and “blogs”. She, in turn, brought on a jargon-clappy professional “meeting facilitator/consultant”. This was going to be “fun”.

The evening was to commence with a little talk from some Oxford chap or other, followed by a free-fall clustered discussion, in which each cluster was to be provided with its own sticky wall-covering on which to paste their mindstormingly written postcards.

The Oxford nonentity informed us that the Internet was somewhat marvellous, and, gosh, lots of interesting things might become of it soon, what ho, and it’s not just paedophilia and terrorists. The poor fellow seemed trapped in 1994.

The Management Consultant Facilitator then spouted some jargon, and asked the floor for ideas for the discussion clusters. The Earnest Young Men pontificated their banalities. The geeks obsessed about some yawnful minutia. And Coxall suggested we discuss how to win over the “unhosed stupid masses”. Yes, that is the phrase he used and, yes, the reaction from this righton bunch of whitebread nonces was predictable. “Maybe if you stopped patronising them like that…” was the immediate response from one of the Earnest Young Men on the floor.

Thence began the multiple clustering. Levine, Coxall and I have attended so many of these nascent talking shops now that we decided to skip with the usual niceties and begin some good old Trotskyite agitation. We argued that trying to interest people in the potential problems of overreaching anti-privacy legislation, or draconian Intellectual Property laws and the restrictive technologies therefor, was a lost cause. The “unhosed masses” wouldn’t care about these philosophical crampings until they felt the constrictive banding themselves, in their every day lives. We argued for the inculcation of popular anger: to that end, a little DRM here, a little copyright overextension there wasn’t enough. We decided that, rather than allow creative society to die the death by a thousand cuts that is its inevitable fate in a world dominated by multi-billion dollar “content” oligarchies, we should use these monoliths’ huge power and budgets to subvert themselves from within, to the point where their overreaching hubris could lead to genuine polltax-riot intensity anger, and Berlin-wall-sized dismantlement.

Rather than fiddle with legislation to make it slightly less bad, then, or to try to temper corporate excesses with the few thrown crumbs of compromise, a smartly utilitarian organisation would instead encourage the corporate hubris to its reductio ad absurdem extreme, to catalyse rather than inhibit the inevitable Hegelian dialectic’s unfolding.

By analogy, imagine one is piloting an aircraft. One has insufficient fuel to reach an airport. In such a circumstance, it is better immediately to make a controlled crash-landing in a field, than to wait until the plane runs dry and spirals out of control. Similarly, organisations like the Open Rights Group need to realise that, with what will always be considered esoteric domains of discourse, no matter the theoretical “education” one can provide, they have only Hobson’s Choice in how to inculcate change. They need to make this choice wisely, and not to act as unwitting handmaidens to the oligarchies, moderating their ludicrous and unhinged excesses, but rather to encourage the oligarchies to their doom. Only then might a freely creative culture take its first deep breaths of pure air. Until then, it’s a war of attrition no grassroots organisation with romantic aims and – ooh – 5,000 quid a month to spend, can achieve. Idealism against all the money and power in the world? Don’t believe the sentimental penny-dreadful. In real life, the winner is generally preordained.

To this end, we pontificated loudly, and wrote lots of postcards with catchy phrases, like “Throw Pirate Kids in Jail Today” and “Encourage a Media Exec’s Dream, and Let it Become His Nightmare” and “You Prevent Future Forest Fires by Encouraging Present Ones”. I particularly enjoyed the comparison with the Temperance movement in the early 20th century United States:
“What destroyed the Temperance Movement?”, I asked.
“The reasoned debates, pamphlets and lobbying against it, or its achievement of Prohibition, which ludicrous overreaching achieved what decades of petty lobbying could not”? We need to encourage the development of the equivalent of Prohibition in the digital realm. We need to encourage Them to overplay their hand. They must be sung by we sweet sirens finally into the newly exposed rocks of public opinion.

Of course, the Earnest Young Men found this all far too “cynical”. They called the inculcation of anger “negative” and generally became flustered. The British don’t like anti-consensual opinion, and make it known. Levine was trying to argue with a Britwasp, who suddenly stood up, with his Britwasp smirk, flapped his hands about dismissedly and said “I’m Leaving”. He flounced off. An odd effect for Mr Levine, who was blooded by this, as shall become apparent.

