Wednesday, 29 July 2009

So piracy is killing the music and movie industries?

The MPAA and RIAA (and their various non-USA equivalents) are famous for claiming that piracy (tapes, DVDs, digital downloads, etc) are "killing the [music/movie] industry".

Apart from the fact that these industry bodies (with a strong vested interest) have been claiming this ever since the introduction of 8-track tapes in the 1960s (and yet still the MPAA/RIAA lurch onward, living hand-to-mouth in their luxury penthouses, and somehow barely scraping by with continuing exponential growth ever since they first started making these claims), there's another problem with their claim:

The very day our culture stops producing popular music, television, news reports, novels, movies or art I will agree that "something needs to be done", about the expectation of free access, and would support instituting some sort of internet-wide micropayments system.

In fact, scratch "stops producing", and replace it with "noticeably slows production of". In fact, screw it all; scratch even that and instead substitute "stops continually increasing production of popular music, television, news reports, novels, movies or art".

Until then, commentary like this is simply worrying the sky will fall because you don't have the wit or imagination to develop new business models not based around repressive monopolies and artificial scarcity.

We had music as a species for long before we had trade bodies like the MPAA and RIAA around, and we'll have music long afterwards, too. The only difference is that in those times there wasn't an enormous, fat, unnecessary middle-man sat square between the artist and the audience, raking in cash hand over fist from both sides.[1]

If newspapers start to die because they can't afford to give away their on-line content for free then they'll stop doing it, people's expectations will change, and they'll start paying for subscriptions.

Although I hate to sound like a (big-L) Libertarian, the market will sort this one out just fine if left to its own devices.

Claims that "music/movies" or "news" will die are really worries about the deaths of "the RIAA/MPAA" or "some news organs unable to adapt to the changing conditions".

Obviously, however, the thought that bloated dinosaurs who refuse to adapt to the technological advancement of our species might go extinct doesn't really bother people.

Hansom cab drivers were pretty pissed off at the idea of the motor-car, but they didn't form industry bodies and try to ban cars or trains. And now - a hundred or more years a later - aren't we really fucking glad they didn't?


[1] And although we didn't have movies for anything like as long, ever-cheaper video recording equipment, the increasing popularity of sites like Youtube and the ability of even basic modern desktop computers to create high-quality special effects shows that even high-quality movies aren't out of reach of the talented amateur.

Cognitive dissonance

A reddit discussion came up recently, in relation to a recently-surfaced suppressed World Health Organisation report on global cocaine use, which concluded that the western "War on Drugs" is overblown, and that automatically criminalising all prohibited-drug users[1] was counter-productive and unsupported by scientific evidence.

A comment was posted asking why - in the face of evidence, and after a conclusions by the experts tasked to investigate this very topic - governments and supporters would not only disregard the conclusions and evidence, but actively seek to suppress the report and the evidence it contains.

The answer is simple, and generalises to many different opinions and topics. Largely, it's because they're making decisions subconsciously and emotively, instead of consciously and/or rationally.

People holding these positions claim to be pro-prohibition because it "saves lives" (and that may well be how they initially started believing in it, or how they justify the belief to themselves and others), but when you believe something strongly enough for long enough it ends up becoming part of your identity. Then, if you're confronted by evidence your long-cherished belief is in fact wrong, you have one of two choices:

  1. Reject the belief, and accept that - by some measure - you've wasted your life and been an idiot for however long you've held the opinion (possibly as much as your whole life up to that point!), or
  2. Reject the evidence, and continue believing you're right.

Believing you're right is comfortable and safe, but believing you're wrong (and moreover, have been for years) is uncomfortable and scary. It's like having the rug yanked out from under you - first you have to find a defensible new position that you can take, and then you have to revisit every single opinion you hold that depended on the "wrong" one, and see if any of those also need changing in light of the new information.

This process takes effort, and may involve discarding many other ideas that you hold dear. This is - needless to say - highly unnerving and uncomfortable for most people.

Although it's irrational to the point of complete intellectual bankruptcy, when faced with this choice many people will simply (and irrationally) ignore the evidence to the contrary. They might go quiet and try to change the subject, they might bluster and try to shout you down, or they might declare that the contrary evidence or reasoning "offends them", and demand you stop out of politeness.

All of these things are simply tactics to get the inconvenient evidence to go away - believing something you know at some level to be false is normally easy when you don't think about it, but gets increasingly difficult and uncomfortable the closer the dichotomy rises to your conscious mind.

By offering counter-indicative evidence you force the cognitive dissonance closer to their conscious mind, so they become increasingly irritable and uncomfortable. However, the rationalisation process is almost entirely subconscious, so they often don't realise why they're getting worked up - all they know is that you're the cause of it, so they tend to become frustrated and irritated with you.

This is also why you can't easily persuade people out of irrational ideas, and why it's hard to have a good conversation about politics, religion or the like which doesn't end in offence or shouting.

The key problem(s) in the irrational person's psyche isn't saving face, it's one or more of:

  • Laziness - the person doesn't want to have to undergo the effort of re-evaluating all their beliefs, so they just don't.
  • Egocentricity - the person doesn't want to admit to themselves how wrong (or stupid, or duped) they were.
  • Excessive attachment to their present identity - the person is too attached to their present identity (for reasons of comfort, personal gain, etc) to allow themselves to accept that part of it might need changing.
  • Centrality of the opinion to who they are - the threatened belief is so central to the core of the person's identity and beliefs that re-evaluating it might leave them a largely different person (effectively, the current version of them might "die" in the process).

