This time last year, Obama was street art. Now he’s President of the United States – and a whole lot of new people are moving into the US Capitol, taking up office as a new Administration. Yet with so much on the table, technology and creative making are higher up the list than you might think. Photo: Ericas Joys (Baker).

American citizens have turned their eyes to the incoming Obama Administration for all kinds of change. It wouldn’t be overstatement to say that just about every possible hope is being pinned to the new government – practical or not. But there’s good reason to believe some significant changes may be in store for both the areas of arts and technology, in ways that are not only relevant to CDM readers in the US, but could impact the global climate for these areas.

The federal government in the US can’t do everything, particularly when economic pressures are likely to make budgets tight. But they can do something to set the tone. Even more importantly, there should be opportunities for people who want change to become active and vocal, and to learn from each other, wherever we are in the world.

The agenda I think we’ll want as tech-using artists and makers:

  • Defend innovation, commercial or common, from patent abuse (see: White House)
  • Embrace open source – something that could benefit, again, commercial and community endeavors alike (see: BBC, OSI)
  • Make the arts a priority, and one that via technology connects to renewed interest in math and science (see: NYT)

As you can see, regardless of your party affiliations or even country of citizenship, these are things we can work on together. For a start, I’ve already talked about personal changes – not simply governmental or political changes – that can make a difference in our communities:

Your Own Times of Change: Greetings, “Makers of Things”

Here are some additional issues that may well interface with the incoming US government, with impacts on the US and around the world.

Above: Remixing history, through the ears of the UK.
Obama’s Inauguration as Reaktor Mash-Up: Tim Exile

Patents: they’re all the rage. Photo: Alexandre Dulaunoy.

Technology: Patents

You can read the Obama technology agenda on the new White House site (itself a subject of discussion and hopes for new transparency).

A lot here reads like campaign language, so it’s tough to say what the actual policy will be. But this bullet should be especially interesting to digital musicians and visualists:

Reform the Patent System: Ensure that our patent laws protect legitimate rights while not stifling innovation and collaboration. Give the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) the resources to improve patent quality and open up the patent process to citizen review to help foster an environment that encourages innovation. Reduce uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation.

I think flawed patents may be the single biggest to new creative technologies. It impacts both hardware and software, and everyone from DIY makers to useful research in big corporations. (And yes, even big corporations can do research that’s useful to the rest of us. For one thing, even some of that corporate research is open source.)

Patents in the US in particular have been wildly abused. Companies who don’t make anything have effectively “squatted” on ideas that might someday turn into products. Those patents are defined so broadly that by the time a genuine innovator invents something real that works, they often find they’re in “violation” of a nonsense patent. Large businesses, acting defensively, have added to the problem by over-patenting their own research. Clearly, we need some common sense rules so that patents cover people actually making stuff.

There are few political issues more directly relevant to the music and visual technology covered on CDM. I’ve seen patents stifle innovation countless times on this site, and when that hasn’t happened, fear about patents has often been a factor in preventing people from more aggressively pursuing their inventions. It’d be unrealistic to expect the Obama Administration alone to magically solve these problems. But a friendly Administration could invigorate debate, meaning now is the time to get active on this issue. I’m no expert in patent law, but I’ll certainly welcome people who are to become involved.

I’d also like to see the open source community begin to formulate a way of responding to patent issues. Open source has almost exclusively dealt with licenses in copyright terms. Certainly, the community is sensitive to the issue, but just sitting around worrying about patents does nothing: open source inventors need to start formulating a concrete strategy. They’ll need help, not only from the government but experts in the field. But the timing is right.

Whether people want to open-source their inventions or not, I think DIYers and researchers and even businesses who actually create stuff have a common need here. So it will be equally important for that open source community not to just blindly rail against patents, but find policies that work for everyone. “Makers of things,” not just open source advocates, have an opportunity to come together.

Open source software was a driving force behind the Obama mobilization effort – an effort praised even by the likes of Karl Rove, mastermind of Bush’s 2000 and 2004 victories. Could it do more in his Presidency – and could music and visuals take part? Photo: Steve Rhodes.

Technology: Open Source

The Obamas clearly have the power and popularity to popularize trends and ideas. Sometimes, that borders on the absurd: when it was revealed the Obama children wore J. Crew, the clothing company’s site crashed. It’s little wonder, then, that open source advocates would hope the new Administration would champion their cause. BBC News’ Maggie Shiels has a great story on those possibilities:

Calls for open source government [BBC News, via Slashdot]

One figure behind the rallying cry for open source is Sun co-founder Scott McNealy. That’s interesting, as Sun was actually quite late to the open source party. Sun didn’t open its flagship Java technology until after McNealy’s tenure. The fact that he has been won over I think is telling – McNealy created one of the world’s biggest tech vendors. The rationale for his appeal is simple: open source is cheaper.

