Aram Sinnreich succinctly astonished those who attended the DIY Media seminar at the Annenberg Center for Communication
on March 22. The two mandalic powerpoint slides above were fractal crystallizations of his thesis in progress. In a little more than fifteen minutes, Sinnreich deployed an array of theoretical and empirical tools in pursuit of an issue first posed by Plato when he claimed "Musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited....When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them." (On the same slide, Sinnreich quoted The Lord Mayor from Yellow Submarine right below Plato: "The Meanies captured everything that maketh music.")
Sinnreich is a graduate fellow and the co-founder and managing partner of Radar Research
, a Los Angeles-based media and technology consultancy. He is also a Doctoral Fellow and Lecturer at USC's Annenberg School for Communication
. His thesis involves extensive interviews; analysis of that material is still in progress. The theoretical foundation Sinnreich swiftly sketched, however, added more dimensions to what we've heard from Henry Jenkins
and others about a culture in which everyone has the tools to create music and other cultural content, and access to the Web as a global distribution medium. What does it mean, in terms of power, institutions, regulation, resistance, that people can sample, remix and distribute bits peer to peer? Sinnreich uses Plato's ancient claim as a lens for looking at the sites of regulation and resistance to contemporary changes in music. And Sinnreich switched to other lenses, from cognitive psychology to social network analysis to show how "levels of meaning emerge from levels of meaning. We are all filters for cultural information," and our biological, psychological, social systems change the meaning of cultural products like music when we experience them. Music, in this context, Sinnreich claims, is "cognitive-affective capital."
Again looking back in order to look forward, Sinnreich mentioned the "Follies of 1830," when Hector Berlioz claimed Beethoven to be a genius, while most others dismissed romanticism. By the time Berlioz wrote his memoirs, his view of Beethoven was prevalent. And around that time, according to Simmreich, "the modern framework, based on six binaries" came to dominate thinking about cultural production:
Art versus craft (one is high and rare, the other vulgar and common), artist versus audience (the one gifted creator and the many who can only listen), the original (of great value) versus the copy (of little value), performance versus composition, figure versus ground, material versus tools ("and associated concepts such as genius, uniqueness, aura, intellectual property, etc.") constitute the modern framework These binaries that are widely understood are concrete examples of what Sinnreich is getting at when he says "the ontological framework supports and is supported by social institutions."
"But sometimes, social or environmental change can undermine a framework's foundations. Enter configurability, " emergently. "For the first time, communication is instantaneous, global, multisenory, archival, hackable, editable, networked, interoperable, and customizable." Configurability is more than remix culture, which is only an early manifestation of a larger change, "not continuous with traditional practices, not limited to media and communication, not simply democratizing production or increasing consumer choice." Like Berlioz, who perceived the musical cosmos in a new way because of Beethoven, and his generation of musicians who came to dominate European musical culture, Sinnreich points out that "today's generations are steeped in configurable cultural practices."
"Was Plato right? Yes." But exactly how, in what way, and how much? That's where the empirical research in progress comes in. Sinnreich's research, comprising more than 60 hours of interviews with sample-based musicians, music industry executives, and intellectual property attorneys is probing the dimensions of these changes by asking each of these actors where they draw the line between the old binaries and whether these binaries even exist any more.
Are much bigger changes afoot, beyond the conflicts over file-sharing and sampling? Sinnreich joins Taplin
, and Rheingold
in pointing out how today's weak signals might foreshadow broader change.