Some people were genuinely tickled by our ideas, we Bolsheviks to the rest of the lilly livered Mensheviks in the other clusters, with their spider diagrams and their invocations to “Reach Out to Our MEPs”. Some people were angered. Some wanted to argue against them, but couldn’t find logically cohesive counter arguments beyond fey idealism. “Oh, we just need to educate The General Public”.
“Really”, retorted Coxall, “So we just say ‘Ooh, Mr Public – did you know that copyright might be extended to 90 years’. ‘Gosh, no. Thank you for telling me. Now I’m off to watch East Enders”. The only education is a practical education, a sharp realisation of what their Content Providers’ hegemony means when given utterly free reign. Not “might mean”, note well, but “means”. The public are not good with the subjunctive mood, after all. They need to be given a real and present catastrophe on a plate before they react.

I was pleased to see that one early waverer concluded by writing “Do not amaeliorate bad legislation” on a card, and stuck it up on our wall. He was beginning to get the point. As good Trots, it was not our job to be pooper-scooper to the Corporate behemoths, tempering and tidying their excessive crap, their Ideological Manifestations, if you will, so that they remain just beyond the nose of general public ire.

The public meeting ended, our board full of sardony. Gedankenexperiment? Genuinely useful methodology? Epater le bourgeois? Pisstake? Some and all of the above, probably. But a hell of a lot more interesting than the anodyne pap drafted by the rubbishers in the rest of the room.

There was a quick reconvening to discuss our gestalt meanderings in plenary session. The Earnest Young Men went on again about their blessed MEPs. Some numeeja urged the importance of Edutaining the Public. Edutaining. If this is what the grassroots has come to, please pass the herbicide.

Levine, oddly Bolshy, asked the lady in charge of proceedings what she was actually going to do. She talked excitedly about already getting some press in the Guardian, The Register and ZDNET. Levine probed her further, asking what she was going to do after sending press released thereto. “Send more”. Levine wouldn’t let it lie. “And once you’re finished preaching to the converted?” General hubbub. An Earnest Young Man tried to defend the fair maiden. Levine tried to retort, saying he’d seen this empty posturing so many times before, but the Meeting Facilitator Jargon Man stopped him in his tracks, rebuking him forcefully:
“We’ve heard enough from you. You interrupted Adam there. You’ve had more than enough to say”. Even the audience, who had been Britishly riled by Levine’s daring to piss in Tony’s Big Tent, were somewhat aghast by the vehemency of the putdown. The Meeting Facilitator Jargon Man then ensured that the evening concluded on a tawdry, Partridgesque note by suggesting that, although he’d seen fit to give his “services” for free this evening, perhaps some might consider hiring for their next such event.

So there we have it. Another hot air balloon sets forth for its brief and useless journey. We emerged feeling depressed at how people seem unable in the current milleu to cope with genuinely robust, left-field debate, preferring rather to ensconce themselves in downy administrivia and shallow consensual sweet nothings.

We departed feeling arrogantly intelligent but deflated, a feeling that we’re enduring ever more often after such events. Big-headedness on our part, certainly, but it seems that the educated idiots who attend these things plough their lobotomised troughs with depressing predictability.

70 thoughts on “Open Rights Shites

  1. “But, given how much smarter than the rest of us you seem to think you are, I’m sure you already know that.”

    It does bring me such joy to see people using this particular fallacy.

    None of the Digital Triforce have stated, suggested or implied that they are more clever than you, or anyone else. Perhaps they have demonstrated it, or even are incapable of disguising it, but they have not based any of their logic or argument upon this helpless fact.

    This response is peculiar to the insecure. One confident in themselves should be delighted to recognise that another is more intelligent than them – they see it as an opportunity to learn, to be challenged, to think new thoughts previously unrealised. The insecure see it as a threat, and whether perceived, implied or imagined, reject another’s apparent superior intelligence in favour of snitching and whining, in an attempt to sabotage – to bring their chosen foe down to their own level, rather than aspire to climb up themselves.

    So when one resorts to such an attack, it is often appropriate to stop and ponder why the anger, and perhaps learn that one’s ego is not a plip of importance in the wider debate, and hence shut their stupid idiot mouth and start listening.