I think the case should actually be broader. If the US – and, indeed, the economically-weak planet – want to advocate new growth in education, science, and technological innovation, it’s a no-brainer to have at least some technologies common and shared. That could ultimately lead to benefits for big vendors and individuals and the economically challenged alike.

And if you want to push open technology, artists should be among your first stops. We push the real-time capabilities of computers harder than anyone. For instance, when researchers wanted to demonstrate real-time Java, they chose a Bach performance. Why? Playing Bach turns out to be more timing-critical than one of the other applications – controlling a nuclear submarine. (The Army phrase “Be all you can be” comes to mind.) The drive of self-expression can be a powerful way of to realize technology’s full potential.

Direct quote on that, by the way:

Music synthesis is, in fact, more stringent in its real-time needs than many other hard real-time systems. For instance, avionics typically operate at a period of 20 milliseconds, or about 10 times longer than the synthesizer.

Harmonicon research at IBM

Open source needs music and visuals – and we often need open source. In music and visuals, the lack of interest in basic, open frameworks has often stifled the success and expressivity of the tools we use. I was impressed by the new stuff at this year’s NAMM. But many of the leading technologies – Novation Automap and M-Audio HyperTransport for controllers and Akai’s APC and Native Instruments Maschine among the hardware announcements – were limited by aging standards and proprietary implementations of control. Those same vendors struggle with drivers for proprietary computer operating systems owned and controlled by someone else. The result: music technology is often hard to configure and unreliable, limiting its appeal and reducing the number of customers. The solutions there aren’t all easy, and open source is no panacea, but I don’t think I’m overstating the problem – or the lost potential that could be coming from the open source world.

Of course, the Obama Administration is unlikely to do anything of practical use to artists or musicians when it comes to open source. But it could set a tone – and I’d argue, it already has. The Open Source Initiative’s Michael Tiemann noted just after the election that the Obama campaign had benefited from running open source tools. Whether or not
Obama mandates federal offices run OpenOffice or something like that, I’d say the proof of open source’s utility is already out there:

Barack Obama proves the power of Open Source [Open Source Administration blog]

And that should be the main interest of arts technologists and creative tech vendors – politics aside, open source can pay.

National Endowment for the Arts? Photo: Luísa Cortesão.


We have mixed blessings in the US. On one hand, government arts funding has often been scant. On the other, we have an artist community that has vigorously defended its own value against the harshest critics, a uniquely-generous private funding climate, and a bootstrap, DIY approach by artists to supporting themselves. Arts advocacy groups are nonetheless eager to use the Obama Administration as an opportunity to get more badly-needed support – and they’re using the economic stimulus as a new angle:

Arts Leaders Urge Role for Culture in Economic Recovery [Robin Pogrebin for The New York Times]

Don’t believe them? Here’s a number for you: US$167 billion. That’s the amount Americans for the Arts says nonprofits contribute to the US economy. (They also employ some 6 million people.) And that’s just nonprofit groups; the impact of the arts and music are of course far bigger than that. As evidenced by this site, that cultural economy is increasingly globalized, meaning the entire business of making things could grow around the planet.

Much of the actual policy here would be more symbolic than practical. The additional US$50 million advocates want for the National Endowment for the Arts would have little meaning to an individual artist, though I’m sure the agency would love to have it. But “reframing” culture as an important part of the business of America is something that’s badly-needed.

Along the same lines, calls for WPA-style support for artists as part of economic recovery:

Will Act for Food [Newsweek]

More practical, I think, is the need for US policy that makes healthcare more affordable and accessible to the self-employed, a significant group of American readers of the site. If individual musicians or visual artists or freelancing coders and visualists and the like didn’t have to worry about spiraling health care costs, they could contribute in other ways a lot more easily.

Globally, we need a climate that’s friendlier to artists in general. The recent struggle of music tech research centers like STEIM in Amsterdam and IRCAM in Paris – places Americans might have assumed would be safe – is solid evidence of that.

Connecting this to the material and business of this site sure isn’t hard. Musicians and visualists increasingly sell to fans and one another, build their own businesses from scratch, innovate technologically, share open source research, teach others, volunteer, and add DIY tech businesses to their portfolio as they make their own hardware and software.

One thing missing from the traditional arts advocacy approach is the ability to use music, movement, and motion to aid in innovating in and teaching math and science. With technology (or even without it), expressive media are a fantastic way of demonstrating math and science concepts and making them creative and personal. I know I would have had a much easier time in school with topics like physics and Calculus if I could have connected them to music and animation, and I don’t think I’m alone.

