Percussa micro super signal processor

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).

http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/technology/

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.

Arts

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.