  2. Interesting debate. A story on the Register shows that some others are thinking along the lines of making DRM more visible to people too:

    “But one intriguing cultural side effect of Oboe, if it catches on, is that it makes DRM much more noticeable to the consumer. Right now DRM has two major nuisances: the nuisance of locks and keys on the music files, and the nuisance of interoperability woes between incompatible DRM mechanisms.
    In Oboe, Robertson says, your Fairplay-locked or WMA-locked songs are much more noticeable.
    “We don’t adjust any DRM. It probably surprises people as we hired DVD Jon, but we don’t take on or add any DRM to the songs, so some of the functionality will work and some won’t. A DRM file will show up in italics and won’t play unless the computer is authenticated.” Oboe leaves it to the iTunes or Windows music manager to decide.
    “It will magnify the difference between DRM and non-DRM worlds, and between different DRM systems.”

    DRM sore exposed
    Which is fascinating. Right now, for all the hot air blown around the issue, we don’t know what level of nuisance the public will accept. There’s a good case to be made the public has yet how much of a nuisance it really is, because the incompatibility issue has yet to be exposed.
    As Robertson says,
    “You have to break out of the Windows world or the iTunes world to see the problems of DRM.”
    “With our next release of Oboe you’ll be able to move the same music library to phones, and PDAs, and tablets, and that will really magnify the difference for DRM music. So if you don’t have an Apple car stereo you can’t play all the music you’ve paid for from Apple.”
    “Like you, I don’t want DRM and ultimately the market will decide. I want all my music on all devices from any vendor.”

  3. I’m not sure what to make of being called a “digital rights extremist”. If you mean, perhaps, that I’m extremely in favour of digital rights, then you’d be right.

    Perhaps you merely take exception to our assertion that the great unhosed, bless ‘em, don’t actually give a toss about such things. The recent jump in Sony’s music sales from the free publicity being a case in point.

    In which case, we rather think the evidence supports our argument, and you’re just running scared, ensnared by the evils of Tony’s broad church.

    It is both lazy, and intellectually dishonest of you, to suggest we are wrong using, and then fail to back up your assertion with nothing more than a lazy ad hominem.

    If we are wrong, and our logic is flawed, please explain why. Otherwise, why chip into this discussion at all?

    As regards the future of ORG, in the absence of any statement from anybody in a position of ‘authority’ that ORG is going to do anything at all, we must assume that it intends to remain a flaccid talking shop.

    Mailer, I and Levine would be happy to be “digital rights extremist” rent-a-quotes, if that would be of help to ORG.

    Rather than the vapid “media hub” outpourings of Sue (Suw? Sujje? Psujjewe?) and her flappy ilk, we’d be happy to give people something meaty to chew on.

    Martin Coxall

  4. Mr K.:

    Great link. It is, as yet, an unanswered question as to how much annoyance the ordinaries, and other non-members of the self-appointed digerati, are prepared to tolerate.

    But it’s good to see people like DVD Jon and Mr Robertson working hard to make things as unpleasant for people as possible and, wittingly or unwittingly, supporting our cause.

    Martin Coxall

  5. As someone who wasn’t at the meeting and only has a “For Dummies” level understanding of the issues I’m confused about one thing:

    From the main post:

    “The evening was to commence with a little talk […] followed by a free-fall clustered discussion, in which each cluster was to be provided with its own sticky wall-covering on which to paste their mindstormingly written postcards.”

    From a response by Danny O Brien:

    “Now, the truth is that ORG will continue to follow its course […] scoring some minor victories and some major ones, losing here, winning a bit there as you and I both expect but you condemn and I rather think is worth the money. And unless you want to do the standard entryist coup, take over, have everybody else quit, and be left with three letters and a bank account, there’s little chance of changing that approach.”

    What was the point of all the postcards? I bloody hate phrases like “thinking outside the box” but it does strike me that the whole postcard idea must have come with a box attached, since it appears that the approach was already firmly set at the outset.

    I like the idea of Nick, Martin and Co being a terrorist cell of ORG though. Just a word of PR advice for them, though: stop calling people stupid. Try just to think it.

  6. Botnodbod, I was there.

    The white card, scribbled with catch phrases and stuck on sheets of brown paper are a waste of time. I think it’s a bit generous to call them spider diagrams, because that would imply some thought had gone into them…

    What really happened was general discussion by people mingling in corners of the room. Somebody might make a point and then somebody else would scribble a word or phrase onto the card and stick it up. Problem: there is no context, nothing to hold these words together, to paint a cohesive picture.