That’s the philosophical framework, anyway. Given that tone matters for all of these issues, it’ll be interesting to see whom Obama makes NEA chief and what steps that agency and the Obama Administration take in arts policy.

So, thus concludes the post-Inauguration edition of this story. But you can expect to see a lot more on all three of these issues as they directly relate to the subject matter(s) of these sites – and expect more than just the President making some of the headlines.

  • I love this post. These are things that I have been thinking about A LOT lately. Particularly in the networks that I engage with online and off.

    For the past 2.5 years, I've served as a CTC VISTA – kinda like a domestic, technology-oriented Peace Corps (we're awesome: Most all of the organizations I've served at have been media arts/technology related and many of them are now aggregating together to push the idea of a national 'artists corps'.

    My latest bookmarks on these related topics:

    You are not alone in writing this and I totally look forward to reading more cool stuff like this in the coming year.

    Oh yes, and your blog is awesome. I regularly forward posts from it to my friends!

  • Excellent article Peter, thank you. A few further observations from the Great Muddlewest:

    Obama's choice of Julius Genachowski as head of the FCC is an important move toward keeping the internet open. After the last eight years of battling Powell through watchdog groups, it will be good to have someone on the side of an unrestricted line of communication.

    I can't agree more with your observation on Health Care here; the US is the only Western country with a system that inhibits the growth and choices of its citizens who are often tied to meaningless jobs just to have "benefits".

    We also like your idea about education through the Creative Arts. We are currently running a program that offers free Art education (including materials, which are often prohibitively expensive) to the kids in our school district. This program offers classes in various Fine Arts, as well as TV Production (through the local Public Access channel), and Historic Preservation. The classes provide dual credits; high school students receive credits for their schools, as well as college credits in conjunction with the local community college; a great bargain in these times for cash strapped parents.

    In closing, great to find your site, I arrived through Vic Stone at ccMixter (where I contribute to the free for all). We artists have a responsibility to our ruptured society to repair the grave damage of the last thirty years. Whether the new administration lends a hand(and due to the many problems screaming for attention, I rather doubt it)through Federal assistance, ie a new WPA, isn't as important as it not impeding progress in several key areas. Artists need to look to their communities and work from the ground up. There's a work lot to do.

  • Darren Landrum

    A large part of why I'm so keen to really learn differential equations and advanced calculus (I just finished my final calc course, actually, and with an A I might add 🙂 is the fact that it helps me to understand DSP and to help me code my own DIY DSP routines for making my own music. It would be really nice if I had instructors that actually know some of these applications, but they are very encouraging of me nonetheless, so I make do on my own.

    Between physics and differential equations, the sky's the limit. I'm already formulating how I might use these tools to figure out useful basket shapes for DIY microphones.

  • I know I would have had a much easier time in school with topics like physics and Calculus if I could have connected them to music and animation, and I don’t think I’m alone.

    Absolutely. I remember being told by an algebra teacher that none of us would ever use matrices, that it was just an intellectual exercise to sharpen our skills and she wouldn't teach it if it weren't required. Seriously.

    And today I work in 3D graphics.

  • robin parry

    a large part could involve going out into the community so that what we do is better understood, and appreciated, and participated in. here's a very good idea from a friend entitled
    The Socialization of Electro-Acoustic Music

  • MMI

    Nice article. One quibble… Not sure why Sun gets singled out as being "quite late".

    Sun may have been late to the open source party as defined by people like Stallman but it bears mentioning that it was giving away stuff, including source years before the term open source was coined. For example, NFS and the underlying ONC RPC source was available by ftp in the '90s. This was not particularly special. Researchers had been actively sharing code for years before that.

    So things like the *BSD and Linux efforts are part of a longer story. Very important parts but ultimately just parts.

    HPUX, AIX, Windows are all still closed. Solaris is open.

    And so what?

    Big companies usually act in some kind of rational self interest. "Lofty" ideals don't play a large part in this stuff. But It sure is nice when company interests align with our hacker ethos.

    (and yes, I did at one time work at Sun)

  • Justin

    I know there are already some decent Linux audio solutions like Studio 64, but I'd love to see a dedicated music OS that the industry could get behind. For it to really take off it would have to be very easy to setup, have a variety of software available, and offer superior performance to Windows or OS X(which shouldn't be a problem).

  • Sun was late. And it's still hard for them to open their source – so yeah, some stuff are open, and there's some support.
    But other, like Java, has continue to give headache to a lot of people – open office was fork from the sun office because of this kind of frustration. So maybe Sun is still not the best about this…
    IBM is is embracing a lot more of it, without even speaking of those building Linux distro or BSD system.