This approach explains many, many things that otherwise seem inexplicable - why it's so hard for people to leave religions, why it's so hard to convert people to another political party, why people continue to back politicians who violate the very tenets they espouse and why people will stick to comfort beliefs even in the face of absolute proof to the contrary.

The only way to cure someone of this kind of egotistical, emotive self-deception is to bring the cognitive dissonance to the surface, and show them how irrational it is.

Nevertheless, they'll fight you every step of the way, and if you force the issue they just end up seeing you as the enemy and disregarding what you show them.

It's a knotty problem, because you can't "cure" someone of identity-related emotive irrationality unless they want to be cured... but there are literally billions of people with these kind of incorrect or irrational opinions, and they're materially retarding the progress and development of the entire human race.


[1] Of course, legal-drug use - like caffeine, alcohol or tobacco - is usually considered perfectly ok, and ingesting any of these three is a right that would cause rioting in the streets if a government tried to ban it.

On homosexuality as a choice

Many people - usually religious, right-wing "family values" types - claim that "homosexuality is a choice", and that one piece of legislation or another will "encourage kids to be gay".

This is the bit I don't get - even as a straight guy raised in a pretty liberal household, I've never once looked at the idea of hot gay buttsecks and thought "y'know, I think that's the sex for me!".

I'm straight and non-homophobic, but even offering tax-breaks and free ice-cream to gays wouldn't tempt me to indulge in hot man-loving.

I literally can't comprehend of someone examining their own feelings and deciding homosexuality was a choice, unless they're naturally inclined that way themselves and in viciously deep denial about it[1] ("it's got to be a choice, so I can choose not to be gay!").

So when they say that X or Y will encourage homosexuality, what they actually mean is that it will encourage people who are naturally that way inclined to not live their lives miserable, unhappy and in denial, never knowing the companionship they crave and at constant war with their own essential nature, until they become bitter and twisted by their own unrelenting self-loathing.

It therefore appears that the correct response to "Homosexuality is a choice" is "Well maybe in your case, ducky".


[1] This is a truly fascinating study, and I thoroughly recommend reading it. A full version of the paper in (PDF format) is available here

Your opinion is worthless

This is a slightly self-indulgent post, relating to website and forum discussions, rather than a generally-applicable epiphanette. Nevertheless, I think it's an important point, and one which far too few people understand...

I find when browsing internet discussion forums, when someone with a controversial or non-mainstream opinions posts and gets voted down I frequently run across run across comments similar to the following:

I find I get downmodded a lot because I'm a person willing to speak my mind. That makes a lot of the insecure people here (of which there are many!) uncomfortable, and to try and counter that they downmod my posts.

Straight to it: although sometimes the commenter has a point (people get very attached to their ideas, and can react irrationally when they're threatened), general attitudes like this always make me uncomfortable, because they smack of self-delusion and comfort-beliefs.

Everyone has some element of this in their thinking, but it's rarely justified. As an experiment, consider the following:

Aside from your own clearly-biased personal opinion of your posts, what evidence do you have that your thoughts or beliefs are generally:

  1. Insightful
  2. Interesting
  3. Well-expressed, or
  4. Correct?

Secondly, how many people - even really stupid, boring people - do you think get up in the morning, look in the mirror and think "shit man, I'm a really windy, boring, unoriginal fucker", and then spend a lot of time expressing their opinions to others?

Most people think what they have to say is insightful, interesting, adequately-expressed and correct, or they wouldn't bother posting it.

Now, this idea is correct in that some people vote down anything which contradicts the prevailing wisdom, but people also vote down things which are wrong, stupid, ridiculous or badly-expressed.

Conversely, I know from repeated personal experience that in many communities a well-written, well-argued, non-whingey post which counters the prevailing wisdom frequently still gets a high score, sometimes because of its contrary position.

I know when I post all I have to go on is my own opinion of my posts, which (as we've established) is almost laughably unreliable. Instead, the votes my posts get serve as a useful barometer of how much my opinion of a well-written, well-argued post compares with the general opinion.

It's terribly flattering to think of oneself as a persecuted martyr, but it also usually requires a lot of egotism and a willing blindness to statistics.

To quote the great Carl Sagan:

They laughed at Galileo... but they also laughed at Bozo the clown.

Given a poster's personal opinion is biased to the point it's worthless, and given there are many more clowns in the world than misunderstood geniuses, on what basis do people claim to be downmodded for the content of their opinions, rather than for their worth, or the reliability of the arguments they use to support them?

Claiming you're being downvoted simply because your opinions run counter to the prevailing wisdom, rather than simply because you're self-important or wrong requires you to not only assume you're vastly more intelligent or educated than the average person, but also that most people voting you down are doing so because of a deficiency in their psychology, rather than your own.

When all the objective evidence you have is that a lot of other people disagree with you, it's terribly tempting to believe you're a misunderstood intellectual martyr like Galileo.

The trouble with this, of course, is that while paradigm-shifting geniuses like Galileo only come along a few times a generation, we're knee-deep in idiots, and the tide is rising.

There are literally thousands of times more idiots than geniuses, so claiming you must be a genius on the basis you were voted down doesn't mean you're a genius - it means not only are you overwhelmingly likely to be a self-important idiot, but you're also bad at maths.

Act appropriately.