    The founders of ORG took pictures of the cards, and will at some point do something with those pictures. Such as summarising them – except it will simply be somebody else’s opinon based on a bunch of words and phrases rather than being a reflection of the discussion by those involved that night.

    I must also point out that many times during the evening, the attendees were being told to fill in the standing order forms. At no point in that meeting did anybody actually say what the money was going towards…

    Well, let me tell you as I heard this from a founding member. The money is being collected in the hope that there will be enough to employ Suw in a full-time capacity to do her job. Of course, this isn’t news. If you read the comments on the PledgeBank site (, ORG will ideally have an office, with two staffers (Suw + somebody else?).

    However, that’s all we know. No other details. No transparency. No way to shape this fledgling organisation, at so-called “pre-acorn” stage…

  7. So, that’s £30,000 a year each (though no doubt there’ll be other costs to meet, so let’s say £20,000 each, which seems to allow a very generous amount of leeway – I wonder if their salaries will be made known. I think it should be open source, don’t you?)

    How were they recruited? What were the skills they were offering?

  8. I don’t believe there has been any recruiting as such. From reading the pledgebank site and the blogs of associated people, it seems the idea came up this summer after a conference called ‘OpenTech’, where one or two people wanted to form an EFF style organisation in the UK. You’re right in wanting to know about the skills being offered.

    I think there needs to be a large amount of transparency given that they are asking for recurring donations. I have no problem with people getting paid to do a full-time job, or have an allowance if part-time, or for expenses if a volunteer. Just need the details! At the moment there are no concrete details of what ORG will campaign for, who is actually behind ORG, and how ORG is to be run.

    If I was more cynical, I would suggest either that the chief ORG protaganists are inept at running and setting up an organisation, or are doing this only on the basis that they have enough funds to quit their day job so they can swan about on rather trendy issues, talk to the media, meet MEPs, attend conferences, dinners, speak on Sky news as a self-proclaimed expert… all at the expense of geeks with cash to splash. Finally, they will head off into the sun-set to some nice, new consulting gig while ORG withers away.

    Of course, I’m not that cynical. Yet all that wine and cheese and the Management Consultant who so “graciously donated their time”… sigh…

  9. Somewhere under those convoluted turns of phrase and words of the day, there might be something worth reading… but I have better things to do than try and interpret the writings of jumped up smart-arses.

    Here’s to you, the Iain Lee of blogs! Next time, embrace didacticism!

  10. Top….! best article i have read on the subject for ages !

    The logic of your case is evident, but it does point to some rather unpleasant days ahead. Maybe its that subtle realization that got these fellows so wound up!

    Still you have me convinced simply lobbying and shouting “unfair” is not the answer.
    In fact the harder the corporate media cartels make it for the average Joe to consume their tripe the better… I think the younger generations are already seeing this and making their own media.and their own culture “nothing new here!”.
    Let them choke on their own greed !

    Maybe not such a dark future after all 😉

  11. There are problems with your approach.

    Firstly, I think it is quite an assumption to believe that the unhosed will start rebelling. I have the impression that they are ready to take it up theirs like nobodys business. Watch what they pay, and under what conditions, for awful ring tones and recycled vintage video games. They are doing it en masse *now*. They are quite OK with it.

    The second thing is, what if the oligarchies overreach and, following your sugestion (if they were into doing this kind of thing) implements an Orwellian society? It might be very dificult to get out of that, even for masses of angry unhosed.

    I also think that you are misinterpreting something. The fact that getting your MEP on board is not helping is more a sign of the fact that nothing is helping at the moment. The oligarchies have gotten very good at moving the important decissions to uncontroled, responsible-to-no-one groups. In a less broken world, the ORG would stand a chance.

    In a less broken world, your approach might also work. But watch out for the hideous legislation comming out of Brussels in the next few years, and in particular, at what amount of backlash they will generate (my bet: zero point zero one of a flea’s fart, when considered in proportion).

    That said, I enjoyed reading your article.

  12. When you feel this jaded and critical about something it’s surely best
    – not to have anything to do with it
    – to switch your attention to something you think IS important and where you can help.
    Needy and suffering people are all around if you just look for them.

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