  • Thanks to everyone for these comments and encouragement – some really serious fodder for thought here.

    Just a quick note regarding Sun/Java: I mean only that Java, the primary technology mentioned in that story, had been proprietary (even its name) until recently – and late in its own product life. Now, I think Sun has really evolved into a fantastic advocate of open source, more so than just about anyone else their size, and certainly their early history has contributed to that culture. Anyone frustrated with Sun in the past really should give them a second chance – and Java and OpenJDK, in particular, as they're evolving incredibly fast.

    As for a dedicated Linux-based music solution, I'm all ears. You could start with Studio 64 and just add some more documentation (and users!) and benefit. And you can still run Windows VSTs, including commercial ones (otherwise you wouldn't see the whole NI line running on Receptor). So stay tuned there.

    But I think the deeper issues of community and education remain interesting ones, and ones in which we can all benefit even in this sour economy. More soon.


  • Rob

    Great article. In fact, I read this right before I read last week's issue of Newsweek at lunch. There was a really good article in there about this same topic, and how Obama can help stimulate the arts in a WPA-style.

  • he's just anoth

    thank god almighty! now that the son of god has been elected the FIRST PRESIDENT EVER IN HISTORY, we will all finally be able to make good music! oh, how i have waited for this day! obama will make sure that all music software will only produce GOOD music! obama will pass legislation that will force the software production companies to include a 'make instant good music' button! we all know that we don't really have any good musical ideas and we lack any real talent, but THANK GOD the federal government will finally step in and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

  • Darren Landrum

    Although I do agree the Obamania is getting out of control (and has been for a while), I really do think we're better off under him than under the previous guy. At the very least, I don't see how he can do any worse.

    Other than that, I find myself wanting to agree with Bre Pettis, that it's going to be the maker geeks working in their improvised workshops and being open about their inventions that will bring innovation back to the world. Well, he says that they'll be the ones to "save the world", but I think that's too optimistic. 🙂

    As an aside, Peter, you've probably had occasion to chat with Bre, right? I wonder what he makes of all this.

  • I don't think you have to like a politician to recognize that he may bring about change. There's no question that President Bush had a profound impact on the US both in tone and policy. And there's likewise no question that some of those changes came not from the Executive Branch, but from the American people — at all ends of the political spectrum.

    I should see Bre this Thursday, actually; I'll ask him. 🙂

    My sense is that both the garage innovator *and* the bigger government and corporate projects may have something in common – they need young people getting better educations and they need to make sure things like flawed patent policy or abuses don't stifle invention. (Even big corporations face some significant challenges on both of those fronts.)

    I'm all about DIY, but of course, not all problems are suited to garage innovation. A lot of the power consumption and greenhouse emissions in the US, for instance, are the result of a flawed power grid and dependency on materials like coal for power generation. Garage innovators can bring something to that problem (like power-saving measures) but others (like massive wind farms or a nationwide remake of the electrical grid to reduce inefficiencies) clearly aren't. But what I find interesting is that the essential needs in terms of policy and underlying culture may overlap anyway. And that's where, say, a musician might be able to help kids better understand how electricity works. Those kids could wind up working on that wind farm, or voting for a bond for it, or simply understanding when to unplug stuff.


  • To "he's just another politician":

    There may be a "mania" surrounding this presidency, but for anyone who feels overly nauseated by it, keep in mind that Obama has been insistent all along that he's not promising any kind of instant magic, nor that he's going to accomplish anything alone.

    So wherever you're getting this over-the-top "he is the second coming" theme that you feel the need to react against, I don't think that's the predominant view his supporters have of him. The fact that you felt the need to react that way to this post tells me you skimmed it.

    Sure, the media turns everything up to eleven, but most people know to expect that anyway.

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  • Downpressor

    This is quite interesting stuff. My gut instinct is I'd rather that the dead hand of the state not be too involved in the arts, but I certainly couldnt object to money for the arts being pumped into the school systems.

  • he;s just another po

    To 'Keith Handy':
    I apologize if it seemed I was insulting your personal saviour. Obviously, it upset you and your belief systems. I don't mean to offend your delicate sensibilities or trigger a knee-jerk response in your 'racism' meter, but keep this in mind… change is not the same thing as progress and HE'S JUST ANOTHER POLITICIAN. The fact that you felt the need to personally respond to my post in such a condescending manner tells me that you have no sense of humor.

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  • Well said. I have been very impressed in the change I have seen across many US federal departments and agencies concerning open source software. There is still a long way to go, but the direction, velocity, and acceleration are all positive for open source.

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